Second Bulgarian Empire
Bulgaria was under brutal Byzantine occupation for nearly 200 years, from the defeat of Tsar Samuel in 1014 to the rebellion of the Asen brothers in 1185. Samuel was one of the Komtopoli brothers – four Maccabee style brothers who fought for the independence of Bulgaria at the end of the First Empire period. Therefore, it is only symbolic that three other Maccabee style brothers – the Asen brothers – were the ones who unleashed the miracle of the new rebellion and heralded the founding of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom.
Towards the end of the 11th century, the Byzantines weaken, the Seljuks defeat them and conquer Turkey, the Hungarians conquer Belgrade, the nomadic tribes of Tatars and Pechenegs arrive from the west of Russia and raid throughout the Balkans. But the Byzantine kingdom manages to recover under the leadership of a new and energetic dynasty called the Komnenian dynasty, the Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus (1081-1118) plays a decisive role in the Crusades and he persecutes the Bogomils, his biography is written in a book called Alexiad by his daughter – Anna Comnenus and is a source for the study of the period. In 1083, Bachkovo Monastery was built close to Plovdiv to strengthen the Orthodox faith and is inhabited by monks from Georgia.
But in 1185 the Normans conquer Thessaloniki and the last Komnenian emperor was murdered in Constantinople. The weak Angelus dynasty comes to power. The brothers Peter and Asen take advantage of the momentum, arriving in Constantinople to request autonomy, but they are publicly humiliated by the new emperor Isaac II, including a slap in the face of Asen. The humiliation leads to a rebellion in the town they came from – Yantra (later Veliko Tarnovo) which spreads mainly in the Balkan range and north-eastern Bulgaria. The rebels defeat the imperial armies with the help of an alliance they make with the Cuman horsemen, nomadic war tribes of Tatar origin who have just arrived in the region. This is the second time that local Slavic and Vlach inhabitants have joined forces with nomadic tribes of Turkish origin, thereby gaining significant military power and political independence. Several thousand Cuman cavalry constitute backbone of the new Bulgarian army, and the Bulgarians join them en masse.
In 1196, the brother’s Asen and Peter are murdered (similar to the Maccabees) and the third brother Kaloyan the brave comes to power, he becomes one of the greatest Bulgarian rulers and the founder of a large and powerful kingdom. Kaloyan rules for more than ten years, until 1207. During his time, Constantinople falls to a crusader army that conquers it in 1204 and the empire is divided into three relatively small states. In 1205, the Crusaders try to conquer Bulgaria and are defeated, and King Baldwin is captured and kept as a prisoner in the wall tower of the new capital – Veliko Tarnovo. The power of the Crusaders was broken, and this fact helps the Byzantines hold on and establish a kingdom in Nicaea (which eventually in 1261 recaptures Constantinople). Kaloyan conquers Macedonia in 1207 and is murdered during the siege of Thessaloniki. After his death, an incompetent man named Buril, who is known for suppressing the Bogomils, becomes the king. He was replaced in 1218 by the son of Asen I, Tsar Ivan Asen II, who ruled 1218-1241, and became one of the most talented rulers of the Second Bulgarian State.
Ivan Essen marries princesses from the royal dynasties of the Serbs, Hungarians, Byzantines and Latins. He defeats the Byzantine kingdom of Epirus on the Day of the Forty Saints, and builds the Church of the Forty Saints Boliko Tarnovo in honor of the victory. Ivan Asen the second re-establishes the Bulgarian Orthodox Patriarchate of Veliko Tarnovo (Ohrid remains an important archdiocese), erects a citadel at the entrance to the Rhodope Mountains named after him, and supports the Monastery in nearby Bachkovo. He organizes the financial system and mints coins, promotes literature and art, encourages trade based on good relations with Dubrovnik merchants, and maintains safety on the roads. His period is a new golden age followed by a prolonged period of decline. External events are not working in Bulgaria’s favor; this is a period of Mongol invasions, the Byzantines are getting stronger, and in addition to that, the country is suffering from corruption and internal problems. A farmer named Ivalo, a pig herder, leads of a rebellion in 1277 and becomes tsar for two years. Although he had visions of the role destined for him, in the end he was no better than the other kings.
