by Professor Hristo Matanov

Vagabond's Bulgaria history, Part 5: You may think that Bulgarians are non-violent, peace-loving people who hate sending troops to Iraq. You are wrong

bulgarian history.jpg

You may think that Bulgarians are non-violent, peace-loving people who hate sending troops to Iraq. You are wrong. Many Bulgarians believed that King Simeon's aggressive wars (see Vagabond 10) marked a high point in the country's history and that the 40 years of calm under his successor, King Peter, were a period of decline that actually led to the fall of Bulgaria under Byzantine rule. However, the long years of peace enabled the country to resist for decades before losing its political independence in 1018.


When king Simeon's son took the throne in 927, nothing suggested that he would become the longest ruling Bulgarian sovereign in the country's 1,300-year-long history. King Peter's 43 years in power passed in unprecedented peace with the Byzantine Empire. This was a remarkable achievement for which Peter became the second Bulgarian ruler to be canonised after his grandfather Boris, who converted the Bulgarians to Christianity.

Peter realised that his country could not endure any more wars, which were commonplace under Simeon and to ensure peace, he ceded a large part of the conquered territories. In return, he acquired a dream bride, Emperor Romanos Lekapenos' granddaughter, who became the first Byzantine princess to marry a foreign ruler. Her father even went so far as to acknowledge his son-in-law as “tsar of the Bulgarians”.

The gold necklace, given by King Peter to his Byzantine wife, was hidden along other treasures during the Battle of Preslav, to be unearthed as late as the 1970s

The gold necklace, given by King Peter to his Byzantine wife, was hidden along other treasures during the Battle of Preslav, to be unearthed as late as the 1970s

Under Peter, Bulgaria enjoyed surprising calm - excluding incursions from the Magyars, who crossed its territory to reach the Byzantine Empire, and the occasional Russian sea expeditions to Constantinople, which sailed dangerously close to the Bulgarian shore.

But Bulgarians did not particularly like this idyllic state of affairs. During this period of tranquility two groups of people emerged who openly flouted all government authority. The first was the hermits and the second the heretics.


The attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II, Georgi Markov's murder and ham-fisted Bulgarian spies in From Russia With Love have not contributed greatly to the good image of Bulgaria abroad. But they are insignificant when compared to the events of the 10th Century.

Back then, a new heresy arose in Bulgaria. Called Bogomilism, it spread in the western Balkans, northern Italy and southern France. Several centuries later, it inspired the Cathars and the Albigenses in southern France and caused mainstream Catholics to use the word “Bulgarian” as a synonym of “heretic”. In medieval Christian Europe this was a serious offence.

A priest called Bogomil established the sect in around 934, less than 100 years after the Christianisation of 864. Its ideas were not particularly original and can be traced to Byzantine Paulicianism flourishing in the 8th Century. Bogomils believed that Satan was as powerful as God, the Old Testament was a lie, church symbols were pointless kitsch and priests were simply unnecessary. They lived in communities where property belonged to everyone, they regarded sex as a devilish act and they refused to work for their feudal lords.

Because of the latter, Communist historians adored Bogomilism. Its doctrine was declared a sort of class struggle, the greatest achievement of medieval Bulgarian genius and its followers were deemed the people who made Bulgaria's reputation in Europe (the fact that they had a bad name was regarded as a compliment).

There were also Bulgarians who had nothing against the official religion, although they did not approve of the lavish lifestyle of the nobility and high clergy. The most self-effacing of them became hermits and the name of the first one to do so is familiar to anyone who has the remotest acquaintance with Bulgaria.

Ivan Rilski was an ordinary man from the village of Skrino near Dupnitsa who sought - and indeed found for some time - seclusion in the Rila Mountain. However, the future saint became famous so quickly that a number of followers soon gathered around him and established Bulgaria's best-known cloisters, the Rila Monastery.

Ivan Rilski was declared a patron saint of the Bulgarian people as early as the Middle Ages. But his reputation is not scandalous like that of the Bogomils, the Pope's attempted assassination or James Bond's foes, so he is relatively unknown abroad - not counting John Updike's short story The Bulgarian Poetess and Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, which describe his monastery.


