The first few generations under Ottoman rule lived in hope that a Bulgarian or a Serbian prince had escaped the Ottoman falchion and was amassing great armies to liberate them, but along with their hopes dwindled the recollection of the greatness of Bulgaria and their own history as a people. Disallowed from holding public office or being educated in their native tongue, Bulgarians soon became serfs in the empire with no written recollection of having been conquered or wronged.
This changed in 1762, when a Bulgarian monk named Paisius compiled two years of research into the first written history of Bulgaria, sparking the National Revival movement. The book was copied by hand and smuggled into Bulgarian lands where its message spread, filling Bulgarians with the legends of their powerful tsars and the desire for liberty.
By the 1870’s, conditions were ripe for a full scale uprising. Bulgaria’s national hero, the “Apostle of Freedom” Vasil Levski, was the first to propose an internal uprising without foreign aid as the best means of liberating Bulgaria. He spent ten years establishing secret revolutionary committees across the country and creating the ideological basis for the uprising before being captured and hanged outside Sofia on February 18, 1873.
A nation-wide uprising was planned for May of 1876 by his followers, but they were betrayed. When the Ottomans tried to arrest local leader Todor Kableshkov in Koprivshtica on April 20, he and his companions shot their way into the town’s police station and proclaimed that the uprising had begun, two weeks in advance. Because of the premature start date, many of the districts turned out in far weaker numbers than expected, and what was meant to be a well-planned national revolt turned into several weeks of freedom for a few brave areas, outgunned and outnumbered ten to one and eventually crushed by Ottoman troops with extreme cruelty. The populations of entire villages, men, women and children, were slaughtered and their homes set ablaze.
Bulgaria’s other national hero, poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev, crossed the Danube into Bulgaria at the head of 200 men in June, expecting to find a country at war. Instead, he was too late and alone against an overwhelming Ottoman force. He was hunted down and killed along with his men on the night of July 2 near the Balkan peak Vola. July 2 is Bulgaria’s Remembrance Day.
As rumours of the Ottomans’ brutality began to trickle into the Bulgarian diaspora in Istanbul, the American consul was sent to investigate, accompanied by a young American journalist. They returned with the chilling details of the Ottoman response, which the journalist (named Januarius MacGahan) described in vivid language and published in the London Daily News. Public opinion across Europe, notably in the Ottomans’ long-time ally Britain, lurched away in disgust and when Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire the following year, Britain was unable to intervene in the Ottomans’ favour.
The Russo-Turkish war of 1877-1878 became Bulgaria’s war of liberation. A corps of 10 000 Bulgarian volunteers fought alongside Russian, Romanian and Finnish troops, earning glory in the hellish three-day battle of Shipka pass. Defending against a far larger Ottoman army, Bulgarian volunteers and Russian troops repelled every advance, hurling rocks and dead bodies down on the Ottomans after their bullets ran out. They held out long enough for Russian reinforcements to arrive, preventing the Ottomans from relieving the siege of Pleven. The Russo-Turkish war ended on March 3, 1878, with a treaty signed in the Istanbul suburb of San Stefano that established the boundaries of the autonomous Bulgarian state. March 3 is celebrated as Bulgaria’s national day of liberation.
The rampant lion became the symbol of liberated Bulgaria.