For most of us in the English-speaking world, the “End of Empire’ means the disappearance of that institution that was marked red on the old maps in the classrooms. The British Empire, which in our lifetime has gone from a power that controlled a quarter of the world to a group of islands off Europe with a few dots like Gibraltar, Ascension, and the Falklands. We may forget that the 20th century also saw the disappearance of other great Empires: Russian, German. French, Dutch. Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman.
For Bulgarians the Ottoman Empire was the important world power. Never far from the consciousness of the modern Bulgarian is the ‘Turkish Yoke’ (Tursko Robstvo) as it was categorized by Ivan Vazov, the Bulgarian writer, educator and Statesman in his novel “Under the Yoke’ (Pod Igoto).
Historians usually date the beginning of the Ottoman State to the end of the 13th century AD. Looking at the area that became the Ottoman Empire we should remember that this are was the Eastern part of the Roam Empire. The Empire was divided into two parts by Constantine, who gave his name to that city we now know as Istanbul. Constantinople was with Rome the inheritor of traditions, thoughts and practices of the ancient or classical world.
The Turks appeared on the world stage earlier than the 13th century. In 1091 they defeated the forces of the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) at the Battle of Manzikert. From then, for the next four centuries we see the gradual expansion of Turkish or Ottoman (Osmanli in Turkish) power. Ottoman was the name given to this group of ‘barbarian’ nomads from Central Asia. The name came from one of the early leaders Osman or Uthman.
Byzantium got smaller as the Ottomans expanded their territory. The prize of the great city – Constantinople, Byzantium, (Tsarigrad in Old Bulgarian) was the last to fall to the advance iof the Ottoman Armies. The Serbians were defeated at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Here is a name that still comes to haunt us in the TV News about more recent Balkan conflicts. Throughout the 14th century the Ottomans extend d their control over the Balkan peninsula. The Bulgarian capital, Veliko Turnovo, fell to the invader in 1393. When you visit Turnovo go to Tsarevets Fortress and ponder how that seemingly impregnable castle was taken. The fall of Turnovo was the end of independent Bulgaria for almost 500 years. Attempts by European powers and princes to drive the Turk from the Balkans came to nothing. Vladislav Varnenchik (Wladyslaw of Varna) was one of those who fell in the 15th century in this struggle. Constantinople fell to the Ottoman armies in 1453. That city became the capital, replacing Edirne (Adrianopolis to most of us, Odrin to the Bulgarians) which itself had earlier replaced Bursa as the centre of the court of the Sultan and Caliph.
The Turks of course brought Islam with them. The ruling class in Bulgaria had been, together with the peasantry, Christian. The Boyars, the aristocrats in the Medieval Bulgarian State soon disappeared. They were either physically liquidated or absorbed into the Ottoman ruling class. Some may have sought refuge in those areas to the West not yet taken over by the Turk. The expansion of the Empire continued, reaching as far as Central Europe. Hungary became Ottoman and remained so for one and a half centuries. They reached Vienna, and there, the expansion stopped. The Second Siege of Vienna led to defeat. After slaughtering their prisoners, the Turks withdrew from the walls of Vienna. Some historians see this as the beginning of the decline of the Empire. Others date it to a naval defeat at Lepanto in 1571.
Meanwhile in the Balkans, the Ottomans established ‘Pax Ottomanica’. This whole field of History writing is full of controversy. Bulgarian Historians, as well as their colleagues in other lands that used to be Ottoman, emphasize the negative aspects of Ottoman occupation and rule. 500 years of tyranny, bloodshed, oppression and forced Islamicisation. That is the viewpoint of most Bulgarians and those who write or otherwise depict this period. If you have ever seen any cinematic treatment of this period you will take my point. Of course there is real truth in this. There were horrors and atrocities. The book and subsequent film about the conversion of Bulgarians in the Rhodopes, Vreme Razdelno ( ‘Time of Parting’ by Anton Donchev) have a basis in historical fact. The Pomaks (ethnic Bulgarians who are Muslims) in some cases may have chosen to adopt the new faith. In many cases pressure was undoubtedly brought to bear.
I know the town of Shumen in North East Bulgaria quite well. The early town from the 10th to 15th centuries AD was built high on the Shumen Plateau. The location was clearly chosen for strategic and defensive reasons. During the period of Ottoman Bulgaria, the town expanded and grew in the valleys below the plateau. This must have happened as a result of the peace that was imposed on the area by the new rulers. Tombul Jamiya, the mosque in Shumen was built in the 18th century. Completed in 1745, it is a visible symbol of the wealth and prosperity enjoyed by that area. Indeed Shumen (Shumla in Turkish) remained an area with a clear Turkish identity until recent times. Lithographs from the mid-19th century show a great number of mosques. The Austrian traveller Felix Kannitz was not a particularly gifted draughtsman but thanks to him we know what the skyline of that town looked like in the 1850’s. Incidentally it was this Kannitz who ‘discovered’ the Madra Horseman. He was talking to the Bulgarian schoolteacher in the village of Kyulevcha and was asked, “Would you like to see something interesting?” The result was his introduction to the Madara Horseman…
Back to the Ottomans! From the end of the 17th century, expansion came to an end. There may have been internal prosperity in many parts of the Empire, but the reality was that for reasons that are hart to grasp, the Ottomans could not adapt to the new technology. The Industrial Revolution which led to the superiority of Britain and Germany did not take in Turkey. The Empire began to shrink. Within many parts of the Empire internal dissent, often expressed in nationalist tones grew.
The Bulgarian lands of the Balkans were affected by revolutionary, nationalist movements from the early 19th century. The growing wealth of a Bulgarian merchant class and Bulgarian artisans was expressed in that cultural movement we know in English as ‘National Revival”: (often mis-translated from the Bulgarian as “Renaissance”). In fact some areas of what is today Bulgaria may have had only a minority of ethnic Bulgarians by this time.
The real end of Ottoman rule in Bulgaria came after the unsuccessful April Rising of 1876. Bulgaria was not liberated through the efforts of its own daughters and sons but as a result of intervention by their fellow-Slavs and co-religionists. The Tsar had long seen himself as the protector of Christians under Ottoman Rule.
In fact peace treaties after the Russian-Turkish War reduced Bulgaria to a Principality rather than a fully independent state. It remained technically part of the Ottoman Empire until Ferdinand declared its independence in 1908. Only in 1912 in the First Balkan War was Turkey finally expelled from Macedonia and Thrace. It is less than 100 years since some of what is now Bulgarian territory came under the Bulgarian flag. Reflect on that the next time you wonder why the Bulgarians are sometime so vehemently anti-Turkish.