by Professor Hristo Matanov

The Bulgarians turned into a meek herd with a stern Ottoman shepherd, but sometimes they strayed


On your way from Europe to Istanbul along the well-trodden road through Nis, Belgrade, Sofia and Plovdiv, you can easily tell when you have entered the territory of the former Ottoman Empire - toilets begin to stink in western Hungary! The Bulgarians have now been independent for nearly 130 years, but they still bear the scars of 500 years of Ottoman rule and sadness at their long enslavement. While they adjusted to foreign rule, Europe experienced the Renaissance, discovered the Americas and Australia, enlightened its monarchs and developed an industrial society.


Hope is the greatest evil on Earth. The Bulgarians learned this in the first years of Ottoman rule at the end of the 14th Century. At the beginning, it seemed that it would only take a little effort to break free. The sons and grandsons of the last Bulgarian kings were still alive and doing their utmost to attract independent European countries to their cause. The crusading enthusiasm of earlier times began to revive in Central Europe and the victories of Hungarian military commander John Hunyadi and Albanian lord George Kastrioti Skenderbeg proved that the Ottomans were not so insuperable. The religious leaders of the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches also signed a union to join forces against the common enemy.

Battle reenactment in Shumen

Battle reenactment in Shumen

The two crusades of Vladislaus III, king of Poland and Hungary, and John Hunyadi in 1443-1444, represented the height of their liberation hopes. However, the first campaign failed because of the severe winter and the second because of the imprudence of young Vladislaus, who died in the Battle of Varna. This defeat was the last ground crusade in the Middle Ages and ended Bulgarian hopes for a quick overthrow of Ottoman rule.

King Ladislaus' symbolic grave near Varna

King Ladislaus' symbolic grave near Varna

King Ladislaus is remembered fondly in Bulgarian history and popular culture for his unsuccessful, but enthusiastic crusade to overthrow the Ottomans and liberate the conquered Christian nations of the Balkans. His impetuous invasion into subdued Bulgarian territories led him and his army as far as Varna on the Black Sea coast. There he was finally defeated by Ottoman forces and killed in action



In the history of mankind, there is hardly a country that has been as brazen in its attitude to its subjects as the Ottoman Empire. For the sultan, anybody in his country who paid taxes, no matter whether Muslim or Christian, was rayah, or the herd.

Since everybody in the herd was equal, the Ottomans took care to destroy the old Bulgarian elite. Some renowned figures were slaughtered. A year after taking the capital of Tarnovo in 1393, its Ottoman governor ordered the execution of 110 boyars, or nobles. Patriarch Evtimiy, a popular figure who led the defence of the capital, was sent into exile in the Bachkovo Monastery.

More refined methods were also used. Part of the nobility was given posts in the Ottoman Empire and gradually assimilated into Islam. The high clergy and the intelligentsia emigrated to Walachia, Moldova, Serbia and Russia, replaced by Greek clerics, who had no fondness for Bulgarians either.

The rest of the Bulgarians continued living by the old ways. Nobody banned the killing of pigs at Christmas and the making, selling and drinking of wine - as long as taxes were paid for them.

There was disparity among the rayah, though. Some Bulgarian villages were given tax concessions provided they promised to guard the mountain passes from brigands. Other villages were obliged to produce butter, salt or iron and provide the state with sheep at low prices. Or, alternatively, they were required to clean the huge imperial stables and falconers had to catch and train hunting falcons for the sultan.

Everyone else had to pay sundry taxes devised by the sultan's clerks. The taxes were abundant but many corresponded to those levied by the Bulgarian kings. Historians still argue who paid more, the free Bulgarians to their own king or the rayah to the sultan. One fact is certain: the taxes were used to finance the empire's wars and each new campaign meant an increase. Thus, within only 15 years of the rule of Mehmed II the Conqueror (1451-1481), the taxation of people living in the area of Syar - present-day Serres - increased by 10-12 percent.

Where taxes were concerned, the Bulgarians did not always behave like obedient sheep. Sometimes they openly grumbled against their rise, threatened the authorities that they would "take flight" and often translated words into actions. They abandoned their villages and settled in the cities or established new settlements away from the tax collectors they had so duped.

Blood Tax

Nobody has ever enjoyed paying taxes. But until the early 18th Century, many Bulgarians felt like murdering the tax collector - literally. This happened every three or four years when they faced the officials coming for the socalled blood tax used by the Empire to conscript soldiers for the sultan's most loyal army, the janissaries. The tax collectors took the strongest and cleverest Christian boys, converted them to Islam, forced them to forget their past and families and begin a new life in Istanbul. Those who had talent and ambition made a dazzling career as high-ranking army officers, government officials and even grand viziers.



