THE CONQUEST OF ISLAM
The conquest of Tsimple, a small Byzantine fort, is considered to have marked the offensive of Asiatic Islamism against Christian Europe. The year is 1352 AD. The extreme political separateness and lack of political trust prevented them from building up a strong military and political alliance against the common enemy. The Balkan states, engaged in incessant wars, resisted the danger heroically for a long time, but did not unite against it. Besides, they were split into several state formations.
In the reign of Tsar Ivan-Alexander, Bulgaria was divided into four states: 1. Ivan-Sratsimir, son-in-law of Ivan-Alexander, ruled over Northwest Bulgaria with Vidin as its capital; 2. Momchil, a former serf, had his domains in the Rhodopes; 3. Vulchashin-e-Uglesha, ruled as a local lord in the Pirines; 4. Ivan-Alexander himself, with his son Ivan-Shishman, ruled in Turnovo.
The agony of the medieval Bulgarian state began in 1364, when the Turks took central Thrace with Plovdiv and Stara Zagora. Later in 1372, they invaded Bulgaria once more and took a number of fortresses in the Rhodopes, Thrace and at the foothills of the Balkan Range. As a result, the new bulgarian Tsar Ivan-Shishman was forced to become a vassal to the Turkish Sultan. In 1393, after a long siege, the Ottomans captured Turnovo and in 1395 Tsar Ivan-Shishman was killed in the defense of town Nicopolis on the Danube. Only the state of Vidin remained independent. In 1396 over 60 000 West European crusaders, led by King Sigismund, invaded the Bulgarian lands. The troops of the last Bulgarian's state ruler joined this army, but beneath the walls of the Bulgarian fortress of Nicopolis the crusaders were defeated. The Vidin state also lost its independence.
Then, the hardest period in the history of the Bulgarian people began. The Ottomans showed all their cruelty. It is estimated that almost half of Bulgaria's population was massacred or enslaved and transported to another part of the empire within a few years of the Turkish conquest. Bulgaria's natural development as a Christian European state was interrupted. The country was isolated from the European Renaissance, its people were forced to live under a severer system of feudalism than had previously existed. The Turks ruthlessly destroyed all Bulgarian state and religious structures, aiming at national, economic, cultural and religious assimilation. The colonists occupied the most fertile lands and prosperous towns. The Bulgarian people was reduced to the category of the so called "rayah", meaning - a herd. The peasants became serfs of the Turkish "spahis" /landowning knights/, and had their land taken away.
The Bulgarian Patriarchate was destroyed and subordinated to the Greek Patriarchate. Monasteries and libraries were burnt to the ground. The Bulgarians were not entitled to building churches.
Worst of all was the perpetual insecurity and the numerous taxes, about 80 in number. The Turks did not attempt to populate Bulgaria with Turks or to convert all Bulgarians to Islam, but they did something else. They imposed the so called "flesh blood tax" - a levy of Christian youths, which was particularly heavy and humiliating. At regular intervals, the authorities had the healthiest boys taken away from their families, sent to the capital, converted into Islam and then made join the elite "janissary" corps. Furthermore, whole areas especially in the Rhodope Mountains, were forced to adopt Islam and new Arab names. The objectors were slain, and those who did convert were called "pomaks", meaning - caused to suffer, and allowed to go on living in the Bulgarian environment. The present day Bulgarian Muslims, representing about 5 % of modern Bulgaria's population, are descendants of those Islam converts. According to some Bulgarian historians, the beginning of the Turkish oppression in the 15th century found Bulgaria with a population of about 1.3 million. One hundred years later the Bulgarians were already down to 260 000 people and remained as many in the course of two more centuries.
The picture wasn't completely negative. While the Ottoman empire was at its height, it gave the Bulgarian people access to its links with other countries, trade routes, etc. Thus it enabled Bulgarian merchants to accumulate wealth and, as a result, to help the first steps of the Bulgarian National Revival.
The unbearable conditions during this era of darkness and suffering did not crush the spirit of the Bulgarians. Initially, deprived of social and political organizations of their own, they were not able to undertake any resistance of great importance. The rebel "haidouk" movement was the first form of armed resistance, despite its local nature, against the oppressors. Brave young men formed bands to protect the people against the cruelties of the authorities.
Armed uprisings and revolts were the most striking manifestations of the Bulgarian struggle for freedom. They were not well organized, broke out spontaneously or with the advance of the troops of any European country against the Turks. The first uprising broke out still in 1408. Significant uprisings, proclaiming the independence of Bulgaria, took place in 1598, 1686, 1688 and 1689. All of them failed and were put down with unheard-of atrocities.
The decline of the Ottoman empire was marked by military defeats at the hands of Christian Europe and by a weakening of central authorities. Both of these factors were significant for developments in Bulgaria. Under Catherine II, the Great Russia began to protect the Orthodox population of the Ottoman empire. Besides, the central government was not able to control the "spahis" and local officials. In the second part of the 18th century, the process of disintegration in the military and feudal system of the Empire became very great. The Great Powers insisted on "preserving the integrity of the Ottoman State". Thus the Eastern Question focused the efforts of a declining Empire, of the Great Powers and of the national liberation movements of the subjected Balkan peoples.
