by Professor Hristo Matanov

VAGABOND’s History of Bulgaria Part 6

baldwin tower.jpg

One of the most popular images associated with Bulgaria is the Tsarevets Hill in Veliko Tarnovo. Proud Bulgarians regard it as one of the important symbols of their statehood – to the point that they have made it the centrepiece of a sound and light show. It served as the capital of the restored Bulgarian kingdom from the time of the liberation from Byzantine rule until the Ottoman conquest, a kingdom that at one point stretched between three seas. But it is also where a comparatively rich and interesting culture flourished in the waning Middle Ages and, unlike the previous capitals of Pliska and Preslav, it looked quite spectacular.

Yet the Second Bulgarian Kingdom, and especially royal Tsarevets, was also the stage of ignoble events. An emperor was thrown from the walls of the capital after being dismembered. A former swineherd sat on the throne and the history of the restored Bulgarian state began with the assassinations of those responsible for its liberation. This Bulgaria, with its glory and its shame, existed for just over 200 years before it was destroyed by the Ottomans.


When the Bulgarians fell to the Byzantines at the beginning of the 11th Century, they had no desire to remain subjects for long. But despite a respectable number of revolts, it took nearly two centuries to gain freedom. According to the Bulgarians, the palm of victory belongs to St Demetrius.

In fact, the Seljuk Turks contributed much more to Bulgaria's eventual liberation than the saint (whose intervention may count as the first documented case of propaganda in Bulgaria). Their appearance in the Byzantine territories of Asia Minor forced the Empire to neglect its Bulgarian provinces. As a result, the Bulgarian nobility, living in strong fortresses in the Balkan Mountains, was able to muster enough confidence to ensure the success of the brothers Peter and Asen when they defied the emperor.

A colossal monument to Asenevtsi in Veliko Tarnovo by sculptor Krum Damyanov and architect Georgi Getchev was erected in 1985 to commemorate the 800th Anniversary of the uprising of Asen and Petar against Byzantium

A colossal monument to Asenevtsi in Veliko Tarnovo by sculptor Krum Damyanov and architect Georgi Getchev was erected in 1985 to commemorate the 800th Anniversary of the uprising of Asen and Petar against Byzantium

Yet these future founders of the second Bulgarian state needed a reason to justify rebellion. The new emperor - from 1185 - Isaac II Angelos provided this. The empire's administration was beset with corruption even before Isaac's coronation, but under his rule the situation became even more intolerable. A pivotal event that catalysed opposition was the Norman invasion and conquest of Thessaloniki. Isaac was so delighted when he repelled them that he decided to celebrate his marriage to a Hungarian princess with unparalleled extravagance. The money for the ostentatious ceremony was raised from a new tax that he imposed on the Bulgarians. Resentment against the emperor soared and Peter and Asen realised it was time to act.

At the end of the summer of 1185 they visited Isaac in a military camp in Thrace. There they offered to join his army in return for some land in the area of the Balkan Mountains. Being a man whose generosity extended only to himself, Isaac refused. Asen persevered and in the heat of argument spoke rudely to the emperor. Isaac grew incensed, ordered his men to beat Asen, and the two boyars were chased away.

The brothers returned to Tarnovo and began laying plans for a revolt. They knew that though military might counted, it was not always enough. So they devised a propaganda trick to create the right atmosphere. They spread a rumour that St Demetrius had abandoned Thessaloniki and had holed up in the church dedicated to him that the Asens, as the two brothers were called, were building in Tarnovo.

On 26 October, the saint's holiday, the whole city gathered at the church to witness its consecration. There, Peter and Asen publicly proclaimed that they no longer recognised Byzantine rule and declared an independent Bulgarian state. Three Greek bishops were forced to anoint the Bulgarian priest Vasiliy patriarch. Vasiliy then crowned Peter tsar of the Bulgarians. In time it became clear that Asen, the younger brother, was the more talented general and ruler, and Peter voluntarily gave him the royal crown.

Northern Bulgaria was liberated quickly and without incident. The brothers decided that there was no point in restoring the old capital of Pliska and appointed Tarnovo the central city of their kingdom. Gradually, the city was established on two naturally fortified hills. The royal palaces and the patriarchal cathedral lay on Tsarevets and the boyars and the clergy lived on Trapezitsa.

In 1187, two years after the revolt began, Emperor Isaac II Angelos agreed to a peace treaty, thus practically recognising the restoration of the Bulgarian kingdom. But there was a price: the tsar had to send a hostage to Constantinople to secure the peace. This was the youngest brother of the family, Kaloyan.


