by Dimana Trankova; photography by Anthony Georgieff

Remains of Alexander of Battemberg, Bulgaria's first post-1878 monarch, live on in central Sofia

mausoleum alexander of battemberg

The stories of what happened to the bodies of those who ruled Bulgaria post-1878 are as poignant as some of their deeds. King Ferdinand (1887-1918) was buried in 1948 in Coburg, Germany. Ferdinand had abdicated following his disastrous leadership of the Kingdom of Bulgaria through the Great War, and settled in his native Germany. His son, King Boris III (1918-1943) was buried inside the Rila Monastery church, but soon after the 1944 Communist coup his remains were exhumed and lost - or destroyed. Only the king's heart survived and was reinterred in Rila Monastery after the collapse of Communism. The embalmed body of Bulgaria's first Communist dictator, Georgi Dimitrov (1946-1949) was exhibited for decades in a mausoleum in central Sofia. After the fall of the Communist regime, in 1989, it was buried in Sofia's Protestant cemetery. The mausoleum itself was demolished in 1999. The plot, across the road from the former Royal Palace now the National Art Gallery, stands empty.

The fate of the remains of the first man to rule Bulgaria after its liberation from Ottoman rule, in 1878, was more dignified. It is case of historical justice given to a prince who may have been too indecisive for the role, but who tried to do right to the best of his abilities. 

The body of Prince Alexander of Battemberg (1879-1887) lies in an ornate neo-Baroque mausoleum in a tranquil garden off one of Sofia's busiest boulevards, Vasil Levski. Battemberg's short rule defines the ambition of the restored Bulgarian state, its struggle to transform itself from an Ottoman province into a modern European nation and the setbacks it experienced along the way.

Born in 1857 into the family of Prince Alexander of Hesse, Alexander of Battemberg was well positioned in the web of aristocratic family ties across Europe. In a gesture of avuncular affection, his uncle, Russian Emperor Alexander II, made him an officer in his army just in time for the 1877-1878 Russo-Turkish War. Consequently, the young prince fought on the frontline of the conflict that culminated in Bulgaria's restoration. 

When the Great Powers gathered in Berlin to haggle over who would take what from the defeated Ottoman Empire, the question of who would head the newly created Principality of Bulgaria emerged to the fore. Emperor Alexander II favoured Alexander of Battemberg. He believed that their close connection would secure Russian influence in Bulgaria and would make the young principality a stronghold of Russian interests on the doorstep of the Ottoman-controlled entrance to the Black Sea and the access that they provided to the wider world for trade and war.

The Great Powers approved the emperor's choice, and so did the Bulgarian Constituent Assembly. In Tarnovo, on 26 June 1879, the 22-year-old took his oath as Bulgaria's first prince.

The handsome young nobleman impressed the Bulgarians but mutual misunderstandings soon soured the relationship.

Alexander I struggled to fathom his subjects and his domain. With its muddy streets, crumbling buildings and old mosques, Sofia still looked like an Ottoman backwater rather than a modern European capital. The rest of Bulgaria was not much better. Elite social life was nonexistent. Alexander started a programme of modernisation, whereby new streets were paved and the construction of new infrastructure began. He initiated a trend for high society balls, and even introduced Christmas trees. 

The young prince's lifestyle puzzled conservative Bulgarian society and his personal life became the fodder of endless rumours. Spicy stories about his real or imaginary bisexuality circulate to this day. 

The biggest problems, of course, were political. Young and inexperienced, but eager to prove himself fit for office, Alexander of Battemberg thought the Bulgarian Constitution too restrictive. Conservative Bulgarian politicians considered it too liberal for a nation that had spent five centuries under medieval despotism, and encouraged the prince to do something. The fact that the Liberal Party won election after election exacerbated the situation. 

In 1881, Alexander I suspended the Constitution, with the approval of Alexander III, Russia's new and more conservative emperor. Thus, the first post-1878 Bulgarian prince initiated the first coup d'état in modern Bulgarian history, when a couple of Russian officers took over the Bulgarian government.

