Rate this item
(0 votes)
REVIVAL © Anthony Georgieff
Vagabond's history of Bulgaria part 9


1699 was a bad year for the Ottoman Empire. It lost a war with Austria, along with a considerable part of its territory and military reputation. Europe realised that it was no longer dealing with the bogeyman that had struck fear into the hearts of Christians, but rather with “the sick man of Europe”. Russia began a series of wars attempting to conquer the Black Sea coast and the straits to the Mediterranean. Other Great Powers, such as Britain, preferred a weak, but undivided Ottoman Empire. Thus a long succession of political gambits and wars known as the Eastern Question ensued.

Bulgarian villagers threshing wheat, F. Kanitz, 1870sBulgarian villagers threshing wheat, F. Kanitz, 1870s

The empire's problems didn't stop there, however. While the Ottoman subjects were living in an almost feudal society, Europe was undergoing an industrial revolution. The empire quickly became a major market for the cheaper and better quality goods of the West. The Bulgarians tried to adapt to the changing times. Large farms, called chiflitsi, sprang up on their lands, whose produce was not meant for the farmers' own consumption, but for the market. Specialisation also appeared: they grew cotton in Macedonia, rice along the Maritsa River and grain in Dobrudzha. In the mountainous and semi-mountainous areas, they raised small farm animals, which were sold to the army and at the large urban markets. Manufacturing centres began to appear in the bigger cities as well, and in the 1830s Dobri Zhelyazkov opened the first textile factory in Sliven.

The Farsighted Sultans

Sultan Mahmud II abolishes the outdated Janissary corps  in 1826Sultan Mahmud II abolishes the outdated Janissary corps in 1826

At the turn of the 18th Century, a pair of sultans realised that if they did not reform their empire, it would soon fall apart under the pressure from the bandits, the Greek and Serbian revolts and Russia's ambitions. For Selim III (1789-1807) and Mahmud II (1808-1839) this meant substituting the outdated professional army, consisting of spahees and janissaries, with conscripted forces trained in the western manner. The Janissary corps was abolished in 1826, while in 1836 something even more sensational happened: the sultan issued a reform act tentatively stating that all his subjects were equal. This was little more than wishful thinking, of course, but the Bulgarians took advantage of the Hatt-ı Serif of Gülhane to build their churches more easily.

Renaissance à la Bulgaria

The time from the beginning of the 18th Century until 1878 (for most Bulgarian territories) is known as the Bulgarian Revival. Unlike the European Renaissance, it did not involve a revival of interest in classical culture (Greek statues, Roman cameos and so on).

Revival Period architecture in Koprivshtitsa, BulgariaRevival Period architecture in Koprivshtitsa, Bulgaria

Rather, this mixture between European Enlightenment and Romanticism had as its aim the modernisation of Bulgarian culture and economy and championed the idea of restoring an independent Bulgarian state.


“O, nerazumni yurode,” or “Oh, you senseless fool,” is a phrase that Bulgarians often use when they are enraged by a fellow countryman's cowardice. Written in 1762, this phrase comes from the most important national history book Istoriya Slavyanobulgarskaya, or “Slavonic-Bulgarian History,” by Paisiy Hilendarski. Regarded as the first modern history of the Bulgarians, it appeared at a time when most of them were so ignorant about their own past that it caused a sensation and acted as the cornerstone for the birth of the Bulgarian national consciousness.

Father Ambrosiy, the abbot of the Zographou Monastery on Mount Athos, shows a copy of Istoriya slavyanobalgarskaya. The original is kept at the monastery under lock and key. In the 1980s it was stolen by a Communist agent and brought to Bulgaria, but was returned to Zographou in 1998Father Ambrosiy, the abbot of the Zographou Monastery on Mount Athos, shows a copy of Istoriya slavyanobalgarskaya. The original is kept at the monastery under lock and key. In the 1980s it was stolen by a Communist agent and brought to Bulgaria, but was returned to Zographou in 1998

Paisiy Hilendarski was an enigmatic figure. He was born in 1722, probably in Bansko, and became a monk in Mount Athos. There, Paisiy noticed something curious: the Serbian and Greek monks proudly recounted their national histories, but the Bulgarians knew nothing about their past. Paisiy decided to rectify this and took to writing Bulgaria's history. The book was completed in 1762 and because the printing press had not yet reached the Bulgarian lands, he began distributing handwritten copies.

