by Professor Hristo Matanov

Vagabond's History of Bulgaria Part 2

yaylata plateau.jpg

During the years when Bulgaria's membership of the EU seemed but a beautiful daydream people would often take comfort in the thought "So what! We've been Europeans for 1,300 years." In 681AD the Byzantine Empire had to make a treaty with a young, steadfast confederacy formed alongside the Danube and thus admit the political existence of Bulgaria. But the Bulgarians of the 7th Century were not exactly the Bulgarians you see today walking the streets of Sofia or Sozopol.

The young Bulgarian state was established by two different races: the tall and pale skinned Slavs and the short and swarthy Mongoloid-looking Bulgarians, who will be henceforth called "Proto-Bulgarians". It seems complicated, and is even more so, because the story of the birth of Bulgaria also includes Byzantine emperors, Huns, Goths, Avars, Khazars, Thracians, a great deal of good luck, several thousand Arabs and a plague.


In 330 AD Emperor Constantine I moved the capital of the Roman Empire to Byzantium and because he had declared Christianity an official religion 17 years earlier, he thought that his state was guaranteed years of safety.

What Constantine the Great did not suspect was that the Great Migration had already begun in the steppes of Central Asia and that 20 years later it would lead to the first Hunnish attacks on the empire, the largest rearrangement of peoples and tribes in the history of mankind and the onset of the Middle Ages.

The Huns left Central Asia either because of a climatic cataclysm which caused a reduction in the pasture for their herds and horses, or because of the stabilisation of China, which made them look for plunder in the lands of the Roman Empire which was at that time weak. Whatever the reason, the Huns rode west, sweeping along dozens of peoples, much like the movement of the white ball in snooker, which changes the trajectories of the rest of the balls on the table.

Constantine the Great turned Constantinople into a world capital that attracted all kinds of Barbarians

Constantine the Great turned Constantinople into a world capital that attracted all kinds of Barbarians

The first Hunnish raids on the empire lead the Christians to believe that the Apocalypse was about to begin: "How the mind shudders to contemplate the catastrophes of our age! Roman blood has drenched the lands between Constantinople and the Julian Alps. How many matrons, how many of God's virgins and ladies of noble birth have been made the playthings of these brutes?" wrote Eusebius Hieronymus in 396 AD. A year earlier Emperor Theodosius I had declared Christianity the only religion and divided the empire into the Eastern Roman Empire with Constantinople as its capital and the Western Roman Empire with Rome as the capital.

The barbarians terrified the Romans with their military technology: saddles with stirrups, swords and reflex bows, and a well-organised cavalry against which the Roman legions were helpless. Though they could not establish long-lasting states, the barbarians were horrifically efficient in destroying the ancient civilisation. They took and pillaged Rome several times in the 5th Century, reducing it to a pile of picturesque ruins.

The situation in Constantinople was much better. The "new Rome" successfully defended the borders of the Eastern Roman Empire, which would be transformed into the mediaeval superpower, the Byzantine Empire. It would survive until the 15th Century as history afforded it the chance to face its barbarians, the Slavs and the Proto-Bulgarians, in the 7th Century when it had already managed to become stable. However, the Slavs and the Proto-Bulgarians would become the first barbarians to establish a lasting state.


Ex Orienta Lux (Light From the East)

"Who are we and where do we come from?" This is a matter of particular concern for the Bulgarians, especially when they find themselves sitting around a table with enough rakiya and Shopska salad for a long debate. However, the answer is more difficult than drinking rakiya and often gives rise to heated arguments. Not least because it is difficult to determine how much of the blood of the 7th Century Bulgarians who made a treaty with the Byzantine Empire flows in the veins of the 21st Century Bulgarians, and what role the Slavs had in this process.

Analysis of the few surviving words from the Proto-Bulgarian language, like beleg, babrek and korem (scar, kidney and belly), reveals that some of them are East Iranian and Turkic, but nobody has established the origin of the ethnonym Bulgarian. Some claim it is a derivative of the Turkic verb bulgamak (to mix or stir), while for others it comes from the name of a totemic animal, the fur of which is highly valued. Other theories are so fanciful that they are not worth mentioning. One should remember, however, that the term "Proto-Bulgarians" was coined by historians to distinguish between the Bulgarians of the 7th Century (a nomadic people who probably had Mongoloid features) and the Bulgarians who two centuries later mixed their genes with those of the Slavs and adopted Christianity.

