YEAR 866 OF THE CHRISTIAN ERA: THE CONVERSION TO CHRISTIANITY

It can not be said that before they adopted Christianity the Bulgars had not been in contact with the world civilizations. In Central Asia and Asia Interior the nomads who had joined the great people's migration came in contact with Iranian culture. Traces of this high art and religion can be found in a number of Bulgarian monuments dating back to pagan times. As for the Slavs, they had bordered on the Roman Empire for centuries. Settlement in the Balkan Peninsula and contacts with Byzantine civilization gave a fresh impetus to various cultural processes. However, the new world religion was increasingly being seen as an important prerequisite for communication with other peoples.

On the other hand, the adoption of Christianity lent urgency to the issue of preserving the Bulgarians national identity in the face of encroachments by Constantinople and Rome. The invention of the Slavic alphabet and its introduction in Bulgaria played a surprisingly important role in this respect.

It all began with a campaign launched by the Byzantine Empire, which had made its foreign policy more intensive since the council of 843. Orthodox missionaries spearheaded the campaign for dissemination of Byzantine influence and toured the places subject to Christianisation. Two of the missionaries, the brothers Cyril and Methodius, who came from Thessalonica, were highly educated and held a prominent position in Byzantine society. They had accomplished a number of important missions when all of a sudden they retired to a remote monastery and set themselves an incredibly challenging task: to invent an alphabet for the Slav peoples.

There is no indisputable evidence in source-books that they were of Slavic origin. Further more, it is not known who proposed the idea: the brothers themselves or the Byzantine government. Historical logic points to the latter assumption. It was no coincidence that having invented the alphabet, the two brothers left for Rome and Central Europe where the rising Eastern Roman Empire bore the brunt of the battle for the people.

This "cold war" was really daunting. The future of millions of Slavs wavering between Constantinople and Rome was at stake. The brothers themselves burned out in the battle. Cyril died in 869 and Methodius in 885. Yet, in several decades of hard work they had drawn in and trained more than 200 disciples. After the teachers died, their followers were brutally persecuted. Some were sold in bondage, while others roamed around Europe homeless.

That is how thing stood when, in 866, the newly baptized Prince Boris-Mihail invited the disciples to Bulgaria. This was part of a well-considered policy. The Bulgarian ruler turned the tables on the Byzantines, using their own ideological weapon.

Things developed on an impressive scale under Simeon. Cyril and Methodius's disciples were sent to the four corners of the vast state. They worked zealously in Northern Bulgaria, Thrace, Macedonia and north of the Danube, in Transylvania. Naum, Kliment and Angelary were particularly active. Apart from teaching, many of the larger group of disciples headed the Bulgarian spiritual institutions to become church leaders.

At first more translations of religious books were made, much needed in the young Christian state. Thanks to the excellent education he had received in Constantinople, Simeon took an active part himself. His contemporaries were unanimous that he was a book-loving tsar, which was not just courtly flattery. Moreover, apart from organizing the literary scene, Simeon authored literary works. A second wave of man of letters began under the guidance of Cyril and Methodius's disciples. Along with Bishop Konstantin, Methodius's old disciple, younger scholars such as John the Exarch and Monk Hrabr worked in the new capital Veliki Preslav. They wrote the first original Slavic literary works.

Konstantin of Preslav wrote the remarkable "Edifying Gospel", a collection of homilies, lectures and other Christian material. Its most interesting features are the first Old Bulgarian poems and a short chronicle of historic events.

Unlike him. John the Exarch studied the world from a philosophical point of view. In many respects his "Hexameron" is relevant even now. It is based on Aristotelian philosophical knowledge and the writings of the Christian theologians of the 1st-5th century AD, and includes John the Exarch's own insights. In line with the ancient conception of philosophy as a general science, the "Hexameron" contains various observations from the realms of medicine and natural science. A detailed description of Veliki Preslav and its buildings provides clues to archaeologists nowaday.

Monk Hrabr wrote an apologia called - "On letters".

All kinds of writings including heretical literature banned by the church and historical works, circulated in the 10th and 11th centuries. Presbyter Kozma distinguished himself by writing an emotional homily against the new heresies.

In the Golden Age of Tsar Simeon men of letters wrote many more Old Bulgarian literary works. From Bulgaria literature circulated quickly among the Slavs, hungry for writings in their own tongue. This made the work of Boris-Mihail and Simeon, who gave refuge to the persecuted Slavic enlighteners, very important.

