Bulgaria vies with Byzantium, sometimes with success
Vagabond's History of Bulgaria Part 3
Issue 9, June 2007
by Professor Hristo Matanov
NOT EXACTLY BARBARIANS
"The Bulgarians are not savages and barbarians!" Georgi Dimitrov said rhetorically in his defence speech at the Leipzig trial in 1934, when he was charged with setting the Reichstag on fire. The man who became Bulgaria's first Communist dictator 10 years later, unknowingly expressed the oldest and most deeply rooted conviction of the Bulgarians, namely that they are an exceptionally gifted and civilised people who should not be underestimated.
Some Bulgarians accuse Asparukh, the founder of the Bulgarian state, who became a neighbour of the Byzantine Empire in 681. The 700 years spent in close proximity to Constantinople, the largest city in those days, had a pernicious influence on successive rulers, who were quickly lured by the fatal charm of the megalopolis. They either wanted to conquer it, emigrate there or build an even more beautiful capital. But all their efforts were in vain and ordinary Bulgarians started harbouring doubts that though they may have been glorious warriors, merchants, builders and farmers, they were not great enough to outshine their archenemy Byzantium.
ENEMY AT THE GATES
In 732 Charles Martel stopped the Arab invasion of Europe in the Battle of Poitiers and entered the history books of West European schoolchildren. But the name of Khan Tervel, who did the same in 718 at Constantinople, is not so famous. This triumph of Asparukh's successor is known mainly to Bulgarian students and experts of early medieval history.
Khan Tervel faced the Arabs in 718 not because he felt any particular liking for the Byzantine Empire, which was directly affected by the invasion. He was not a Christian and did not dislike the Muslims and, as it seems, he would have been better off without the aggressive empire at his southern border. However, Tervel was clever enough to realise that a known enemy is a safer choice than an unknown ally. He also displayed a remarkable ability to gain direct, material benefits from any decision he took.
The first "good deal" during his rule was in 705, when the Bulgarian capital city of Pliska welcomed an unexpected guest, the dethroned Byzantine emperor Justinian II. This remarkable man had been raised to the throne as joint emperor by his father Constantine IV in 681 and did not visit Pliska for friendship. Justinian, who was nicknamed Rinotmetus, or the Slit-nosed, needed help. Ten years earlier he had been dethroned because he left Armenia to the Arabs and invested in rather expensive public construction and, divested of his nose and imperial dignity, was banished to Chersonesus. Justinian managed to escape, married a Khazar princess and went to Tervel's court.
The khan did not mind helping the former emperor regain his throne; not the least because Justinian promised him peace, the title of caesar, an amount of money and the hand of his only daughter. Thus, in 705, the emperor appeared before the walls of Constantinople accompanied by 15,000 Bulgarian horsemen, who emboldened him with enough courage to enter the city with a handful of trusted companions through an unused water conduit and seize control.
During a magnificent parade in the capital, the new emperor crowned Tervel a caesar, gave him the district of Zagore, as the area between Sliven, Yambol and the Black Sea was then called, and presented him with so much fur, silk and gold that the khan could literally give handfuls to each of his soldiers.
Justinian was not a trustworthy neighbour. He made an unsuccessful attempt to regain Zagore several years later. This did not stop him from asking Tervel for help again in 711, this time against the usurper Philippicus Bardanes. The khan had more sense than to agree. When Khan Asparukh, painted by Iliya Petrov he realised that Justinian's time was up, he withdrew his 3,000-strong army and left the emperor to his own devices. This time the Slit-nosed lost another part of his body - his head.
The relationship between the two monarchs would have seemed like a squabble characteristic of the Middle Ages if it hadn't been for the Arabs. In 717 their army appeared at Constantinople to subject it to the greatest siege the city has ever experienced. It was greater than that of the Crusaders in 1204 or of the Ottomans in 1453, but by an ironic quirk of fate it failed.
Tervel needed time to judge who the lesser evil was, but if chroniclers are to be believed, the battlefield was covered with the bodies of 22,000 Arabs after his attack. The invaders lifted their siege and abandoned their idea of conquering Europe via the Bosporus for good - thanks to Tervel's calculations.
70 years ago, on 10 March 1943, Bulgaria's pro-Nazi government decided to defy Berlin and halt the deportation of Bulgaria's 50.000 Jews. This was down to the actions of one man - Dimitar Peshev. Just two years later he faced Communist justice and found himself on trial for his life. His niece Kaluda Kiradjieva remembers