{E2 GUIDE TO BULGARIA}

THE OTTOMAN CONQUEST OF BULGARIA

In 1352 a detachment of Ottoman Turks sailed through Hellespont, now the Dardanelles - the strait separating Europe from Asia, and took Tsimpe, a small Byzantine fort. That is considered to have marked the beginning of the fresh offensive of Asiatic Islamism against the Christian civilization of Europe. The first two assaults at the beginning of the 8th century and at the turn of the 13th century were beaten off by the Christian political powers of the East - Bulgaria, Byzantium and Russia. The third storm, however, led to centuries long confrontation causing, at different times, utmost bracing of all European energies directed at checking the Muslim invasion. It was eventually stopped and fought back for ever no nearer than Vienna. This happened in 1683 and was drowned in seas of European blood. Bulgaria and all the other medieval Christian states in the Balkans were ruined in the twists of this dramatic clash between the European and the Asian civilizations during the l4th-l5th centuries.

The reasons of the political downfall of the Christian Southeast of Europe lay, first and foremost, in the extreme political particularism and lack of political trust among the Christian Balkan powers which prevented them from building up a strong perennial military and political alliance against the common enemy. The combat potentialities of the Bulgarian people alone, a people which at that time took up three quarters of the territory of the Balkan Peninsula, would have been sufficient to throw the Muslim invaders back to Asia. The Bulgarians failed to offer efficient resistance, because of their being split into several state formations and their being frequently involved in intricate political chicanery both between themselves and with close and not so close Christian neighbors. It would be true to say the same about the rest of the Balkan countries - Serbia and Byzantium, which had been divided into several independent feudal possessions towards the middle of the 14th century.

A young and vigorous centralized Islamic monarchy, drawing on the resources of Asia's boundless womb and elated by the Islamic martial ideology - an ideology aspiring to fix the banner of Mohammed on all lands of the 'unfaithful' and to establish a world-embracing Islamic empire, was already confronting the disunited ranks of Bulgaria and the other Balkan feudal states.

The agony of the medieval Bulgarian state began only 12 years after the Turks' coming to Europe. In 1364 they invaded Bulgaria and took Central Thrace with the important towns of Borouy or Berrhoea (today's Stara Zagora) and Plovdiv. The attempted counter-offensive organized by two Bulgarian feudals from the region of Macedonia in 1371, resulted in the tragic battle at Chernomen (near Edirne). There the united Christian army of Serbs and Bulgarians, coming from various feudal possessions in the Balkans, was defeated. The Turks occupied new territories on the Balkans. In 1372 they invaded Bulgaria once more and, after sanguinary fighting, they eventually took a number of fortresses in the Rhodopes, Thrace and at the foothills of the Balkan Range. The new Bulgarian tsar Ivan Shishman (1371-1393) was forced to become a vassal to the Turkish sultan.

The dramatic situation in Bulgaria and the Balkan states was not yet clear to the Roman Catholic West. Instead of assisting the Christians of the East in those years, Western Europe preferred to take part in the division of the Balkan heritage. A crusade led by Amadeus VI of Savoy, allegedly directed against the Turks, took the Bulgarian southern Black Sea littoral in 1366. In 1365 the Hungarians occupied the break-away Bulgarian state of Vidin. They were driven out of there by the Bulgarians in 1369 at the cost of great effort. Genoa got involved in a long war with the Bulgarian despotate of Dobmdja which ended as late as 1387.

This short-sighted policy of the West helped the Turks to continue their expansion in the Balkans. In 1378 the new political power of Islam, the Ottoman Empire, went to fresh war against Bulgaria and Serbia. The strategic forts of Sofia and Nis were conquered after fierce battles in 1388 and 1385 respectively. The Ottoman empire wedged deeply between Bulgarians and Serbs. The impending frightful danger forced Serbia, Bulgaria, Bosnia and some other Bulgarian and Serbian break-away feudal possessions to enter, at long last, into a military and political alliance in 1387. The events which took place after this act showed that it was a step in the right direction. In spite of the coalition missing a number of the strong Bulgarian, Serbian and all Byzantine feudal possessions, the united Christian troops succeeded in striking a heavy blow on the Islamic army, believed to be invincible until then, at Plochnik in 1387. It was unfortunate that the following year, when the Ottomans raided Bulgaria again, no one bothered to come to its assistance. After strenuous fighting, the northeastern part of Bulgaria fell to the Turks. A peace treaty confirmed Bulgaria as a vassal to the Islamic Ottoman Empire.

Then the Turks fixed their eyes on Serbia and Bosnia. In 1389 they met the armies of the southern Slavs in a decisive battle on Kossovo Pole (meaning the Field of Blackbirds). Despite the vassalage, Bulgarian contingents also joined the Serbian army. The Turks won the battle in which the leaders of both armies, prince Lazar and sultan Murad got killed. This was the actual end of the clash between the Christian East and the invasive Islamism. The Ottomans had an overwhelming superiority in combat forces and it was only their crippling losses at Plochnik, Kosovo and in the northern Bulgaria campaign between 1387 and 1389, that prolonged the agony of the Bulgarian states. In 1393, Great Turnovo - the capital of Bulgaria, was brought to heel and in 1395 Tsar Ivan Shishman was killed in the defence of Nicopolis on the Danube. Three other Bulgarian break-away states - the despotates of Dobrudja, Prilep and Velbazhd, fell before the end of that year. Only the Bulgarian state of Vidin remained as a deserted island in the ocean of Turkish possessions.

At last Western Europe had realized the danger of the Muslim invasion. The bellicosity, or rather the enmity of Islamism to anything not conforming to its ideology and its uttermost intolerance to the European values, compelled the European political minds to organize a massive crusade against the Turks. In 1396 over 60,000 West European crusaders, led by king Sigismund invaded the Bulgarian lands. The troops of Tsar Ivan Sratsimir (1356-1396), ruler of the last Bulgarian state, joined the West European army. The united forces of the Eastern and the Western Christians, having obviously disregarded their imbecile religious arguments in the face of the Islam, reached as far as Nicopolis. There, beneath the walls of the ancient Bulgarian fortress, the crussaders, lacking in coordinated and orderly command, let themselves be defeated by the Turks once again. The Vidin despotate lost its independence, too. This put an end to the medieval Bulgarian statehood. The Byzantine empire and the kingdom of Serbia were both destroyed a few decades after. The European Southeast found itself in the hands of a hostile Asiatic power.

* * *

The seven-century presence of the medieval Bulgarian state on the European political stage significantly contributed to the development and shaping up of the medieval state-governed way of life on the Old Continent, which later became the basis of the modern European civilization. The Bulgarian political thought saw to the establishment of the first state in Europe on the national identity principle in contrast to the states advocating the principles of the universal state. The latter would have doomed all new state formations to political, cultural and national loss of identity. Having reached the heights of a great power, it put Europe's political equilibrium right by balancing or countering the ambitions of the two imperial mainstays - the Holy Roman empire in the west and Byzantium in the east. On the other hand, the might of the Bulgarian state was a barrier to the waves of barbarians dashing at Europe and to the onslaughts of Muslims invading it. The blood of its men, shed on the battle-fields, had guaranteed the peaceful development of the European West. The introduction of the nationally spoken language into the workings of the state as well as in church service and literature gave example of democracy and pluralism in culture.


- Translated from the book "Bulgaria Illustrated History" by Maria Nikolotva
- Bulgarian text by Bojidar Dimitrov, PhD.
- Published by BORIANA Publishing House, Sofia, Bulgaria

text used here with permission from translator, save modifications for noding

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