Most scientists believe, however, that the Proto-Bulgarians were an Indo-Iranian tribe which lived between the upper reaches of the Amu Darya River, the Pamirs and Hindu Kush. At the beginning of the 4th Century this tribe joined the Great Migration, moved northwest and settled in North Caucasia to appear for the first time in a text written by an anonymous Roman chronicler in 354.

Advocates of Bulgarian exclusivity try to turn the fact that there is very scarce information about what happened back then to their advantage, eagerly publishing amazing "proof" that the Proto-Bulgarians inhabited Atlantis, started the Sumerian civilisation, were in fact Thracians or - indeed - were even the first Homo sapiens.

The Bulgarians did not establish the earliest civilisation, but they were not the common uncultured nomads described by the Communist regime either. They knew what city life and crop growing were, but their economy was mainly based on stock-breeding and their society had a strong hierarchical structure and a well-developed central power. They liked moving from place to place, conquering new territories and subjugating the people who had settled there.

North Caucasia proved to be merely a stopover. When the Huns arrived, the Bulgarians were forced to take to the road again. Some of them went to Armenia and the rest headed for Central Europe with the Huns, where they fought against the Longobards and the Goths and made their first raids in the Balkan provinces of the Byzantine Empire.

Thus Spake Tangra

In fact, nobody knows what Tangra, the supreme god of the Proto-Bulgarians, said because the shamans acted as intermediaries between him and the common people.

Archaeologists are, however, certain that he personified the sky and was offered gory, canine sacrifices. From their entrails, the shamans could foretell the outcomes of major undertakings by the Bulgarians and their military and political leaders, the khans.

The Madara Rider

The Madara Rider

The Appalling Cavalry

Very apprehensive is how Byzantine soldiers must have felt when, standing in a tight square, they faced the seemingly disorganised Bulgarian cavalry.

Maurice, a commander-in-chief and later an emperor, was astounded because the Bulgarians "prefer battles at long range, ambushes, encircling their adversaries, simulated retreats and sudden returns". Wearing body armour and carrying swords, bows and long spears, they could deftly shoot their arrows without dismounting from their horses. Anybody who has ridden a horse knows how difficult it is to do anything on the back of a galloping animal.

Here, There and Everywhere

The Proto-Bulgarians probably never were in Sumer, but, in the middle of the 7th Century, some of these people were to be found along the Volga, the lower reaches of the Danube, Pannonia (present-day Hungary), Italy and South Macedonia. The reason for this migration was the disintegration of Khan Kubrat's confederation, which Byzantine historians called Old Great Bulgaria.

St James reputedly saved Salonika from both Proto-Bulgarians and Slavs

St James reputedly saved Salonika from both Proto-Bulgarians and Slavs

In 653 AD Kubrat overthrew the domination of the Avars, who had taken on the role of "bad boys" from the Huns, and established a state between the Caucasus, the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea with the city of Phanagoria on the Taman Peninsula in Crimea as his capital. The khan was intelligent enough to realise that the Byzantine Empire was his only safeguard against the Avars and readily went to Constantinople, where he adopted Christianity and was given the Byzantine title of Patrician. He should probably have asked for more, as it was his state that saved the empire from the invasion of the new migrants from the east, the Khazars.

Kubrat died in the 660s and his state disintegrated. Theophanis the Confessor attributes this disintegration to Kubrat's sons Bayan, Kotrag, Asparukh, Kuber and Alcek, who disregarded their father's advice from his deathbed. Kubrat told his sons to break a sheaf of sticks. When they couldn't, he asked them to try to do the same to a single stick. But the moral, that "Unity Makes Power", which is today inscribed over the door of the Bulgarian Parliament, fell flat.

