by Professor Hristo Matanov

Part 3 of Vagabond history of Bulgaria: Bulgaria vies with Byzantium, sometimes with success

bulgarian medieval history.jpg


"The Bulgarians are not savages and barbarians!" Georgi Dimitrov said rhetorically in his defence speech at the Leipzig trial in 1934, when he was charged with setting the Reichstag on fire. The man who became Bulgaria's first Communist dictator 10 years later, unknowingly expressed the oldest and most deeply rooted conviction of the Bulgarians, namely that they are an exceptionally gifted and civilised people who should not be underestimated.

Some Bulgarians accuse Asparukh, the founder of the Bulgarian state, who became a neighbour of the Byzantine Empire in 681. The 700 years spent in close proximity to Constantinople, the largest city in those days, had a pernicious influence on successive rulers, who were quickly lured by the fatal charm of the megalopolis. They either wanted to conquer it, emigrate there or build an even more beautiful capital. But all their efforts were in vain and ordinary Bulgarians started harbouring doubts that though they may have been glorious warriors, merchants, builders and farmers, they were not great enough to outshine their archenemy Byzantium.

Khan Asparuh, painted by Iliya Pertov

Khan Asparuh, painted by Iliya Pertov


In 732 Charles Martel stopped the Arab invasion of Europe in the Battle of Poitiers and entered the history books of West European schoolchildren. But the name of Khan Tervel, who did the same in 718 at Constantinople, is not so famous. This triumph of Asparukh's successor is known mainly to Bulgarian students and experts of early medieval history.

Khan Tervel faced the Arabs in 718 not because he felt any particular liking for the Byzantine Empire, which was directly affected by the invasion. He was not a Christian and did not dislike the Muslims and, as it seems, he would have been better off without the aggressive empire at his southern border. However, Tervel was clever enough to realise that a known enemy is a safer choice than an unknown ally. He also displayed a remarkable ability to gain direct, material benefits from any decision he took.

The first "good deal" during his rule was in 705, when the Bulgarian capital city of Pliska welcomed an unexpected guest, the dethroned Byzantine emperor Justinian II. This remarkable man had been raised to the throne as joint emperor by his father Constantine IV in 681 and did not visit Pliska for friendship. Justinian, who was nicknamed Rinotmetus, or the Slit-nosed, needed help. Ten years earlier he had been dethroned because he left Armenia to the Arabs and invested in rather expensive public construction and, divested of his nose and imperial dignity, was banished to Chersonesus. Justinian managed to escape, married a Khazar princess and went to Tervel's court.

Khan Tervel and Emperor Justinian, painted by Dimitar Gyudzhenov

Khan Tervel and Emperor Justinian, painted by Dimitar Gyudzhenov

The khan did not mind helping the former emperor regain his throne; not the least because Justinian promised him peace, the title of caesar, an amount of money and the hand of his only daughter. Thus, in 705, the emperor appeared before the walls of Constantinople accompanied by 15,000 Bulgarian horsemen, who emboldened him with enough courage to enter the city with a handful of trusted companions through an unused water conduit and seize control.

During a magnificent parade in the capital, the new emperor crowned Tervel a caesar, gave him the district of Zagore, as the area between Sliven, Yambol and the Black Sea was then called, and presented him with so much fur, silk and gold that the khan could literally give handfuls to each of his soldiers.

Justinian was not a trustworthy neighbour. He made an unsuccessful attempt to regain Zagore several years later. This did not stop him from asking Tervel for help again in 711, this time against the usurper Philippicus Bardanes. The khan had more sense than to agree. When Khan Asparukh, painted by Iliya Petrov he realised that Justinian's time was up, he withdrew his 3,000-strong army and left the emperor to his own devices. This time the Slit-nosed lost another part of his body - his head.

Coins of Justinian II

Coins of Justinian II

The relationship between the two monarchs would have seemed like a squabble characteristic of the Middle Ages if it hadn't been for the Arabs. In 717 their army appeared at Constantinople to subject it to the greatest siege the city has ever experienced. It was greater than that of the Crusaders in 1204 or of the Ottomans in 1453, but by an ironic quirk of fate it failed.