Bulgarians usually treat anybody better, richer or more famous than themselves with a kind of sullen suspicion. In the 10th Century, however, Ivan Rilski quickly became a national favourite, as is evident from his passional written in simple language but with true veneration: “And he went out and found a cliff. He ascended this cliff and remained on it for seven years and four months. He did not rest during the day or night: he would thrash his chest, fall to his knees, burst in tears; he fasted, stayed awake, punished his body in cold and storms, and suffered the heat and hail from the sky… An angel informed God in Heaven of all his feats and sufferings.”

St Ivan of Rila

St Ivan of Rila is the patron saint of Bulgaria's biggest and most famous monastery


In 966 the Bulgarians experienced something that led to the Bulgarian version of the saying “to reckon without one's host”. King Peter sent the customary delegation to Constantinople to sign the 39th continuation of the treaty with the Byzantine Empire. He believed that there would be no problems as usual.

But Peter had underestimated an important event. Earlier that year Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas had driven the Arabs from Crete. Thus the Arab threat to Byzantium was finally eliminated and the Empire could focus on the Balkans.

When the Bulgarian envoys arrived in Constantinople, Nikephoros gave them an unexpectedly frosty welcome. He ordered his men to beat them and then instructed them to tell Peter, whom he called a “pelt-muncher”, to expect armed visitors at Preslav. The envoys were sent off empty-handed.

Being as devious as any Byzantine, Nikephoros did not forget the old adage that had never failed the Empire: “never do something yourself if there is somebody to do it for you”. This time the right man for the job was Prince Sviatoslav of Kiev. He had not disguised the fact that he wanted to conquer the area along the Lower Danube and did not hesitate to accept the emperor's suggestion to attack Bulgaria.

The Byzantines seize Preslav, Byzantine miniature

The Byzantines seize Preslav, Byzantine miniature

The peace ended in 969. Sviatoslav invaded Bulgaria with 60,000 men and repeated the campaign with the same success the following year. This series of misfortunes was too much for the already old Peter. He suffered a stroke and retired to a monastery, where he died in 970. His son, King Boris II, had no choice but to submit to Sviatoslav.

But the Russian had greater ambitions than the Byzantine Empire imagined and shortly afterwards he besieged Constantinople. The new emperor, John I Tzimiskes, kept his nerve. He waited for Sviatoslav to withdraw and attacked him in turn, claiming he was trying to liberate the Bulgarians from the Russians.

Apparently, the only ones who believed that Tzimiskes' liberation attempt was genuine were the Bulgarians. They, and Boris II especially, were unpleasantly surprised by the emperor, who, after finally driving the Russians from the country in 971, did not give Bulgaria its independence, but made it part of his empire.

Preslav was renamed as Ioannupolis. Boris II was divested of his royal insignia in the centre of Constantinople. And his brother Roman was castrated to foil his claims to the Bulgarian throne (a man who could not have offspring was deemed unfit to rule).

But though the eastern parts of Bulgaria fell under Byzantine rule, its western provinces were to give much trouble to the empire - and also to the modern Bulgarian state 1,000 years later.


David, Moses, Aaron and Samuel: when Comita Nikola, the Bulgarian governor of Sredets (Sofia), named his four sons after the Old Testament heroes, he couldn't have foreseen that their lives would contain as many vicissitudes as in the biblical stories.

The four Comitopuli (the sons of the Comita, or Count) believed they should remain independent rulers rather than become the emperor's vassals and declared themselves sovereigns the moment eastern Bulgaria fell. This policy involved constant military campaigns and after several years Samuel was the only one who had managed to survive. David and Moses died in battle and Aaron was killed by Samuel because of his plot to form an alliance with Byzantium.

