Bulgars, Bulgaria and Bulgarians

Bulgarians defeat the Byzantines
Tsar Simeon I of Bulgaria defating the Byzantine army, from The illustrated chronicle of Ioannes Skylitzes in Madrid, 11th-13th centuries. Public Domain

The Bulgars were an early people of eastern Europe. The word "bulgar" derives from an Old Turkic term denoting a mixed background, so some historians think they may have been a Turkic group from central Asia, made up of members of several tribes. Along with the Slavs and the Thracians, the Bulgars were one of the three primary ethnic ancestors of present-day Bulgarians. 

The Early Bulgars

The Bulgars were noted warriors, and they developed a reputation as fearsome horsemen.

It has been theorized that, beginning in about 370, they moved west of the Volga River along with the Huns. In the mid-400s, the Huns were led by Attila, and the Bulgars apparently joined him in his westward invasions. After Attila's death, the Huns settled in the territory north and east of the Sea of Azov, and once again the Bulgars went with them. 

A few decades later, the Byzantines hired the Bulgars to fight against the Ostrogoths. This contact with the ancient, affluent empire gave the warriors a taste for wealth and prosperity, so in the 6th century they began to attack the nearby provinces of the empire along the Danube in hopes of taking some of that wealth. But in the 560s, the Bulgars themselves came under attack by the Avars. After one tribe of Bulgars was destroyed, the rest of them survived by submitting to yet another tribe from Asia, who departed after about 20 years.

In the early 7th century, a ruler known as Kurt (or Kubrat) unified the Bulgars and built a powerful nation that the Byzantines referred to as Great Bulgaria.

Upon his death in 642, Kurt's five sons split the Bulgar people into five hordes. One remained on the coast of the Sea of Azov and was assimilated into the empire of the Khazars. A second migrated to central Europe, where it merged with the Avars. And a third disappeared in Italy, where they fought for the Lombards.

The last two Bulgar hordes would have better fortune in preserving their Bulgar identities.

The Volga Bulgars

The group led by Kurt’s son Kotrag migrated far to the north and eventually settled around the point where the Volga and the Kama rivers met. There they split into three groups, each group probably joining with peoples who had already established their homes there or with other newcomers. For the next six centuries or so, the Volga Bulgars flourished as a confederation of semi-nomadic peoples. Although they founded no actual political state, they did establish two cities: Bulgar and Suvar. These places benefited as key shipping points in the fur trade between the Russians and Ugrians in the north and the civilizations of the south, which included Turkistan, the Muslim caliphate at Baghdad, and the Eastern Roman Empire.

In 922, the Volga Bulgars converted to Islam, and in 1237 they were overtaken by the Golden Horde of the Mongols. The city of Bulgar continue to thrive, but the Volga Bulgars themselves were eventually assimilated into neighboring cultures.

The First Bulgarian Empire

The fifth heir to Kurt's Bulgar nation, his son Asparukh, led his followers west across the Dniester River and then south across the Danube.

It was on the plain between the Danube River and the Balkan Mountains that they established a nation that would evolve into what is now known as the First Bulgarian Empire. This is the political entity from which the modern state of Bulgaria would derive its name.

Initially under the control of the Eastern Roman Empire, the Bulgars were able to found their own empire in 681, when they were officially recognized by the Byzantines. When in 705 Asparukh’s successor, Tervel, helped restore Justinian II to the Byzantine imperial throne, he was rewarded with the title "caesar." A decade later Tervel successfully led a Bulgarian army to assist Emperor Leo III in defending Constantinople against invading Arabs. At about this time, the Bulgars saw an influx of Slavs and Vlachs into their society.

After their victory at Constantinople, the Bulgars continued their conquests, expanding their territory under the khans Krum (r.

803–814) and Pressian (r. 836–852) into Serbia and Macedonia. Most of this new territory was heavily influenced by the Byzantine brand of Christianity. Thus, it was no surprise when in 870, under the reign of Boris I, the Bulgars converted to Orthodox Christianity. The liturgy of their church was in "Old Bulgarian," which combined Bulgar linguistic elements with Slavic ones. This has been credited with helping to create a bond between the two ethnic groups; and it's true that by the early 11th century, the two groups had fused into a Slavic-speaking people who were, basically, identical to the Bulgarians of today.

It was during the reign of Simeon I, the son of Boris I, that the First Bulgarian Empire achieved its zenith as a Balkan nation. Although Simeon evidently lost the lands north of the Danube to invaders from the east, he expanded Bulgarian power over Serbia, southern Macedonia and southern Albania through a series of conflicts with the Byzantine Empire. Simeon, who took for himself the title Tsar of All the Bulgarians, also promoted learning and managed to create a cultural center at his capital of Preslav (present-day Veliki Preslav).