During the Crimean War /1853-1856/ Russia suffered defeat at the hands of the powerful coalition between Austria, England, France, Sardinia and Turkey, which reduced its influence. But it was in these years that the Bulgarian National Liberation movement gained momentum. Vassil Levski put forward the idea of an independent development of the Bulgarian National Revolution, and in the 70s of the 19th century the Internal Revolutionary Organization was built up. This new active force was constantly on the look out for the convenient moment to burst out in a struggle against the enslavers. All the public forces were interested in doing away with Ottoman yoke. The development of the Bulgarian revolutionary process was supported by the favorable international situation. Russia overcame the crisis which followed the Crimean War; a national uprising broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina; Serbia and Montenegro were preparing for war against the Ottoman Empire. Under these conditions a new Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee was founded in the autumn of 1875 in a deserted house outside Ghiurghiu, presided by Stefan Stambolov. It took the decision to prepare a general Bulgarian uprising in the spring of the following year. The country was divided into four revolutionary districts. In January 1876 the Apostles, as the people called them, crossed over the frozen Danube to carry into Bulgaria the great news of the coming revolt. The whole country was engaged in the preparations for the uprising - arms were bought, bullets were cast, rebel uniforms were made … People from many regions, especially in the Sredna Gora and the foothills of the Rhodope mountains were looking forward eagerly to take part in the decisive battle. Unfortunately, many other regions and the emigres in Wallachia lagged behind.
The Turkish authorities knew about this revolt, but they could not prevent it. Now it had began, regular Ottoman troops and bashibozouk were sent against the rebel towns and villages, and soon they were flooded with blood and tears. The Turks were well supplied with the most up-to-date weapons produced in the Krupp's Works, while the rebel artillery consisted of guns made out of cherry-trees. Despite this fact the insurgents showed great self-sacrifice and heroism; churches and monasteries were turned into fortresses - the detachment of Priest Hariton and Bacho Kiro fortified their position in the Dryanovo Monastery, where for 9 days on end they drove back the enemy. The capital of the uprising, Panagyurishte, also suffered heavy losses. The rebels and their families locked themselves in the local church, but the troops "bashibozouk" managed to set it on fire. Then Kocho Chistemenski and Spass Ginov killed their wives and children and put an end to their own lives. The atrocities in the town Batak were described by the famous American journalist Januarius MacGahan, special correspondent of the British newspaper "Daily News". He sent 13 articles to London during his tours in Bulgaria. After receiving the first six reports, the editor of "Daily News" published them in a separate brochure together with "A Preliminary Report" by the American diplomat and scientist Eugene Schuyler. This brochure became the document which played the most important role in acquainting the world public with the Turkish monstrous cruelty in Bulgaria.
Despite the bravery of the Bulgarian people, The April Uprising ended in defeat, but the sacrifices were not made in vain - it struck such a heavy blow to the Ottoman Empire that it was no longer able to deal with the "Bulgarian Question". The brutality with which the uprising was suppressed aroused indignation and protest in many European countries. The British Prime Minister Disraeli declared that he did not care of the fate of the Bulgarians when Britain's state interests were at stake. But he was later compelled to change his position.
From July 1876 a movement in defence of the Bulgarians appeared in England. The prominent British statesman William Gladstone, after writing a brochure, made a speech and headed the opposition against Disraeli's policy of non-interference. Soon the whole of Europe raised a voice of protest in defense of the heroic Bulgarian people, whose courage and fortitude impressed greatly whole nations and won the hearts of the people in favor of Bulgaria's freedom.
On 12 April 1877, the Russian Emperor Alexander II declared war on Turkey. The Russian troops crossed the Danube and by the end of June their numbers reached 100 000 soldiers. The army was divided into three parts. The Advance Detachment, led by General Gurko, included about 12 000 soldiers. It headed southwards, liberated Turnovo on July 7, crossed the Balkan Range and many Bulgarian towns and villages were granted their freedom. The General wanted to reach and capture Adrianople.
In the meantime the Western Detachment was slowly marching on Pleven, which had been turned into an impregnable fortress by numerous Turkish troops. Another Turkish army, led by Suleiman Pasha, approached the Shipka Pass in order to join the other Turkish armies in North Bulgaria. The Advance Detachment was the only power that was able to stop the enemy from reaching Pleven. That was the reason why General Gurko decided to open hostilities against the Turks. His army was joined by volunteer force, which had its first taste of gunpowder near the towns of Stara and Nova Zagora. The Bulgarian volunteers proved that they deserved their freedom. The Orlov regiment and 5 500 Bulgarians fortified the Shipka Pass under the command of General Stoletov. Their small number and insufficient equipment made the General dispose his troops on the peaks of St Nilola and Orlovo Gnezdo /meaning - eagle's nest/. Initially, the defence was successful, but the Turks launched several successive attacks. There were many casualties, the ammunition was running out. So they had to use heavy boulders and the dead bodies of their fallen brothers-in-arms in order to prevent the Turkish army from crossing the Balkan Range. The desperate situation was put to an end with the arrival of fresh reinforcements sent by General Radetski. The violent fighting continued for three more days and the Turks failed to capture the peak. The battle ended on 14 August 1877.
Osman Pasha, who had fortified his position in Pleven and his army were besieged, their supplies were disrupted and they finally surrendered on 28 November 1877. The Russo-Turkish War ended on 19 February /3 March, new style calendar/ 1878 with the signing of the Treaty of San Stefano, which answered the demands of the Balkan peoples.
SUPPLEMENT: see following map for details