 

SUPPLEMENT: VELIKI PRESLAV

The construction of Veliki, or Great, Preslav started very likely in the reigns of Krum and Omurtag, but it was in 893 that the city was proclaimed the capital of Bulgaria. In comparatively short lapse of time Preslav became not only the centre of a state-empire, but also the centre of an empire of the spirit.

The name of the second Bulgarian capital is inextricably associated with that of the most powerful sovereign of Bulgaria - Simeon the Great /"Simeon Veliki"/. During the three decades of his reign, Simeon transformed the new capital from a roadside fortress into a flourishing city, remarkable for its architecture, culture and economic life. Despite the incessant wars he was waging, Simeon managed to have erected in the capital stately palaces and public buildings, some of which rivaled the most renowned edifices at that time in Europe. Let us quote a description by John the Exarch /"Yoan Exarch"/, the great chronicler of Simeon's Age:

" If a stranger comes from afar to the fortified walls of the palace, he will wonder, marvel and ask questions. On entering inside, he will see on either side buildings, adorned with stone and wood, and painted churches lined inside with marble and copper, covered with gold and silver. If he should happen to see the Prince, sitting on a pearl-studded throne, wearing a precious necklace and bracelets, girded with a velvet belt and a golden sword hanging at his thigh, and flanked on either side by boyars with gold necklaces, belts and bracelets. And if on returning to his homeland, someone should ask him what he had seen at Preslav, he would reply that it is only with one's own eyes that one can marvel at and delight in the regal city as it befits ..."

The vivid account of Yoan Exarch, written some ten centuries ago, evokes only in part the beauty of the capital city. The remains of the Round Church, or the so-called Golden Church of Simeon, that can be seen today, the foundations of the Great and Small palaces and of the fortified wall, the countless churches and monasteries scattered far and wide, bear out in a conclusive manner the reports of old chroniclers and the entitlement of Simeon's capital to the epithet of "Great".

In the years of this Golden Age of Bulgarian culture, a number of literary centres flowered in Preslav, where eminent men of letters, copyists and chroniclers were at work. The books brought out by the Preslav literary school, alongside those of the Ohrid school, were in fact the prime source of Slav-Bulgarian literary culture.

In order to accomplish the sumptuous decoration of the churches, palaces and literary centres, Simeon caused a whole industry of glass- and pottery-making and stone-polishing to be developed in Preslav. In the ninth century, at a time when Europe did not yet know the secret of decorated faience, it was here that were created the exquisite examples of the famous "Preslav ceramics". One needs only to see the surviving icon of "St. Theodore Stratilates" to be convinced of the unprecedented mastery of the Bulgarian ceramists of the tenth century.

After the fall of Bulgaria under Byzantine dominion in the late tenth century, Preslav was pillaged and destroyed, but the city continued to exist during the Second Bulgarian Kingdom and functioned as an important cultural and literary centre. The invasion of the Ottoman Turks was again marked by ravage and destruction, yet the remains of the fortified walls and the palaces have been described by travelers 250 years later. Many of the Muslim religious and public buildings erected by the conquerors in the Balkan Peninsula were constructed with the fine stone "quatro" of the Preslav palaces. During the centuries of the Ottoman domination, however, Veliki Preslav fell into complete oblivion.

For decades on end historians identified the vestiges of Preslav with the first Bulgarian capital. This view was upheld by a whole team of scholars. But it was precisely then that, fascinated by the monumental remains of Pliska, excavated by the Skorpil brothers, the historians lost interest in Simeon's capital. Indeed, a report of 1905, signed by the director of the "Russian Archaeological Institute" in Constantinople, the great Byzantologist F. I. Uspensky, noted the absence of any archaeological interest in Preslav. Official science did not have sufficient factual data to support further undertakings in this direction. What was left was the enthusiasm - though not of some scientific society, or institutes and academies - but of a humble teacher and patriot from Preslav, Yordan Gospodinov. In the course of several decades, even while nothing seemed to give cause for hope, he and his fellow-townsmen proceeded to uncover the vestiges of Simeon's Bulgaria. What was brought to light were capitals from the palaces, friezes, and the wonderful enamels of Patleina, a magnificent find that even today fascinates the visitors of the museum at Preslav. The climax of this prolonged and dedicated campaign was the discovery of Simeon's Golden Church in the year of the millennial anniversary of the death of the great king.

Armed with the findings of the enthusiasts, archaeology took matters into its own hands. Within a few decades were uncovered unhoped-for remains of the royal complex, urban districts, monasteries, exquisite fragments and entire workshops. Gospodinov remained to the end of his life the modest path-breaker in the resurgence of Preslav that he had been at the beginning.

