This is the short history of Bulgaria. The former is worth knowing about. The latter is worth visiting…
Middle Palaeolithic – from that time (give or take a bit) is the first archaeological evidence of human beings inhabiting the lands of present-day Bulgaria. It is early days yet; people are too few and too boring to attract the interest of anyone else than a handful of scientists talking in a lingo so strange that it is perhaps incomprehensible even to themselves.
Neolithic – events unfold between 6200 and 5000 B.C. Life in what is to be termed “Bulgarian lands” gets considerably more exciting. Especially since there has been evidence of Pre-Ceramic Neolithic. Which means that locals took rather a condescending view of their “neolithisation” and “rising affluence” and used to enjoy tasty morsels straight off the killed animal instead of bothering to first cut it in pieces and then put it in specially made earthenware pottery etc. A propos, what matters in this case is that the “Neolithic revolution” took place in Bulgarian lands (which at the time hadn’t even the faintest idea they were Bulgarian) independently of even the earliest centre of this “revolution” in Mesopotamia.
As early as the Late Neolithic our ancestors gave us reason to proud by establishing one of the earliest “overseas” trade relations – between the Lower Struma area (known even from Homer by the name of the “Strimon” River) and northwest Anatolia.
Another thing to make our neighbours grind their teeth with envy and cause utter bewilderment to geologists is the perfectly polished nephrite sceptre found near the village of Galabnik, Radomir district. It is truly not so much an archaeological as a geological mystery – a nephrite of such great size and high density has not been found to this day even in its unprocessed form!!!
Chalcolithic – the development of humans inhabiting present-day Bulgarian lands between 5000 and 3300 B.C. gets increasingly intensive and their life gets more and more interesting. The use of objects of every description for all types of activities – made of clay, stone, horn and bone – seems to have been something so normal at the time that these artefacts’ diversity and apparent oddity makes the layman feel quite at a loss. What is new during this era (and what accounts for its name, too – a fact well familiar to those who took the trouble to learn some Latin) is the advent of objects made of copper. The earliest copper artefacts in Bulgarian lands, by the way, appeared earlier, during the late Neolithic period, but their number and the quantity of the metal used were too small. Gradually our ancestors got really canny and by the end of that period they had contrived to amass such a quantity of metal and develop such complex forms for their tools as to be the talk of specialists even to this day. Incidentally, there have been rumours that around the end of the Chalcolithic period present-day Bulgarian lands used to be, economically and politically, the best developed place in the world. So as not to leave even a hint of doubt about it, our wise forefathers created the “Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis” (images of which we are kindly and generously offering you). For those a little behind with their studies in ancient Greek we would like to clarify that “necropolis” means “graveyard”. The most precious find in known Eneolithic (4600-4200 B.C) graves is the large quantity of beautiful gold artefacts – the earliest appearance of artefacts of this precious metal in such large quantity and high quality. The intriguing part however is the emergence of many symbolic burials – graves in which no human remains are laid – a phenomenon characteristic of all later periods.
The Bronze Age – it is considered to have lasted on Bulgarian lands between 3300 and 1100 B.C. Many scientists believe that in the early stages of that period the society that had created the “Varna Chalcolithic Necropolis” was destroyed by nomad invaders coming from the steppes of South Russia. Those same nomads were, for their own part, the first people to succeed in riding a horse. According to other scientists, the local society and the newly arrived nomads made a pact to falsify history and deceive archaeologists by feigning an economic decline. They actually lived like buddies and made rounds of local pubs on a regular basis. The truth is probably lurking somewhere in the middle – there were great economic and cultural shifts indeed, but not so crucially dramatic. It looks more probable that these were caused by the advent of the first ever alloy – bronze.
Another important and interesting phenomenon during the early and middle Bronze Age in Bulgarian lands is their close connection with Anatolia (the south-western part of Asia Minor) and in particular the scientifically established connection between some Bulgarian settlements (for example Yunatsite and Mahalic) and what gained historical prominence during the Late Bronze Age as Troy.
In fact, as regards the Late Bronze Age, Bulgarian lands are popular today with the unique find consisting of a gold set of dishes known as the “The Valchitran Treasure”. The largest vessel of this find (a “goblet” with two handles made of one whole sheet of gold) is the heaviest (4,395 kg) and largest (8 litres) gold vessel ever found and dated up to 14-12 century B.C. (when the treasure was made). Needles to say the vessels of this set represent the finest achievement of jewellery-making techniques of the time.
Early Iron Age – 1100–500 B.C. Yet another period that did not miss present-day Bulgarian lands. Once it started, however, all European and part of Asian and African tribes talked of these lands’ inhabitants – the Thracians. Some time later Ovid even wrote in their language. During that epoch in and around Bulgarian lands a number of fascinating events unfolded involving the entire antique world – or at least its ruling top. We will try to highlight for you the two most important events related to Thracian history.
A little after, or even straight after, the process of refining gold was invented in Lycia (7th c) vessels made of this new most prestigious metal appeared in Bulgaria. Two of them are currently kept in Bulgarian museums (see photo).