However, the bereft families mourned their sons as if they were dead. Some tried to protect their children from tax collectors by marrying them too young (janissaries were not allowed to get married). Rarely, some Bulgarians offered to become janissaries themselves. Their requests were seldom granted, because the Empire preferred to choose and train its future rulers and soldiers itself.


Christians had good cause to feel disgruntled in the Empire. After the Ottoman conquest, a number of monasteries and churches were either razed to the ground or turned into mosques. The Patriarchate of Tarnovo, the primary religious centre in Bulgaria, was destroyed.

The Bulgarians passed under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the Ohrid Archbishopric. Both were headed by Greeks who deeply hated the Bulgarian clergy and parishioners.

Moreover, the Ottoman Empire did not recognise the nations that lacked their own church. Hence, the Bulgarians were treated as Rum millet, that is as Greeks.

There were other problems besides the Greeks. The Ottomans abided by Sunni Islam and imposed restrictions on the construction and reparation of churches in towns and villages. As a result, the priests who served in the few remaining Bulgarian churches became even fewer and poorly trained for their job. Their shortage became so great that in certain places people began practising a strange, idiosyncratic form of Christianity where the pagan superstitions largely outnumbered the dogmas.

Bachkovo Monastery

Bachkovo Monastery

On the other hand, the monasteries became particularly popular. They were located outside the settlements and were practically independent. Some of the large monasteries, such as those of Rila and Bachkovo, managed to preserve their property, which had been given to them by the Bulgarian kings, and began attracting an increasing number of Bulgarian pilgrims.

Not all Bulgarians professed the Eastern Orthodox faith. In the 16th and 17th Century Catholic enclaves appeared in the central part of northern Bulgaria, the area around Chiprovtsi, Plovdiv and Sofia.

The most talented children in these communities were sent to study in the Vatican and returned home as bishops. Though the Ottoman government tolerated them, it was also suspicious and regarded them as the "fifth column" of its enemies: Venice, the papacy and the Hapsburg Empire. It had good reason in a way. It was in the Catholic areas that the first revolts against the authorities erupted.

The Orthodox Bulgarians did not particularly like the Catholics and called them Paulicians, a name which was very popular in the Middle Ages and meant heretics.


According to the 2001 census, Bulgaria's Muslims account for 12.2 percent of the population. Historically, it's unclear how this 12.2 percent emerged and the circumstances surrounding their presence trigger heated arguments.

In the recent past, many historians believed - and the Communist government shared their opinion - that Islam was imposed by force, as a state policy. They completely overlooked the Muslims who had arrived from Asia Minor and the Christians who renounced their faith voluntarily.

In the 1980s, the Communists attempted to turn this theory into reality. Back then, thousands of Bulgarian Muslims were forcibly "convinced" that they were in fact Bulgarians who had forgotten their past and were made to swap their Arabic names for Bulgarian ones. The other part of the population of Socialist Bulgaria was persuaded of the same thing with Anton Donchev's novel Time of Parting and its screen version Time of Violence, which featured Bulgarian film stars.

According to statistics there are 300,000 Pomaks in Bulgaria

According to statistics there are 300,000 Pomaks in Bulgaria

At the opposite end are those Turkish historians for whom all Muslims in Bulgaria are descendants of the Muslims who arrived from Asia Minor.

As usual, the truth is somewhere in between. What exactly happened between the 15th and the 17th Century remains unknown, but according to historical documents, Islamisation in Bulgarian lands was minimal until the end of the 15th Century. The changes happened in the 16th Century. Larger Turkish groups came from Asia Minor and settled in the cities and rural areas, such as Dobrudzha and the Eastern Rhodope Mountains. Some Bulgarians converted to Islam voluntarily because, as Muslims, they enjoyed tax concessions. Others were, however, forced to do so and this caused serious conflicts. In Sofia, for example, two people, St Nicholas of Sofia and St George of Sofia, were canonised saints in a very short period of time because they had chosen to die as martyrs rather than embrace Islam.

The regions where the church was weak and offered no spiritual support to the Christians proved to be the most susceptible to Islamisation. The historical chronicles, whose reliability many Bulgarian historians dispute, tell of massive forcible conversion to the Muslim faith in the area of present-day Velingrad, enforced with the help of Ottoman troops.

Irrespective of how they adopted the new religion, Muslim Bulgarians preserved their language and some of their rites. Today, they are known as bulgaromohamedani or pomatsi and inhabit mainly the Rhodope and parts of the Balkan Mountains.