Despite the technical difficulties, his History soon became a bestseller, thanks in large part to Paisiy's talent for writing in a captivating and patriotic style that was novel for the time


One trouble soon leads to another: the sultans realised the truth of this saying at the beginning of the 19th Century. The kardzhalii were not yet eliminated when the Greeks and Serbs rose up; Russia sided with them and in 1829 the world woke up to find two new countries: Serbia and Greece. The Bulgarians remained under Turkish rule, but there were those among them who were also ready to fight for their independence. For obvious reasons they could no longer live in the empire and began forming Bulgarian communities in Belgrade, Athens, Bucharest and Odessa.

Hadzhi Hristo Balgarin fought in the Greek War of Independence from 1821-1829Hadzhi Hristo Balgarin fought in the Greek War of Independence from 1821-1829

The Bulgarians' first attempts to revolt were hardly an example of good planning. The revolutionary plot in Tarnovo known as Velchova Zavera was revealed even before it broke out and although they continued sporadically for 20 years, the uprisings in the northwest of the country were eventually drowned in blood. In the 1840s the Bulgarians decided to change their tactics. The immigrants in the Romanian town of Braila made three unsuccessful attempts to “import revolution” into the empire, but neither the Bulgarians just across the Danube nor the Romanian government were ready to rise against the sultan.


The education that the average Bulgarian could hope to get in the early 19th Century was at mediaeval level: it was provided by monks in monasteries and was limited to learning the Bible and some basic arithmetic. Bulgarians soon realised that education was a key to success and made every effort to create modern secular schools where instruction was in their native language. In the space of 50 years, a dense network of primary schools mushroomed throughout the country, while religious, pedagogical and girls' schools appeared in the larger cities.

The first modern Bulgarian textbook, known as the Ribniya bukvar, or the “Fish Primer,” appeared in 1824

The first modern Bulgarian textbook, known as the Ribniya bukvar, or the “Fish Primer,” appeared in 1824

The predecessor to the present-day Bulgarian Academy of Sciences, the Bulgarian Literary Society, was founded in Bra˘ila in 1869. Despite ideas to set up a Bulgarian university, too, this dream became a reality only after the liberation. For this reason, wealthier Bulgarians went abroad or to one of the famous western colleges in Istanbul, such as Robert College, to continue their education. This gave rise to an educated Bulgarian elite, who did not see any future for themselves in an empire where all positions and offices were restricted to Muslims only.

The Bulgarian popular press also came into being after the Crimean War. The papers printed in Istanbul were loyal to the Ottoman authorities, but those published in Bucharest and Belgrade by Bulgarian immigrants raised the flag of liberation. Most Bulgarians could only read them in the libraries of the new local cultural institutions, called chitalishta, which appeared in most towns after 1856.

A couple of decades after the war, the educated Bulgarian elite already went to the theatre, wore fashionable western clothes, read Dickens and Victor Hugo, listened to the music played by the chitalishta bands, bought Viennese furniture and spoke French. Most Bulgarians, however, continued to live in poverty and ignorance.


For modern people, the Crimean War, which was fought between the Ottoman Empire, Britain, France and the Kingdom of Sardinia on one side and Russia on the other in 1853-1856, is remembered for introducing the fashion of wearing the balaclava and for the first news sent from the frontline by telegraph. For the Bulgarians, however, it played a much more important role.

While waiting to be sent to the front in the Crimean War, a number of British soldiers were quartered in Varna. Due to a cholera epidemic, some never left the city. While many of their graves have been destroyed, a monument stands near the burial site While waiting to be sent to the front in the Crimean War, a number of British soldiers were quartered in Varna. Due to a cholera epidemic, some never left the city. While many of their graves have been destroyed, a monument stands near the burial site

Russia was divested of its status as “protector” of the Christians in the Ottoman Empire, and the Turkish markets opened for the industrial goods of the West. Many craftsmen went bankrupt, but the more enterprising ones found effective ways to get rich: they supplied the Ottoman army with woollen fabrics and food, traded with the less developed Asian provinces or bought the right to collect taxes.

The sultans tried to reform their increasingly declining state, but their changes were limited mainly to the army, which was large, had modern arms and was prepared to crush any attempt at revolt on the empire's territory. However, the Bulgarians managed to find an indirect way to achieve their main aim, namely independence. They tried to establish a modern national culture, educational system and independent Bulgarian church.


