by Professor Hristo Matanov

Vagabond's history of Bulgaria, Part 7


What is the similarity between baklava, Volen Siderov and the mosque in the centre of Sofia? If it wasn't for the Ottoman conquest of Bulgaria at the end of the 14th Century, none of the three would exist today.

The foreign rule, which lasted for 500 years and was until recently defined as a “yoke”, is the Bulgarian people's most traumatic collective memory. On the one hand, they – as well as the rest of the Balkan nations – were subjugated because of their own improvidence. The small, disunited states on the peninsula persisted in petty conflicts at a time when a much larger common enemy threatened them. On the other, the ensuing rule by a country with a different religion and political traditions tore the Bulgarians away from European development just when it was to experience such exciting events as the Renaissance, the great geographic discoveries and industrialisation.

This all began in the 14th Century and, as is often the case, there was little warning.


When you chop off the right head things fall into place by themselves, Bulgarian King Theodore Svetoslav established at the very beginning of the 14th Century. He managed to quell the constant intervention of the Mongols from the Golden Horde in the government of the country by killing the Horde's khan, who had been previously given asylum in Bulgaria. The great khan of the Tatars was so pleased with this turn of events that he gave up trying to “persuade” the Bulgarians which king in his view should ascend the throne. At the same time the Byzantine Empire was so weak that it was far removed from being a “great power”.

Bulgarian thought, erroneously, that the steep hills of Tarnovo were a natural barrier to invaders
Bulgarian thought, erroneously, that the steep hills of Tarnovo were a natural barrier to invaders

This is how, optimistically and full of hope, the 14th Century began for the Bulgarians – the century in which they were to lose their independence. Their real problem was with Serbia, which conquered a considerable part of Bulgaria's territory in the west and did not conceal its intention to attack in the south.

King Michael III Shishman (1323-1330) attempted to repel the Serbian threat. The task was worthy of his ambitions. Before undertaking it, he involved himself in the Byzantine civil war between Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos and his grandson Andronikos III and even devised a plan to conquer Constantinople. He knew perfectly well that his army was too small to besiege it so, pretending he felt concerned for Andronikos, he offered him some Bulgarian soldiers to guard his palace. The Byzantine ruler could easily see through this suggestion and declined.

His attempt to stop the Serbian invasion in Macedonia ended with an even greater catastrophe. Michael III and the new Byzantine Emperor Andronikos III, who both had interests in the area, formed an anti- Serbian alliance – the first, albeit not the last political combination in the history of the Balkans aimed at the geographical area of Macedonia. However, in 1330 the Serbs defeated the Bulgarian army near the present-day town of Kyustendil and killed Michael III Shishman in battle. The Byzantines wisely retreated from Macedonia and, uninhibitedly, conquered a number of Bulgarian strongholds in Thrace.

The Serbs could not advance sufficiently to conquer Bulgarian territories. This allowed some of the Bulgarian aristocrats to organise themselves and bring Ivan Alexander to the throne. His long reign (1331-1371) had some good periods, but an ill-fated ending too: the country that he ruled was on the verge of demise.

King Ivan Alexander commissioned a portrain of himself, his wife Theodora and his sons Ivan Stratsimir and Ivan Shishman in what would become a masterpiece of Bulgarian medieval miniatures

King Ivan Alexander commissioned a portrain of himself, his wife Theodora and his sons Ivan Stratsimir and Ivan Shishman in what would become a masterpiece of Bulgarian medieval miniatures


You do not need to be a glorious military commander to gain a place in history as the monarch with the greatest number of preserved portraits. During his 40-yearlong reign Ivan Alexander always abided by this peaceable principle – and had guaranteed success.

His rule was the last period of peace before the demise of medieval Bulgaria. The king was a skilful diplomat, took no unnecessary risks and patronised art. He commissioned the translation of Byzantine chronicles and the writing of resplendent manuscripts for the royal library. At the very beginning of his reign he made peace with Stefan Uroš IV Dušan of Serbia, sealing it with the marriage of his sister Helena to the Serbian king, and allowed him to finish his conquest of Macedonia, take over Albania and raid the north of continental Greece. Ivan Alexander, in turn, focused on regaining Thrace and the Rhodopes from the then weak Byzantine Empire.