There was always tension between the Christians and the Muslims, but, as a rule, conflicts were not numerous in everyday life. After all, you may not regard a man with whom you can't enjoy a glass of wine with pork chops as one of your own, but you can treat him as an equal if you help each other in a neighbourly fashion. Thus, the Bulgarians gradually began to acquire elements of the dress, cuisine and language of the invaders.

The Great Settlement ofJews

There had been Jewish communities in Bulgarian lands since antiquity and they were so prominent in larger cities in the Middle Ages that one of its members, Sarah, became the second wife of King Ivan Alexander (1332-1371). However, the great Jewish advent occurred at the end of the 15th Century. When they were forced to flee from Spain, Portugal and the Italian and German lands, the Ottoman Empire exploited this to invite them to its territory. Most of those who settled in Bulgarian lands were Sephardim from Spain and Ashkenazim from Hungary and Germany. They made their homes in larger cities, such as Thessaloniki, Dupnitsa, Sofia, Vidin and Ruse, and immediately became successful business people. They integrated well into the economic sphere, but otherwise lived a relatively insulated life, establishing their own synagogues, literary schools and educational institutions.


Five hundred years beset with hatred and incessant armed resistance: according to patriotically minded historians, media and ordinary Bulgarians, the Ottoman Empire had huge problems with the Bulgarians. Their subjects constantly rebelled and when they didn't, they used to rob wealthy Turks.

The truth is much less heroic. For most of these 500 years, the Bulgarians tried to live normal lives, as best they could. The Empire was strong, its institutions functioned well and the rayah was relatively untroubled. Besides, the Bulgarians quickly learned how to outwit the state and its tax collectors. There were dozens of ways to do this and this hereditary disrespect for all authority was transmitted to successive generations.

A Celtic-looking cross near Chiprovtsi

A Celtic-looking cross near Chiprovtsi

Attitudes changed when the Ottoman Empire fought a war. After every defeat it suffered, certain Bulgarians bombarded European rulers with petitions for help. After the siege of Vienna in 1683, which had a catastrophic ending for the Ottomans, the Austrian army marched so deeply into the Empire's territory that the Bulgarians became hopeful.

Revolts broke out in Eastern Macedonia, the area near Tarnovo and the Catholic regions near Chiprovtsi. The Austrians gave no support and the Ottomans drowned the uprisings in blood.

Yoke or Presence

Bulgarians enjoy arguing about events of 500 years ago, but their debates have grown rather frantic recently. The issue is: was the Ottoman rule a yoke or a presence? For generations of Bulgarians, it was the "Turkish yoke", so when historians started publicly using the more neutral and correct term "Ottoman rule", they were viewed as national apostates attempting to downplay the notorious 500 years and curry favour with the Turkish minority. The reaction of the Turkish minority was even stronger. Some of its members suggested a new term, "Ottoman presence".

The Bulgarians were not slaves in the Ottoman Empire. They possessed their own property, paid taxes and had the right to bring matters to court. Yet the Ottomans were in no way merely "present" in Bulgarian lands. They had a well-established, functioning Ottoman administration that forbade any degree of autonomy. The number of Turks and other Muslims was considerable and they thought of themselves as privileged.

Brigands in the Woods

The British have just one Robin Hood, but the Bulgarians have had hundreds of his ilk. They call the outlaws who lived in the forests and robbed the rich to feed the poor hayduti. Like Robin Hood, they were also strongly romanticised in a spate of folk songs and legends.

The perfect haydutin headed a small, loyal band of brave, merry men. In the winter, the outlaws would hide in the mountain villages, emerging in the spring to continue their work. It had certain attractions, like frequent feasts on roasted lamb and wine in green meadows, but also some drawbacks. If caught, the hayduti were impaled or hung from iron hooks. Nevertheless, theirs was a very popular job - none the least because of the admiration ordinary Bulgarians held for them.

Idealised hayduks fight Turks in a 19th Century engraving

Idealised hayduks fight Turks in a 19th Century engraving


1431 Joan of Arc was burnt at the stake as a heretic
29 May 1453 The Ottomans conquered Constantinople
1453 The Hundred Years' War between France and England ended
1455-1485 The Wars of the Roses
1478 The Spanish Inquisition began the persecution of Jews, Muslims and heretics
1492 Christopher Columbus discovered America
1497-1499 Vasco da Gama discovered a sea route to India
1506 Leonardo da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa
1517 Martin Luther announced his 95 theses that launched the start of the Protestant Reformation
1517-1519 Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the world
1558-1603 The reign of Queen Elizabeth I
1560 Tobacco was brought to Europe
1606 Australia was discovered
1636 Harvard University was founded
1653 Oliver Cromwell was elected Lord Protector of the Commonwealth
1661-1715 The reign of King Louis XIV in France


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