At the time when Western Europe was meeting the challenges of the theory of evolution and the origin of species, one of the hottest issues for the Bulgarians was the independence of their church. They wanted to break away from the Greek Patriarchate in Istanbul under whose authority their church had been since Bulgaria fell under Ottoman rule at the end of the 14th Century.

The Bulgarian St Stefan Church in Istanbul was made entirely of iron - in Vienna The Bulgarian St Stefan Church in Istanbul was made entirely of iron - in Vienna

The issue was not religious, but political. The sultans divided their subjects according to their faith (Orthodox Christian, Catholic or Muslim), but not according to their ethnic origins; hence, they regarded the Bulgarians as Greeks. Before the Revival, the Bulgarians did not mind this. But after Paisiy's “Oh, you senseless fool, why are you ashamed to call yourself a Bulgarian?” they wanted to be recognised as a separate nation by the sultan. For this reason, they needed an autonomous church.

Propaganda for the creation of an independent Bulgarian church in 1872Propaganda for the creation of an independent Bulgarian church in 1872

The first Greek priests were driven out of their churches by angry Bulgarians in the mid-19th Century, but tension escalated after 1856. This was the beginning of an organised movement for church autonomy, whose centre was Istanbul, a city inhabited by some 30,000 Bulgarians. The Ottoman rulers saw this as an excellent opportunity to use the “divide and conquer” principle and secretly began supporting the Bulgarians.

Events events took a dramatic turn on Easter Sunday 1860. The Bulgarian priest Ilarion Makariopolski intentionally failed to mention the name of the Greek patriarch at the service held at the St Stephen Church in Istanbul. Everybody grasped the importance of his omission: with this act he threw off the patriarchy's authority. The unrest spread throughout the Bulgarian lands, causing the sultan to issue a special firman, or decree, in 1870 promulgating the establishment of an autonomous Bulgarian exarchate. A plebiscite was held in the European part of the Empire, which clearly outlined the territories in Moesia, Thrace and Macedonia predominantly inhabited by Bulgarians.


While affluent and influential Bulgarians tried to change the situation gradually, by means of reforms, the maintenance of good relations with the Ottoman authorities and bakshish, or “bribes,“ others were of a different mind. They were the “mad heads” influenced by the Romantic spirit of the 19th Century and the birth of such national states as Serbia, Greece and Italy. The most emblematic figures among them were Georgi Rakovski, Lyuben Karavelov and Vasil Levski.

Rakovski in the Balkan Mountains by A. Sake, 1860sRakovski in the Balkan Mountains by A. Sake, 1860s

Georgi Stoykov Rakovski (1821-1867) was the first to succeed in establishing some sort of organisation in the chaotic movement for national independence. Rakovski had military experience as an interpreter (and Russian spy) in the General Staff of the Turkish Army during the Crimean War and as a leader of his own band of hayduti in the Balkan Mountains. He settled in Belgrade, where he formed a military unit of Bulgarians called the “Bulgarian Legion”. Rakovski theorised that when his group entered the empire, it would stir the Bulgarians to take up arms. What he did not take into account was the Bulgarians' lack of preparation and the reluctance of Serbia to host paramilitary forces acting against its powerful neighbour. Rakovski was forced to flee to Bucharest, where he died of tuberculosis while making other plans: several bands of émigrés were to cross the Danube and form an interim government in the Balkan Mountains.

In 1867-1868 several immigrants in Romania decided to put this tactic into practice. The fighters and their voyvodi, or leaders, Panayot Hitov, Filip Totyu, Hadzhi Dimitar and Stefan Karadzha showed remarkable selflessness and had several commendable battles with Turkish regular and irregular troops. The Bulgarians, however, did not rush to their aid and join the revolt, and the revolutionaries came to the conclusion that the people would not rise up against the sultan unless they were properly prepared in advance.

As often happens among groups of Bulgarians, the émigrés were disunited about what they should do next. Some of them, supported by Russia, which wanted to restore its influence in the Ottoman Empire, preferred to act peacefully. They gave money for revolutionary activities, sent young Bulgarians to study in Russia and published books. The radical émigrés called them “the old ones”.

