The ancient “Bulgarians” were a union of nomadic tribes that was formed in the 5th century AD in the plains of the Russian steppe, they were a confederation of warrior tribes and shepherds gathered from a number of different sources: Persian, Alani, Samartani (the inhabitants of the plains of the Volga who fought the Romans) and mainly Turkish, which took over The plains from the lower Volga to the Don and the Dnieper Rivers. They spoke a type of Turkish, some of whose words remained in the Bulgarian language (about twenty), worshiped the sky God Tangri and were led by a khan who was his representative on earth, but assisted by a council of six tribal chiefs. According to legend, the legendary founder of the Bulgarian nation was none other than Attila the Hun. He is called in their language Abitokhol, and appears first in the list of Bulgarian princes discovered in Russia. What was the secret of their power? What held a confederation of nations – these different tribes together? One can only speculate.
In the 6th century AD, the Bulgarian Union was successful and took control of large areas, on which the Great Bulgaria arose with its capital Taman near the Sea of Azov. The greatest khan was named Kubart, and he ruled in the years 600-642 AD (7th century) It was the time of the wars of the Persians with the Byzantines under the leadership of Emperor Heraclius, and the beginning of the spread of Arab rule and the rise of Islam. The ancient Bulgarians were in contact with the Armenians, the Kingdom of Kushans to the east, Sassanian Persia to the southeast, the Byzantines to the south, and the Germanic tribes to the west. However, world events were not felt in the kingdom, which grew rich from trade between east and west. Kobert was a contemporary of the last great Sassanid king, Yazdgard III, and a close friend of his. He traded with the kingdoms of Khorezm and Sogodia in Central Asia, and was on good terms with the Byzantine kingdom (where he probably grew up as a captive boy).
Kobert had five sons, and despite his pleas to be united, they broke up the kingdom after his death, with each going in a different direction. One of the sons, later called Khan Aasparuh, invaded with the help of 50,000 warriors the territories of today’s Romania and Bulgaria, and established his seat at the mouth of the Danube. He defeated the Byzantines in 681 and established the first Slavic-Bulgarian state. His warriors intermarried with local Slavs and the remnants of the Thracian population, and all this mixture finally crystallized into a nation with the acceptance of Christianity in the 9th century AD.
Great Bulgaria, on the other hand, has reached the end of its path and declined shortly. Remnants of its glorious past can be found in the name of the City of Bulghar on the Volga. In fact the Tatars, the Kazans and the Chuvash people in today’s Russia are probably of Bulgarian origin, at least partially.
First Bulgarian Empire
In 682 AD, Khan Aasparuh arrived with 50,000 mounted warriors at the mouth of the Danube and took control of the northern regions of Bulgaria. The Byzantine army that was sent against him was beaten hip and thigh. It turns out that after the weakening of the Byzantine Empire, as a result of the wars with the Persians and the invasions of the Arabs, an empty space was created in these parts of the world, and into this space entered the brave Bulgarian Turkish warriors who made an alliance with the local inhabitants. Unlike Byzantium, in the new Bulgarian kingdom there is no appearance of a developed urban culture in its beginning, and it is based on a decentralized organization and loyalties of tribal chiefs, but it is a new and fresh force.
The Bulgarians came to the aid of the Byzantines in their wars with the Arabs. In fact, the Bulgarian Khan Trevel saves the Byzantines at the beginning of the 7th century from the Arab invasion and the siege of Constantinople. During his time, a statue of the rider from Madara was probably carved on a rock cliff, not far from the ancient capital Pliska.
At the end of the 8th century, a talented and cruel man named Khan Krum comes to power in Bulgaria. He makes the new entity the strongest power in the Balkans, fights the Byzantines, defeats them, besieges Constantinople, and obliges the rulers to pay an annual tax to his coffers. The Byzantines are protected by a line of Fortresses starting from Burgas and ending in Sofia controlling the passes of the Rhodope Mountains. Khan Krum conquers the Fortresses one by one; he defeats and kills the emperor Nicophoros, turns his skull into a silver-plated drinking vessel, and conquers the City of Nesbar on the shores of the Black Sea. The capital of Bulgaria at that time is Pliska in northeastern Bulgaria. Krum gathers a formidable army, conquers Adrianople, exiles its population (among them the later Byzantine emperor, Basil I), and organizes to conquer Constantinople, but a miracle causes him to die a sudden death before he can succeed in his plan.
