Crucial Battles in Bulgaria’s Mountain Passes

26.07.2012 § Leave a comment

Crossing the Balkan mountains, known as Стара планина (“The Old Mountain”) to the locals, usually involves winding your way up, then down, one of the range’s rugged mountain passes. The range that currently bisects Bulgaria used to be a southern bulwark against the Byzantines, and has served time and time again to slow down invaders and protect the core of the Bulgarian territory.

Much like the Italian peninsula and the Alps protected Rome for centuries, much like Constantinople held on on the Golden Horn for close to 1000 years, so have the passes of the Balkan range provided a much-needed advantage in four crucial battles that shaped the course of history for the Bulgarian people.

The Battle of Varbitza Pass (811 AD)

Also known as the Battle of Pliska, this battle took place exactly 1201 years ago, on July 26, 811. When Nicephoris I ascended the Byzantine throne in 802, he set out to reincorporate the Bulgarian lands into the empire and recapture the Danube limes. Bulgaria’s khan Krum had been resisting him with considerable success, aided in part by a conspiracy back in the Byzantine capital that recalled the emperor in the middle of his first campaign in 807.

However, in 811 Nicephorus set out for Bulgaria with an army of close to 80 000 men, gathered from all corners of the empire. It was expected to be an easy campaign, so his army included many noblemen eager for glory and irregular troops bent on plunder. Krum was aware that his army was no match for the enemy, so he offered a truce, which was haughtily rejected. Nicephorus marched on the capital Pliska, defeating in succession an elite corps of 12 000 men and Krum’s main army of 50 000 before conquering the city. Then Krum sent him another missive, saying “Here you are, you have won. Take what you will and go in peace.” This appeal for peace was also rejected, with Nicephorus certain of his final victory. It is claimed that the Bulgarian khan then uttered the prophetic words “Като не щеш мира, нá ти секира!” (“If you’ll have no peace, have a taste of my axe!”). Over the next three days, while the Byzantines celebrated in his capital, he gathered all his forces: the remnants of his army, reinforced by women and Avar mercenaries, and prepared to meet the emperor with a force of approximately 50 000.

Nicephorus had intended to march to Serdica (Sofia) to recapture it, but he heard rumours of the Bulgarians’ mobilization, so he chose the swiftest route back to his capital, through the pass of Varbitza. His army entered the pass on July 25 and met a high wooden wall barring the way. By the time they attempted to maneuver out of the trap, the Bulgarians had closed off the other end of the valley. Completely demoralized and terrified, he ordered his men to set up camp. Bulgarians taunted them from the hills above, banging swords and shields together, until his army was completely demoralized. The following morning, the Bulgarians streamed into the camp, slaughtering Byzantines as they went. Nicephorus met his end in the valley, and his heir was gravely wounded, dying six months later in Constantinople. The Byzantine army was wiped out and Krum’s victory at Varbitza pass ensured the safety of Bulgaria for the coming decades, making him one of the most celebrated rulers of the First Bulgarian Empire.

The Battle of the Gates of Trajan (986 AD)

The next crucial mountain pass battle actually took place not in Stara Planina, but in the southern sub-range of Sredna Gora. It came at a time when the rightful king of Bulgaria, Boris II, had been forced to abdicate after being captured by the Byzantines in 971, and the capital Preslav had already fallen to their armies. The four sons of Nikola, the despot of Sredets (Sofia) – Samuil, Aaron, David and Moses, ruled the remnants of the Bulgarian kingdom in a tetrarchy when Basil II came to power in 976. For a decade, the brothers wreaked havoc on the Byzantine province of Thessaly, forcing Basil to take decisive action. In 986, he marched on Sredets with an army of 30 000. When a fruitless 20-day siege ended in a Bulgarian sortie and the destruction of the Byzantine siege engines, Basil decided to retreat. A company he had left to guard his rear had in the meantime retreated to Plovdiv, leaving him in danger of ambush.

Samuil’s troops had reached the slopes of Sredna Gora before the imperial army and, upon seeing their disorderly retreat, attacked them in the pass known as the Gates of Trajan. The Byzantine retreat turned to slaughter, and many soldiers perished or were captured along with the imperial insignia. Basil himself barely escaped, aided by his Varangian guard, and spent the next decade trying to surmount the shame of this defeat and consolidate power in Constantinople.

With the victory at the Gates of Trajan, Samuil ensured the continuation of the Bulgarian state, but also made a mortal enemy out of Basil II. In 1014, Basil would have his revenge, capturing and blinding 20 000 Bulgarian troops (earning the name “Bulgar-Slayer”) and sending them back to Samuil, who would die of a heart attack at the sight of his men, signalling the end of the First Bulgarian kingdom.

The Battle of Tryavna (1190 AD)

If you’ve read thus far, this is going to sound somewhat familiar. In 1190, Byzantine armies (this time under Isaac II Angelos) marched across the Balkans to besiege the Bulgarian capital (in this case Veliko Tarnovo). This occured only five years after the successful 1185 uprising of Asen and Petar which resurrected the Bulgarian state. Veliko Tarnovo, built on the steep banks of the Yantra, was a difficult fortress to capture at the best of times, and it was defended by Asen himself, giving his men a tremendous advantage in morale. The Byzantine troops, in contrast, were grumbling about unpaid wages, and were rendered terrified by one of Asen’s spies, who claimed to be an escaped prisoner and brought news of huge Bulgarian reinforcements coming in from the North to break the siege. Isaac panicked and ordered a retreat through the nearest pass. Silly man.

In a tried and tested tactic, Asen’s troops outmaneuvered the emperor and laid a trap in the hills near Tryavna. The Byzantine army marched, train and all, in disorder, its columns stretching back for miles, making it easy prey for the Bulgarians. The battle ended with a crushing defeat, with the emperor barely escaping. The Bulgarians captured the Byzantine imperial treasure, including the golden helmet of the Byzantine Emperors, the crown and the solid-gold Imperial Cross, containing a piece of the Holy Cross itself. These trophies would remain in the Bulgarian treasury until the fall of Veliko Tarnovo two centuries later, and Asen’s victory would make him the de facto ruler of Bulgaria and the herald of the Golden Age of the Second Bulgarian Kingdom.

The Battle of Shipka Pass (1878 AD)

A few things set this battle apart from the other three. Firstly, the Bulgarians were not the army of a powerful kingdom, but a ragtag band of volunteers set to reinforce a small Russian garrison in a pass that they did not expect would be attacked. Secondly, the battle was not against the Byzantines, who had lost their empire some 500 years before, but against their successors on the Balkans, the Ottomans, who had ruled Bulgaria for about that long. Thirdly, they were trying to prevent a far superior force from crossing North rather than ambushing a comparably strong army on its way South. Finally, the Bulgarian state itself did not exist, and the outcome of this battle would decide whether it would be resurrected from the ashes once again or not.

I have written extensively about this battle here, but it bears repeating that this was the Bulgarian Thermopylae, the moment the nascent Bulgarian volunteer army earned its country’s freedom with its blood, and the turning point in the Russo-Turkish war for liberation.

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