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History
 

In antiquity, Bulgaria, the land of Orpheus and Spartacus, belonged to the Kingdom of Macedonia. By 46 BC, the Romans had conquered the whole peninsula, which they inhabited until invasions by Thraco-Illyrian tribes left the area a devastated wasteland. Peaceful Slavic farmers grazed in during the 6th century. In 679, the Bulgars, a fierce Turkic tribe, crossed the Danube to found the First Bulgarian Empire; they then expanded south at Byzantium's expense before finally conquering Macedonia in the 9th century. The Bulgars were eventually assimilated by the more numerous Slavs, and adopted their language and way of life.

In 865 a Byzantine monk who painted a picture of hell on the palace walls managed to frighten Tsar Boris I into accepting Orthodox Christianity. In 870 the Bulgarian Church became independent with its own patriarch, which encouraged Tsar Simeon (893-927) to expand his kingdom through Serbia to the Adriatic Sea. Simeon's kingdom shrank again when he overstretched his covetous hands toward the Byzantine crown. This weakened Bulgaria, making it susceptible to the Byzantine emperor, Basil II, who had the eyes of 15,000 Bulgarian soldiers put out after a decisive victory in 1014. Bulgaria passed to Byzantine rule four years later.

The Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396) was founded after two brothers, Asen and Peter, led a general uprising against Byzantium. Swollen with renewed confidence, the new empire covered all of Thrace, Macedonia and Albania. It was gnawed away over the next two centuries by the Tatars and then the Turks. By the end of the 14th century, the Turks controlled all of Bulgaria, beginning five centuries of Ottoman rule.

As repressive regimes go, the Turks weren't too bad, making no systematic attempts to convert the Bulgarians to Islam or to eradicate their language and customs. It was only as Turkish power weakened in the 18th century that Bulgarians began to suffer rising taxes and inflation, the burden of unsuccessful Turkish wars against the Austrians and the Russians. Resentment brewed and the Turks responded fitfully (in between wars) by introducing reforms aimed at assimilating the Bulgarians, but it was too late. In the early 19th century popular customs and folklore blossomed in the National Revival, while underground revolutionaries plotted against the Turks. When a revolt broke out prematurely at Koprivshtitsa in April 1876 the Turks suppressed it with unprecedented brutality, while spreading tales of 'Bulgarian atrocities' throughout Europe. About 15,000 Bulgarians were massacred at Plovdiv and 58 villages destroyed. The story goes that Pazardzhik was saved by a daring clerk who moved one comma in an official order, turning 'burn the town, not spare it' into 'burn the town not, spare it'.

Outraged European allies came to Bulgaria's rescue in the late 1870s. Russia, the chief saviour, suffered 200,000 casualties in the conflict. When the Russian army had advanced to within 50km (31mi) of Istanbul, Turkey ceded 60% of the Balkan Peninsula to Bulgaria. The modern history of Bulgaria - and the Bulgarian little brother complex in relation to Russia - dates from this 1878 liberation. European powers, fearful of a powerful Russian satellite in the Balkans, hacked away bits of Bulgaria, leaving everyone unsatisfied and ready to snap at the two Balkan Wars which preceded WWI. Bulgaria did none too well, losing Macedonia and grumbling its way into an alliance with the Central Powers in WWI, despite internal opposition. The interwar years were characterised by serious problems with Macedonian refugees, communist uprisings and economic crises. The most horrifying incident of Bulgaria's balkanisation came in September 1923 when thousands of agrarian and communist agitators were killed in a reactionary campaign. Bulgaria sided with Germany at the outbreak of WWII, but Tsar Boris III, fearing a popular uprising, refused to declare war on Russia. The underground Fatherland Front consolidated opposition to the pro-German government, eventually gaining the popular support necessary to overthrow the monarchy. Communist Todor Zhivkov persuaded a none too reluctant army to switch sides, resulting in the Bulgarians fighting alongside their erstwhile liberators (Russia) and against their recent allies (Germany) until the war's end.

Under Todor Zhivkov, Bulgaria's leader from 1954 to 1989, the country became one of the most prosperous in Eastern Europe, with farmers allowed to till small private plots and industrial growth eventually contributing to over half the gross national product. The collapse of communism in 1989 left industry exposed, and the transition to democracy has been a troubled one. The renamed communist party (now the Bulgarian Socialist Party) managed to control the direction of newly democratic Bulgaria, restricting the influence of the president to troubled noises. In June 2001, the Bulgarian monarchy made an unprecedented comeback when former king Simeon II was elected prime minister. Rapid inflation, high unemployment, the lack of a social safety net and the visible wealth of sanctioned criminals have caused widespread disillusionment. Progress, plodding beast that it is, continues under President Georgi Parvanov, and the government is eager to qualify for membership in NATO and the EU.




Culture
 

After five centuries of Turkish rule, Bulgarian culture reappeared in the 19th century as writers and artists strove to reawaken national consciousness. Zahari Zograf (1810-53) painted magnificent frescoes inspired by medieval Bulgarian art in monasteries. The carvings of highly contemplative monks appear in monastery museums throughout Bulgaria: saints the size of grains of rice are a particular highlight. Bulgaria's poets show a tendency to meet with a violent and early death, lending a poignancy to the high idealism of writers such as Hristo Botev (rebel folk poet of the late 19th century), Dimcho Debelyanov (lyric poet killed in WWI) and Geo Milev (poet of the post-WWI social upheavals, kidnapped and murdered by police). The grand old man of Bulgarian literature, Ivan Vazov, is one of the few who made it over the age of 30. His novel Under the Yoke describes the 1876 uprising against the Turks.

An ancient Greek myth ascribes a Thracian origin to Orpheus and the Muses, a heritage which Bulgaria's singers still take very seriously. Orthodox religious chants convey the mysticism of regional fables and legends, whereas the spontaneous folk songs and dances of the villages meld classical origins with a strong Turkish influence. International interest in Bulgarian vocal music was ignited by groups such as Le Mystere des Voix Bulgaires, who have taken Bulgaria's polyphonic female choir singing to a world audience.

Bulgarians fill up on meals of meat, potatoes and beans, crisped up with salads, and tossed back with dangerous liquor: beware of water glasses filled with rakia (ouch) and mastika (aaah). Breakfast is a bread-based snack on the run - look out for hole-in-the-wall kiosks selling delicious banitsi - cheese pastries, often washed down with boza, a gluggy millet drink which is an acquired taste. Lunch is the main meal of the day. Dinner appears late at night, mostly to signal the end of aperitifs and the start of serious slugging.

Bulgarian is a South Slavic language written in the Cyrillic alphabet. Saints Cyril and Methodius, two brothers from Thessaloniki, invented the Cyrillic script in the 9th century and one of the strong bonds between Bulgarians and Russians is their shared use of this alphabet. Russian is the second language of older Bulgarians and is still taught in schools. Younger people are more likely to be interested in speaking a version of English peppered with classic rock lyrics and advertising slogans. Bulgarians waggle their heads Indian-style to mean yes, and nod to mean no. It's normal to feel like your head is a pogo-stick; just try to stay upright.


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