Bulgaria under Ottoman rule

In the 11th century, the Turkish tribes migrated to the Anatolian peninsula, defeated the Byzantines in the Battle of Manzikat (1071), and established small kingdoms throughout the country. In the 13th century, a small Turkish state led by Ottoman I was established on the coast of the Sea of Marmara. This is the beginning of the Ottoman Empire. The principles underlying the new state were enlightened rule as an ideal, a state as a just entity that enables the existence of religion, and grants freedom to minorities.

During the 14th century the Ottomans became stronger and in 1354 they crossed the Dardanelles and moved their capital from Bursa to Adrianople. In a short time they set up a mighty Balkan empire, defeating the Serbs in 1389, capturing the capital of Bulgaria and Veliko Tarnovo in 1393, thus effectively ruling the entire Balkans. It is important to understand that the Ottoman Empire during most of its existence, and certainly at the beginning of its journey, was a militant Muslim minority controlling a large Christian rural majority. The Balkan was conquered about 60 years before Constantinople, and the empire at its beginning was Balkan and Christian.

The Sultan who conquered Bulgaria is Murat I, an important figure in the history of the Ottomans and the Balkans. He founds the institution of the Janissaries (the new soldier), who formed the backbone of the bureaucracy and the army, and strengthened the “Timar” system – vassal estates of warriors who collect taxes for the Sultan and serve him in times of war. The owners of the estates were the Ottoman cavalry – the Sipahi.

Murat showed tolerance towards other religions and towards his enemies as well, granting rights to the Rila Monastery in Bulgaria and other Christian institutions. He was followed by his son bayezid I, who some say was secretly a Christian. Bayezid allowed Christians to hold senior positions in the government. He completed the conquest of the Balkans, Bulgaria, Albania, and turned against the Muslim kingdoms in the east, defeating the Mamluks (thus becoming the Muslim “caliph”). but he was captured and defeated by Timur Lang in 1402. And so Constantinople was saved and the advance of the Ottomans was halted. The Balkan peoples won some freedom, but with the passing of times, the Ottomans continued their conquests.

The Ottoman Empire was founded on the image of a new man, a Muslim noble, a knight, who fulfills the virtues and ideals of the chivalrous Muslim way, whether he was part of the cavalry or a soldier in the new Janissaries units. The soldiers of the Janissaries grew from childhood in Military boarding Schools. They adopted the ideal of a Muslim state as a tool for implementing justice in a way that allows people to live a full religious life and for society to be harmony and prosperity. The means of educating these “new soldiers” (Janissaries) was the Madrasas and Tekkes, which were incorporated into the military boarding Schools. The “new man” that was shaped in them was imbued with inner motivation and could serve as a pillar of the state. He could be trusted wherever he was sent and in whatever role he was given. At first it was Muslims who chose to join the new military units, but over time the Ottomans began to forcefully recruit Christian children (mainly from the Balkans) to the Janissaries units, and raise them away from their parents and their homeland. This method of recruitment was called “Dvshirma” and it remains in the collective memory of the Bulgarian people as a severe trauma.

Another important institution created by the Ottoman Empire at the very beginning is the “millet” – autonomy for minorities and the granting of independent judicial rights in the community to various religious denominations. The Millet created a kind of local and independent government that would function for the Ottoman central government. In addition to this, the Ottomans had a system of land distribution and taxation that was more advanced than that of medieval feudal Europe.

In general, it can be said that the Ottomans proposed a new and advanced state concept based on a strong central government, an advanced code of laws for its time, an organized tax collection system, certain autonomy for minorities, and better possibilities for living off the land. The empire was based on a “new man” (soldier) who was educated from early age according to religious and social values. The rule of the Ottomans benefited in many ways the local peasants in the Balkan countries, who were under the yoke of the nobles in the feudal society.

In the middle of the 15th century, Sultan Mehmed II succeeds in conquering Constantinople and renewing Ottoman rule in the Balkans. He confiscated lands from the nobles, strengthened the central government, established an efficient bureaucracy directly subordinate to him, and made the Ottoman Empire the leading power in the world. The great sultans Bayezid II, Selim I and Suleiman the Magnificent continued the golden age. This was the time of great conquests, the writing of the laws, the creation of a Sultanic administration and economic prosperity.

The conquest of Constantinople and the expansion of the empire brought prosperity. In the Balkans there were large construction enterprises, the Sufi orders established monasteries all over Bulgaria and took care of social injustice. The Jews arrived with the encouragement of the new authorities from Spain (after the deportation) and established magnificent communities in many Balkan cities and towns. In general, in the main cities such as Sofia or Plovdiv, a mixed population of Jews, Armenians, Greeks, Turks, and Bulgarians developed; whereas the original Christian-Bulgarian upper classes and populations found refuge in the rural towns and villages. A large part of Christian culture and art found a home in monasteries.

By the 18th century Bulgaria seemed to be becoming part of a large multicultural empire, and the national element began to fade. Bulgaria’s proximity to Istanbul resulted in intensive integration into the empire. Dreams of independence seemed distant, but the Bulgarian people maintained their identity under the leadership of the Church.