Tervel needed time to judge who the lesser evil was, but if chroniclers are to be believed, the battlefield was covered with the bodies of 22,000 Arabs after his attack. The invaders lifted their siege and abandoned their idea of conquering Europe via the Bosporus for good - thanks to Tervel's calculations.


Tervel's rationality was a rare exception among the qualities of a succession of Bulgarian sovereigns. Most of them suffered from amazing political short-sightedness, proven by events immediately after his death. The Dulo dynasty, which had laid the foundations of the state, disappeared for unknown reasons. The throne was then occupied by several khans who ruled for such a short time and so unremarkably that the Byzantine Empire did not hesitate to stop paying its annual tribute to the Bulgarian treasury amounting to 30 librae of gold. This was equal to 8.640 kg and was to guarantee the peace with the Bulgarians.

The situation became even worse in 741, when the throne in Constantinople was taken by Constantine V Copronymus, a man of ambition comparable only to his repulsive nickname (kopros means faeces in Greek). His successful campaigns against the Bulgarians had an important consequence: some of the Bulgarian aristocrats decided that it would be better for the country to submit to the Byzantine Empire, at least as a vassal.

In the days when Marxism was the leading doctrine not only in state government but in science too, these lords were considered national traitors and they still are to the modern Bulgarian patriots. But there may have been other reasons for the "high treason" of the aristocracy. They may have realised that it would be better for Bulgaria not to fight against Byzantium, but instead become part of its civilisation, unsurpassed in Europe at that time.

The rest of the aristocrats had other ideas. As often happens in such cases, spies were brought into play in the political game between Pliska and Constantinople. Secret agents in the two countries employed all tools of the trade: both sides used special units to strike their enemy in the back during battles, collected information and used counterespionage. The visible outcomes of the secret spy games were so spectacular that if there had been newspapers in the 8th Century, their front pages would have been full of them.

In 764 Constantine V pretended he wanted to negotiate a peace treaty with the Bulgarian khan, but secretly sent a special army unit to the Balkan Mountain passes. The Byzantines killed three birds with one stone: they captured the chief of the Severian Slavic tribe, Slavun, and the renegade Christian, who had defected to Bulgaria earlier, and also made one of their rare breakthroughs north of the Balkans. Christian had the most unenviable fate. Constantine V gave him to the doctors in Constantinople to perform a vivisection on him and study the human body while still alive.

Ten years later the network of Byzantine spies in Pliska was so developed that Constantine was able to learn of the khan's plans even before he conceived them. In 744, for example, Khan Telerig decided to take the emperor by surprise with a secret military campaign. Its preparation included sending Bulgarian messengers to Constantinople to give the emperor the khan's greetings and false peace pledges. Constantine knew about the plan long before and gave a suitable response. He assured the messengers that he also wanted peace because he intended to fight against the Arabs. He even organised a military parade to show the Bulgarians the forces he was sending east. But the moment the messengers left Byzantium, he ambushed and killed them.

Telerig, a rare exception among the unremarkable Bulgarian sovereigns in the second half of the 8th Century, acted similarly and soon afterwards Constantine V received a letter from the khan. "I am thinking of fleeing to you but you must promise that I will not be hurt. Tell me the allies you have here so that I can confide in them and get their help," he wrote. The emperor was so used to such requests for political asylum from Bulgarian khans, who preferred to leave their throne themselves before they were forced to do so, that he heedlessly revealed the identity of his agents. Telerig had them all executed and on hearing this, Copronymus "tore much of his grey hair".

From that moment on, the internal crisis in Bulgaria was gradually brought to an end: the empire had no spies, its soldiers refused to fight north of the Balkan Mountains and its fleets sank. But the situation in Pliska was not a bed of roses. In 777 Telerig again sought political asylum in Constantinople - this time for real. He was lucky: the new emperor, Leo IV, welcomed him heartily and, after converting him to Christianity, gave him a noble title.

