The area of Bulgaria became part of the Roman Empire beginning in the 2nd century BC. The Romans conquered all parts of the ancient world around the Mediterranean Sea and large parts of Europe (a quarter of the world’s population), they conquered the Balkans in the 2nd century BC, and for nearly 200 years, from the beginning of the 2nd century AD to the end of the 3rd century AD, they also occupied Romania north of the Danube, then called Dacia.
Roman Bulgaria is a border country, and at the same time the main roads connecting Rome with the East pass through it. It is not far from Constantinople, which in the 4th century AD becomes the capital of the Roman Empire, and then the Byzantine Empire, hence its importance.
The Romans established their rule in the Balkans and brought it, for the first time in its history, to a period of unity and stability. The empire was one kingdom where there were big cities, roads, trade and a money economy. The ancient peoples – Thracians, Macedonians and Illyrians – eventually found their place within the Roman Empire and served as soldiers in the army, merchants and craftsmen.
Roman Bulgaria was divided into three provinces: in the north – from the Balkan Mountains to the Danube was the province of Moesia, which also includes the lion’s share of Serbia today; to the south – from the Balkan Mountains to the Mediterranean Sea and the borders of Constantinople was the province of Thracia, a continuation of the ancient Thracian kingdoms. The capital City of this region is Plovdiv. Southwest Bulgaria belonged to the Roman province of Macedonia, a continuation of the Macedonian state.
The Romans ruled the Balkans from the 2nd century BC to the 4th century AD as the Roman Empire, which later became the Byzantine Empire that ruled the Balkans until the 7th century AD, and also for many periods after that. At first there were rebellions by the various Thracian tribes, which brought repression as a result, many people were sold into slavery in Rome. Some claim that in the 1st century BC, one of the peak times of slavery, the slave population of Rome consisted mainly of Thracians, Germans and Celts. The slave revolt of Spartacus (Thracian in origin) was largely a revolt of these populations. But things changed later and the Thracians were integrated into the empire. Many of the emperors, starting from the 2nd century AD, came from the Balkan regions and rose to power thanks to service in the Roman army. Constantine came from the City of Nish, near Bulgaria (in southern Serbia), and Justinian – from Skopje, the capital of Macedonia.
The Roman Empire was the largest free market in the world to date, a huge multi national Empire of more than 70 million people, which was based on a money economy. Rome was a City of a million people, as was Constantinople. With the consolidation of the empire at the end of the 1st century BC, an era of prosperity began. Wheat was not grown in Italy because it was not economically viable, and instead they imported basic products from abroad, and thus Thrace became an exporter of wheat and other agricultural products, such as wine, to Rome. Transporting products by sea was much cheaper than by land, so it was easier to send wine to Rome by ship from Burgas or Sozopol than to bring it from Tuscany by cart. Following the economic prosperity, the population grew and significant urban centers began to develop.
The peak of the Roman Empire comes in the 2nd century AD, with the rise to power of the five “enlightened emperors”, which is reflected in many construction enterprises throughout Bulgaria. Emperor Trajan magnificently builds the City of Stara Zagora in the center of Bulgaria and names it after him; Emperor Marcus Aurelius glorifies and beautifies Plovdiv, a City of seven hills near a River that becomes the “Rome of the Balkans”. Impressive Roman remains are found in Hisar, a town of healing springs near the Balkan Mountains and also in Sofia, which was called Serdica at the time. The ports of the Black Sea also prosper at that time, as well as the City of Nikopol on the banks of the Danube.
In the 4th century AD, the Romans become Christians, and Emperor Constantine transfers the capital from Rome to Byzantium, which is called Constantinople from that time on. In 381 AD, the Roman Empire splits into two and the eastern part became an independent state with Byzantium as its capital, and from then on it is the time of the Byzantine Empire.
However, the period of Roman prosperity comes to an end at the end of the 4th century AD, after the Gemanic Goth tribes cross the Danube and begin a campaign of conquest and destruction. A new period starts in the history of the Balkans and the world – a period of barbaric invasions. First the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, and the Vandals invade, followed by the Huns. The cities are destroyed and emptied, the roads are abandoned, the population dwindles and the land becomes desolate.
The borders are breached, Rome falls and the empire collapses. There are places where only 10% of the original population remains. While Rome falls, Constantinople endures as the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which later recovers and retakes large areas in the Balkans. The new – old empire manages to exist in different forms until the year 1453 (for 1,000 years), it knows high and low periods. During the high tide it takes over large areas in the Balkans and Asia, and during the low tide it is reduced to the borders of Constantinople and its surroundings.
The difficult days of the barbarian invasions are replaced by times of prosperity and an orderly central government during the time of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (6th century AD). Cities and Churches are rebuilt all over the Balkans and Bulgaria, among them the Hagia Sofia Church in Sofia after which the City is named. However, further invasions result in breaking of the borders and degenerating into a new chaos.