The Serbian kingdom is starting to get stronger and be becomes the dominant power in the Balkans instead of Bulgaria. Stefan Nemenja establishes the Serbian Empire and Kingdom in 1168, his son Sveti Sava establishes the Independent Serbian Church and maintains close friendship ties with the Bulgarian king, Ivan Esen II. He died in Tarnovo while traveling there and was buried in the Church of the Forty Martyrs. Kings Stefan Orosh (1243–1246) and Milutin (1281–1321) bring Serbia to heights that overshadow its neighbor, King Stefan Dacanski (1321–1331) defeats the Bulgarian Tsar Michael Shishman at Kustandil, the greatest Serbian king Stefan Dušan (1331–1355) conquers Ohrid, Thessaloniki, Mount Athos, and becomes the Slavic tsar who dreams of inheriting Byzantium, like the Bulgarian tsar Simeon I hundreds of years before him.
The last great Bulgarian tsar is Theodore Svetoslav (1298–1322). He succeeds in getting rid of the Mongols, and throws their supporters from the top of a cliff in Tarnovo, led by Patriarch Yehoiachin. He conquers large areas from the weakening Byzantines, including Nessebar, Sozopol and the coastal areas, through which a brisk trade develops with Genoa and Venice. Art reaches new heights and a School of original painting in Veliko Tarnovo is founded.
The next tsar after him, Ivan Alexander (1330-1370), unites the two parts of Bulgaria and rules for 40 years! Bulgaria becomes the main supplier of goods, wood and wheat to Byzantium and a peace treaty is signed between the countries. There is a flourishing of the economy, art and literature – a Venetian quarter is established in Nessebar, an academy of knowledge and art is founded in Kilifarevo, not far from Tarnovo. But at the same time the feudal system deprives and enslaves the peasants, the Turks cross the Dardanelles and begin raiding the land, two Church conferences held in Tarnovo in 1350 and 1360 fail to reconcile the internal divisions within the Church, there are religious disputes regarding the tradition of Theosis and Hesychasm, and in addition to That a irreconcilable rift with the Bogomils.
Precisely during this difficult time, Ivan Alexander leaves his Christian wife and marries a Jewish woman named Theodora – something that causes a rift in the aristocracy. He divides the kingdom between Theodora’s son – Ivan Shishman, the ruler of Tarnovo, and the son from the previous wife, Ivan Strasitmir, the ruler of Vidin.
While the Bulgarians were arguing among themselves, the Ottomans were advancing; Sultan Murad conquers parts of Bulgaria one by one, establishing his capital in Adrianople, conquering Plovdiv, and finally Sofia and Tarnovo in 1393. The last tsar Ivan Shishman tries to rebel against the Ottomans and fight them back with the help of European forces, King Sigismund of Hungary leads a crusade against the Ottomans in 1396 with the participation of an army of nobles from France, but in the decisive battle, held around the City of Nikopol on the banks of the Danube, Sultan Beyzid defeats the joint forces and thus the attempts come to an end, and so does Christian independence in Bulgaria. The Turks exile a large part of the Bulgarian elites, and settle their own nobles in the new land. They bring to an end the existence of the independent Bulgarian Patriarchate and burn the capital Veliko Tarnovo. Finally they capture Vidin and Dobruja at the mouth of the Danube.
The 14th century is a century of calamity for the Bulgarians, the black plague hits at the population, the Ottomans advance and conquers the country, and the religious and political disputes divide the people. At the same time, this is a time of cultural renaissance expressed in painting; carving, writing and research, parallel to the Paleological cultural renaissance that flourishes the Byzantine Empire. The paintings in the Boyana Church on Mount Vitosha are an example of this.
The great and important man at end of the century is that of Patriarch Avtimi, the last head of the independent Bulgarian Church between 1375-1393. Avtimi was a student of the great Hesychasm monks on Mount Athos, such as Gregory of Palames and Gregory of Sinai. He was a mystic and scholar who began the enterprise of revising the translations of the Holy Scriptures into Slavic and establishing new grammar rules for the Bulgarian language. A move that was no small thing, because God created the world with a word, and any change of a comma or syllable can affect the entire universe.
Avtimi began his work in the Bulgarian Zagrof Monastery on Mount Athos. In 1371 he moved to Veliko Tarnovo and founded the Patriarchal Monastery of the Trinity there, which became the center of linguistic and literary work, a School for correcting texts. The product of the School became the standard of Bulgarian Slavic religious literature. In the end, he was appointed Patriarch of Bulgaria, and in the absence of the king, he also became the protector of Tarnovo against the Ottoman siege in 1825. With the fall of the City, he moved with his students to the Monastery in Bachkovo, where he died and was buried in 1404.