Bayan remained in the Old Great Bulgaria, but yielded to the Khazars. Kuber established a state along the Volga and converted to Islam in the 10th Century. It was conquered by the Tatars in 1236 only to become part of Russia in the 16th Century. However, the Volga Bulgarians never lost their national self-awareness, even when the Bolsheviks proclaimed them and their lands Tatarian to encourage the Communist revolution in nearby Mongolia. Today, there are about 7,000,000 people living in the Republic of Tatarstan, some of whom insist that their ethnonym must be officially changed from "Tatars" to "Bulgarians".

Asparukh went west along the shore of the Black Sea and settled for some time between the delta of the Danube and Crimea, an area known to Byzantine chroniclers as Onglos. His horde had a decisive role in the creation of the modern Bulgarian state.

TheTatars are direct descendants of the Proto-Bulgarians

TheTatars are direct descendants of the Proto-Bulgarians

Theophanis the Confessor records that Alcek's Proto-Bulgarians were initially allowed into the Frankish kingdom, but King Dagobert gave orders to kill them. Only about 700 people managed to escape and settled together with Alcek near Ravenna.

Kuber suffered a similar fate. After spending some time in the Avar Khaganate in Pannonia, he headed south with a motley group of Bulgarians, other barbarians and Byzantine prisoners and settled in the Pelagonian Plain near the present-day town of Bitola in South Macedonia. There, the khan devised an ingenious scheme. He told his right-hand man Mavar to go to Thessaloniki and persuade the local notabilities to recommend him to the emperor. His aim was to conquer the city and turn it into his capital.

The citizens attribute the disclosure of Kuber's plan to Saint Demetrius, but what matters is that Mavar's mission failed and Kuber was taken prisoner. Thus he disappeared from history gaining himself the nickname "the unsuccessful Asparukh" among historians. Kubrat's third son was the only one that history allowed to establish a long-standing state.

The Treasure of the Khan

While playing by the Vorskla River in 1912, a group of children from the Ukrainian village of Malaya Pereshchepina discovered gold and silver objects in the sand. Later, the scholars of the Hermitage would attribute the 70 kg treasure to an unknown ruler from the 7th Century. It took years before they realised that these were the burial gifts of Khan Kubrat. The lavish offerings included gold and silver vessels, a 94.2 cm-long sword, a portable Christian altar and three rings bearing a monogram of his name. The treasure was meant to demonstrate his political power and affluence.

Measuring Time

Do you know your zodiac sign on the Bulgarian calendar? Probably not, but if you are familiar with the Chinese calendar you will easily find your bearings. While still back in Central Asia, the Bulgarians worked out the concept of a 12-year cycle, with each year named after an animal: the mouse, ox, snow leopard, rabbit, serpent or dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig or boar. The year begins on 22 December and has 364 days and four 91-day seasons. This calendar was in use until their conversion to Christianity in 864.

THE SLAVS: From the Baltic to Thessaloniki

Tall, fair-haired and harmless is how the Byzantines regarded the Slavs, who gradually settled along the northern frontiers of the empire. Unlike the unruly Bulgarians who were always up to something, this meek crop growing people who hated any form of organisation failed to make a big impression. But in the 7th Century the Byzantines realised - too late - that to underestimate them was a mistake they could not afford to make twice.

The Slavs originally inhabited the area between the Baltic Sea and present-day Belarus, western Russia and northwest Ukraine. Their imprudent method of tilling the land (they burned the forests and thus cleared plots to plant their crops, which impoverished the soil) made them slowly move south. They gradually split into three large groups. The West Slavs are known as the Venets, the East Slavs as the Ants and the South Slavs as the Sklavens. Later, the Sklavens would become part of three nations existing to this day: the Bulgarians, Serbians and Croatians.

By the 5th Century some of the South Slavs had already settled in Pannonia and Dacia (the area between the Carpathian Mountains and the Lower Danube) and attracted the interest of Byzantine politicians and chroniclers, who described them as stalwart men with reddish hair who fought on foot with shields and spears, wearing wide-legged trousers but no armour.

Unity was not one of their strong points: the Slavic tribes often fought one another and adhered to direct democracy. They built houses sunk into the ground in marshlands or other inaccessible areas.

In the 6th Century the Byzantines were surprised to find out that the harmless barbarians had settled all along the Danube, their northern border, and often crossed the river to plunder the lands to the south. They tried to resolve the problem using the whole arsenal of strategies inherited from the Roman Empire. The strongholds along the Danube were reinforced and diplomats began setting the Slavic tribes against one another.