The settlement vacuum created in the Balkans is inviting the Slavic tribes to come and settle in. These are stubborn peasants, idolaters of the forces of nature, organized in tribes, who probably came from the regions of White Russia (Belarus). They cleared the forests and saw that it is a good new land. But an external factor was needed to unite them into a political entity. And these were the Turkish warrior tribes called Bulgarians, who arrived in Bulgaria at the end of the 7th century AD, mixed with the local population and formed a ruling class that managed to maintain an orderly government. This is how the Bulgarian nation of today was created, but the process of its final crystallization and fusion is related to the acceptance of Christianity in the 9th century AD.
The Orthodox Church
When Christianity began to spread in the world, it did not have an orderly hierarchical structure and each group of believers created its own leadership. Christianity was pluralistic and democratic when the common denominator among its people was faith, spirituality and mutual guarantee. Then the unbelievable happened: the entire Roman Empire, the one that persecuted the Christians for hundreds of years, became Christian, and the one who led the move was the emperor.
The defining event was a vision that appeared before emperor Constantine on the eve of the decisive battle for his reign, which caused him to become a Christian and to favor the Christian religion. Jesus appeared before him with the symbol of the cross in his hand and promised him that with the help of this symbol he would win the battle and establish his rule. This event happened in the year 310, and then began a process that lasted about 70 years, at the end of which Christianity became the official religion of the empire during the time of Emperor Theodosius (380 AD).
When the Romans became Christians they decided that the organizational structure of the Church would remain democratic, but headed and governed by the emperor, while theology and belief would become dogmatic. The empire was religiously divided into four districts governed by the 4 central and largest cities of the empire: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch (another patriarchate was added in the 5th century – Jerusalem because of its holiness). Each province was recognized as an independent community headed by a patriarch. It was decided that all the patriarchs would be equal and the Christian world would be led by the emperor in the grace of God, who would occasionally convene Church- world wide conferences, and so it was.
But over time the western part of the empire fell into the hands of the barbarians and the central rule in it disintegrated. The vacuum created in the West was filled by the Church under the leadership of the Patriarch of Rome, who decided on this occasion that his position was above the others. He was the one who fulfilled the role of emperor on earth. This is how Catholicism was created, as a deviation from the original way of Christianity; at first it was a small and unimportant Christian denomination in the dark corners of the world, but over the years, as a result of unexpected historical developments that caused the importance of Western Europe to rise, Catholic Christianity became the largest and most important Christian denomination in the world.
The Churches that kept the original organizational structure of early Christianity called themselves Orthodox – keepers of the straight path. For hundreds of years they sheltered under the protection of the Byzantine emperor, successor of the Roman emperors, who controlled the eastern Mediterranean, and even after the fall of the Byzantine Empire they did not deviate from their path.
Over the years, new peoples converted to Christianity and created new patriarchies within the Orthodox world. The first were the Bulgarians who were recognized as the sixth independent patriarchate, immediately followed by the Russians and the Serbs, and today there are 15 independent Orthodox patriarchates led by 15 different patriarchs in different parts of the world (mainly in the Balkans and Eastern Europe), with all of them maintaining the traditional way of organizational independence and democracy in making decisions concerning the whole Church.
The new Orthodox Patriarchates were founded as part of rising national entities and became national Churches of peoples such as the Bulgarians and the Serbs, flesh of their flesh, part of their essence and their history. The meaning of a national Church is that religion cannot be separated from nationality and culture (a bit like Judaism and the Land of Israel), so it is important that the traveler interested in Bulgaria gets to know the tradition of the Bulgarian Church.
The Christian Mysteries
The ancient world at the time of Jesus was divided into two cultures: in the western Mediterranean they spoke Latin and the culture was Roman, while in the eastern Mediterranean they spoke Greek and the culture was Hellenic. Both parts belonged to the same empire and yet were different in their culture and religious outlook. Later the Roman Empire was divided according to these division lines.
The concept of noble life in the Roman-Latin side was one of discipline, order, values, hierarchy and rituals of worship, and it was accompanied by a deep sense of guilt that was associated with the Roman-Latin character. The concept of noble life in the Greek Hellenic world was one of mystery, closeness to nature and an attempt to see the order and divinity within it; as well as a desire to live a pure life out of faith in redemption, resurrection and freedom. The Greek Hellenic culture cultivated the joy of life and art.
These two different points of view, which are nourished by different cultural sources, are reflected in the differences between the nature of Western Catholic Christianity and the nature of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. In the Orthodox Church, the essence of Christianity is not guilt (“we have sinned”) and obedience, but the mystery of life – a continuation of the mystery tradition of the ancient Greeks, who were connected to the forces of nature and enjoyed the celebrations of theater and art. In other words, the Eleusinian mysteries continued through the liturgy of the Orthodox Christian Church.