What an Imperial Name Is This?

Talented politicians and good generals are not immune to the ridicule of the next generations, especially if their religious beliefs were not the "right" ones. The unpleasant nickname of Constantine V, who was an iconoclast, is proof of this. Byzantine historians, the majority of whom were priests, did not forgive him the persecutions against iconolater monks nor the pleasure he took at humiliating them in public. The emperor made them walk the Hippodrome hand in hand with women or ride donkeys facing backwards.

Coins of Constantine V

Coins of Constantine V

The monks took revenge by describing him in their annals as black as sin, adding the story of how he received his nickname. It is said that while he was being baptised, the future emperor defecated in the font of holy water. The Bulgarians must have had a lot of fun listening to this story.

The First Capital

The modern village of Pliska near Shumen betrays no sign that the first Bulgarian capital rose on its territory 1,300 years ago. Today, it is quite natural for each country to have a capital, but in the Middle Ages capitals were the exception rather than the rule. Back then people believed that the centre of the state was where the sovereign and not his palace stood.

Bulgaria, however, has had a capital since its very origin, whether due to the tradition established by its predecessor, Old Great Bulgaria, whose capital was the city of Phanagoria on the Taman Peninsula, or to the proximity of the megalopolis of Constantinople.


Ruins of Pliska © Anthony Georgieff

Initially, Pliska's city status was rather arbitrary. It began as an aul (from the Greek auli, meaning "yard"), an area surrounded with wooden walls where the khan and his closest associates lived. The common craftsmen, stock-raisers and soldiers inhabited the much larger outer city.

The fact that the city was made of wood does not mean that it was disorganised. In recent years archaeologists have begun unearthing a complex network of secret passages which provided the khan with a safe means of escape from the stronghold if necessary.

This is exactly what happened in 811, when the Byzantines managed to conquer Pliska and burn it down. This disastrous event gave rise to large-scale construction in the capital, this time using stone.

Unfortunately, today the first Bulgarian capital is a dismal ruin. In 1866, the stone blocks of the palaces and city walls were crushed to make rubble for the first railway line between Ruse and Varna.


"If you don't want peace, you get an axe!" If chroniclers are to be believed, this is what Khan Krum said over the body of the murdered Byzantine Emperor Nikephorus I Genikus in 811. Then he had his head cut off, cleaned, encrusted with silver and made into a drinking cup which he often used in revelry.

Rather rude, but according to medieval standards, the khan had every right to be rude to Nikephorus.

When Krum assumed the throne in 803, he did enough to infuriate the emperor. He annexed Transylvania, which was then valued for its salt deposits and iron, gold and silver mines, and then continued south taking Sofia and establishing complete control over the roads to Macedonia. This policy set the directions for Bulgaria's expansion in the next centuries.

Khan Krum drinking of Emperor Nikephorus' skull, painted by a Byzantine miniaturist

Khan Krum drinking of Emperor Nikephorus' skull, painted by a Byzantine miniaturist

Nikephorus had no intention of putting the khan's actions on the back burner. He invaded Bulgaria by surprise in 811 and took Pliska. If he had stopped there and then, everything would have been reasonably acceptable. But the emperor not only razed the city to the ground but also ordered his soldiers to slay everybody in it, including all women and children. Krum retaliated accordingly. He mobilised all survivors, even the women, and ambushed the retreating Byzantine army in the Varbishki Pass. Nikephorus was one of the victims. Krum was dubbed the Terrible after the events of 811 and the last three years of his reign passed under a common denominator, his desire to conquer Constantinople. He was the first of many a Bulgarian ruler who dreamed of sitting on the throne of the world's richest city. All their attempts, however, were unsuccessful and too costly.

Why did Krum have to make a drinking cup of Nikephors' head? Some claim that the explanation is in the Proto-Bulgarian belief that the strength of an enemy lies in his skull. The vengeful Bulgarian khan thought that by drinking from it, he would imbibe the emperor's strength through the wine.

