by Professor Hristo Matanov

Vagabond's History of Bulgaria Part4


Bulgarians often say that they straddle the divide between the East and the West. You can certainly see the evidence - they may have a European frame of mind and streets full of Western cars but Oriental bureaucracy and hygiene abound.

Bulgaria's geography, which includes proximity to the Bosporus and a border along the Danube, is just one of the reasons for the country's cultural schizophrenia. The other one appeared in the middle of the 9th Century. Back then a Bulgarian sovereign faced a dilemma: adopt Christianity and resign himself to the patriarch in Constantinople or opt for the pope. His son would devote all his life to conquering the Byzantine capital. Meanwhile, Bulgaria became the central disseminator of something truly unique: a brand new alphabet, the Slavic one.


If you think that the Cyrillic alphabet is difficult, you should be grateful to the Bulgarians for abandoning the first Slavic alphabet devised by Cyril and Methodius in the mid-9th Century. The Glagolitic was a graphic nightmare. Nevertheless, the idea of an all-new alphabet was so profound that the two brothers are among the most venerated people in Bulgaria. Their holiday on 24 May fills everybody with joy (including frenzied school-leavers, of course) and they have been patron saints of Europe since 1980.

But back in the 9th century nothing augured such prestige. In 843 the Byzantine Empire saw the end of a long-lasting argument about whether to worship icons or, in keeping with the Second Commandment, destroy them. The emperor focused his attention on the next problem: how to increase his influence among the Slavs.

The Byzantine Empire did not have enough resources to subjugate them, so it decided to convert them to Christianity. In the Middle Ages, it was only a short way from religious to political dependence. But Rome had come to the same conclusion and had already sent its emissaries to the Slavs. Constantinople needed a more creative approach.

A monument of Cyril and Methodius in Sofia

A monument of Cyril and Methodius in Sofia

As a result, Constantinople would proclaim the creation of a Slavic alphabet and the translation of church books into it a miracle of God. But the idea of the anonymous genius who suggested it to the emperor did verge on the miraculous: in the Middle Ages the Bible existed only in Hebrew, Greek and Latin.

Methodius and Cyril, sons of a Byzantine officer in Thessaloniki, born in 815 and 826 respectively, were ideal for this difficult task. They were fluent in the language of the Slavs, who had settled near the city some three centuries earlier, and were extremely erudite. Special mention must be given to Cyril. He graduated from the elite University of Magnaura in the capital and was so intelligent that he was called the Philosopher and entrusted with the task of convincing the Arabs and Khazars to adopt Christianity.

Neither the Arabs nor the Khazars became Christians, but the emperor regarded Cyril so highly that he assigned him and Methodius the task of devising a Slavic alphabet. The 38 Glagolitic letters were presented to Emperor Michael III in 855. According to the brothers' records, it was God who did most of the work, but scientists believe they created the Glagolitic after working for several years in the Polychronos Monastery in Asia Minor. There they combined letters made up by themselves with signs from the Latin, Greek and Phoenician alphabets.

However, the Byzantine Empire had no intention of introducing the brothers' invention in Bulgaria, at least not while it was still a pagan country. It set store by Great Moravia, a Slavic country on the territory of the present-day Czech Republic and Slovakia. Hence, when Prince Rostislav asked Michael III for people who could interpret the teaching of Christ in the Slavic vernacular, he did not hesitate to send Cyril and Methodius in 863.

Several years later Great Moravia became the first Slavic country to have church services and books in its own language. But problems soon followed. Cyril died during a visit to Rome in 869, where he was buried with great dignity in the San Clemente Basilica. Methodius continued his work and even became an archbishop. But the missionaries of the Franks, who gradually conquered the country, gained the upper hand. When Methodius died in 885, Slavic liturgy was banned and his disciples banished.

The experiment in Great Moravia failed but it turned out to be the big moment for Bulgaria, which had recently adopted Christianity.


If you want to get an accurate impression of the two brothers, don't rely on popular images on school and library walls or Bulgarian monuments. There, the brothers are usually depicted with scrolls displaying the Cyrillic, not the Glagolitic, alphabet, which only appeared several decades after their death. Even more misleading is the suggestion that Cyril and Methodius' greatest accomplishment was the creation of the alphabet. What mattered more was that they used it to translate the Bible into the Slavic language. This played a major role in the spreading of liturgy and the writing of books in the Slavic language.