The next khan after him is Omurtag, the great builder and man of peace who came after the man of war. He first builds Preslav, which later becomes the new capital. He is an enlightened pagan ruler as long as he does not have to deal with Christians, which he liked to persecute. He signs a peace treaty with the Byzantines, returns territories to them and fortifies the border; He fights with the Frankish Germans advancing into Pannonia. He is considered the last of the great pagan kings, a philosopher who was supported by the priesthood of the God Phiron (the thunder God after whom the Pirin Mountains were named).
Acceptance of Christianity
In 852 AD, Khan Boris comes to power in the new Bulgarian kingdom. These are days of change in Byzantium, which manages to end the civil war and embark on a new path of prosperity and expansion under the leadership of a vigorous Macedonian dynasty. The man who influences the second half of the 9th century is Patriarch Photius, the head of the Byzantine Orthodox Church, the only one recognized as a Church father after the four great ones of the 4th – 5th centuries AD. He was a well-educated man, above his age, who owned the largest library in the world, knew several languages, among them Arabic and apparently also Hebrew. He founded a university institution in Constantinople called Magnaura, which imitated the House of Sciences (the important Islamic university) in Baghdad.
Photius recruited people from Magnaura’s faculty of languages for expeditions to the new peoples north of the empire, he sends them with them a proposal for a sort of “package deal”: that suggest that if they accept Christianity, then Photius will send them scholars to teach them the sciences: engineering, medicine, agriculture. Of course it was not a simple as I describe, but for the purpose of understanding the principle at play, let’s adopt for a moment the story of the “package deal”.
Part of the “package” is to establish educational institutions – universities where the younger generation will be trained and educated in order for them to be able to lead the emerging country. The some cases the scholars sent by Photius offered to invent an alphabet in the language of those nations, translate the holy books into this language, write new books in which the national history will appear and build a new Christian national ethos. Thus the king will reign by the grace of God and will receive double loyalty from the subjects: both civil and religious.
In addition to his political and religious interest, Photius probably thought that the creation of the new Slav states was an opportunity to correct the distortions of the past and to establish a new and purer kind of Christianity that would be closer in nature to the original and true Christianity that Jesus preached – a Christianity that is a spiritual path to enlightenment and not just a system of belief, related to an inner personal religious quest and a possibility of achieving life of purity and enlightenment.
Photius choose the head of the language department at Magnaura, Professor Cyril, and his brother Methodius, to be the ones sent to the surrounding nations with a delegation of scholars and the tempting offer. The brothers choose 300 students and assistants to come with them and initially turned to the king of the Khazars, who at that time were leaning towards Judaism, with an offer to become Christians in exchange for establishing an academic institution. The expedition reached the Volga steppe, but the Khazarian king rejected the offer and they returned empty-handed to Constantinople and Thessaloniki. Two years later they were sent to Moravia, where they manage to win the favor of the local ruler and got partial recognition for their enterprise, both from Rome and Byzantium. The brothers and their assistants developed (as part of the package deal) an ancient Slavic Alphabet called “Galgolithic”. They conduct preaching journeys all over Central Europe and the Northern Balkans, but eventually Cyril and Methodius died and the mission of the Orthodox Church in Moravia was severely attacked by the Catholics. Many of the students were executed, and the five most senior among them were tortured but eventually released and three of them ended up in Bulgaria.
Cyril and Methodius
Cyril and Methodius are the two brothers that brought Christianity to the slavs. Methodius was born in 817, and Cyril – ten years later. Their father was the military commander of the Thessaloniki region and their mother was Slavic. Their father died when Cyril was 14 years old and the brothers went under the protection of a senior minister in the Byzantine Empire named Theotkistos. This minister was an educated person, influential and involved in the establishment of the university in Magnaura. He transferred Kiril there, who soon became one of the outstanding students at the institution. Kiril turned out to be a genius in languages and theology, he knew Arabic and Hebrew and began to teach as a full-fledged teacher, he became the head of the language department and was ordained as a priest. At the same time, his brother moved to the Polychron Monastery in today’s northwestern Turkey, where he rose through the ranks until he was elected abbot, and as a result was involved in politics and Ecclesiastical hierarchy in the empire and became influential.
