A book by a monk defines whole epoch of Bulgarian history
The Revival Period. Any visitor who has been to Bulgaria for more than a couple of days for business and/or pleasure has heard this combination of words, but what does it mean? It is the name of a singular, and highly idealised, period in Bulgarian history.
It covers the late 18th and much of the 19th centuries. That was the time when, after over four centuries of Ottoman domination, the Bulgarians emancipated themselves, and also defined themselves as a separate nation from the rest of the Sultan's subjects. They had spent the previous four hundred years in a feudal society, isolated from the changes, progress and turmoil that had swept over the rest of Europe. They lived quietly, subsisting on small-time farming, animal husbandry and handicraft. They had preserved their own language and folklore culture, but besides their priests and the odd wealthy merchant they had basically no economic, cultural or political elite. They identified as Eastern Orthodox Christians subservient to the Greek-dominated Constantinople Patriarchate (there were Bulgarian Muslims, too, but the two communities kept themselves separated).
In a way, for about four centuries Bulgarians lived in a bubble.
A modern painting of the 18th century monk depicts him busy writing his famed book
The Revival Period was the time when they broke free from. The most entrepreneurial became merchants and traders. They travelled and conducted business both within and outside the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire. The younger generation discovered nationalism. Some eagerly embraced it. Realising that they were different from the other subjects of the Sultan, Bulgarians began to build schools, open community centres, and demand their own church where their language would be used. They began to print newspapers and books in Bulgarian, and became interested in international politics, although mainly as onlookers. The most hotheaded of them even plotted rebellion against the Ottomans. The dream of the revival of the Bulgarian state was born, and this eventually came to pass, in 1878.
The physical expression of this vibrant and turbulent time were the beautiful houses you see today in places such as Plovdiv, Koprivshtitsa and Kovachevitsa. The national dress and traditional music you see and hear in tourist advertisements and traditional restaurants also took shape during the Revival Period, although the brightest individuals of the time actually aspired towards a European lifestyle and fashion.
In short, for modern Bulgarians, what happened (or what they believe happened) in the Revival Period defines to a significant extent the very essence of Bulgarian-ness.
How did this crucial period in Bulgarian national history start?
The first page of the original manuscript of Slav-Bulgarian History
It is hard to put a finger on a particular event or individual who started it all. It was a long process affected by many factors: the contemporary mood in Europe and the birth of nationalism in general, the decline of the Ottoman Empire and Russia's meddling in the region. However, there is one man whose work is now widely accepted to be the symbolic beginning of the Bulgarian national Revival Period.
Otets Paisiy Hilendarski, or Father Paisiy of Chilandar, was a monk in one of the monasteries at Mount Athos. Chilandar was controlled by Serbs, but many of its monks were actually of Bulgarian origin, including Paisiy and his elder brother, who was the abbot.
Father Paisiy started writing his book while in Chilandar but an internal conflict between the monks forced him to move to another monastery on Mount Athos, the Bulgarian-controlled Zografou. There, in 1762, he finished what he called "a small history."
Its original title, in line with the 18th century fashion, was lengthy: Slav-Bulgarian History. On the Bulgarian People, Kings and Saints, and All Bulgarian Deeds and Events, Gathered and Composed by Hieromonk Paisiy, Who Lived in the Holy Mount Athos and Who Arrived There From the Samokov Eparchy in 1745, and Who Collected This History in 1762 for the Benefit of the Bulgarian People.
Written in the vernacular of the time, Slav-Bulgarian History, as the book is now known, gathered on its pages the story of the rise and the might of medieval Bulgaria. It introduced the reader to the nation's glorious but forgotten past.
The medieval environment that gave birth to Bulgaria's modernity: Father Paisiy began writing the book of his life in Chilandar Monastery at Mount Athos
Yet it was more than just a history book. Its spirited rhetoric was a wake-up call to the whole nation. Bulgaria had not always been a nation of humble shepherds and ploughmen, Paisiy reminded his readers with a burning passion. The Bulgarians used to have their own kings and a kingdom. They used to win battles against the Greeks and the Serbs, who were now claiming to be more civilised than the Bulgarians. Those Bulgarians who shunned their Bulgarian identity in order to adopt a supposedly more prestigious Greek one were fools, Paisiy maintained. Bulgarians used to be great and they could become great again, was the not very subtle message of the book.
The Bulgarians only needed to get rid of the Greeks, who controlled the church, and the Ottomans, who controlled the government, Paisiy implied.
However, the Bulgarians needed some time to take those small steps. First, the Slav-Bulgarian History had to reach its audience.
In 1762, printed books were still a rarity in the Ottoman lands. Manuscripts were the norm. Ironically, the book that propelled Bulgarians into modernity was distributed one hand-copied volume at a time. The first of these was made as late as 1765, and the next one even later, in 1771. An edited version was printed for the first time in 1844. Tellingly, this happened in Hungary rather than in the Ottoman Empire where printing presses were still not common.