The results of this complex political game were ruined by the Avars. They settled in Pannonia, subdued the Slavs there, then conquered Dacia and proceeded to give Byzantium a very hard time. In 582 the Avars broke the border defence between present-day Belgrade and Sremski Karlovci. They were followed by a large group of Slavs who reached Thessaloniki and besieged it.

Matters came to a head. Emperor Maurice launched several campaigns and managed to move the battle line north of the Danube, but his temporary success was shattered by his own troops who refused to stay in the Slavic lands for the winter and marched back to Constantinople to dethrone him in 602. The Slavs took advantage of the unguarded frontier and flooded the Balkans over the next 30 or 40 years. It all happened so quickly that the empire had no time to apply its last and most efficient defence weapon: assimilation.

Misery likes company, as the saying goes. The Byzantine Empire established that a much more fearsome enemy had appeared at its eastern frontiers: the Arabs. They had overrun Syria, Palestine, Egypt and reached Asia Minor, threatening the very existence of the empire. At this critical moment Byzantium left its Balkan provinces to their own devices. As a result, what had happened in Central and West Europe two centuries earlier now happened here too: the barbarians destroyed the Roman heritage. The Slavs settled and quickly picked up the local agricultural traditions and cultivated plants like the vine and olive tree.

In some areas they even began organising themselves into unions which the Greeks called sklaviniai. The largest one, near Thessaloniki, made several almost successful attempts to conquer the city. The Byzantines watched the attacks of the until-recently inexperienced barbarians in terror, realising how quickly they had learnt the secrets of their siege technology and attributing the failure of the Slavic sieges to the intervention of Saint Demetrius.

Another of these sklaviniai, called the Seven Tribes, was established between the Danube and the Balkan Mountains. It was soon to unite with Asparukh's Bulgarians.

Underwater Ambush

When passing across a marshland, soldiers had to carefully watch the reeds, Maurice advised the Byzantine generals. If they noticed that the stalks had their upper ends cut, they should beware that a Slavic warrior was holding the lower end, lying still in the cold water and breathing through the hollow stem waiting to attack from behind when they least expected it. This novel tactic of the Slavs, who were experts at fighting in marshy areas, certainly scared the Greeks.


When the Proto-Bulgarians and Slavs arrived in the Balkans, they became the involuntary witnesses of a rare phenomenon, the disappearance of a people. After living for at least 4,000 years in the Balkans and being, according to Herodotus, "the second most numerous race in the world after the Indians", the Thracians disappeared from the historical stage.

Thracian dolmen, Hlyabovo

Thracian dolmen, Hlyabovo

This ancient people experienced a severe demographic crisis in the 5th-7th Centuries. The barbarians often invaded their lands from the north, destroyed cities, devastated the crops and killed or enslaved the people. To make matters worse, the plague arrived from East Africa in 541. The first recorded pandemic became known as "Justinian's plague" and continued with varied intensity for 250 years, wiping out over 30 percent of the Balkan population. Supposedly, it finished off the Thracians, whose last members migrated or were assimilated by the barbarians. Their name is last mentioned at the beginning of the 7th Century. On the picture: a Thracian tomb at the Village of Hlyabovo, near Yambol.


In 680 Emperor Constantine IV Pogonatos (652-685) realised that he had reached an impasse -no matter what he did his problems were not going to end. The five-year siege of Constantinople by the Arabs had just finished, but he had no time to relax. While he had been trying to save his capital, the Slavs had settled in the Balkan provinces, driving away the Greeks to the larger cities such as Thessaloniki, Athens or Patras and their environs. Constantine had managed to maintain his control over Dobrudzha, but he realised that this territory was also endangered because Asparukh's Proto-Bulgarians had settled in the nearby Onglos.