A little after the invention (by Phoenicians?) of the new legal tender (and valid to this day)– coins – in 6th c. B.C., a lot of Thracian tribes (e.g. Deroni, Edoni, Oreski, Thyni) started striking their own (you can see one of them in the photo) that were used as far away as Asia Minor and Egypt!
Late Iron Age – 500 B.C. – 49 A.D. These are the most glorious times for Thracian tribes. This era is mainly related to the political and economic life of one of the earliest state unions – the Odrysae Kingdom. This formation included a number of Thracian tribes under the supremacy of one of them – the Odrysae tribe. Its first ruler mentioned in historic records was Теrеs I (540-448 B.C.). The most famous ruler was Cotys I (383/382-360/359 B.C.) who played an active role in the political and economic life of the Hellenic world. The gold wreath and citizenship given to him as gift from Athens testify to this fact. During the reign of Cotys І the Odrysae Kingdom became a world power to be reckoned with, and Thracian tribes became part of the Hellenistic Koine – a trend that was particularly noticeable during and after the time Alexander the Great conquered Asia (a number of Thracian tribes joined his army).
In our time archaeologists still unearth material evidence of that amazing economic and political prosperity. A number of historical ruins of ancient cities, temples, sanctuaries and tombs are being studied in Bulgaria at present. Each year Bulgarian museums’ collections are enriched by new beautiful “treasures” – mostly gold and silver sets of dishes, jewellery, artefacts used for cult, household and military purposes. Artefacts were made in some of the biggest jewellery–making centers of the ancient world and also in local Thracian workshops. A very small, but tale-telling part of these artefacts is presented in our site.
Roman Age – 45 – 337 The onset of this period in our short historical summary is related to the final invasion of Thracian lands during the rule of the Roman Emperor Claudius, and its end was marked by the death of Constantine the Great and the division of the Roman Empire between his sons Constancius II and Constantinus II. This period is associated with the gradual integration of Thracian tribes and cities into the life of the Roman Empire. Following the mid-2nd century Bulgarian lands were already an integral part of the Roman Empire. Young Constantine, dubbed “The Great” after he became Emperor, used to live before his rise to the throne in present-day Bulgarian territories, mainly in what was to become our capital city – Sofia. It was during his time that the city was renamed from Serdica to Sofia, as it is still called today. In other words, our lands had already become an important part of the Roman Empire. However unpleasant but very telling proof of that is the fact that illegally acquired antiquities from just one Roman city on Bulgarian territory is enough to send the price of coins and artefacts plummeting in European antiquity markets.
Early Byzantine Era -337 – 681 the end of this era was marked by the birth of the young Bulgarian state. It was a time of great prosperity but also of great decline. The territory of modern Bulgaria became the site for the construction of some of the earliest monuments of Byzantine ecclesiastical and civil architectural monuments and at the same time it was the arena of incessant warfare between the Byzantine Empire and Barbarian tribes attacking it from the northwest, north, and, above all, from the east (Gepids, Allans, Goths, Huns, Avars, Khazars and Slavs). With the arrival of Proto-Bulgarians (Bulgars) from the northeast, Byzantium’s painful agony to defend the lands between the Balkan Mountain and the Danube was finally over. The Proto-Bulgarian chieftain Khan Asparuh defeated in 680 the Byzantine army lead by Emperor Constantine ІV Pogonatus. In 681 the Bulgarian chieftain and the Byzantine Emperor signed a treaty for peace and mutual assistance according to which the Byzantine Empire undertook to pay an annual duty to the young Bulgarian state. Through that treaty the newly-founded state – and Bulgarian statehood in general – gained international recognition. Given that fact we could conclude that Bulgaria is the oldest state in Europe to survive to the present day.
First Bulgarian Kingdom – 681 – 1018 The boundaries of the newly established state sprawled from Stara Planina (The Balkan Mountains, Hemus) to the south as far as the Carpathian Mountains to the north, the Timok River to the west and the Dniester River and the Black Sea to the east. Pliska, a town well studied archaeologically, was chosen as the capital city. These lands were inhabited mainly by three different ethnic (and anthropological) groups which made up the Bulgarian ethnic group: Slavs (greatest in number), Proto-Bulgarians (Bulgars) a group which for a long time formed the ruling and military elite) and Thracians (smallest in number). Because of their considerably larger numbers, Slavs to a great degree absorbed the other two ethnic groups, but even today in some more isolated and conservative regions one could encounter representatives who have preserved in its comparative purity the Proto-Bulgarian and Thracian anthropological type as well as some accompanying rites. Even from its earliest years the young state demonstrated it was eager to participate in world history – the second Bulgarian ruler – Khan Tervel, was the one to install Emperor Justinian II on the throne in Constantinople.