A crusader

Peter and Asen's revolt occurred at the time that the Third Crusade was being organised. Some of the crusaders, led by Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, invaded and were met by Bulgarian envoys at Niš. They made the emperor an unexpected offer: if he recognised Peter as tsar, he would be given military assistance against the Byzantine Empire. Frederick refused. But when winter forced him to stay in Thrace and the Byzantine emperor would not give him any food, he had another meeting with the Bulgarians. The brothers offered the very same conditions. Barbarossa again refused and left for Asia Minor. This was to prove an unfortunate decision, as he drowned in a river there soon afterwards.


The Byzantines had no intention of reconciling with the Asens. Instead they put intrigue, the most powerful weapon in their arsenal, into action. The role of Trojan horse was played by another Isaac, a Byzantine nobleman held captive in Tarnovo. Under his influence, Ivanko, a relative of the brothers, murdered Asen. A story was circulated that Asen had been accidentally killed during a quarrel, but Peter quickly grasped the truth and tried to uproot the evil. He failed and was himself murdered soon afterwards.

Crusaders enter Constantinople, Eugene Delacroix, 1840

Crusaders enter Constantinople, Eugene Delacroix, 1840

Thus, in 1197, the crown was assumed by a man who hated the Byzantines so much that he took pride in his nickname, Römaioktonos, or “Roman-slayer”. Ironically, the name by which Ioannitsa became known as king, Kaloyan, was given to him by the Byzantines themselves. In Greek it means “Handsome Ioan”, and testified to the indisputable masculine charm of the Bulgarian.

Kaloyan allied himself with the Cumans, marrying one of their princesses, and did away with the traitors in time to face the new influx of crusaders. On 12 April 1204, the knights of the Fourth Crusade conquered Constantinople and established their Latin Empire. All that remained of the Byzantine Empire were the two small states of Epirus and Nicaea, which mainly fought against each other.

Beset by their woes, the Greeks in Thrace decided that Kaloyan was the lesser evil and appealed to him for help. The armies of the Bulgarian king and Latin Emperor Baldwin I met at Adrianople in the spring of 1205. Baldwin was over-confident, relying on his heavy cavalry and summoning few troops. They were literally swept away by the far superior numbers of Bulgarians and Cumans. The emperor was captured and imprisoned in Tarnovo, where he perished under mysterious circumstances, thrown from a castle tower with his limbs amputated.

During the next two years King Kaloyan mounted a massive offensive against both the Latins and the Greeks in Thrace. But at the siege of Thessaloniki in 1207, he met the same fate as his brothers. The king was murdered by a Cuman mercenary named Manastar. We can safely assume that a certain amount of Byzantine gold had changed hands before the act. According to the Byzantines, however, Kaloyan was struck down by St Demetrius himself.


Kaloyan exchanged letters with one of the most intelligent and active popes in history, Innocent III. Wishing to expand his influence in the east, he wrote to the Bulgarian ruler in 1199 to tell him that he had found proof in the papal archives that Kaloyan's forebears came from Rome.

Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) negotiated with Kaloyan. Dante condemned him to the Inferno

Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) negotiated with Kaloyan. Dante condemned him to the Inferno

In recognition of this ancestry, Pope Innocent III asked him to accept the jurisdiction of the Roman Catholic Church. They corresponded continuously over the next few years, the pope trying to convert Bulgaria to Catholicism and Kaloyan asking to be recognised as tsar. Each was too clever to capitulate, so a compromise was needed. Bulgaria signed a union with the Vatican in which it admitted the supremacy of the pope, but without abandoning Eastern Orthodoxy. The pope, on his side, recognised Kaloyan as rex, or “king”, and sent him a crown, a sceptre and other royal insignia. In spite of this, the Bulgarian sovereign continued to close his letters to Innocent III by signing himself “emperor”, that is, “tsar”. The union lasted until 1235.

Who Lies in Grave Number 39?

When Kaloyan died, his body was packed in salt, carried back to Tarnovo and interred in the Church of the Holy Forty Martyrs. Over 700 years later, during excavations in the church, archaeologists uncovered a grave, tagged as number 39. Inside lay the skeleton of a man who was 1.98 m, or 6.5 ft, tall, wrapped in purple and wearing a signet ring with the inscription “Kaloyan's ring”.

The so-called Kaloyan's ring

The so-called Kaloyan's ring

The skull showed evidence of an incompletely healed wound on the back of his head. For some historians, this can only be King Kaloyan. Purple vestments were a royal privilege and the youngest of the three brothers was known for his great height. The wound may account for his famous sudden fits of rage, during which he was capable of ordering the death of many people, mainly Greeks.
But this theory has as many critics as supporters. Some claim that a man of Kaloyan's temperament would not have omitted the title of “tsar” on his seal. In addition, the inscription contains a spelling mistake. The dead man's body was buried outside the church, not inside as befitted his rank, and the church had not even been built in 1207.