Cyril’s teacher and personal guide was Photius the Great. Recognizing his student’s talents, he convinced the emperor to send him on diplomatic missions; initially he was sent to the Caliph’s court in Baghdad, whom Photius knew personally, with the aim of improving relations with the Caliphate and exchanging information. Then, in 860, Cyril was sent together with his brother Methodius and a number of helpers to the Khazars in the northern Black Sea in order to convince them to become Christians. But this mission did not bear fruit, so the delegation returned to Constantinople and the brothers waited for further missions
In 862, Cyril and Methodius set out on their most important mission, which became their life’s mission. The Moravian king Rastislav asked the emperor Michael III to send him scholars to help in Christianizing of his subjects. The truth is that Christianity had already arrived in Moravia and a large part of the inhabitants had already converted to Christianity, but it was Catholic Christianity, and Rastislav, who sought independence from the Frankish influence on his country, wanted to obtain political and religious support from Byzantium for this.
“Teaching without an alphabet and books is like writing on water,” said Cyril and Methodius to the Byzantine emperor Michael III before they left for Moravia. It should be understood that until the 9th century the Church argued that there are three sacred languages in which God could speak: Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Hebrew was not good for the purposes of Christianizing the Slavs, Greek was distorted over the generations and moved away from its purity, and Latin was identified with Rome who claimed that only it could be used as a sacred language and that the use of another language would defile the word of God. Therefore, Rome had an objection to the creation of a new sacred language, but the Byzantines had no objection because they saw the importance of the task.
And so, Cyril, Methodius and their students created the first Slavic alphabet called “Galgolithic”, an Alphabet in which there are 38 letters of numerical and verbal value. The source of the letters was the sounds of the Slavic language, since at that time the various Slavic languages were similar. The meaning of creating a new Alphabet was the translation of the Holy Scriptures into Slavic, and this was no small thing because God created the world with the word. The ancient Slavic language became a sacred language like Latin, the mother tongue of all Slavs.
The brothers trained students to help them in the great task and in 863 began the project of translating the Holy Scriptures into Slavic. They also wrote the first Slavic code of civil laws, and in their travels to Moravia they spread the books and the gospel and were very successful, received with enthusiasm everywhere. The success brought resistance and suspicion from Rome and the German Catholic clergy. The brothers were called for an investigation in Rome, where surprisingly they were recognized and blessed for their work by the Pope, who saw their work as part of the general Christian effort and in accordance with the Roman version, and not necessarily as related to the Byzantine version Christianity.
On the journey to Rome, two things happened: first of all, they were welcomed in the regions of Pannonia – today’s Hungary and Serbia – and sowed the seeds of Christian Orthodoxy in Serbia. The second thing is that Kiril died shortly after the visit, and Brother Methodius together with their devoted students continued the work without him. These events occurred three years after they began their work, in 865, Methodius continued the enterprise until his death, twenty years later.
For a period of twenty years, Methodius and his disciples traveled throughout Pannonia and Moravia, spreading everywhere the Slavic Orthodox prayer formula and the sacred books in the Slavic language. Behind the scenes there was a fierce struggle between them and the Patriarch of Salzburg and the German clergy for control of the religious district and authority. The Germans argued that they were introducing the Byzantine prayer formulas through the Slavic language and directing people to the way of Byzantium Orthodox Christianity. Methodius argued that he should be recognized as the religious authority responsible for these areas and his disciples as doers of his work. The entire objection to his work was drained down the pipes in Rome, whilst he was alive and supported by the local kings. As long as he lived, Methodius had the upper hand and tensions were below the surface. However, after his death in 865, the Pope removed his recognition of his successor Gozard as Archbishop of the regions of Pannonia and Moravia, and crowned in his place the opponents of Methodius.