The mysteries of the Greek Hellenic world appears in the Orthodox Church in the form of observing various events in the life of Jesus as expressing the truths of the universe and existence, and treating them as an allegory and as a way to understand essential points and stages in human life and the path of spiritual development. The Christian story is interpreted as a cosmic drama of death and rebirth; the various events in the life of Jesus are interpreted as stages on the spiritual path, with the emphasis being on the resurrection of Jesus and not on the crucifixion. In addition to that, the Christian liturgy is a celebration of sounds and smells, processions and colors, which express the richness of life and man. This attitude is expressed in art and especially in Icon paintings and Frescoes.
The main Christian Orthodox mystery is the possibility of turning a man into a God, and this is called Theosis, it is based on the saying of Athanasius the Great (Church father from the 4th century AD): “Jesus is the Son of God who appeared in a human form, in order to show Humans the way to become sons of God.” Theosis can be understood through the biblical figures of Elijah and Moses. The story of Elijah ascending to heaven is a story of a man who is granted eternal life, who joins the Gods thanks to his actions in his life, and is the same story of Hercules or other mythological figures who were privileged to join the Greek pantheon despite being born as humans.
There are other Greek mysteries motives that appear in a new Christian garment:
Mary, the mother of Jesus, replaces in Orthodox Christianity the figures of the great mother of the Hellenic world, Demeter and Gaia, the earth Goddesses. And so, the image of the pagan Goddess Gaia surprisingly appears in the mosaics of Orthodox Churches and monasteries throughout the Balkans, since this is the same ground that Jesus walked on and is saturated with his blood, and hence it was sanctified. It is an earthly mother who contained God-Jesus within her, and therefore there is a mystery in Orthodox Christianity called: The Mother of God – Theotokos.
Events in the life of Jesus, both before his birth and after his death, are seen as representing a mystery that reflects upon our lives here and now. Such is the mystery of the annunciation in Nazareth: the angel says to Maria the words: “Blessed are you among women”, and immediately she becomes pregnant by the mere utterance of the word. There is a mystery here of the creation of a thing by a word, just as God created the world in the beginning, and this thing is so far-fetched that even Joseph, Maria’s husband, finds it difficult to believe; However, it also appears in our lives in the form of “we become what we think about” – we think in words and they come true (the idea behind the mystery of the gospel recently appeared in a popular movie called “The Secret”).
Another mystery that appears at the beginning of Jesus’ spiritual journey is the first miracle he performed: turning water into wine at a wedding in Kana village. This mystery draws directly from the ancient Greek Dionysian traditions. The wine is the essence of the change that turns a man into a God. Dionysus is half God and half man, a man who discovered the God within him, and like him we too can discover the God within us. At the Last Supper, Jesus passes the cup of wine among his disciples and tells them: “This is my blood that you are drinking.” Wine in the ancient world represented the attribute of the soul and therefore alcohol is called Spirits in English. Man is empty and low in spirit, but drinking wine is enough to make him happy. What is the source of the happiness? The answer of the ancients was that it comes from the wine. Wisdom also comes from wine: the ancient Greeks used to hold a symposium after the meal where they would lie on sofas, drink wine and talk philosophy. It was the wine that was considered the bringer of the spirit of wisdom!
Water is the property of matter without spirit; Wine is matter with spirit. What, then, is the secret of turning matter without spirit into matter with spirit? This secret is taught by Jesus. This is the mystery that appears in the story of a seemingly simple and mundane miracle … there was no wine; therefore he performed a miracle, because he can do everything … and it is not as simple as that. There is a hidden meaning in the story, at least according to Orthodox Christianity.
The miracle of the loaves and fishes, in which Jesus took five loaves of bread and two fishes and fed the multitudes with them with twelve full baskets remaining, is another mystery that exists in the thought of Orthodox Christianity. Usually when you divide something it decreases accordingly, but here something is divided and it multiplies. What is the mystery behind this? What is the secret of abundance? The secret is love; It gets stronger the more you give it. This is the new covenant, the covenant of the heart, a situation where one and another are more than two, and this can be our situation if we do the right things in life – the abundance will only increase and continue to flow.
The miracle of transfiguration on Mount Tabor is another mystery that includes within it the possibility of change from the physical to the spiritual and the higher development of man. According to Christian Orthodox mysticism, it is not Jesus that changed, but the disciples who went up the Mountain with him. Thanks to this change that happened upon them they could see the real Jesus. The real change is to see things as they really exist in the spiritual world (the world of ideas according to Plato). On Mount Tabor the disciples got to see for the first time the figure of light of Jesus, it was always there but they did not notice it.
