How Old Is Bulgaria? A Quick History of Bulgaria's 1300+ Years

Bulgaria is one of the oldest countries in Europe that still stands. The nation we call Bulgaria today was first formed in the mid-7th century AD. The country has had many ups and downs, but Bulgaria outlasted states like the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and many more. What makes Bulgaria so resilient through the centuries? Let’s find out.

First and Second Bulgarian Empires

Bulgaria’s foundation is often dated to the 7th AD after the Bulgars, led by Asparuh, settled the land around the Danube Delta. Asparuh was the son of Kubrat, the ruler of Old Great Bulgaria. After an initial conflict with the Bulgars, the Byzantine Empire recognized Bulgaria as an independent state in 681.

The origin of the Bulgars isn’t clear, but the most well-accepted theory is that they were a semi-nomadic Turkic nation. The Slavs, who came to the Balkans earlier than the Bulgars, probably found themselves under the rule of Asparuh and his troops. Initially, Bulgars and Slavs were distinct groups with different religious customs and ethnic traits. The two groups merged with the Bulgarian variation of the Slavic language serving as the official state language of the Bulgarian Empire. Slavs and other peoples under the Bulgar rule would have vastly outnumbered the Bulgar aristocracy and military. Thus, the Turkic origin of the country is barely seen in the present-day Bulgarians.

The religious and cultural divides between Slavs and Bulgars were further diminished when the country converted to Orthodox Christianity in the 9th century. After several hundred years of alliances and wars, the Byzantine Empire conquered Bulgaria in 1018.

Bulgaria retained its culture, language, and population during the Byzantine subjugation. The Second Bulgarian Empire was created in 1185 by the uprising of Asen and Peter. The reason for the rebellion was mainly the high taxation by the Byzantines. The Asen dynasty secured Bulgaria’s independence through decades of fighting with the Byzantine Empire.

And then the 4th Crusade came. As you may know, the crusaders were heading to retake the Muslim-controlled Jerusalem but somehow ended up at war with the Christian Byzantine and Bulgarian Empires. Constantinople was captured and the Latin Empire was formed. Bulgaria lost one strong enemy but gained another. Still, the Second Bulgarian Empire defeated the Latins in most engagements, even capturing and killing The Latin Emperor Baldwin I.

While this relieved Bulgaria from fighting the Byzantines, it also weakened the established balance of power on the Balkans, making it easier for the Ottoman Turks to invade and take over most of the region. Bulgaria fell under an Ottoman rule in the 14th century.

Ottoman subjugation and the Third Bulgarian State

The Ottoman subjugation lasted for nearly 500 years. This period is often seen as the dark ages for Bulgarian history. The country went from a powerful political, military, and cultural center on the Balkans to a backwater territory of a much larger and culturally different empire. 

While 500 years is a lot of time and the Ottoman policy varied greatly, there was never a time when Christian Bulgarians weren’t treated as second class citizens and weren’t subject to unfair taxation. The Ottoman authorities often abducted people into slavery and demanded a “blood tax” of young boys to serve in as Janissaries, elite infantry units. Due to this treatment, the era of Ottoman rule is called “Turkish slavery.” There was also widespread banditry and other criminal activities.

During the 18th century, Bulgaria started to experience a national revival. The Christian Orthodox monasteries were the main cultural centers. A monk by the name of Paisius of Hilendar wrote the book Istoriya Slavyanobolgarskaya (History of Slavonic Bulgaria.) The work proved widely popular among all members and circles of Bulgaria’s society. Paisius is one of Bulgaria's most famous cultural icons.

The people of Bulgaria started to move towards national liberation from the Ottoman Empire. This culminated in the April Uprising of 1876. The revolt was crushed by the Ottoman authorities, with many Bulgarian rebels and civilians getting slaughtered in retaliation. The most notorious massacre was the one that took place in Batak, where thousands of Bulgarians were murdered in an especially brutal manner. The uprising may have failed in its objective, but it inspired sympathy towards the cause for Bulgarian liberation all over the world.

Tsarist Russia used the uprising and the Ottoman atrocities as a pretext for the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878, which led to the liberation of Bulgaria and its establishment as an autonomous state. The initial agreement for ending the war known as the Treaty of San-Stefano drew Bulgaria’s rough borders to include Macedonia, Thrace, and Moesia. The extent of San-Stefano Bulgaria is often called Great Bulgaria.

This agreement, however, was changed drastically by the Belin Treaty, in which Bulgaria’s territory was divided into 3 smaller parts – the Principality of Bulgaria, Eastern Rumelia, and Macedonia. Rumelia rebelled against the Ottoman authorities and joined the Principality of Bulgaria on September 6, 1885. This day remains as a national holiday in Bulgaria. Macedonia, however, remained part of the Ottoman Empire until the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, when Serbia took control of the territory and tried to erase the Bulgarian identity of the local Macedonian population by closing down hundreds of Bulgarian schools and expelling or repressing many nationalists.

In an attempt to complete the unification, Bulgaria sided with the Central Powers during WW1. Bulgaria took control of most of Macedonia, however, as the Central Powers lost the war, the territorial gains had to be given back. During the interwar period, a movement of Macedonianism was launched by the Yugoslavian authorities in an attempt to keep the territory from seeking independence and rejoining Bulgaria. A Macedonian identity distinct from the Bulgarian was forged.

In WW2, the Axis powers occupied Yugoslavia. Bulgaria still wanted to complete the unification and joined the coalition led by Nazi Germany. Bulgarian troops entered Macedonia. But, as you may know, the Axis powers were on the losing side of WW2, and Bulgaria failed to secure the unification once again. The regime was switched to a pro-Soviet one and the territorial gains lost again. Bulgaria and Yugoslavia became socialist states, with Macedonia going back to Yugoslavia. And so it remained until the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the late 80s and 90s when Macedonia gained independence from Yugoslavia. Recently, the country signed an agreement to change its name after a long dispute with Greece.

After the Second World War, Bulgaria entered a socialist period under the control of the Soviet Union. This era is still controversial. While Bulgaria reached a population of 9 million and there were undeniable industrial, social, and cultural gains, the socialist period is often viewed in a negative light due to falling on the wrong side of the Cold War conflict, lack of freedom and the totalitarian nature of the government.

Modern Period

After the collapse of communism, Bulgaria entered a period called “Prehod” meaning “The Passing.” It refers to the transition from Soviet-controlled one-party socialism to Western democratic free-market capitalism. This period is characterized by mass migration, lowering of the living standards, unemployment, and a rise in crime. The Prehod is often said to have ended when Bulgaria entered the European Union in 2007. With its EU membership, Bulgaria managed to integrate well within the European business world, though culturally, Bulgarians remain unconvinced of the values of Western liberalism. A good example of that would be the public outcry against the Istanbul convention. Bulgarians saw the document as a way to sneak transgender and gay right into Bulgaria’s legislation.

The future

Bulgaria’s path continues. The country is facing new challenges, but also getting fresh opportunities. The unemployment rates have reached an all-time low since the fall of socialism. However, the demographic collapse of the Bulgarian nation has made its numbers fall under 7 million, less than in 1946 after the most devastating conflict in human history.

This collapse is certainly not the biggest issue Bulgaria ever had to face, but its certainly a problem that’s slowly chipping away at the country’s strength. Still, Bulgarians have faced a lot worse, from fighting for their rights of retaining their culture and land to the brutal subjugations from foreign powers. While the road has always been bumpy, Bulgaria has not strayed off it for more than 1300 years. Few countries can say the same.

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Alex Dimchev

Alex Dimchev is a writer, editor, and weapons master for EUscoop.com

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