The book is kept at Zografou monastery
Once it had served its purpose – to make Bulgarians aware of their own identity and their past, the Slav-Bulgarian History slipped into oblivion, overshadowed by newer, more modern and more accurate history books.
Its author was also forgotten. Caught between medieval anonymity and the emphasis on the individual that modernity entailed, Father Paisiy remained an enigma. The few details of his life, his research and his motivation that we know about were mostly provided by himself, in his "simple story." In doing this, he breached medieval tradition which stipulated that writers, painters, and builders should remain nameless and faceless.
Father Paisiy was born in 1722, and his birth name was either Petar or Penko. The Samokov Eparchy covered a large portion of the Western Balkans, but there is some evidence that he was born in Bansko. Both his father and one of his brothers were wealthy merchants in that town.
We will never know how young Paisiy became interested in Bulgarian history, nor what motivated him to dedicate his life to recording and popularising it. While he may at times have presented himself as a humble, almost semiliterate man, in keeping with the medieval tradition, his book disproves this notion. In 1758, he went to Sremski Karlovci, a Serbian town in the Vojvodina region that was then under Austrian control. Officially, he was there to collect donations for the Chilandar Monastery, but as he admits in his book, he spent most of the time looking for sources of Bulgarian history. These included two accounts written by a Venetian cardinal and an abbot from Dubrovnik. When he moved to Zografou, he immersed himself in its library and used its rich collection of medieval royal documents and stories about the lives of Bulgarian saints to complete his story. The extent and diversity of his sources clearly show that Father Paisiy was anything but semiliterate.
The abbot of Zografou monastery shows a facsimile copy of Slav-Bulgarian History. After the original manuscript was stolen from the monastery, and returned years later, only a selected few are allowed to touch the original
Father Paisiy achieved all of this while suffering, in his own words, from intestinal ailments and recurring headaches. After he finished writing the Slav-Bulgarian History, he left Mount Athos again and returned to the Bulgarian lands. Under the pretext of collecting donations, he began to introduce his book and his ideas to anyone who could read and was eager to listen.
He supposedly died in 1773, probably in Stanimaka, today's Asenovgrad.
Paisiy's achievement and his role in promoting the Bulgarian national Revival Period were recognised only after this epoch in Bulgarian history ended. By the late 19th century, he had been introduced into the pantheon of national heroes. The popular poet Ivan Vazov helped in this, by cementing into the national consciousness the cliché that still persists about Paisiy – "a monk dark, anonymous and pale," who wrote in a dimly-lit cell and was conscious of the importance of his task: "from now on the Bulgarian people has its own history and becomes a nation."
In 1962, the bicentenary of Slav-Bulgarian History, the Bulgarian Church sanctified Father Paisiy. His name is found all over the country: in streets, schools, libraries and a university. The national order of achievements in culture is named after him, too. Bulgarian students are obliged to study his book in literature classes, though most struggle to comprehend it. What was once a vivid text written in the vernacular is now difficult to understand, even in the modernised version published in 1914.
Murals at Zografou monastery
Sadly and inevitably, there is now a darker side to Otets Paisiy's public image. Nationalists have appropriated his name and his ideas to promote xenophobia and, ironically, a fear of anything new, especially if it comes from Western Europe. In the interwar period, a fascist youth organisation took the name Otets Paisiy. Nowadays, nationalists quote his famous "Oh, ignorant one, why are you ashamed to call yourself a Bulgarian?" when they decide that Bulgarian-ness is under threat from some EU regulation, the Covid-19 vaccination, immigration, gender equality, legislation against domestic or child abuse, or even Bulgarian children getting interested in Halloween.
The strangest event in which the long-dead Father Paisiy became embroiled took place in the 1980s and the 1990s. In 1984, the Bulgarian Communist State Security stole the original draft of Slav-Bulgarian History from the library of Zografou monastery, and replaced it with a copy. What happened to the original in the following years is not clear, but in the late 1990s it somehow ended up on the desk of the then director of the National History Museum. The nation was mesmerised, and huge queues of people wanting to see the book formed in front of the museum. There were calls to never return it to "the Greeks" of Mount Athos and many saw as an act of treason the decision of the then president of Bulgaria, Petar Stoyanov, to return the book to the monastery in 1998.
The entrance of Zografou monastery
Today the precious book is again kept in Zografou's library. For security reasons, it is not on general view, and just as in the times when it was written it is now again only for the eyes of a select few.
A recurrent enigma, the figure of Father Paisiy embodies both the good and the bad of Bulgarian nationalism, but his legacy remains. After all, this monk from a faraway monastery always saw history and its consequences as a long-term project.
Vibrant Communities: Spotlight on Bulgaria's Living Heritage is a series of articles, initiated by Vagabond Magazine, with the generous support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation, that aims to provide details and background of places, cultural entities, events, personalities and facts of life that are sometimes difficult to understand for the outsider in the Balkans. The ultimate aim is the preservation of Bulgaria's cultural heritage – including but not limited to archaeological, cultural and ethnic diversity. The statements and opinionsexpressed herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the America for Bulgaria Foundation and its partners