King Ivan Alexander's support of the church and men of art did not remain unrewarded. Writers extolled his deeds comparing him to Emperor Constantine the Great and artists painted his image in illuminated manuscripts and on church walls.

he rulers of Kaliakra Fortress broke away from the central control in Tarnovo just before the Ottomans invaded

The rulers of Kaliakra Fortress broke away from the central control in Tarnovo just before the Ottomans invaded

This cheerful façade concealed an unfortunate political background. Bulgaria was irrevocably disintegrating into semiindependent principalities. Ivan Alexander himself started this practice by giving the area of Vidin to Ivan Sratsimir, his eldest son from his first marriage. Thus, the throne in Tarnovo fell to his younger son Ivan Shishman, born to Ivan Alexander's second wife, Sarah, a Jewess who took the name of Theodora after she converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. The number of coexistent Bulgarian states grew with the Principality of Karvuna, which appeared in the northeast of Bulgaria, in present-day Dobrudzha.

Church life was not unblemished either. An increasing number of heresies, each new one more exotic than the other, arose in the country. The state and the church reacted with repressions, some of which bore a strong resemblance to the western Inquisition. The Jews were among those who suffered the most. The church was suspicious of them and dramatised Jewish converts. Some even held Sarah-Theodora accountable and regarded Christian apostates as the main reason for the country's problems. Few cared to face the truth: the “great” Ivan Alexander was not so great.

The Terrible Toll of The Black Death

In 1347, the plague that had started from the Genoese settlement in Crimea, spread throughout Europe. Within several years it wiped out a third of its population. The pandemic recurred periodically over subsequent decades and only disappeared completely at the end of the 15th Century. Bulgaria was not spared by the pestilence and met the Ottoman invasion with a reduced population and suffering an economic, military and spiritual crisis. This facilitated the Ottoman Turks' conquest. Ironically, this was reminiscent of the arrival of the Slavs: they came to the Balkan Peninsula in the 6th-7th Century, about a hundred years after the devastating Plague of Justinian. In both cases, the already settled Balkan communities were undermined and the newcomers emerged the winners. The reason is simple: during a pandemic the invaders can rely on their normal population growth, so ensuring numerical superiority and final victory.

The Ottoman invasion of the Balkans started at the Dardanelles

The Ottoman invasion of the Balkans started at the Dardanelles


While the Balkans wasted time in the usual mutually destructive squabbles, fateful events were brewing in Asia Minor. Throughout the second half of the 13th Century, it was flooded by Turkic tribes from Central Asia who were fleeing from the Mongol invasions. At the end of the century, the Byzantine Empire suddenly established that it had lost Asia Minor irretrievably. The power there passed to the hands of different Turkic leaders, who founded their own principalities, known as beyliks. Nobody in the Balkans, however, worried much about the fact that the Byzantine Empire would no longer act as a buffer against the Muslim world.

At the end of the century, a little-known ruler named Osman founded his beylik in the northwesternmost corner of Asia Minor, right opposite the avenue of approach to Europe, the Gallipoli Peninsula. Its convenient location attracted the bulk of the Turkic refugees, hunting new pastures for their livestock and areas in which to settle. Osman and his successors exploited this and increased the size of their army, declaring themselves bearers of the ideas of holy war.

Ironically, the Osmanlis first set foot in the Balkans invited – by a Byzantine. In 1344, when the Empire was in turmoil through one of its numerous civil wars, John Kantakouzenos, a pretender for the throne, hired them as mercenaries. His crown came at an extremely dear price. The Ottomans learnt the way to Europe, discovered the southern Balkans, devastated Byzantine Thrace and some of their units attacked Bulgaria, near the capital of Tarnovo.

It was only then that Ivan Alexander started to recognise the imminent threat and formulate a response. The solution came, ironically again, from John Kantakouzenos, who began realising the consequences of his alliance with the Osmanlis. The emperor asked the Bulgarian and the Serbian rulers for money to build a strong fleet. It had to block the Dardanelles and prevent the Ottomans from crossing over to Europe. Ivan Alexander agreed, but the Serbs refused to take part because of their well-founded fears that Kantakouzenos would pit his Ottoman mercenaries against them at every opportunity. Thus, no allied navy appeared in the Dardanelles.

The Bulgarians and the Serbs did not intend to remain passive observers of the invasion though and devised their own plan. Its most important aspect was to replace Kantakouzenos with the rightful emperor, John V Palaiologos, a man whose name was unsullied by an alliance with the Ottomans. Their armies marched into Thrace, but Kantakouzenos – who could blame him for this? – met them with a considerable Ottoman force. The allied army suffered defeat, so ending the early attempts to resist the new invaders. A history buff, Ivan Alexander decided that the Ottoman threat was temporary, just like the preceding Tartar danger, and would evaporate with time.

