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A Short history of Bulgaria

Bulgaria's mild climate and fertile soil has attracted settlers since ancient times.

Because of its location at the crossroads between Asia and Europe, many different cultures have influenced Bulgaria.

Bulgaria as we see it today is the result of intricately intertwined histories of many different peoples.

Map showing a detail of Southeast Europe as in 1878.

The Thracians in Bulgaria

Bulgarian history really starts with the Thracians. The Thracians were a group of Indo-European tribes that lived throughout the Balkan Peninsula from about 1000 BC. They lived simply in small-fortified hilltop villages, but had an advanced cultural life. Many elaborate gold and silver treasures have been found in Bulgaria, and you can still admire some of their burial tombs today.

Warrior-kings that also had a priestly role ruled Thracian tribes. Some of the ancient rituals still performed in Strandja today trace back to the Thracian kings. An example is the Nestinarka or fire dancing ritual.

Their neighbours saw Thracians as warlike, ferocious and bloodthirsty. They especially feared the tribes that inhabited the remote mountains. Today, we think that Thracian religion was based around fertility, death and birth, and that they performed ecstatic religious rituals.

The Thracians were never united. Instead, they consisted of a bunch of loose tribes that fought among each other. They were in close contact with the Greeks, who settled in the area, started colonies on the Black Sea coast, such as Sozopol (Apollonia), and traded with the Thracians.

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The Slavs and Bulgars
the first Bulgarians

From 200 BC, the Romans became the main power in Europe. By 50 AD, all the Thracian tribes were obliterated and the Romans had created the provinces of Thrace in the South and Moesia in the North.

During Roman rule, the Slavs started to migrate south and east. The Slavs were a large tribe that came from east Ukraine. Because of their interest in Christianity, the Romans allowed these peaceful farming people to settle. The Slavs became the most powerful people in the Balkans, until the arrival of the Bulgars in the second half of the 6th century.

The Bulgars came from central Asia and were a war-like tribe. Under their leader, Khan (king) Asparuh, they gradually extended their rule over the Slavs already settled in the region.

The ruling Bulgars extended their empire at the cost of the Romans, and adopted the language and culture of the Slavs. The two communities merged to form the first 'Bulgarians'.

A time of relative prosperity followed, and the Bulgarian Kingdom became the biggest on the continent. At its peak, it stretched from Greece in the South to the Ukraine in the North and from the Black Sea in the East to the Adriatic in the West.

However, by 1400 the Ottoman Turks had become a disciplined war machine with superior numbers, and were unstoppable. By the middle of the 15th century, Southeastern Europe was part of the Ottoman Empire, a situation that would last for 500 years.

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The Ottoman Yoke

The 'Ottoman Yoke' was a difficult time for the Bulgarians. During the first 50 years, almost half of the population was killed or left to starve. People had to pay very high taxes, even for occasions such as birth and death, and many people were forced to convert to Islam.

There were some uprisings during the 500-year period that the Ottomans ruled, but the Ottomans quickly crushed these and no real change followed.

However, in spite of the oppression, the Bulgarians managed to keep their culture, traditions and language alive. This was especially the case in remote and mountainous areas such as Strandja, which has always been a stronghold of Bulgarian culture.

By the end of the 18th century, Turkish rule became more tolerant, and a group of wealthy Bulgarian merchants got more and more freedom. In 1792, a book written about the history of the Bulgarian people was the start of a period called the Bulgarian Renaissance or National Revival, in which architecture and art flourished. Today you can still see many beautiful examples of National Revival architecture in Bulgaria.

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Bulgaria's liberation

The National Revival period and the increasing tolerance of the Ottomans sparked ideas of liberation. Bulgarian Nationalists grouped under one leader, Vasil Levski, a gifted poet. When the Turks executed Vasil, he became a martyr for the liberation cause.

In April 1876, the April uprising started in a small mountain village in the Balkan Mountains. But the Turks quickly crushed the uprising and killed over 30,000 rebels, both during the uprising and in revenge attacks.

However, the rebels' fate was not in vain, because Russia, shocked by the atrocities, attacked the Turkish Empire and freed Bulgaria in 1877.