For Methodius' disciples the year 885 proved that every cloud has a silver lining. They found refuge in seemingly inhospitable Bulgaria as well as the chance to deal with what they could do best: translate books and disseminate the Glagolitic alphabet. Naum established a school in the capital city of Pliska and Clement did the same at the opposite end of the country, in Ohrid, where he taught 3,500 disciples in seven years. Thanks to them, by the end of the 9th Century Bulgaria had many people able to read and write the Slavonic language.

A monument of Cyril and Methodius in Ohrid

A monument of Cyril and Methodius in Ohrid

Credit should also go to a Bulgarian ruler who was a perspicacious politician although an incompetent general. A khan and, since 864 a prince, Boris ascended the throne in 852 aiming to continue the aggressive policy of his predecessors Krum and Omurtag. But after 10 years of defeats he accepted that he was more gifted in the field of diplomacy. This was an important area because Europe was becoming extensively Christian and pagan Bulgaria was threatened by isolation.

The khan decided to adopt Christianity. The question was whether to do it under the auspices of Constantinople or Rome. Another unsuccessful war with the Greeks and the crop failure of 863 ended his hesitation. In 864 Boris and his whole family were baptised and after two years and a mutiny crushed with the slaying of 52 aristocratic families, the whole of Bulgaria adopted a new religion.

Boris soon began to worry about the excessive influence of the Byzantine Empire: most monks came from there and Greek had, imperceptibly, become the official language of the church and civil administration. So the former khan decided to implement all his diplomatic skills. Taking advantage of the rivalry between Rome and Constantinople, he tried to found an independent Bulgarian church.

When Patriarch Photios rejected the idea, Boris I did not hesitate to turn to Pope Nicholas I, but he soon found out that he was dissatisfied with the status quo of the time. The reason is revealed in his correspondence with the pope, preserved in the Vatican archives. Looking at Christianity from a practical viewpoint, Boris asked Nicholas I 115 questions to establish how the new religion would change the Bulgarian lifestyle. Some queries centred on the mundane: whether they should continue bathing regularly and wear amulets to ward off evil or use iron goads in interrogations. But there was also the more pivotal question of whether they could have their own self-governing church.

The pope overtly declared himself against the idea. Disappointed, Boris decided to solve his problems when the time was right. This happened at the ecumenical council in Constantinople in 870.

When he was promised an independent archbishopric and the right to appoint its head, the prince accepted the supremacy of the patriarch.

The Baptism of Boris as depicted in the 14th Century Manasiy Chronicle

The Baptism of Boris as depicted in the 14th Century Manasiy Chronicle

Realising that this was all he could achieve for the moment, Boris sent his second son, Simeon, to the University of Magnaura. His idea was to make him a Bulgarian archbishop some day but, ironically, Simeon would become the man to establish a selfgoverning Bulgarian patriarchate - without even becoming a priest.

Soon after Naum and Clement arrived in Bulgaria, Boris I decided that the time for his well-deserved rest had come and retired to a monastery. But his successor, his first-born son Vladimir, had several unpleasant surprises in store for his father.

Rumours, Rumours

The ordinary Bulgarians of the 9th Century cared little about Boris' political motives for Christianisation and quickly invented legends to explain the prince's decision. One relates that Boris' sister returned from Constantinople, where she had been sent as a hostage, as a devout Christian. This, together with a plague, apparently convinced the sovereign to be baptised. According to another legend, the khan decided to convert Bulgarians to Christianity after seeing a scene depicting Judgment Day, painted in one of his hunting lodges by a resourceful and bold Christian artist.

Old Bulgarian graffitti of the 9th Century

Old Bulgarian graffitti of the 9th Century

Did Boris Make a Mistake?

Location, location, location: this is the only answer to the claims that Boris made a mistake by turning down Rome. It is true that in this way Bulgaria lost its chance to become part of the West European civilisation and, probably, enjoy liberation from Ottoman rule long before the notorious 500 years it endured. But the reality is that, for better or worse, Bulgaria was closer to the Byzantine Empire than to Rome. This proximity became even more significant when the country lost Transylvania. The prince himself had another important reason to choose Eastern Orthodoxy. He wanted a docile church that he could have on a string - something that the pope wouldn't have allowed in the 9th Century.