Another major event in the life of the Bulgarian Kingdom was the conversion to Christianity initiated by King Boris in 864; Bulgarians left their pagan rites behind and accepted Orthodox Christianity from Byzantium. A parallel effort to popularize the new religion was the introduction of the Slavic alphabet created by the brothers Cyril and Methodius. Thus from 886 onwards Divine Service was held in the Slavic language instead of Greek. A mighty new literary school emerged in Bulgaria which disseminated the new alphabet and literature to other Slavic countries. In 893 the capital city was moved to Preslav, also well studied archaeologically. There Simeon, the next Bulgarian ruler, sponsored the construction of the Round Church, unique by its unusual architectural design. During Simeon’s reign (who declared himself “The Basileus (Emperor) of Bulgarians and Romans”) Bulgaria’s territory touched on three seas – the Black Sea, the Mediterranean and the Adriatic, thus deepening the endless struggle between Bulgaria and Byzantium. This struggle reached its climax in 1014 when Emperor Basil II captured the 15 000-strong Bulgarian army and put their eyes out, leaving a single one-eyed soldier to each 100 so that they could lead them back to the Bulgarian ruler of the time, Samuil. As he saw his blinded soldiers, the Bulgarian king suffered a heart attack and died. Because of this deed, the Byzantine Emperor was dubbed Bulgaroctonos (Slayer of Bulgars). Soon after that /1185/ Bulgaria lost its sovereignty and fell under Byzantine rule that continued for almost 200 years.
The Second Bulgarian Kingdom – 1185 – 1396 Following several uprisings and two crusades, during the sanctification ceremony of the Orthodox church “Sveti Dimitar Solunski” (St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki) in the future capital city of Tarnovo, the brothers Assen and Peter lead a victorious uprising against the Byzantine rulers and restored Bulgarian statehood. Nowadays the city of Veliko Tarnovo (and the Tarnovo Fortress in particular) is the site of archaeological excavations that have continued for years. About 40 monasteries and twice as many churches are located in and around the city. Most of them, as well as the Tarnovo fortress, are open for tourists.
In 1204 the knights of the 3rd Crusade conquered Constantinople and declared Count Baldwin of Flanders the Emperor of Byzantium. Intoxicated with success, the new Emperor decided he could continue his aggressive campaign to the northwest. History, however, kept other things in store for him – in 1205 under the walls of the Thessaloniki fortress he was captured by the Bulgarian king Kaloyan and exiled to the Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad (Tarnovo).
In 1396 Bulgarian statehood was once again put to the test – this time by the emerging Ottoman Empire. Torn by feudal separatism, the Bulgarian state lost its chance to experience its own Renaissance whose signs were just beginning to appear. These signs are to be seen in churches in the Boyana area in the city of Sofia, in the town of Zemen and in the village of Studena near Pernik – some of the earliest examples of Europe’s budding cultural revolution. As regards literary arts and the ecclesiastical reform this can be seen in the works of the great Bulgarian Patriarch Theodosiy Tarnovski and the Tarnovo literary school that created the famous Ivan Alexander’s Tetraevangelia, also known as the “London Gospel”, decorated with 366 miniatures depicting all aspects of the life of Bulgarians at that time. An example of this same breath of fresh air, this time in the art of choir singing, was the new style in Christian chants introduced by a Bulgarian man from the city of Drac – Ioan Koukouzel. Unfortunately Bulgarian politicians of the 14th century were no match at all for Bulgarian artists. From 1371 to 1396 they looked on – sometimes helplessly, and sometimes with indifference – as Bulgarian territories, already divided up between feudal lords, were being mercilessly and methodically invaded by the young and just fledging Ottoman Empire.
Ottoman rule – 1396 – 1877 The next period of Bulgarian history is about what historians have recently started calling “the Ottoman presence”. Actually what we are dealing with is the five-century rule of Bulgarian lands by the Ottoman Empire. After the fall of Constantinople (Tsarigrad, Istanbul) on 29th May 1453 the capital city of the Ottoman Empire was moved there, the city was renamed to Istanbul – as it is still called today. Bulgarians had to lay aside any claims to statehood for a long time. And in spite of that the Bulgarian nation grew stronger while Bulgarian culture was enriched by yet another view to the world, including by many monuments of arts and architecture. All said and done, Christian Bulgarians not only were not (entirely) assimilated by the Ottoman culture and religion, but they gradually turned into one of its economically most progressive parts – from the end of the 17th to the 18th century the basic procurement for the Ottoman army was provided by the population on the Balkan peninsula. Bulgarian manufacturers gradually came together to form manufactories and in 1834 Dobri Zhelyazkov opened in Sliven the first factory in the Ottoman Empire.
Finally – following yet another uprising, named “The April Uprising” that broke out in 1876 and was mercilessly crushed killing 30 000 people and causing all of Europe’s intelligentsia (including Victor Hugo) to raise its voice – in 1877 Russia started yet another war with the Ottoman Empire, dubbed “The War of Liberation”.
Third Bulgarian State – in 1878 the Bulgarian state once again appeared on the political map of Europe.
So if you would like to know where Bulgaria is right now, perhaps it would be best if you came here and saw for yourselves.