There is no doubt that the greatest mystery of all is death and the possibility of eternal life, in Orthodox Christianity this is expressed in the reference and interpretation of the crucifixion and resurrection. The meaning of the crucifixion is that in order to gain eternal life we must first kill our “old self”, the ego, turn the “I” into “nothing”. All the mysteries of the ancient world, from Egypt to Eleusis near Athens, involved a ceremony that simulated death in order to allow birth to new life. These were rites of passage, initiation, in which the believer stayed in a dark place in the depths of the earth for three days, just as Jesus stayed for three days in the grave and was resurrected.
The mystery of the resurrection comes from the crucifixion that happened before; it teaches us that true resurrection is a spiritual awakening. This is the hidden meaning of the story, which if taken literally is fiction. The meaning of the mystery of the resurrection is that there is something spiritually dormant within us, something that Jesus awakens through his sacrifice. Jesus takes us through the dark night of the soul, through the valley of sorrow of walking in the desert, through the pain of renunciation (crucifixion), in order to discover the nature of Jesus within us, which will allow us eternal life.
There are other mysteries in Orthodox Christianity, which appear in the stories of the life of Jesus and the saints and reflect motifs that existed in the mysteries of the ancient world. There is the mystery of the removal of the head of John the Baptist. We should note that beheading of saints is a common motif in the Balkan, there is symbolism in this, that the path to God is not a rational act but an emotional jump of belief. Therefore, it is necessary and desirable to lose one’s head on the way to God.
There is the mystery of the birth of Jesus in a cave in Bethlehem and the three wise men from the east, who came to visit him following the star they saw in the sky. The same star injects the mystical ray of light into the forehead of Jesus. In the same way the birth of the nature of Jesus within us takes place within the cave of our interiority, into which the mystical ray of light penetrates.
There is the mystery of baptism, during which the Holy Spirit descends on Jesus in the form of a dove. Baptism is not only a physical purification but also a spiritual purification. The mystery here is that the path to enlightenment is through purification first, “catharsis” in the words of the ancient Greeks and the Gnostics.
And so on and on.
In the Hellenic Greek world that preceded Christianity there were three preferred subjects of study: athletics, art and mythology. Through mythology, people learned the mysteries of human life, and thus gained unmediated knowledge. The Christian story replaces the mythology of the Greek Hellenic world and continues it. In the Christian story there are deep archetypes of human existence and possibilities. In addition to this, it can be said that Christian art replaces classical art, and only athletics was abandoned by the new religion, and instead of adoration for the human body and human qualities as the standard for all things, it developed adoration for the figure of the spiritual man (athlete) – the Theosis.
Knowing the tradition and meaning of the Orthodox mysteries allows us a new and deep understanding of the principles behind the art and architecture of the Churches and monasteries in the Balkans, as well as understanding the meaning of the various rituals and holidays, and even some of the Folklore traditions and folk legends of the Balkan.
The arrival of the Slavic peoples
The meaning of the word Slavic is “word”, and hence the meaning of the nickname “Slavs” is people who speak the same language, as opposed to foreigners who are called “people without a language”. Today there are close to 300 million Slavs in the world, divided into three groups: Southern Slavs in the Balkan region, Northern Slavs in Northern Europe (Poles, Moravians) and Eastern Slavs in the east (Russians, Ukrainians). They all have a similar language that came from a common source.
The original Slavs probably lived between the Dniester and the Vistula Rivers for a thousand years. They were ruled alternately by the Huns, the Goths, the Scythians, and other peoples of the Russian and Asian steppes. After the Huns and Avars invaded the Balkans, the Slavs decided to improve their location and followed them to the Balkans in the 6th-7th centuries AD.
The Slavic tribes were experts in agriculture in wild areas and settled in the Mountains and plains of Bulgaria, united in a loose alliance without a formal kingdom of their own, until at the end of the 7th century AD, when a Turkish tribe called “Bulgarians” took over the Slavs living in Bulgaria, mixed with them, and created the first Bulgarian state.
The formation of the Slavic Bulgarian state was the swallow that heralded the spring of the Slavic peoples and kingdoms; In Russia, about 100 years later, the principality of Kyiv was created with the help of invaders from the north – Normans; And in the Balkans, about 200 years later, the kingdoms of the Serbs, Bosnians and Croats were created.
The Slavs had general assemblies called “Mir”, it was a form of democracy in which women also participated. In the 12th century, a monk named Helmond wrote a book called “Chronica Slavorum”, which provides information about the ancient Slavic religion and culture. Helmond asserts that the Slavs “do not doubt the existence of one God in the sky”, but that they think that this God deals exclusively with the affairs of the sky, having left the control of the world in the hands of inferior Gods whom he himself created. This is a hidden God who has no connection with the world. In other words, the Slavs were characterized by a dual perception, which also appears in folk tales, and it gave an explanation for the suffering in human life (because the true God is not present).
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