Unfortunately, after Simeon's death in 937, internal divisions weakened the First Bulgarian Empire. Invasions by Magyars, Pechenegs and Rus, and reignited conflict with the Byzantines, put an end to the sovereignty of the state, and in 1018 it became incorporated into the Eastern Roman Empire.

The Second Bulgarian Empire

In the 12th century, stress from external conflicts reduced the Byzantine Empire's hold on Bulgaria, and in 1185 a revolt took place, led by the brothers Asen and Peter. Their success allowed them to establish a new empire, once again led by Tsars, and for the next century the house of Asen reigned from the Danube to the Aegean and from the Adriatic to the Black Sea. In 1202 Tsar Kaloian (or Kaloyan) negotiated a peace with the Byzantines that gave Bulgaria complete independence from the Eastern Roman Empire. In 1204, Kaloian recognized the authority of the pope and thus stabilized the western border of Bulgaria.

The second empire saw increased trade, peace, and prosperity. A new golden age of Bulgaria flourished around the cultural center of Turnovo (present-day Veliko Turnovo). The earliest Bulgarian coinage dates to this period, and it was around this time that the head of the Bulgarian church attained the title of "patriarch."

But politically, the new empire wasn't particularly strong. As its internal cohesiveness eroded, external forces began to take advantage of its weakness. The Magyars resumed their advances, the Byzantines took back portions of Bulgarian land, and in 1241, Tatars began raids that continued for 60 years. Battles for the throne among various noble factions lasted from 1257 to 1277, at which point peasants revolted due to the heavy taxes their warring overlords had imposed on them. As a result of this uprising, a swineherd by the name of Ivaylo took the throne; he wasn't ousted until the Byzantines lent a hand. 

Only a few years later, the Asen dynasty died out, and the Terter and Shishman dynasties that followed saw little success in maintaining any real authority. In 1330, the Bulgarian Empire reached its lowest point when Serbs slew Tsar Mikhail Shishman at the Battle of Velbuzhd (present-day Kyustendil). The Serbian Empire took control of Bulgaria's Macedonian holdings, and the once-formidable Bulgarian empire began its last decline. It was on the verge of breaking apart into lesser territories when the Ottoman Turks invaded.

Bulgaria and the Ottoman Empire

The Ottoman Turks, who had been mercenaries for the Byzantine Empire in the 1340s, began attacking the Balkans for themselves in the 1350s. A series of invasions prompted the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Shishman to declare himself a vassal of Sultan Murad I in 1371; yet still the invasions continued. Sofia was captured in 1382, Shumen was taken in 1388, and by 1396 there was nothing left of Bulgarian authority. 

For the next 500 years, Bulgaria would be ruled by the Ottoman Empire in what is generally viewed as a dark time of suffering and oppression. The Bulgarian Church as well as the empire's political rule was destroyed. The nobility either were killed, fled the country, or accepted Islam and were assimilated into Turkish society. The peasantry now had Turkish lords. Every now and then, male children were taken from their families, converted to Islam and raised to serve as Janissaries. While the Ottoman Empire was at its height of power, the Bulgarians under its yoke could live in relative peace and security, if not freedom or self-determination. But when the empire began to decline, its central authority could not control local officials, who were sometimes corrupt and at times even downright vicious. 

Throughout this half a millennium, Bulgarians held stubbornly to their Orthodox Christian beliefs, and their Slavic language and their unique liturgy kept them from becoming absorbed into the Greek Orthodox Church. The Bulgarian peoples thus retained their identity, and when the Ottoman Empire began to crumble in the late 19th century, the Bulgarians were able to establish an autonomous territory. 

Bulgaria was declared an independent kingdom, or tsardom, in 1908.

Sources and Suggested Reading

The "compare prices" links below will take you to a site where you can compare prices at booksellers across the web. More in-depth info about the book may be found by clicking on to the book's page at one of the online merchants. The "visit merchant" links will take you to an online bookstore, where you can find more information about the book to help you get it from your local library. This is provided as a convenience to you; neither Melissa Snell nor About is responsible for any purchases you make through these links.

A Concise History of Bulgaria
(Cambridge Concise Histories)
by R. J. Crampton
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The Voices of Medieval Bulgaria, Seventh-Fifteenth Century: The Records of a Bygone Culture
(East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450-1450)
by K. Petkov
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State and Church: Studies in Medieval Bulgaria and Byzantium
edited by Vassil Gjuzelev and Kiril Petkov
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The Other Europe in the Middle Ages: Avars, Bulgars, Khazars and Cumans
(East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450-1450)
edited by Florin Curta and Roman Kovalev
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Armies of the Volga Bulgars & Khanate of Kazan: 9th-16th Centuries
(Men-at-Arms)
by Viacheslav Shpakovsky and David Nicolle
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