While the Balkan rulers were dilly-dallying, some Ottoman troops settled permanently in the Balkans. They conquered several major fortresses on the Gallipoli Peninsula, providing a beachhead for further advancement. A period of unprecedented ordeals was about to start for Bulgaria and the other Balkan nations.

The Momchil Case

In 1344-1345, when nobody knew where the Muslim threat would spread to, one of the most colourful personalities of this century, Momchil, entered the stage. In his youth, he was a brigand operating in the border areas between Bulgaria, Serbia and the Byzantine Empire. In the 1340s he mustered a band of several thousand men and became such a force that John Kantakouzenos decided to lure him to his side and entrusted him with the western and central Rhodopes. Kantakouzenos's opponents in the civil war followed suit and gave Momchil the highest court title, despot. Naturally, the Bulgarian turned against his previous patron and his Ottoman mercenaries. The emperor quickly retaliated. Momchil's men were defeated and he was himself killed in 1345. All that the ordinary Bulgarians, who were oblivious to his political intrigues, remembered from his turbulent biography were his battles with the Ottomans. Hence they made him the hero of epic songs extolling his valiant exploits.

A Byzantine miniature depicting Momchil fighting the Ottomans

A Byzantine miniature depicting Momchil fighting the Ottomans


The death of two princes in action: this was the price that Ivan Alexander had to pay in the first serious battles of the Bulgarians against the Ottomans, who had already settled along the lower course of the Maritsa River. However, these were not the only problems of the long-lived monarch.

His kingdom was irretrievably falling apart – at an utterly inappropriate time – into separate small states. The eternal and ever more trivial conflicts with the Byzantine Empire, which were an inevitable part of life in the Balkans, continued. The last war between the two armies broke out in 1364 over a few Black Sea fortresses and ended with a modest victory for the Empire. The next invasion came from the northwest, when the Hungarians conquered the Kingdom of Vidin. Ivan Alexander exerted a lot of effort into expelling them. Shortly afterwards, in 1371, he died.

At the same time, the Ottoman invasion, which had a rather sluggish beginning – yavas¸ yavas¸!, or slowly!, – gathered momentum. Adrianople fell in 1369 and two years later, with ease, the Ottomans defeated the largest Christian army they had faced to date. It was headed by two district rulers of Macedonia: King Vukašin and Despot Uglješa.


King Ivan Shishman had an uncommon fate: he was the last Bulgarian monarch and the only one in the country's long list of sovereigns to have his name glorified in folk songs. Unlike his father, he persistently resisted the invaders, but it took little effort for the Ottomans to conquer Bulgaria. The country was split into several states and Shishman, his brother Sratsimir in Vidin, the despots in Dobrudzha and the several independent rulers in Macedonia all feuded. Thus, the Bulgarian rulers proved the old saying that “while two dogs fight over a bone, a third runs away with it”. The third one in this case was the Ottomans.

Emir Murad

Emir Murad

The Ottomans advanced in the direction of the Sofia Field, so the major battles with the Bulgarians took place along the Iskar River. They lasted for about seven years and afterwards, exhausted, the king admitted his defeat, becoming an Ottoman vassal and sending his sister Kera Tamara as a spouse for Murad. He also had to pay an annual tribute and take part in the Ottoman military campaigns with his troops. Ivan Shishman was not particularly eager to carry out these obligations, so his kingdom was under constant threat of invasion. Meanwhile, practically all rulers of Bulgarian lands recognised Ottoman mastery.

In 1388-1389 the Balkans were shaken by a series of important events. The Ottomans suffered two successive defeats in Bosnia and in Serbia. King Lazar of Serbia began preparations for a broad Christian coalition and Ivan Shishman was a potential participant in it. To secure his rear, the Ottoman Emir Murad attacked the Kingdom of Tarnovo with 30,000 men in the winter of 1388.