Avtimi prepared the Bulgarian bookshelf for the days of darkness ahead, and his work has been compared to that of Moses or Ptolemy I (founder of the Library of Alexandria). He wrote the biographies, prayers, liturgical rules, books of thought and spirituality of the Bulgarian Church, fortifying Bulgarian Christianity against the Bogomil heresies and Islamic influence. Among other things, he wrote the stories of Saint Petka, and the stories of the holy monk Ivan Rilsky, who became mother and father figures for the masses of the common people.
The Hesychasm monks
The Hesychasm tradition of Orthodox monks is a meditative prayer reminiscent of Buddhist mantras or “Zikr” practices of the Sufis, involving breathing and repetition of mantras as a means of reaching God. The tradition reached the Second Bulgarian Empire from Mount Athos, and its centers existed at Mount Vitosha, at the Monastery in Bachkovo, at the Ivanovo Monastery, and in many other places. It largely replaced the Bogomil heresy in the late 13th and early 14th centuries.
The meaning of the word Hesychasm is silence or calming. The Hesychasm monks repeat the text: ” Our Lord Jesus the Messiah, Son of God, have mercy on me living in sin” (in Greek) accompanied by breathing, body postures and mental images of light, until the spiritual light of Mount Tabor is revealed to them. Just as Moses ssaw God on the Mountain and in the burning bush. The Hesychasm monks learn to see and feel the energies – the emanations of God that exist behind the physical world.
The tradition started by the early desert fathers, one of tjem is John of the Ladder (Yohanan Clymcus), who was a theologian at Mount Sinai in the 6th century, it was developed in the 13th century by a monk named Nikephoros the Hermit and found a home on Mount Athos. According to Nikephoros, the purpose of the spiritual life is to discover the “treasure hidden in the heart”, to unite the spiritual (nous) with the heart – God’s abode, this is the true abode of Mount Sinai. The union is done with the help of “a descent, through breathing, of the spiritual to the heart.” Nikephoros writes an essay called “On the preservation of the heart” in which he describes his method, which in essence is a combination of breathing with repetition of prayer and mental images, and thus he writes: “As I told you, sit comfortably, concentrate your spiritual power in your nostrils, this is the way of breathing to the heart. Push forcefully, force it to descend into your heart, and when it reaches there you will know joy, like a man who returns home after a long absence and is no longer able to contain his joy in the presence of his wife and children. Thus your spiritual element, when united with the soul, flows with joy and delight that cannot be described in words. But after your spiritual element has arrived there, he should not be silent or sink into inaction, but he should constantly repeat and say: “Our Lord Jesus the Messiah, Son of God, have mercy on me!”
Gregory of Sinai (1255-1346) contributes to the development of the Hesychasm of Mount Athos and insists on the central role of remembering God, as appears in the verse: “And you remembered Jehovah your God” (Deuteronomy 8:18). The remembrance of God makes a person constantly aware of the grace of baptism, which is hidden due to sins. The remembrance of God cannot be realized in a crowd but only in solitude.
Gregory of Palamas (1359-1296) who was one of the greatest philosophers and mystics of the Orthodox Church and the bishop of Thessaloniki, is the great protector and promoter of the Hesychasm practice. He writes a book called “words for the Defense of the Hesychasm Saints.” Gregory distinguishes between the divine essence and the energies through which God is revealed and develops a mystical theology about light.
The divine light that the Hesychasm see is the “light of transfiguration” on Mount Tabor. When Jesus ascended the Mountain accompanied by his three closest disciples, he appeared to them in the form of light and this is called the miracle of transfiguration, except that according to the mystical teaching of Hesychasm the transfiguration was not in Jesus but in the disciples, who were privileged thanks to divine grace to see Jesus as the manifestation of the first light of creation. Humans have this ability and it will be returned to them at the time of redemption. “He who partakes of the divine energy becomes himself, to some extent, light. He becomes one with the light, and together with the light he sees with complete awareness everything that is hidden from the eyes of those who have not been granted this grace.”
According to Palamas, God created man equipped with a divine and immaterial mode of reproduction. Sexuality and death fell upon him due to original sin. The fulfillment of the Logos (Jesus) enabled Theosis (the transformation of man back into God), but this was always done solely by the grace of God. The most important thing is the inner prayer also called the unceasing prayer, contemplation and celibate life. These lead to deification which takes place along with experiencing the mystical light.