The palace coup of 1207 plunged the kingdom into a state of chaos from which it did not recover until 1218. This was the year that Asen's sons Ivan Asen and Alexander returned from the Russian principality of Galicia-Volhynia, where they had been forced to live until they reached maturity. They removed their relative Boril, who had seized the crown after Kaloyan's death, and the Bulgarian throne was occupied by its legitimate heir, Ivan Asen II. He came to be regarded as one of Bulgaria's greatest and most gifted rulers.

Ivan Asen II (1218-1240) depicted in the Zograf Monastery in Mount Athos

Ivan Asen II (1218-1240) depicted in the Zograf Monastery in Mount Athos

This scion of the Asen dynasty possessed a quality that his uncle Kaloyan most certainly lacked – the patience of Job. Ivan Asen was capable of waiting for years to achieve his aims and preferred resolving problems of state with dynastic marriages rather than force of arms. He himself married twice for convenience and once for love – and adhered to the same policy where his daughters were concerned. One went through two husbands before even coming of age.

Much of Ivan Asen's success can be put down to good luck. The new Latin emperor Baldwin II was still a minor and not a threat. (However, the Latin barons successfully deceived Ivan Asen into thinking that he would become Baldwin's regent if he betrothed his daughter to him.) Byzantine Epirus and Nicaea continued fighting each other.

Bulgaria during the reign of Ivan Asen II

Bulgaria during the reign of Ivan Asen II

But, in 1230, the peace-loving Ivan Asen was forced to take up arms – with astonishing success. The Epirote ruler Theodore Komnenos Doukas broke the peace treaty with Bulgaria and invaded Thrace. The Bulgarian king met him by the village of Klokotnitsa near Haskovo on 9 March 1230, crushed his army and captured Theodore with his whole family. In victory, he showed that he was very different to the Roman-slayer in another respect and freed the Greek soldiers he had taken prisoner.

This was the first, and probably the only, Bulgarian victory of the Middle Ages that resulted in quick, easy and considerable territorial expansion. Almost effortlessly, Ivan Asen conquered parts of Thrace, Macedonia, Albania, mainland Greece and Mt Athos, gaining that access to the Adriatic, Aegean and Black Seas for which King Simeon the Great had fought dozens of wars three centuries earlier.

Ivan Asen had another fateful encounter at Klokotnitsa. He fell in love with Eirene, Theodore Komnenos's daughter, and married her some time later.

At the beginning of the 20th Century a monument was built in the village of Klokotnitsa where, on 9 March 1230, Ivan Asen defeated Theodore Komnesos of Epius

At the beginning of the 20th Century a monument was built in the village of Klokotnitsa where, on 9 March 1230, Ivan Asen defeated Theodore Komnesos of Epius

Sometimes luck let the king down. He did not become Baldwin II's regent. When he realised that Rome had been lying to him, he broke the union in 1235 and restored the Bulgarian patriarchate. Then he allied himself with Nicaea, not suspecting that this would make it strong enough to restore the Byzantine Empire in 1261 and regain all the territories that Bulgaria had conquered in 1230.

Ivan Asen had no way of foreseeing this danger. He passed the last years of his life enjoying his successes and his young wife. He died in 1241, shortly before the Mongols established their military and political hegemony in southeastern Europe and began their raids on Bulgaria.


At no period in Bulgarian history did the country lose so much as it did after Ivan Asen II's death. While his heirs fought each other for the throne, the Mongols settled on the kingdom's northern border. The Golden Horde began making systematic raids, but Bulgaria was unable to mount an efficient opposition. The Horde had formed an alliance with the restored Byzantine Empire, which conquered Thrace, the Rhodope region and Moravia. Bulgaria's other neighbours were quick to take advantage. The Hungarians took Belgrade and Branicˇevo and the Serbs seized Niš and the Morava valley. In a little while, the kings in Tarnovo found themselves the rulers of a small territory comprising present-day central and northern Bulgaria.

Tsar Konstantin Tih Asen (left) and his wife Irina, as depicted in a mural at the Boyana church. In 1277 the swineherd Ivaylo killed Konstantine and married his widow

Tsar Konstantin Tih Asen (left) and his wife Irina, as depicted in a mural at the Boyana church. In 1277 the swineherd Ivaylo killed Konstantine and married his widow

By 1277, the situation had grown so intolerable for the common people, who had to suffer frequent Mongol incursions, that a peasant revolt erupted. The rebellion was led by a swineherd, named Lakhanas (“cabbage” or “vegetable”) by Greek writers and Ivaylo by Bulgarian academic historians. He galvanised Bulgarian commoners for a fight against the Mongols, the boyars and the king, resorting to the same means that Joan of Arc used to rouse the French against the English. He convinced his listeners that he had taken up the sword after receiving divine revelations.