The Wind of Change

The Glagolitic alphabet might have been a stroke of genius, but it was difficult to use - particularly in the pre-Gutenberg era, when you had to write fast to produce more Bibles. Clement of Ohrid soon saw this problem and decided to design another writing code. He adapted the then existing, easy to inscribe Greek alphabet to the Slavic language, adding new letters for the sounds lacking in the Greek one and since 1 January 2007 the Cyrillic alphabet has been the third official alphabet of the EU. The Glagolitic alphabet itself took root most strongly in Croatia.

Dimitar Gudzhenov, King Simeon the Great, 1927

Dimitar Gudzhenov, King Simeon the Great, 1927


According to the laconic mention of Vladimir's short reign from 889 until 893, he tried to reinstate paganism. But Boris had no intention of sitting by and observing his life's work fail. He dethroned Vladimir, had him blinded and summoned a national assembly to announce some major changes. Simeon was proclaimed a prince, the capital was moved to Preslav and the Slavic language became the official language of the state administration and the church.

Afterwards Boris returned to his monastery, where he died in 907. Educated in Byzantium, Prince Simeon (893-927) was known there as the Child of Peace and the Half-Greek. He came by the first nickname because he was born in the year of the Bulgarian-Byzantine treaty of 863. He acquired the second due to his exceptionally erudite nature. But much to the horror of the Greeks, as a ruler he acted in a way that belied these names. He was an outstanding general and did not hesitate to use his talent to further his single-minded aim of conquering Constantinople.

The Byzantine problems started from the very first year of his rule, when Simeon expelled Greek priests from Bulgaria. The Empire applied economic pressure by moving the main market for Bulgarian goods from Constantinople to Thessaloniki, where Bulgarian merchants were heavily taxed. This triggered a Bulgarian invasion of Thrace. A conflict followed, whereby the Byzantine Empire ensured the support of the Magyars, who then lived between the Dnieper and the Dniester, and Simeon that of the Pechenegs from the area north of the Black Sea. Finally the Byzantine Empire restored the marketplace in Constantinople and the Magyars settled in Pannonia, which became the heart of their future state.

Two decades of tense peace followed during which Simeon gradually expanded Bulgaria further south. In 913 the lull ended with a Bulgarian invasion. But it stalled at the walls of Constantinople because the prince realised that he could not enter the city without a navy.

Simeon's battle with the Byzantines at Bulgarophygon in 896 in the Manasiy Chronicle

Simeon's battle with the Byzantines at Bulgarophygon in 896 in the Manasiy Chronicle

This did not prevent him from officially requesting two things from Byzantium: to betroth his daughter to the infant Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus and crown himself a tsar. The Byzantines refused. The Slavic title of "tsar", which was equivalent to the Latin "emperor" and the Byzantine "basileus", would have meant that they accepted Simeon as a sovereign equal to the unrivalled basileus of their empire.

Four years later the Byzantines invaded Bulgaria only to be crushed in the Battle of Anchialos, by the Aheloy River between the present-day towns of Nesebar and Pomorie. Today, you can see mainly hotels in this area, but 50 years after the battle the field was still covered with the bones of slain Byzantine soldiers.

The victory of 917 boosted Simeon's confidence. He decided to undertake a large-scale offensive in continental Greece and Albania. He also started negotiations with the Fatimid caliph in Egypt about a joint land and sea attack on Constantinople. The agreement with the Arabs failed, because the Byzantines captured the Bulgarian envoys. Simeon's bad luck continued: he conquered the Serbian territory around Raska but not Croatia.

This did not discourage him from intending to become a "tsar of the Bulgars and Greeks". Being trained in Byzantium, Simeon knew how to break the status quo without ignoring the existing rules. Soon after his victory in the Battle of Anchialos, he proclaimed the Bulgarian archbishop a patriarch. The patriarch in turn crowned him a tsar.

