First Bulgarian Empire (681 – 1018)

The Bulgars, a populous, pagan nation of fierce warriors from Central Asia, were forced out of their capital in on the northern coast of the Black Sea by the Khazars in the 7th century. (Read more here…) Under the leadership of khan Asparukh, they crossed the Danube, claiming the province of Moesia for themselves after defeating the Byzantine army in 681 A.D., allying themselves with or subjugating the resident Slavonic tribes and turning from Bulgars to Bulgarians.

The Byzantine empire, heir to the Roman empire after the fall of Rome itself was Bulgaria’s most significant neighbour and adversary during the following centuries. Bulgarian armies besieged the gleaming, well-defended city of Constantinople several times to no avail, and the Byzantines marched into Bulgarian territory once or twice, typically retreating after suffering significant casualties. The two empires traded territories, intermittently waging war or holding an unsteady peace and even once in a while forming alliances against a common enemy.

In fact, Asparukh’s son Tervel led a Bulgarian army to break the Arab siege of Constantinople, saving Byzantium and by extension most of South-Eastern Europe from an Arab invasion in 718 A.D.

By the middle of the 9th century it was becoming clear that a European state would have to be Christian to be taken seriously. Oaths and treaties with pagan nations such as Bulgaria were frequently broken, incurring no moral consequence for Christian states. Khan Boris I of Bulgaria sent emissaries to the heads of the two polarized camps of Christendom: the Patriarch in Constantinople and the Pope in Rome, and was eventually baptized by Byzantine monks, adopting the Christian title knyaz. Thousands of Byzantine priests began to roam the country, baptizing Bulgarians and preaching in Greek from Byzantine books.

Cyril and Methodius

Fearing the cultural assimilation of Bulgaria, which had no written language, Boris also accepted the students of a pair of Byzantine monks named Cyril and Methodius who had compiled a phonetic alphabet for the Bulgarian language. The alphabet was created and through a miracle of diplomacy the Bulgarian translations of the Bible made by Cyril and Methodius’s students became recognized both by Rome and by Constantinople as equivalently holy to those in Hebrew, Latin and Greek. The sanctified fourth language is now known as Old Church Slavonic, and the alphabet – as Cyrillic. The kingdom of Rus would later adopt both the language of liturgy and the alphabet, turning into the largest Cyrillic state in the world.

Boris I, his son Simeon I (now styled tsar) and his grandson Petar I presided over the first Golden Age of the Bulgarian state – a period of prosperity and expansion, followed by almost 50 years of uninterrupted peace.

However, Bulgaria’s territories dwindled, its power waned and eventually the particularly determined Byzantine emperor Basil II Boulgaroktonos (“The Bulgar-Slayer”) inflicted a crushing defeat on Bulgaria’s armies and annexed the country in 1018 A.D., signalling the end of the First Bulgarian Empire.

Read on: Second Bulgarian Empire…

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