In the spring of 680 the emperor decided to grit his teeth, ignore his bouts of gout and head a military campaign against the Proto-Bulgarians. According to Theophanis the Confessor, the barbarians were scared by the Byzantine army and hid in their strongholds for several days. Constantine did not dare to attack them and his gout pains gradually grew so unbearable that he decided to sail with several ships to Mesembria (present-day Nesebar) to take some medicinal baths. Before leaving, the emperor ordered his generals to drive the Bulgarians out of their fortifications. Some of his soldiers, however, considered Constantine's balneological needs an attempt to escape and "gripped with fear, took to their heels without anybody chasing them". The Bulgarians took advantage of the panic in the Byzantine camp, left their stronghold, crossed the Danube and reached Odessos (present-day Varna).

The first thing Asparukh did afterwards was to take protective measures against another Byzantine attack by forming an alliance with the Slavs of the Seven Tribes. They acknowledged his sovereignty and agreed to relocate one of the tribes in the Balkan Mountain passes to defend them against Byzantine raids. Thus, to Constantine's horror, instead of doing away with the barbarian menace his campaign resulted in the establishment of a barbarian federation right on his border, which immediately began launching attacks on Byzantine Thrace.

However, the officially acknowledged date of the establishment of Bulgaria is the summer of 681. It was then that Constantine IV concluded the first treaty with Asparukh, thus procuring peace along his frontier at the expense of an annual tribute.

Pliska, in northeastern Bulgaria, was the first Bulgarian capital

Pliska, in northeastern Bulgaria, was the first Bulgarian capital


How did the Bulgarians, who numbered far fewer than the Slavs (according to various estimations, Asparukh had between 5,000 and 50,000 men), manage to impose their name on everybody who lived in the country, and what was the role of the Slavs? The answer to this question varies with the political situation. Before the Second World War Bulgaria had close relations with Germany and adhered to the theories about "state-building" peoples. The official view at the time was that if it hadn't been for the intelligent and well-organised Bulgarians, the "undeveloped" Slavs could never have founded a state. When after the war Bulgaria became part of the Communist camp this view changed to the opposite extreme. The Proto-Bulgarians were declared a destructive equestrian people who would have disappeared from the stage of history without a trace had it not met the developed Slavs.

As is often the way, the truth is somewhere in between. The early Bulgarian state was a federation in which each group had a certain function. The Bulgarians, who had experience in the establishment of states (though short-lived), were the leading factor in the events of 680-681 and for this reason took all the major posts: the khan was head of state and the aristocrats were in command of the army and ruled the areas around the capital of Pliska. The Slavs had their independence, especially with regard to their internal affairs. They did not take part in the government directly, but defended the Balkan Mountain passes, where the Bulgarian cavalry was less efficient, and produced the most important commodity: food. The Slavs and Proto-Bulgarians preserved their traditional ways of life, language, culture and religion and slowly got to know each other.

Probably the threat from a common enemy was the strength of this state: the Byzantine Empire, made two completely different peoples start living together in communal territory under one political system.


325 The First Council of Nicaea agreed on the basic principles of Christianity

361-363 Emperor Julian I made an unsuccessful attempt to reinstate paganism as an official religion

361-363 The Huns appeared on the north Black Sea coast

378 The Goths defeated and killed the Roman Emperor Valens in the Battle of Adrianople

395 Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, which was divided into the Eastern and Western Roman Empires

4th-6th Century Many "Barbarian states" established in Europe

End of the 4th - beginning of the 5th Century Life and work of theologian St John Chrysostomos

First half of the 5th Century Hunnish invasions of the Eastern Roman Empire

451 The Huns were defeated in the Catalaunian plains by a Roman-German army

455 The Vandals took and plundered Rome

457-751 The Merovingian dynasty ruled the Frankish Kingdom

476 The end of the Western Roman Empire

496 Frankish King Clovis converted to Christianity and baptised

End of the 5th - beginning of the 6th Century The Bulgarians began their raids on the Eastern Roman Empire

526-565 Justinian the Great ruled the Byzantine Empire

529 The pagan academy in Athens was closed

532-537 The Saint Sophia Basilica was built in Constantinople

534 The Franks conquered the Burgundian Kingdom

584 The first siege of Thessaloniki by the Slavs

The 720s and 730s Croats and Serbs settled in the Northwest Balkans

680-681 The Sixth Ecumenical Council took place in Constantinople, Bulgaria state founded

687 Pipin the Short united the Frankish states


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