The Ottoman occupation of Bulgaria was particularly harsh and cruel towards the upper classes – the aristocracy. Veliko Tarnovo was destroyed and the nobles found refuge in remote towns in the Mountains such as Koprivshtitsa in the Rhodope Mountains. According to some sources, many people were exiled to Asia Minor and after the conquest of Constantinople there as well. In their place, Turkish and Tatar populations were brought. During periods of tribulation there were those who converted to Islam, in some cases those who believed in the Bogomil heresy.

The 17th century heralds a period of deterioration, greed and corruption spread throughout the Ottoman Empire. The central government weakens and local rulers begin to do whatever they want, they put pressure on the population, and this pressure leads to a number of small and insignificant rebellions.

In the 17th-18th centuries, sees the rise of Russia, as the new Slavic power, a third Jerusalem. In Istanbul, the harem sultans rule ineffectively, and the West begins the industrial revolution and voyages around the Cape of Good Hope, which undermine Istanbul’s strategic position as a gateway between East and West. At the same time, a short period of suppression of the independent Bulgarian Church commences and it is subjected to the Greek Patriarchate in Istanbul (except for the Rila Monastery). This is part of a growing discriminatory attitude towards Christians.

In the 19th century it is clear to everyone that the Ottoman Empire is the “sick man” of Europe, but the dying takes a very long time. The empire is trying to renew itself through the reforms of the “Tanzimat” that began in 1832 and included equal rights for Christians and Jews. Significant changes begin to occur: steamships begin to sail the seas and trade develops. Bulgaria is going through a period of revival and economic development..

The 19th century is also the period of the Springtime of Nations: Napoleon brings new ideas to Europe, which are reflected in the revolutions of 1848; Germany and Italy gain independence, and so do neighboring Serbia and Greece after fierce rebellions and fighting. The national liberation movement gains power in Bulgaria and this leads to a rebellion in 1877, and subsequently to a war between Russia and the Ottomans, which ultimately leads to independence of Bulgaria after five hundred years of occupation.

koprivshtitsa house

koprivshtitsa house

Bulgarian independence

The Bulgarians gained independence after a rebellion and a terrible war that took place in 1877-1878 between Russia the Bulgarian rebels and the Ottoman Empire. The beginning was a few years earlier, with the establishment of the movement for the liberation of Bulgaria led by two prominent personalities: one is Hristov Botev, who was born in the town of Kalofer at the foot of the Balkan Mountains, and is considered to be the national poet of Bulgaria. And the other is Vasil Levski, who was born about 40 km away in the town of Karlovo, at the foot of the same Mountains.

The Balkan Mountains are called the “good Mountain” by the Bulgarians, It is a wooded, high, relatively narrow and very long range of Mountains, crossing Bulgaria from east to west. At its foot there are important towns that served as centers of Christianity, culture and Bulgarian nationalism during the Ottoman rule. The high Mountains, steep and close to the settlements, were an ideal place of refuge for the Hayduks (rebels against the Sultan), and for anyone who wanted to get away from the Ottomans rule.

The young people in the towns at the foot of the Balkan Mountains were influenced by the ideas of European education, Russian nationalism and Western Romanticism. In the middle of the 19th century there is a revival of the Bulgarian language, culture and education. Slogans calling for equality, brotherhood and justice were chanted by everyone. The Bulgarians wanted to be like all the other nations of europe, and not to be at the mercy of a corrupt Muslim state that is being conducted as in past times, and that it was clear that it was being kept alive artificially by Christian European forces, who could eliminate it if they wanted to.

The Bulgarians watched their Serbian neighbors who won independence after a long struggle, the Romanians who had been independent for a long time, the Greeks who successfully rebelled against the Ottomans and the Springtime of Nations in Europe, and wanted independence and freedom as well. The underground movement of the rebellion in the homeland was organized by Levski, while Botev, who went into exile in Romania, organized the Bulgarian Diaspora, which numbered about half a million, for help. This was manifested in the distribution of leaflets and books, and the building of battalions of volunteer soldiers who would join the struggle after the rebellion broke out.

The idea was that the uprising would cause the Ottomans to react violently, and as a result, public opinion in the West would shift in favor of the Bulgarians, and pressure would be put on the British and French governments to withdraw their support for the Ottomans against the Russians (in the Crimean War, the English and French saved the Ottomans from defeat by the Russians). And then the way will be paved for the Russian army to invade the Balkans and liberate their Slavic brothers.

The Turks found out about the organization, arrested Levski and executed him, but a few months later the rebellion broke out and was brutally suppressed, with brutal massacres that shocked the West (as expected). But this was not enough to change English policy. And at this point Botev, who was in charge of the Bulgarian Diaspora in Romania, decided to take action. At the head of a battalion of volunteers and in a well-publicized, heroic and hopeless journey, they invaded Bulgaria and marched to their certain death in the face of much superior forces. This act reverberated throughout the world. The heroic death of Botev and his friends shocked public opinion in England, and it caused its government to stop opposing the expected Russian invasion.

