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Little Bulgaria - 678-1392

Bulgars formed permanent settlements in Moesia south of the Lower Danube towards the close of the 7th century. Here, these bold and dexterous archers, who drank the milk and feasted on the flesh of their fleet and indefatigable horses; whose flocks and herds followed, or rather guided, the motions of their roving camps; to whose inroads no country was remote or impervious, and who were practised in flight, though incapable of fear, established a powerful state, which maintained its independence for over seven hundred years (678-1392).

The Balkans separate a region of Mediterranean drainage from a region draining to the Danube and on the open road to Russia and the steppes. Here, on the Lower Danubian Plateau, is a distinct impress of the steppe. The climate is of continental extremes; the loess-covered slopes, exhibiting a uniformity rare in the peninsula, are of a wonderful fertility, but the wheat harvests fluctuate seriously under the liability to summer drought. Migrations from the Asiatic steppes to the plateau have had a special significance.

Waves of Huns, Goths, Visigoths, and Ostrogoths invaded and plundered the Balkans beginning in the third century AD. None of these invaders permanently occupied territory. Small Slavic groups began settling outlying regions in the fifth century, and by the seventh century the Slavs had overcome Byzantine resistance and settled most of the Balkans. The Slavs brought a more stable culture, retained their own language, and substantially slavicized the existing Roman and Byzantine social system.

Hither, following Slav invaders, came the Ugro-Finnish Bulgars, who fused with the Slavs, forming the basis of the present Bulgar people. They brought with them a military organization foreign to the Slavic tribes; the well-defined region offered favorable conditions for the establishment of a state. The immigration of the first Bulgars overlapped that of the Slavs in the seventh century. Of mixed Turkic stock (the word Bulgar derives from an Old Turkic word meaning "one of mixed nationality"), the Bulgars were warriors who had migrated from a region between the Urals and the Volga to the steppes north of the Caspian Sea, then across the Danube into the Balkans. Besides a formidable reputation as military horsemen, the Bulgars had a strong political organization based on their khan (prince). In AD 630 a federation of Bulgar tribes already existed; in the next years the Bulgars united with the Slavs to oppose Byzantine control. By 681 the khan Asparukh had forced Emperor Constantine V to recognize the first Bulgarian state. The state, whose capital was at Pliska, near modern Shumen, combined a Bulgarian political structure with Slavic linguistic and cultural institutions.

Acting at first in association with the Slavs, and then assuming "a vague dominion" over their restless Sarmatian allies, the Bulgars spread the terror of their hated name throughout the Balkan lands, and were prevented only by the skill of Belisarius from anticipating their Turki kinsmen in the overthrow of the Byzantine Empire itself. Procopius and Jornandes have left terrible pictures of the ferocity, debasement, and utter savagery, both of the Bulgars and of their Slav confederates during the period preceding the foundation of the Bulgar dynasty in Moesia. Wherever the Slavs (Antes, Slavini) passed, no soul was left alive; Thrace and Illyria were strewn with unburied corpses; captives were shut up with horse and cattle in stables, and all consumed together, while the brutal hordes danced to the music of their shrieks and groans. Indescribable was the horror inspired by the Bulgars, who killed for killing's sake, wasted for sheer love of destruction, swept away all works of the human hand, burnt, razed cities, left in their wake nought but a picture of their own cheerless native steppes. Of all the barbarians that harried the Empire, the Bulgars have left the most detested name, although closely rivalled by the Slavs.

In 768, the emperor Constantine Pogonatus marched against them, but he hesitated to give them battle, fell ill and left the army, which soon after followed him in disorder. The Bulgars under their chief Terkel, who was probably a son of Asparuk, pursued them and crossed the Danube. They advanced into Mo?sia as far as Varna, subdued the country, and made tributary the seven Slavic tribes who lived there. Their conquest was bounded on the south by the Balkan range, on the east by the Euxine, and on the west by the country of the Avars, of whom Belgrade was a frontier town ; on the north their dominion extended over Walachia and south-eastern Hungary.

In this large area they formed only a dominant tribe, such as the Turks now form in European Turkey; the great bulk of the population, especially south of the Danube, was Slavic. They gave their name to their settlement, which was henceforth known as Bulgaria. The Slaves there adopted the name of Bulgarians, but in return they, the invaders, a mere fragment although a dominant fragment, adopted the language, the customs, and eventually the religion of the conquered, and it would be hard to find more typical Slaves than the modern Bulgarians.

To the ethnologist the later history of the Bulgarians is of exceptional interest. They entered the Danubian lands in the seventh century as typical Ugro-Finns, repulsive alike in physical appearance and mental characters. Their dreaded chief, Krum, celebrated his triumphs with sanguinary rites, and his followers yielded in no respects to the Huns themselves in coarseness and brutality.

Yet an almost complete moral if not physical transformation had been effected by the middle of the 9th century, when the Bulgars were evangelised by Cyril and Methodius, exchanged their rude Ugrian speech for a Slavonic tongue, the so-called "Church Slav," or even "Old Bulgarian," and became henceforth merged in the surrounding Slav populations. The national name "Bulgar" alone survives, as that of a somewhat peaceful southern "Slav" people, who have in our time again acquired the political independence of which they had been deprived by Bajazet I in 1392.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 02:52:05 ZULU