The remains of Veliki Preslav lie some three kilometers away from the modern town. Though excavations have been going on for decades, only an insignificant part of the archaeological riches lying beneath the earth's surface have been brought to light, so far. The fortress of Preslav, like that of Pliska, consisted of two fortified zones, an inner and an external one. Unlike the first capital, however, the two belts represented thick stone walls. The defence wall of the Outer Town is completely demolished. It enclosed the vast area occupied by the capital, some 3.5 km2. It is in the Outer Town that stood one of the most notable monuments of Great Preslav, the Golden Church of Simeon. The remains unearthed at excavations show that the edifice was richly adorned. Multi-colored mosaics set into marble slabs covered the walls and the vaults to a certain height. Even more appealing to the visitor are the painted ceramic tiles used for facing the walls. The interior of the middle-sized structure represented a veritable masterpiece of early-Christian Bulgarian art.

The ceramic tiles from Preslav were produced in a number of potteries, one of them in the proximity of the Round Churh. The tiles are painted on the front side with pigments of mineral origin, while either the clay's natural color or red slip was used for the ground. The colors are pure and have preserved their original brilliance. Examples can be seen in the archaeological museum at Veliki Preslav. The ornamental motifs are of astounding variety. These are primarily geometrical figures, floral motifs, some of which appear in the decoration of manuscripts on parchment of that time. More seldom the tiles are decorated with figures of animals, mainly birds, and human figures. Some bear inscriptions in the Cyrillic or Glagolic scripts, and one presents the entire Glagolic alphabet. These are, in fact, the earliest records in the Old Bulgarian language that have come down to us.

A number of old churches in the Outer Town were built by notable boyars to serve as family vaults. The discovery in one of these churches of the tomb of a high dignitary called "Mostich" was a great contribution to Bulgarian historical science. Almost intact is the gravestone now exhibited in the Archaeological Museum of Sofia. Translated into modern Bulgarian, the inscription on the tombstone reads: "Here rests Mostich, who was a "ichurgu-boil" under Tsar Simeon and Tsar Peter. And at the age of eighty, having given up his noble status and all his possessions, he became a monk and thus ended his life".

The inner defence wall is demolished, as well, but individual fragments - remains from the northern and southern gates, etc. - survive. It was built of huge stone blocks, 2 m thick, to the very top of the wall. The major edifice in the Inner City was the palace of Tsar Simeon. The excavations carried out so far have revealed the throne-room to be the most imposing part of it. To the west were uncovered buildings linked to the throne-room, which were apparently the apartments of the sovereign.

Excavations outside the walls of the Outer Town have brought to light numerous structures of considerable size. Worthy of note is Patleina, a picturesque site preceded by a forest of locust-trees, which are a rarity in this country. It was here that were discovered the remains of a grandiose monastic complex, comprising not only religious edifices but also libraries and book depositories, a pottery and glass workshop, and many subsidiary buildings. In Patleina was found the ceramic icon of "St. Theodore Stratilates", one of the most precious works of Old Bulgarian art.

The thousands of valuable archaeological finds - capitals, cornices, encrusted columns, decorated ceramic tiles, individual pieces of jewelry - are housed in the spacious "Archaeological Museum" in Preslav, the construction of which was completed for the 1100th anniversary of the capital city. The museum owns valuable collections of Old Bulgarian inscriptions on fragments of interior walls. On display are also the stone columns with the so-called "inventory inscriptions", that is, list of the titles borne by Old Bulgarian and Slav notables: "ichurgu-boil", "zhupan", "bagain", etc. Amongst the most ancient exhibits in the museum are flint fragments, arrow and spear pints, fighting hammers, spurs and a heavy medieval sword. Besides a gold collection plate, found at the southern gate of Great Preslav, the visitor can see one of the finest examples of Old Bulgarian metalwork: the silver cup of "Sibin". Glittering with its decoration of stylized twigs and sprouts, it demonstrates the exquisite taste and artistic predilections of the Old Bulgarian nobility, as well as, of the craftsmen working for them. Bone carving is represented by some interesting works in the museum. Though the major items were found at a specialized workshop in the palace compound, we have good reasons to assume that this art, which had already attained a high level of perfection by the time when Preslav was set up as a capital, had originated in the steppes between the Urals and the Volga, inhabited by the Proto-Bulgarians.

The remains and vestiges unearthed at Veliki Preslav are a priceless possession of the Bulgarian people. They reveal to our contemporaries part of the cultural and material achievements of remote Bulgarian generations. At the same time, the momentous feat of discovering and bringing to light the civilization of the ancestors is another proof that science, besides objectivity, correct methods and precision, also requires a sense of inner vocation, passion and inspiration.