The Russians, given the green light for action, crossed the Danube and advanced to the Balkan Mountain range and beyond. A large Ottoman army was surrounded and besieged in the City of Pleven, a sort of Stalingrad of the Ottomans. An even bigger army came to its rescue, but the defenders of the Balkan Mountain passages stood the pressure in the winter and spring of 1788, and blocked the advance of the Ottomans towards Pleven at the Shipka pass. The Ottoman army surrounded in Pleven surrendered and the battle for the Balkans was decided. Bulgaria was liberated and gained de facto independence, which was declared de jure at the post-war Congress of Berlin. The time of the Third Bulgarian State (Empire) began.

The new country declared Sofia as its capital, was headed by a king, a nobleman imported from Germany (Alexander), and was for a while the most populous and developing country in the Balkans. At the same time, not all the territories inhabited by Bulgarians were liberated. Only two years later, Plovdiv and the Rhodope Mountains were liberated, while Macedonia and Greek Thrace, which according to the Bulgarians’ view are an integral part of Greater Bulgaria, remained outside the country’s borders to this day.

In 1912, Bulgaria, together with Greece, Serbia and Montenegro, started the First Balkan War against the Ottoman Empire, with the aim of taking control of territories in the Balkans, primarily Ottoman Macedonia and Thrace. Surprisingly, the dwarves beat the giant on the thigh, but in the division of the spoils, Bulgaria lost its share, and as a result, she went to war against all her neighbors, with the aim of correcting the wrong and gaining control of Macedonia. This was the Second Balkan War, which ended in a Bulgarian defeat at the end of 1912. As a result, Bulgaria made an alliance with Germany against Serbia and Greece three years later, as part of the First World War. This war also ended in disaster for the Bulgarians, who usually joke about themselves by saying that “Bulgaria has never lost a battle and never won a war.”

As far as the Bulgarians are concerned, Macedonia is a Bulgarian territory, but the inhabitants of this country have forgotten their affiliation and today identify themselves with a different independent nationality. The last attempt to gain control of Macedonia and obtain a port in the Mediterranean Sea was in World War II, when Bulgaria joined Germany and the Axis countries with the aim of creating a great Bulgaria, and this attempt also ended in defeat and disaster. The period of great wars and losses in the first half of the 20th century eventually led the Bulgarians to give up their ambition to regain Macedonia and Thrace and reconcile with the borders of their country.

With the acceptance of independence, and in fact already several years before, the Bulgarian Patriarchate was re-established and the place of the Holy Synod was located in Sofia. Christianity was recognized as a national historic religion supported by the state. Patriarch Kiril was recognized as an independent patriarch by all denominations and Churches of the Orthodox world, and in 1953 also by the Patriarchate in Constantinople. Churches began to be built all over Bulgaria and especially in Sofia, and thus we can today enjoy magnificent monuments such as the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral and the Sveti Nadela Church in Sofia. The liberation of Bulgaria supported by the Church resulted in a burst of enthusiasm and religious creativity, the past connected with the future, and the angels returned to dwell in the land.

We will end this introduction by noting the fact that the Bulgarian Church was never anti-Semitic and worked vigorously to save the Jews in the Holocaust, and that the Jews of Bulgaria were integrated into the new Bulgarian state.

Botev Kalofer

Botev Kalofer


Bulgaria is not only Churches and archaeological sites. It has industry, economy, opera, and soccer teams. Bulgaria is Europe on the one hand, and something else that can be defined as Slavic, Eastern European, on the other. The traces of the long communist rule are still visible in the abandoned factories scattered everywhere, but even more so in the mentality of some people. In the coming years, Bulgaria is supposed to fully join the European Union, and the euro will replace the local currency. The Bulgarians look forward with hope mixed with appreciation.

Bulgaria is changing. The world of Folklore that the communists took pains to preserve is disappearing. The villages in the Mountains are inhabited mainly by Pensioners, who continue to grow their own vegetables and prepare herbal medicines according to traditional recipes. A new generation is exposed to the world of capitalism but still maintains the values of the past tradition; the social fabric beneath the surface endures. Bulgaria is one big family, and despite all the changes it is going through, it continues into the future as such.

You will not meet the real Bulgaria in the luxurious hotels on the beach, nor in the many casinos scattered throughout the country, nor in the cheap shopping centers, nor in the advanced ski or spa resorts. You can meet Bulgaria in villages, Mountains, Churches and festivals. There are many ways to enjoy this beautiful country and make your trip meaningful.

In recent years, I have organized spiritual and Goddess tours, jeep tours, trekking tours, choir and musical tours, geographic and historic tours, Folklore and festival tours, all kinds of tours to Bulgaria. You are welcome to join our tours, but always remember that in the end everyone discovers their own Bulgaria. I presented my Bulgaria to you in this book.

For more details regarding our tour to Bulgaria, the Balkans, and elsewhere in the world, see my website https://tarbuyotolami.com/