The holy monks of the Hesychasm tradition on Mount Athos and in various places in Bulgaria radiated a light of grace. When a solitary monk was immersed in prayer his cell was filled with light. There is a connection between prayer, mystical light and God. The monks claimed that they managed to see and participate in the uncreated light.
The Hesychasm tradition relies on some of Paul’s epistles, the Gospel according to John, and an interpretation of parts of the New Testament. It was recognized and accepted in the Orthodox Christian world and became of prime importance starting from the 14th century. During this period, the Bulgarians had centers of Hesychasm in many places throughout the kingdom, such as Mount Vitosha, as well as an important Monastery on Mount Athos called Zograf, to which many of their leaders were connected, and first and foremost – Patriarch Avtimi.
Sveti Petka – the saint of the Balkans
Throughout the Balkans there are many Churches dedicated to the saint who is a kind of national mother figure named Sveta Petka. She was the patron and protector of the Second Bulgarian Empire and veneration for her exists to this day. Apparently, her name was identified with ancient Slavic deities. Sometimes her name becomes Paraskeva, a word that means Friday. Hence she may be a personification of Friday, the day of the crucifixion.
Among the Churches dedicated to her there is a Church from the 13th century in the heart of Sofia, an ancient Church in Tsari Mali Grad at the foot of the Rila Mountains, a Church in Veliko Tarnovo, in the village of Malovista and in the City of Bitola in Macedonia, in the village of Baba Vanga, and more. Her sect developed in the 14th-13th centuries, and there are probably some “Sveta Petkas” that have mixed over the years.
According to legends, she was born and raised in the 10th century in the Strandja Mountains in Bulgaria. As a child she heard verse 24 in Mark chapter 8, “He who desires to follow me must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me”, and as a result of this she decided to become a nun in the Judean desert in an attempt to imitate Elijah and John the Baptist. Sveta Petka was in love with Jesus and his teaching and tried to follow his path. She went to Israel disguised as a man, tortured herself with countless fasts, contenting herself with little food and conquering her desires.
During her life in the Judean desert she subsisted on local herbs and sparing water. She lived alone in the desert, and the love of God and his presence of God, were the center of her life. The devil tried to disturb her in all kinds of ways and especially by the appearance of monsters and demons, but sveta Petka was not deterred and forced away the apparitions by raising the cross she held in her hand in front of the visions. This action became her attribute (symbol).
At the age of 25 she had a vision in which she was guided to return to her native land. With great sorrow she left the desert, arrived in Constantinople, prayed and stayed in the Churches there, and finally returned to her native village and died there at the age of 27. No one knew about her and her work, but in her life she fulfilled the ideal of holiness and her body was filled with light, and therefore it did not rot but remained intact in the grave .
Years passed and in the same place a road robber died and was buried, his body rotted and gave off a strong stench. One of the monks who secluded himself on a pillar not far away, could not bear the smell and came down from the pillar to bury the body. During the digging of the grave, Petka’s body was discovered glowing and whole, the story of her life was discovered, and since then the holy relics began a journey around the Balkan. At first, the body was adopted by the emperors of Byzantium, but the holy City was conquered by the Latins who looted it. Ivan Asen, the Tsar of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom. Asked for and received her remains and brought them with honors to his capital Veliko Tarnovo. This is how Sveta Petka became the saint of the new Bulgarian empire and a symbol of Christian Bulgarian nationalism – she is the one who faces difficulties in a manly way and overcomes them, despite being a woman.
With the occupation of Veliko Tarnovo by the Turks, the remains of Sveta Petka moved to the City of Vidin on the Danube for three years, after which they were taken by the last Serbian kings, Lazar and Zarovic, and brought to Belgrade, where they defended the City for another 100 years against the Ottomans, until the City was conquered by Suleiman The magnificent in the 16th century. And then her remains arrived in Istanbul, where they were adopted by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate in Fener. In 1641 the relics were transferred to Moldavia in exchange for financial aid to the Greeks and were placed in the Church of the Three Saints in ysaye. From then until today, she protects Moldova and her burial place is used as a pilgrimage site.
The one who told the stories of Sveta Petka and attributed them to a miracle is Patriarch Avtimi, who promoted her cult as a local saint, and at the same time also the cult of the monk Rilsky (you can read about him in the chapter on the Rila Monastery). Avtimi’s goal was to create a local model of identification (Bulgarian saints) for the masses, which proved itself during the long years of Ottoman oppression.
 One of the traditions of Orthodox monasticism is seclusion on high pillars, like fakirs in India.