St. Clement and St. Nahum
The holy brother’s Cyril and Methodius had three hundred assistants and five close disciples: Clement, Nahum, Seva, Angelius and Guzard. After the death of Methodius and the removal of the Pope’s recognition, the German priests persecuted the assistants and sold them into slavery. The five main aides to Cyril and Methodius were tortured, imprisoned and expelled from Moravia. Two of them, Clement and Nahum, were preparing to return to their home in Thessaloniki, but on their way back they stopped in Pliska, the capital of Bulgaria, translated ancient books from Greek into Slavic and won the king’s heart. He requested that Nahum stay in the nearby Preslav Monastery and be responsible for the education of the princes and the children of the nobility and that Clement move to Ohrid, where he will establish the first Slavic university of its kind, and that both of them will be responsible for the assimilation of the Christian faith in Bulgaria, and this was indeed the case.
The persecutions of Moravia led to the destruction of most of the books of Cyril and Methodius, and the second pair of brothers (Clement and Nahum) had to start allover anew. The work of Nahum and Clement in Bulgaria was the fulfillment of the wish of bringing light and enlightenment to the Slavs and the continuation of their enterprise in Moravia and the work of their teachers Cyril and Methodius. Clement improved the Galgolithic Alphabet invented by Cyril and turned it into the Cyrillic Alphabet, which the Bulgarians (as well as the Russians and other Slavic peoples) still use today.
Khan Boris realized the benefits of making the country Christian; he adopted Orthodox Christianity, and moved the capital to a new place called Pliska. In the old capital there was too much power in the hands of the boyars, the nobles that were opposed to Christianity, and the pagan priests who supported them. Khan Boris adopted the Christian name “Michael” and called himself Tsar (Emperor) instead of Khan. At the end of his days he retired to a Monastery, after which, and following a bloody struggle for power his son Simeon came to power, Simeon was personally .educated by Saint Nahum and was initially destined to become a clergyman and monk, but life had other plans for him.
On Plaosnik Hill above the beautiful Lake Ohrid in Macedonia (then part of the Bulgarian Empire) a university was established under the leadership of Saint Clement, where hundreds of people studied. Clement tirelessly wrote hymns and prayers and translated the books of the Bible and the stories of the saints and martyrs, the writings of the patriarchs and Christian philosophy into Slavic. He taught about religious life and the enlightenment of the soul, and created a center for Slavic culture and Christianity, the first of its kind. In 893, he was officially appointed the first Slavic bishop in the Balkans.
Over the years, Clement requested that Nahum (his brother and co-worker) move to Ohrid to help him run the university, and so it was. Saint Nahum was the head of the University of Ohrid, while Clement concentrated on his role as the religious head of the Bulgarians. As a result of their efforts 3,500 students graduated from the First Slavic University. The curriculum included: poetry, Slavic speech, translation of books from Greek to Slavic, law, religious and civil history, nature studies, philosophy, medicine, and more. Together with Clement, Nahum built the Monastery of archangels Michael and Gabriel, known today as St. Nahum’s Monastery, on the other side of Lake Ohrid.
A few years after they arrived in Ohrid, Saint Nahum’s health deteriorated, because of this, he retired to the Monastery he founded and spent the rest of his days in isolation and prayer. After many years of public activity in Moravia, Preslav and Ohrid, Nahum’s soul was tired of people, longed to return to the way of the monasticism and reunite with God. He retired to the remote Monastery and spent his last years there performing miracles, thus effectively starting the monastic tradition of Bulgaria and Macedonia. Needless to say, the Monastery soon became a place of pilgrimage, a center for learning, and especially for healing (since St. Nahum was a physician). He died and was buried in the Monastery in 910.
Clement died ten years after him and is buried in the Monastery of St. Panteleimon which he himself built at the place of the first Slavic university on Plaosnik Hill in Ohrid. Quite a few writings remained from his times, including the Gospel of Mary, Sinai Psalms, prayer books, Vatican codex and more.
Golden age of Bulgaria
Tsar Boris converted Bulgaria to Christianity and received God’s blessing. As a result, the reign of his son, Tsar Simeon I, is considered the golden age of Bulgaria, which at that time was equal in power to Byzantium and even threatened its primacy. Simeon’s dream was to create a Greek Slavic kingdom in which he will be the supreme ruler from the capital in Constantinople. This dream of greatness resulted in a series of difficult wars with the Byzantines who squeezed the life and power out of the nation.