Besides being charismatic, Ivaylo was also a good general. After driving away the Mongols, the former swineherd killed Bulgarian King Constantine Asen in battle, entered Tarnovo in triumph, married the king's widow and became tsar.

At first, it appeared that Ivaylo would have better luck than Joan of Arc. But his rule lasted only three years. Nor were these years peaceful, owing to Mongol and Byzantine raids and the strong internal opposition of the boyars. In 1280 the latter organised a successful palace coup. Ivaylo was forced to seek sanctuary with his enemy, Nogai, the khan of the Golden Horde. Just to be safe, the khan had the fugitive murdered.

At the end of the 13th Century Bulgaria was in perpetual crisis. Kings rose and fell at the whim of the khans of the Golden Horde and the country was continually losing territory. The nightmare ended only at the very end of the century, when the Golden Horde disintegrated of its own accord. But a new danger was already looming on the horizon: the Ottomans.


1198 Founding of Teutonic Order

1189-1192 Third Crusade

1189-1199 Reign of King Richard I the Lionheart in England

1202-1204 Fourth Crusade

1204-1261 Latin Empire with Constantinople its capital

1206 Genghis Khan founded a unified Tatar state

1215 Magna Carta Libertatum signed in England

1215 Founding of Franciscan order

1216-1218 Fifth Crusade

1240 Tatars conquered Kiev and destroyed Kievan Rus

1261 Restoration of Byzantine Empire. It would finally fall in 1453

1263-1267 Barons' War in England

1265 Founding of English parliament

1265-1321 Dante Alighieri's life and work

1272-1307 King Edward I ruled England

1296-1306 Beginning of Scottish independence movement


    Commenting on www.vagabond.bg

    Vagabond Media Ltd requires you to submit a valid email to comment on www.vagabond.bg to secure that you are not a bot or a spammer. Learn more on how the company manages your personal information on our Privacy Policy. By filling the comment form you declare that you will not use www.vagabond.bg for the purpose of violating the laws of the Republic of Bulgaria. When commenting on www.vagabond.bg please observe some simple rules. You must avoid sexually explicit language and racist, vulgar, religiously intolerant or obscene comments aiming to insult Vagabond Media Ltd, other companies, countries, nationalities, confessions or authors of postings and/or other comments. Do not post spam. Write in English. Unsolicited commercial messages, obscene postings and personal attacks will be removed without notice. The comments will be moderated and may take some time to appear on www.vagabond.bg.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Restricted HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <blockquote cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <h2 id> <h3 id> <h4 id> <h5 id> <h6 id>
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.

Discover More

Аt 36, Elka Vasileva, whom everyone knows as Nunio (a childhood nickname given to her by her parents that she is particularly proud of because it discerns her from her famous grandmother), is a remarkable woman.

The Bulgarian base named St Clement of Ohrid on the Isle of Livingston in the South Shetlands has been manned by Bulgarian crews since the early 1990s.

Еvery April, since 2020, hundreds of young Bulgarians gather in Veliko Tarnovo and embark on a meaningful journey, retracing the steps of a daring rebellion that took place in the town and its surroundings, in 1835.

Before English took over in Bulgaria, in the 1990s, mastering French was obligatory for the local elite and those who aspired to join it.

In the summer of 2023, one of the news items that preoccupied Bulgarians for weeks on end was a... banner.

Raised hands, bodies frozen in a pathos of tragic defiance: Bulgaria, especially its northwest, is littered with monuments to an event that was once glorified but is now mostly forgotten.

Not all people who make a big difference in history, or attempt to make one, are ahead of great governments or armies.

When John Jackson became the first US diplomat in Bulgaria, in 1903, the two nations had known each other for about a century.

When the first issue of Vagabond hit the newsstands, in September 2006, the world and Bulgaria were so different that today it seems as though they were in another geological era.

Sofia, with its numerous parks, is not short of monuments and statues referring to the country's rich history. In the Borisova Garden park for example, busts of freedom fighters, politicians and artists practically line up the alleys.

About 30 Bulgarians of various occupations, political opinion and public standing went to the city of Kavala in northern Greece, in March, to take part in a simple yet moving ceremony to mark the demolition of the Jewish community of northern Greece, which

On 3 October 1918, Bulgarians felt anxious. The country had just emerged from three wars it had fought for "national unification" – meaning, in plain language, incorporating Macedonia and Aegean Thrace into the Bulgarian kingdom.