Simeon sends envoys to the Arabs, a mediaeval miniature

Simeon sends envoys to the Arabs, a mediaeval miniature

This act flouted the traditional church hierarchy, which postulated that there were only five patriarchates in the world. But though he practically usurped the title, Simeon was happy because he made his dream come true. Despite Byzantine protests and ridicules, shortly before his death from a heart attack on 27 May 927, he used a personal seal with the inscription "Simeon the Basileus".

His death led to a shift in Byzantine policy and the empire quickly acknowledged his successor Peter as "tsar of the Bulgarians". After that, all medieval Bulgarian sovereigns were crowned tsars.

Dimitar Gudzhenov, King Simeon - the Golden Century of Bulgarian Literacy

Dimitar Gudzhenov, King Simeon - the Golden Century of Bulgarian Literacy


If you ever wondered why the Bulgarian nationalists raise the slogan of Bulgaria on three seas, the explanation lies in the reign of Tsar Simeon. With him, Bulgaria stretched between the Adriatic, the Aegean, the Black Sea and the Carpathian Mountains. This is why Simeon was dubbed the Great and his rule the Golden Age.

Historian Spiridon Palauzov, who coined these terms in the 19th Century, certainly had a point. Under Simeon, Bulgaria experienced an unseen political and cultural blooming and Preslav acquired a highly intellectual atmosphere. The works written by its major figures, like John the Exarch, Constantine of Preslav, Clement of Ohrid and Chernorizets Hrabar, were translated all over the Orthodox world and became benchmark literature for Serbia, Walachia, Moldova, Kievan Rus and Moscow. Simeon himself eagerly searched for the works of early Christian authors and published them in hefty collections.

Bulgaria soon became a leading cultural centre. What you can't learn from the nationalistic slogans, however, is that the culture of the Golden Age was largely based on adapted Byzantine examples. What's more, they were adapted one-sidedly. Bulgarian writers and scholars paid no attention to the ancient Greek and Roman heritage still present in Byzantine culture of the 9th-10th Century. They focused on its Christian character, creating a particularly religious literature. If this sounds too complicated, all you need to know is that the events from Sean Connery movieThe Name of the Rose couldn't have happened in a Bulgarian monastery, even if it was in the capital of Preslav.

Nationalist slogans will also fail to reveal another truth: Bulgaria on Three Seas turned out to be a very demanding project. Simeon's persistence depleted the country's resources. A crisis began after his death and the Byzantine Empire conquered Bulgaria in 1018.

The Birth of a Nation

When did the motley mix of Slavs and Proto-Bulgarians turn into what is known as Bulgarians? According to some scientists, this happened under Simeon's rule, because he imposed on his subjects a common religion, state and official language. The Slavs from the Bulgarian group assimilated the Proto-Bulgarians and for this reason the nation had a predominantly Slavic basis. This theory is too simplistic and fails to take into account the complex processes of assimilation and consolidation which occurred over subsequent decades and centuries.

The Pearl in the Crown



Simeon realised that he might not succeed in taking Constantinople, but he wanted his capital to be in every way its equal. Hence he spared no expense on construction during his reign. Unlike Pliska, which was planned as a nomadic camp (albeit made of stone), Preslav was a classical medieval city: densely built, with city walls, a magnificent palace and a cathedral. Its architecture copied not only that of Constantinople, but also the eastern Byzantine provinces and even Western Europe. The walls of the major buildings were covered with painted ceramic tiles. The same technology was used to produce ceramic icons, fragments of which have been unearthed during archaeological excavations.


846-870 Great Moravia flourished under the reign of Prince Rostislav

865 The Danes conquered East Anglia

867-886 Basil I the Macedonian ruled the Byzantine Empire

871-900 The reign of King Alfred the Great of England

874 Norwegian Vikings settled in Iceland

882 Kievan Prince Igor united the areas around Kiev and Novgorod

885-886 The Normans besieged Paris

886-912 Leo VI the Philosopher ruled the Byzantine Empire

904 The Arabs conquered Thessaloniki

906 Great Moravia was destroyed by the Magyars

907 and 911 Russian fleets attacked Constantinople

919 The Saxon dynasty took the German throne

920-944 Romanos I Lekapenos ruled the Byzantine Empire


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