Simeon was educated as a child by St. Nahum, studied at Magnaura (Potius’ University in Constantinople), became familiar with Greek philosophy, became a monk, and only a chain of events, during which his brother, the ruler, tried to get rid of the Christian religion, brought him to power. When he came to power, the other side of his character was revealed, that of the cruel warrior. He made the new capital Preslav second to Constantinople in terms of its size and splendor.
Thanks to his strength and power, the Bulgarian Church was recognized as independent already in his days, and it was the first to be recognized as an independent Orthodox Church outside of the five original Patriarchates (Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem) that existed for 900 years. In addition to that, the new Slavic Alphabet was recognized as a sacred Alphabet, thus joining the three original sacred languages that existed up to that time (Hebrew, Greek and Latin).
During the wars with Constantinople, a Byzantine astrologer discovered that Simeon’s fate was connected to a column in the local forum in Constantinople, so when they cut the top of the column on 5/27/1927, Simeon fell dead, hundreds of kilometers away.
During the time of Simeon’s successor, Tsar Peter, Bulgaria was exhausted from the wars, throughout the mighty empire the Bogomil heresy began to spread, and with it also the Bulgarian nuns under the leadership of Saint Rilsky. From a security and political point of view, a period of weakness and chaos began, due to the raids of the Hungarians and the strengthening of the Byzantines. On top of that Gangs of robbers led by Peter’s brother – Michael spread in the western regions of the Empire. In the last years of Tsar Peter rule, a Russian army invaded Bulgaria and destroyed Preslav in 967. In Byzantium, a talented general named Chimiskes came to power; he conquered large areas in the Rhodope Mountains and settled Armenian exiles there. He defeated the independent Paulician kingdom that existed in Armenia (a type of Gnostic heresy) and exiled many of them to the Balkans, effectively subjugating large parts of Bulgaria under his rule.
However, then came a new Bulgarian revival period: a family of four brothers in western Bulgaria – David, Moshe, Aaron and Samuel – led a rebellion against the Byzantines. They are called “comitopoli” brothers and resemble the Israeli Hasmonean Maccabee brothers. Their father was a noble and probably ruler of Sofia and their mother was Armenian. They rebelled in the name of King Boris II, the successor of Tsar Peter, who was a prisoner in Byzantium. At the end of the struggle the only surviving brother – Samuel, revived the Bulgarian kingdom, now ruled from a new capital, the City of Ohrid on the shores of Lake Ohrid in Macedonia, the site of the University of St. Clement. Tsar Samuel ruled a large Empire for twenty years, from 993 to 1114, and managed to take control for a while of eastern Bulgaria as well, he conquered Serbia, northern Greece and parts of Albania.
Samuel was an enlightened ruler and some claim that he supported the Bogomil movement that spread at that time in the Balkans.
In the end, after forty years of independence, Samuel was defeated by Emperor Basil I – the killer of the Bulgarians in 1014. The decisive battle took place on the Palagonia plain. The emperor took 14,000 of Samuel’s soldiers in cative and sent them back to him in groups of a hundred, after taking out their eyes, led by a one-eyed soldier. At the sight of this terrible spectacle, Tsar Samuel collapsed and died. Following the defeat, the independent Bulgarian Church was abolished, the Archbishopric in Ohrid was subordinated to the patriarchate in Constantinople, the Greek priests suppressed prayers in the Slavic language and the tradition of Slavic Church, the entire Balkans was again under Byzantine rule.
However, during the existence of the First Bulgarian Empire, the seeds that would bear fruit in the next thousand years were sown. The golden age of the First Bulgarian Empire, which lasted from the time of Tsar Boris to the time of Tsar Samuel, determined the course and character of the Bulgarian nation and culture since than on. After that time Bulgaria entered 200 years of Byzantine occupation and oppression, which ended with the rebellion and renewed liberation, and the establishment of the Second Bulgarian Empire at the end of the 12th century.