The youngest of the Comitopuli quickly became a thorn in the side of the new Byzantine Emperor Basil II, who ascended the throne in 976, but initially had so many internal enemies that he could not pay any attention to Samuel. The Bulgarian exploited this fact. He reached the Peloponnesus, conquered Albania, Old Serbia, parts of Bosnia and devastated the villages surrounding Dubrovnik. Samuel welcomed Roman, who escaped from Byzantine captivity, with royal honours and declared himself king only after Roman's death. The Bulgarian patriarch, who had resided in Preslav, also arrived in the western Bulgarian lands.

But Samuel's state was destined to have a short life, equal to the time Basil II needed to deal with his numerous rivals for the throne. Its demise came at the beginning of the 11th Century.

The counter-offensive started from the Peloponnesus and continued with the systematic conquest of Bulgarian strongholds like Vidin, Skopje, Sredets and Pernik. Samuel was often forced to change his capitals. The one in Prespa functioned for the longest period of time. There, on St Achilles Island in the Small Prespa Lake - now Greek territory - archaeologists have found the most impressive remains of palaces and churches built by the king and his family. But Samuel was not the only one who often changed his capital.

A catastrophe happened in 1014. Basil II conquered the Bulgarian fortress of Klyuch near Petrich, captured its garrison of about 15,000 soldiers and ordered all of them blinded. One in a hundred was left one-eyed to lead the others home. The captives were sent to King Samuel, who, at the sight of this barbaric act, had a heart attack and died after two days.

Four years later Basil II, who was nicknamed the Bulgar-slayer, realised the dream of generations of his predecessors. The First Bulgarian Kingdom ended in 1018. The Byzantine rule over its territory lasted for 167 years.

A Grave Amidts the Lake

An elderly man with a left arm deformed from an old wound, dressed in gold-woven chain mail and expensive silk was buried in St Achilles Church in the Small Prespa Lake at the beginning of the 11th Century. Was this King Samuel? Findings from Greek archaeologist Professor Nikolaos Moutsopoulos indicate that this is probably so. The key proof is the left arm. Samuel was severely wounded in the Battle of Spercheios in Epirus in 997. He had a narrow escape from the victorious Byzantine army, but his arm remained bent for the rest of his life.

Lake Prespa

Lake Prespa

Alexander the Great - Kind of

Samuel lived 14 centuries after Alexander the Great, but both of them were ethnic Macedonians. This is what historians in the Republic of Macedonia claim. In fact, all historical sources from Samuel's time, no matter whether Byzantine, Bulgarian or of other origin, state clearly: the Comitopuli were a Bulgarian clan and their struggle against the Byzantine Empire was on behalf and for the defence of the Bulgarian state. At that time the Byzantines regarded Macedonia as the area around Adrianople (present-day Edirne) and Macedonians were the inhabitants of the Byzantine theme (administrative division) whose centre this city was. Besides, we should not forget that Basil II was nicknamed Boulgaroktonos, the Bulgar-slayer, not the “Macedonian”-slayer.


In Bulgaria life is bad, the wine is sour and the food is impossible to describe: the Byzantine governors, priests and soldiers arriving in the newly-conquered country considered it the epitome of everything uncivilised. But the dislike was mutual. The Bulgarians were not happy with the Byzantine taxes and administration (and the accompanying corruption) imposed on them as well as church services held in Greek.

The change had a grave effect on the Bulgarian elite. Samuel's dynasty and the aristocratic families connected to it were deported to Asia Minor, where they were gradually assimilated by the Byzantines. The captured Bulgarian troops were sent to fight in distant Armenia and the Patriarchate was replaced by the Ohrid Archbishopric. It had to instil Byzantine national awareness in its parishioners.

The Byzantines had far more problems than just food and drink. When they conquered the Bulgarian lands, they believed that they had simply restored territories that the Empire had long since lost. They were not prepared for the persistent resistance of the Bulgarians, who considered themselves a different nation from the Byzantines, and organised a number of revolts. Calm returned only at the end of the 11th Century when the Komnenid dynasty took power.