Alcohol Prohibited

Krum drank wine from his enemy's skull, something which, if legends are true, did not stop him from prohibiting all types of alcohol on his state's territory and ordering the uprooting of all vines. According to these incredible tales, hitherto unsubstantiated, the reason was the sordid sight of several beggars from the newly-conquered lands, who told the khan that drunkenness had weakened their country. Krum decided never to allow this to happen in Bulgaria and passed strict laws, the first written Bulgarian legislation. Besides drunkenness, he also took measures against theft: first time violators of this law had their hand cut off. But whatever this legend may say, neither the vines were uprooted nor wine drinking stopped in Bulgaria. When the Byzantines took Pliska, they found lots of casks in the palace. Most of them were full - and not with spring water.


Krum may have stayed in history through the witticism of a victor over the dead body of his enemy, but his successor Omurtag (814-832) was a true author of maxims, which have been preserved because of an incredible combination of circumstances.

Khan Omurtag

Khan Omurtag

Unlike his predecessor, this good-natured Bulgarian khan did not go in for fighting, probably because he was not a particularly good military leader. Instead, he preferred more peaceful, yet efficient measures. His administrative reform abolished the differences between Slavs and Proto-Bulgarians in the country and centralised his power. Until then the two peoples had their own military units and the Slavs had administrative autonomy too. Omurtag went on to foster large construction work in Pliska and the eastern part of Bulgaria, while inscribing everything he did in stone, in Greek.

The best-known of them is carved on a column which, in 1230, was incorporated by Bulgarian King Ivan Asen in his new St 40 Martyrs Church in Tarnovo. It is famous for this reason: after announcing that he had built himself a new palace by the Danube and had put up this column midway between it and Pliska, Omurtag wrote the first aphorism in Bulgarian history, "However well a man may live, he dies and another man is born."

The excitement with which the Bulgarians speak of their early khans' inscriptions may appear inexplicable. But there is no other way they can talk about the scarce evidence of their one time rulers: by historical coincidence, most of it was destroyed by invaders or illiterate people who used it as building material.

Column of Khan Omurtag

Column of Khan Omurtag

The stone archive of the early Bulgarian khans so far comprises a hundred or so inscriptions, most of them in Dobrudzha, which was in the centre of the first Bulgarian kingdom. Most are written in Greek, because though they used runes, the Proto-Bulgarians did not have their own alphabet. In some rare cases, however, the inscriptions are in Bulgarian using Greek letters - the only authentic evidence of the now dead language of the old Bulgarians.

Some of them tell about the death of a general, others about the building of strongholds and palaces. Some glorify the khan or were simply "storekeeper's sheets" from the armoury given to minor military commanders. More served as border posts. None of them is, however, even close to the fame of Omurtag's inscription, the first Bulgarian writer of epigrams.

Bulgarian Graffiti

The desire to leave a mark for later generations was not just a privilege of the khans. Soldiers, for example, liked drawing coarse graffiti on fortress walls while keeping watch with nothing else to do.

This is how the images of horsemen, horses, boots and sex scenes, as well as their authors' names, appeared on the walls of Pliska and other strongholds.

Medieval Bulgarian graffiti

Medieval Bulgarian graffiti


711-714 The Arabs conquer Spain

718 The Kingdom of Asturias is established in Spain

726 The beginning of the iconoclastic movement in the Byzantine Empire

751 The Carolingian dynasty comes to power in the Frankish Kingdom

756 The Papal State is established in Italy and the Caliphate of Cordoba in Spain

787 The Seventh Ecumenical Council at Nicaea condemns iconoclasm as heresy

793 The first Viking raid on British soil. They attack Lindisfarne Monastery

801 Charlemagne, King of the Franks, is crowned Roman emperor by Pope Leo III in Rome

827 The Arabs conquer Sicily

829 The Kingdom of England is proclaimed

843 The Frankish Empire is divided into three kingdoms: Germany, France and Italy. The iconoclastic crisis in the Byzantine Empire ends


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