Prehistory and Antiquity
Human activity on the territory of present-day Bulgaria dates back to the Palaeolithic. It is believed that the animal bones carved in the Kozarnika Cave are the first examples of symbolic human behaviour. Prehistoric societies organised on Bulgarian soil include the Neolithic Hamangia culture, the Vinča culture and the Varna Neolithic culture (5th millennium BC). The latter invented the working and exploitation of gold. Some of these early gold smelters produced the coins, weapons and jewellery from the treasure of the Varna necropolis, the oldest in the world with an estimated age of more than 6,000 years. This site also provides information for understanding the social hierarchy of early European societies.
The Thracians, one of the three main ancestral groups of modern Bulgarians, began to appear in the region during the Iron Age. At the end of the 6th century BC, the Persians conquered most of what is now Bulgaria and held it until 479 BC. Under the influence of the Persians, most of the Thracian tribes were reunited in the Odrycian Empire by King Teres in the 470s BC, but were later subjugated by Alexander the Great and the Romans in 46 AD. After the partition of the Roman Empire in the 5th century, the region came under the control of the Byzantines. By this time, Christianity had already spread in the region. A small Gothic community in Nicopolis ad Istrum produced the first book in Germanic, the Wulfila Bible, in the 4th century. The first Christian monastery in Europe was founded at the same time by Saint Athanasius in central Bulgaria. From the 6th century onwards, the easternmost South Slavs gradually settled in the region and assimilated the Hellenised or Romanised Thracians.
First Bulgarian Empire
In 680, Bulgarian tribes led by Asparukh moved south across the Danube and settled in the area between the lower Danube and the Balkans, founding their capital Pliska. A peace treaty with Byzantium in 681 marked the beginning of the first Bulgarian Empire. The Bulgarians gradually mixed with the local population and adopted a common language based on the local Slavic dialect.
Successive rulers strengthened the Bulgarian state in the 8th and 9th centuries. Krum doubled the country’s territory, killed the Byzantine emperor Nicephorus I at the Battle of Pliska and introduced the first written code of laws. Paganism was abolished under Boris I in 864 in favour of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. This conversion was followed by Byzantine recognition of the Bulgarian Church and the adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet developed in Preslav, which strengthened central authority and helped to merge the Slavs and Bulgarians into a unified people. A later cultural golden age began during the reign of Simeon the Great, who also achieved the greatest territorial expansion of the state for 34 years.
The wars with the Magyars and Pechenegs and the spread of the Bogomil heresy weakened Bulgaria after Simeon’s death. Successive invasions by the “Rus” and the Byzantines led to the capture of the capital Preslav by the Byzantine army in 971. Under Samuil’s regime Bulgaria briefly recovered from these attacks, but this recovery came to an end when the Byzantine emperor Basil II defeated the Bulgarian army at Klyuch in 1014. Samuil died shortly after the battle, and by 1018 the Byzantines had put an end to the First Bulgarian Empire.
Second Bulgarian Empire
After his conquest of Bulgaria, Basil II prevented revolts and discontent by maintaining the supremacy of the local nobility and exempting the newly conquered lands from the obligation to pay taxes in gold, allowing them to be paid in kind instead. It also allowed the Bulgarian Patriarchate to retain its autocephalous status and all its dioceses, but reduced it to an archbishopric. After his death, Byzantine domestic politics changed and a series of unsuccessful revolts took place, the most important of which was led by Peter Delyan. In 1185, the nobles of the Asen dynasty, Ivan Asen I and Peter IV, organised a major revolt that led to the re-establishment of the Bulgarian state. Ivan Asen and Peter laid the foundation for the Second Bulgarian Empire with Tarnovo as its capital.
Kalojan, the third of the Aesir monarchs, extended his rule to Belgrade and Ohrid. He recognised the spiritual supremacy of the Pope and received a royal crown from a papal legate. The empire reached its peak under Ivan Asen II. (1218-1241), when trade and culture flourished. Tarnovo’s strong economic and religious influence made it a “Third Rome”, in contrast to Constantinople, which was already in decline.
After the end of the Asen dynasty in 1257, the country’s military and economic power declined in the face of internal conflicts, constant attacks by the Byzantines and Hungarians, and Mongol rule. By the end of the 14th century, divisions among feudal owners and the spread of Bogomilism caused the Second Bulgarian Empire to split into three tsarist kingdoms – Vidin, Tarnovo and Karvuna – and several semi-independent principalities that fought with the Byzantines, Hungarians, Serbs, Venetians and Genoese. By the end of the 14th century, the Ottoman Turks had begun their conquest of Bulgaria, taking most of the towns and fortresses south of the Balkan Mountains.
Tarnovo was captured by the Ottomans after a three-month siege in 1393. After the Battle of Nicopolis led to the fall of the Zardom of Vidin in 1396, the Ottomans conquered all Bulgarian territories south of the Danube. The nobility was eliminated and the peasantry was handed over to the Ottoman masters; a large part of the educated clergy fled to other countries. Under the Ottoman system, Christians were considered an inferior class. Thus, like other Christians, Bulgarians were subjected to heavy taxes and a small part of the Bulgarian population underwent partial or complete Islamisation and their culture was suppressed. The Ottoman authorities created Rum Millet, a religious administrative community to which all Orthodox Christians were subject, regardless of their ethnicity. The majority of the local population gradually lost their distinct national consciousness and identified with the Christians. However, the clergy remaining in some remote monasteries kept it alive and enabled it to survive in some remote rural areas as well as in the militant Catholic community in the north-west of the country.