The Danubian border was an even greater cause of trouble. For centuries new and aggressive peoples had made periodic incursions at the river, but the Byzantine Empire hardly felt this because Bulgaria repelled them. At the beginning of the 11th Century the Empire had to face the barbarians. Unfortunately for it, this was the time of a new exodus of nomadic tribes from Central Asia that scientists call the Second Great Migration. The Byzantines could not stop the invaders and many of them settled in the territory of present-day northern Bulgaria. They mingled with the Bulgarians and formed a distinctive type of population, dubbed “mixed barbarians” by Byzantines. Gradually the mixed barbarians came to regard themselves as Bulgarians. The Asen family, which reinstated the Bulgarian Kingdom in the 12th Century, came from these people.

Other foreigners appeared in Bulgaria in 1096-1097. The troops of the First Crusade used the popular Diagonal Route from Belgrade via Niš, Sofia, Plovdiv and Edirne and only few of the knights chose to cross the Balkan Peninsula along the route from the Albanian coast via Macedonia, Thessaloniki and the Aegean coast.

Unlike the Byzantines, the Crusaders did not dislike the food and wine. Their military expedition obviously lacked good logistics. So when they arrived on Bulgarian territory, the liberators of the Holy Land needed provisions so badly that they forgot their chivalrous manners and began plundering settlements. This explains why Bulgaria does not traditionally hold the knights of the West in very high esteem.


945-972 The reign of Prince Sviatoslav of Kiev

962 German Emperor Otto I was crowned emperor of the Holy Roman Empire

963-969 The reign of Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas

969-976 The reign of Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimiskes

976-1025 The reign of Byzantine Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-slayer

988-889 Christianisation of Kievan Rus'

End of the 10th - beginning of the 11th Century A united kingdom was formed comprising Denmark, Sweden and Norway

Circa 1000 The Vikings discovered North America

Beginning of the 11th Century Venice broke from the Byzantine Empire and became an independent city-state

1016-1035 The reign of Canute I, King of England, Denmark and Norway

1030-1091 Norman Vikings conquered Southern Italy and Sicily

Mid-11th Century The Seljuk Turks appeared in Asia Minor

1054 The Great Schism divided Christians into Orthodox and Catholic once and for all

1066 The Battle of Hastings, after which the Normans conquered England

1066-1087 The reign of William the Conqueror


    Commenting on

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

Аt 36, Elka Vasileva, whom everyone knows as Nunio (a childhood nickname given to her by her parents that she is particularly proud of because it discerns her from her famous grandmother), is a remarkable woman.

The Bulgarian base named St Clement of Ohrid on the Isle of Livingston in the South Shetlands has been manned by Bulgarian crews since the early 1990s.

Еvery April, since 2020, hundreds of young Bulgarians gather in Veliko Tarnovo and embark on a meaningful journey, retracing the steps of a daring rebellion that took place in the town and its surroundings, in 1835.

Before English took over in Bulgaria, in the 1990s, mastering French was obligatory for the local elite and those who aspired to join it.

In the summer of 2023, one of the news items that preoccupied Bulgarians for weeks on end was a... banner.

Raised hands, bodies frozen in a pathos of tragic defiance: Bulgaria, especially its northwest, is littered with monuments to an event that was once glorified but is now mostly forgotten.

Not all people who make a big difference in history, or attempt to make one, are ahead of great governments or armies.

When John Jackson became the first US diplomat in Bulgaria, in 1903, the two nations had known each other for about a century.

When the first issue of Vagabond hit the newsstands, in September 2006, the world and Bulgaria were so different that today it seems as though they were in another geological era.

Sofia, with its numerous parks, is not short of monuments and statues referring to the country's rich history. In the Borisova Garden park for example, busts of freedom fighters, politicians and artists practically line up the alleys.

About 30 Bulgarians of various occupations, political opinion and public standing went to the city of Kavala in northern Greece, in March, to take part in a simple yet moving ceremony to mark the demolition of the Jewish community of northern Greece, which

On 3 October 1918, Bulgarians felt anxious. The country had just emerged from three wars it had fought for "national unification" – meaning, in plain language, incorporating Macedonia and Aegean Thrace into the Bulgarian kingdom.