Rakovski's followers, “the young ones,” relied on support from the West, mainly from France. The most radical group, the Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee, was formed in 1869 around the publishers of the Svoboda, or “Liberty,” newspaper in Bucharest. It was headed by writer, publicist and revolutionary Lyuben Karavelov.

Karavelov saw that armed struggle was essential for the liberation of the Bulgarians. On the other hand, he could not deny that without the
necessary enlightenment they would not realise the necessity to be free. He constantly wavered in his views and finally his more radical followers accused him of being too weak-willed. Ironically, they failed to appreciate the first deeds of another person who would contribute most to spreading the desire for independence among Bulgarians living in the empire: Vasil Levski.

Levski had been part of Rakovski's legion and knew what needed to be done so that the Bulgarians would rise up and overthrow foreign rule: they needed “on-the-ground preparation”. He returned to the empire in 1870 and on his own began risking his life to visit Bulgarian towns to set up secret revolutionary committees.

Levski was a realist and did not place very great hopes on the Bulgarians: he wanted the future uprising to succeed and did not envisage any deadlines for it. He knew that to revolt, the Bulgarians needed enough arms, military experience and enthusiasm to withstand the Ottomans.

Tireless and charismatic, in just two years Levski established 160 secret organisations, which collected money to buy weapons. They had their own secret postal system and secret police and were preparing the Bulgarian population for the future sacrifice for freedom. The conspiracy was so well organised that until Levski's capture the Turkish authorities did not even suspect the existence of the clandestine network of committees.

In 1872 one of Levski's associates, Dimitar Obshti, was detained after an ill-advised robbery of an Ottoman postal convoy in the Arabakonak Pass. The network was revealed and a series of arrests followed. The police soon caught Levski himself. He was tried by a Turkish court in Sofia and hanged on 18 February 1873 outside the city. The place where he was buried remains unknown. This was a heavy blow to the organisation. Karavelov retired from all revolutionary activities and the radical immigrants wondered what they should do next. Four years had to pass until Bulgaria's liberation.

The Apostle of Freedom

After some time, when the historians inevitably dig up something in the archives, even the greatest heroes of history lose part of their shine due to their human frailties. Levski, also known as the Deacon (he was a monk for some time) and the Apostle of Freedom, is an exception to this rule, however. Even the most detailed research of his past and documents have not found a single trace of insincerity, corruption, malice or trickery. So, it is little wonder that at the beginning of 2007 Levski was placed first in the Great Bulgarians poll organised by Bulgarian National Television on the model of the popular BBC vote, and every Bulgarian politician hangs Levski's portrait in his office.

Vasil LevskiPosthumously, however, Levski was involved in scandals. About 20 years ago, Nikolay Haytov, one of Bulgaria's most celebrated writers, “revealed” that Levski's grave was in the St Petka Samardzhiyska Church in the subway opposite the TsUM department store in Sofia, but that archaeologists had lost his bones.

The scientists tried to explain that the skeleton (which had indeed been lost) couldn't have been Levski's, but ordinary Bulgarians still believe Haytov's sensationalist theory.

Another scandal broke out when the Holy Synod refused to canonise Levski as a saint – something that ordinary people found outrageous.


1756 Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born

1762 Jean Jacques Rousseau published his Du contrat social

1775 The American War of Independence began

4 July 1776 The Declaration of Independence was signed

14 July 1789 The French Revolution began

1804 Napoleon was crowned emperor

1833 Louis Daguerre invented photography

1835 Samuel Morse invented the electric telegraph

1837-1901 The reign of Queen Victoria

1848-1849 A wave of democratic revolutions in Europe

1859 Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species

1861 The united Kingdom of Italy was established

1861-1865 The American Civil War

1861 Russia abolished serfdom

An amendment to the US Constitution abolished slavery

1869 Russian chemist Mendeleyev devised the periodic table of the chemical elements

The Franco-Prussian War, ending with the defeat of the French Empire and the unification of Germany

Read 8045 times Last modified on Tuesday, 22 March 2016 13:21

Leave a comment

Make sure you enter all the required information, indicated by an asterisk (*). HTML code is not allowed.




Hristo Botev neighbourhood risks becoming ghetto next to Sofia Airport

Vagabond Interviews



The founder of Megasmart company for organic food supplements and cosmetics, on what defines quality products in such a competitive field

Copyright © Vagabond Media Ltd 2006-2018. All Rights Reserved

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website