Bulgarian Patriarch Evtimiy led the defence of Tarnovo before it felt to the Ottomans in 1393

Bulgarian Patriarch Evtimiy led the defence of Tarnovo before it felt to the Ottomans in 1393

The invaders quickly reached the Danube and the king was forced to plead for peace. He secured it, but at the price of large territorial losses, humiliations and a number of victims. North of the Stara Planina Mountain, the Ottoman army also crushed the Principality of Dobrudzha. But Murad did not have a lucky destiny. He was killed the following year in the famous Battle of Kosovo against the Serbs. Nevertheless, the Ottomans won, led by his son Bayezid. Bayezid I, the first Ottoman ruler to use the title of sultan, had a clear task: to conquer all Bulgarian lands. In 1393, he besieged and conquered Tarnovo, defended by the popular Patriarch Evtimiy Tarnovski, in just three months. Meanwhile, Ivan Shishman had withdrawn to Nikopol, which became the last capital of his kingdom. In the summer of 1395 the Ottoman sultan attacked and conquered the fortress and Shishman was captured and executed. The Kingdom of Tarnovo ceased to exist. At much the same time, Sultan Bayezid I subjugated most of Macedonia, virtually without resistance.

Sultan Beyazid completed the invasion of the Bulgarian lands at the end of the 14th Century

Sultan Beyazid completed the invasion of the Bulgarian lands at the end of the 14th Century

The only hope for the still free Bulgarian lands was Hungary. In 1396 Hungarian King Sigismund organised a crusade against the Turks. It ended in a fiasco – again at Nikopol. Soon afterwards the Kingdom of Vidin was destroyed too. The formal reason for this was that Ivan Sratsimir had joined the crusaders. Thus, at the end of 1396, most Bulgarians fell under the rule of the Ottoman Turks.

The Legend of Krali Marko

A sturdy, powerfully built man who fought against the Ottomans, liberated slaves and liked wine and young barmaids: no wonder Krali Marko is a favourite epic hero of the Bulgarians. Whichever part of the country you venture to, you will be shown huge rocks allegedly hurled by the strongman, as well as formidable impressions of his boots or his horse's hooves. The prototype of this hero was a real historical person who, believe it or not, always enjoyed good relations with the Ottomans. King Marko was one of the numerous small-time rulers in Bulgarian lands at the time of the Ottoman invasion. He was the son of King Vukašin and after his father's death inherited part of his lands in Prilep and the surrounding area, over which he reigned as an Ottoman vassal between 1371 and 1395. He was so loyal to the Turks that he even died in one of their military campaigns. Nobody has ever given a satisfactory explanation of this extraordinary mass delusion of collective memory.

High Culture

During the years when Bulgaria could not boast a strong army, its culture flourished. Its church murals, illustrated manuscripts and literature reached new heights and the main engine behind them was Hesychasm. The followers of this mystic movement practised strict asceticism and sought a union with God through constant contemplative prayer. Hesychasm found many adherents in Sveta Gora, or Holy Wood, and became the official Orthodox doctrine in the mid-14th Century.

As the Bulgarian state withered, some Bulgarian clerics sought refuge in the rock monastery near today's village of Ivanovo, near Ruse

As the Bulgarian state withered, some Bulgarian clerics sought refuge in the rock monastery near today's village of Ivanovo, near Ruse

The best works of 14th Century Bulgarian literature – if you are fond of mediaeval writers – were created by the Tarnovo literary school. Its founder and most eminent representative was the last patriarch of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, Evtimiy. He tried to establish orthographic rules and introduced a complex, emotional writing style, known as “knitting words”. On the eve of European Renaissance the patriarch wrote passionals – laudatory works to different saints and epistles that became a model for the development of literature in the Orthodox Slavic world. After Bulgaria's fall to Ottoman rule, his disciples fled to Serbia, Walachia, Moldova and Russia and spread both his work and literary style.


1312 The French king destroyed the Order of the Temple

1327-1377 The reign of Edward III in England

1331-1355 The reign of King, later Tsar Stefan Uroš IV Dušan of Serbia

1337 The beginning of the Hundred Years' War between France and England, which ended in 1453

1343 The English Parliament was divided into the House of Lords and the House of Commons

1346 The English defeated the French in the Battle of Crécy

1347-1378 The reign of Charles IV, German Emperor and King of Bohemia

1349 The beginning of Edward III's Statute of Labourers

1355-1391 The reign of Emperor John V Palaiologos of the Byzantine Empire

1356 The victory of the English over the French at Poitiers

1359-1389 Emir Murad I ruled the Ottoman state

1381 Wat Tyler's Peasants' Revolt in England

1387-1437 The reign of King Sigismund of Hungary

1388 Dmitry Donskoy, Grand Prince of Moscow, defeated the Tatars in the Battle of Kulikovo


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