The so-called Regime of Extraordinary Powers ended in 1883, after the Russians became so overbearing that the prince and his retinue made a truce with the liberals. Alexander of Battemberg restored the Constitution and the liberals agreed on some conservative amendments. Soon afterwards the Conservative Party dissolved, while the Liberal Party separated into a moderate and a radical wing whose mutual animosity would define Bulgarian political life in the years to come.

The fallout from the Regime of Extraordinary Powers was far-reaching. Russia's meddling in Bulgarian internal affairs proved too much for some Bulgarians who started to question the extent to which their nation should be "eternally grateful" to its liberator, and so the first Russophobes in Bulgaria appeared. In opposition to the so-called Russophiles, who extolled Big Brother Ivan as greatest friend and protector, they claimed Russia was the source of all evil for the nation. The two groups still engage in this kind controversy, 150 years later, only they use Facebook.

While the Principality of Bulgaria was caught in a maelstrom of bitter politicking, a group of people worked quietly to achieve a cherished goal: the unification of all Bulgarians in one state, the nation state.

The unification of the Principality of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia was considered the first, inevitable step in the process of uniting all Bulgarians into one state. Grassroots political preparation started a few days after the Berlin Treaty was signed. This was a risky business, as none of the Great Powers, Russia included, would support such a brazen change to the carefully crafted (or so they thought) balance in the Balkans.

This is why the Bulgarian conspirators kept their activity secret from Prince Alexander. He was as surprised as the Ottoman Sultan and the Russian Emperor, as well as the rest of Europe, when, on 5 September 1885, Bulgarians in Eastern Rumelia proclaimed the territory's unification with the Principality of Bulgaria.

Taken completely by surprise, Alexander I hesitated. Eventually, he embraced the Unification with an enthusiastic proclamation, on 8 September 1985.

The nation braced itself for the inevitable Ottoman attack from the southeast. 

Alexander of Battemberg mausoleum

The years of key events in the life of Alexander of Battemberg and the names of places where Bulgarians fought in the war with Serbia under his command adorn his mausoleum

Instead, Serbia attacked Bulgaria from the northwest, claiming it deserved territorial compensation for its neighbour's sudden expansion. Russia did not help. Instead, it withdrew its commanding officers from the young Bulgarian army, leaving it in the hands of inexperienced captains.

The Unification, and Bulgaria itself, seemed on the brink of collapse, until something unexpected happened. The Ottomans made no move, allowing Bulgarian soldiers to relocate and push back the Serbian army. The Bulgarian success made international headlines as the war in which "the captains defeated the generals." The Bulgarian offensive stopped only after Austria-Hungary threatened to intervene.

The Unification was now secure and Alexander I's popularity in Bulgaria rose dramatically. However, Russia's meddling in Bulgaria's affairs was far from over.

On 9 June 1886, some Russophile Bulgarian officers deposed Alexander of Battemberg in a putsch. Stefan Stambolov, an ambitious and energetic politician, soon restored order, but Alexander I abdicated, on 26 August, throwing the country in a succession crisis.

Alexander of Battemberg spent the final years of his short life freewheeling across Europe, with too much time on his hands and not enough money in his pocket. He gambled, he socialised and he caused a minor scandal when he married an actress. He died in 1893, aged 38, in Graz, Austria.

His final wish was to be buried in Bulgaria.

His successor, Prince Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg Gotha, granted his wish. In 1898 the remains of Alexander of Battemberg were laid in a mausoleum constructed in the architectural style that he had introduced to Bulgaria.

His body has been there ever since, through the political changes, turmoil and violence that swept over Bulgaria in the 20th century.

Under Communism the mausoleum was closed to the public for fear that it might spawn royalist sentiments. It reopened to visitors in 1991 but, sadly, most people pass by without giving it a second thought. 


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