During the five centuries of Ottoman rule, several Bulgarian uprisings broke out, including the Habsburg-backed Tarnovo Uprisings in 1598 and 1686, the Chiprovtsi Uprising in 1688 and the Karposh Uprising in 1689. In the 18th century, the Enlightenment in Western Europe influenced the emergence of a movement that became known as the National Revival of Bulgaria. This movement contributed to the restoration of national consciousness and became a key factor in the liberation struggle that led to the April 1876 uprising. Up to 30,000 Bulgarians were killed when the Ottoman authorities crushed the uprising. The massacres prompted the great powers to act. They convened the Constantinople Conference in 1876, but their resolutions were rejected by the Ottomans. This allowed the Russian Empire to seek a violent solution without risking a military confrontation with other great powers, as had happened in the Crimean War. In 1877, Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire and defeated its forces with the help of Bulgarian volunteers.
Third Bulgarian state
The Treaty of San Stefano was signed by Russia and the Ottoman Empire on 3 March 1878 and contained a provision for the creation of an autonomous Bulgarian principality roughly on the territories of the Second Bulgarian Empire. The other great power immediately rejected the treaty, fearing that such a large Balkan country would threaten its interests. It was replaced by the Treaty of Berlin, signed on 13 July, which provided for the creation of a much smaller state encompassing Moesia and the Sofia region, with many Bulgarian populations remaining outside the new country. This played an important role in shaping Bulgaria’s militaristic approach to foreign policy in the first half of the 20th century.
The Bulgarian principality won a war against Serbia and incorporated the semi-autonomous Ottoman territory of Eastern Romania in 1885 and proclaimed itself an independent state on 5 October 1908. In the years following independence, Bulgaria became increasingly militarised and is often referred to as “Balkan Prussia”.
Between 1912 and 1918, Bulgaria was involved in three successive conflicts – two Balkan Wars and the First World War. After a disastrous defeat in the Second Balkan War, Bulgaria again found itself on the losing side in the First World War due to its alliance with the Central Powers. Despite gathering more than a quarter of its population in an army of 1,200,000 men and winning several decisive victories at Doiran and Dobrich, the country surrendered in 1918. The war resulted in significant territorial losses and a total of 87,500 soldiers were killed. Due to the effects of these wars, more than 253,000 refugees immigrated to Bulgaria between 1912 and 1929, putting a strain on the already ruined national economy.
The political unrest resulting from these losses led to the establishment of an authoritarian royal dictatorship by Tsar Boris III. (1918-1943). Bulgaria entered World War II in 1941 as a member of the Axis powers, but refused to participate in Operation Barbarossa and saved its Jewish population from deportation to concentration camps. The sudden death of Boris III in the summer of 1943 plunged the country into political turmoil as the war turned against Germany and the communist partisan movement gained momentum. The government of Bogdan Filov failed to achieve peace with the Allies. Bulgaria did not comply with Soviet demands to expel German troops from its territory, leading to a declaration of war and an invasion by the USSR in September 1944. The communist-dominated Patriotic Front seized power, ended its participation in the Axis and joined the Allied camp until the end of the war.
The leftist uprising of 9 September 1944 led to the abolition of the monarchical regime, but it was not until 1946 that a one-party People’s Republic was established. It became part of the Soviet sphere of influence under the leadership of Georgi Dimitrov (1946-1949), who laid the foundations for a Stalinist state in full industrialisation, which was also highly repressive with the execution of thousands of dissidents. In the mid-1950s, living standards rose significantly while political repression declined. In the 1980s, national GDP and GDP per capita quadrupled, but the economy continued to face debt spikes, the most severe of which occurred in 1960, 1977 and 1980. In the Soviet planned economy, some market-oriented measures were introduced on a trial basis under Todor Zhivkov (1954-1989). His daughter Lyudmila strengthened national pride by promoting Bulgarian heritage, culture and art throughout the world. In an attempt to erase the identity of the Turkish ethnic minority, an assimilation campaign was launched in 1984, which included the closure of mosques and the obligation for Turks to adopt Slavic names. This policy (combined with the end of the communist regime in 1989) led to the emigration of some 300,000 ethnic Turks to Turkey.
Under the influence of the collapse of the Eastern bloc on 10 November 1989, the Communist Party gave up its political monopoly, Jivkov resigned and Bulgaria initiated the transition to parliamentary democracy. The first free elections in June 1990 were won by the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP, the newly renamed Communist Party). A new constitution was adopted in July 1991, providing for a relatively weakly elected president and a prime minister responsible to the legislature. Initially, the new system failed to improve living standards and create economic growth – average quality of life and economic performance remained below that under communism for much of the early 2000s. A 1997 reform package restored economic growth, but living standards continued to suffer. After 2001, economic, political and geopolitical conditions improved greatly and Bulgaria reached a high level of human development. It became a member of NATO in 2004 and participated in the war in Afghanistan. After several years of reforms, the country joined the European Union in 2007, despite continuing concerns about government corruption.