For a very brief period in history, Bulgaria became a large independent country that included Macedonia and East Greece. This however was too dangerous to Western Europe. They divided Bulgaria again and even gave parts back to the Ottomans.

Strandja became part of an Ottoman province named Eastern Rumelia. In 1885, there was an uprising in Rumelia and it became part of Bulgaria once more. However, Macedonia and Strandja only regained their freedom in 1903 and 1913 respectively.

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A period of great unrest

From 1913 until the Second World War, there was great political unrest in the area, with many wars and economic stagnation.

The Balkan wars were followed by World War I, in which Bulgaria sided with Germany. After the war, Bulgaria had to pay lots of war reparations. Both the Agrarian and Communist party appeared, but the Agrarian leader was assassinated and the Communist party banned. Its leaders fled to Russia.

During World War II, Germany penetrated into the Balkans. In spite of Bulgaria's declared neutrality, the Germans occupied the country. However, Bulgaria refused to declare war to Russia or to hand over its large Jewish population. Russia attacked in 1944 and, with assistance from within, liberated Bulgaria. (September 9, Liberation Day).

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Bulgaria under communism

After the liberation by Russia, the Bulgarian Communist Party (BKP) emerged as the leading political force. At first they hid their radicalism behind a moderate coalition government. But a staged referendum on the monarchy resulted in its abolishment and the People's Republic of Bulgaria was proclaimed in 1946.

Many enterprises were nationalized. The communists quickly turned to any opposition, whether from within or outside the party. They got rid of over 100,000 people and transformed Bulgaria into a modern industrialist state with heavy industry and many factories. Agricultural production stayed behind though, partly because of the many smallholdings in private ownership.

After Stalin's death, Russia started favouring more moderate policies. By then, however, Todor Zhivkov was the Communist party leader in Bulgaria and he had other ideas. Zhivkov came up with the Big Leap Forward, inspired by the Chinese. He pooled most private smallholdings into large collective farms, while their former owners only got to keep small private plots.

Under Zhivkov Bulgaria almost became like a slave to Russia. The economy stagnated, and there was complete control of public life. But promises and delivery of adequate food, guaranteed work, schooling and medical care kept most people in line. The feared social security police quickly dealt with anyone who still had different ideas.

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Perestroika and Glasnost

At the same time, in Russia, Gorbachov started to toy with ideas of widespread reform and new policies, Perestroika (restructuring) and Glasnost (openness). Hardliners like Zhivkov increasingly became an embarrassment to Russia.

Within the Bulgarian Communist Party, people started to prepare for the day they could throw out their leader, and ask for Perestroika as well. In 1987, Zhivkov came with ideas of reform, including decentralization of state-run businesses and more democracy, but practical examples of this were hard to find.

Under Zhivkov nationalism became fiercer and fiercer, and Bulgaria's minorities, in particular the ethnic Turks and Bulgarian Muslims were the victims. They had to change their names, and were denied work, housing and schooling. All this led to mass exodus of Turks and Bulgarian Muslims in 1989 to Turkey, which in turn caused outrage from international human rights organizations.

The day after the Berlin wall fell, Zhivkov was arrested on the basis of fraud and inciting racial hatred.

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Bulgaria's recent political past

After the fall of the Berlin wall, a new party leader was appointed. Other political parties also started to appear. By 1990 state and party were separated, hardliners removed and the name changed to the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP).

The first elections brought the BSP back to power, partly because it had financial resources for campaigning, but also because the other parties hardly had the time to get themselves organized. Some people are convinced the outcome was fixed.

The following period was a time of many protests, discontent and economic crises. There were many power switches in the government, but no government delivers promises of better living conditions for the ordinary Bulgarians. Crime and corruption became common and many former party members were able to buy state businesses at cheap prices.

The Bulgarians were hoping for a public figure that could be an example to sort out the mess. Then the former king Simeon the second appeared and formed a political party. He won the elections and set out to turn Bulgaria around. But because no real change appeared in the lives of the average Bulgarian, most people quickly lost their hopes.

Today, all hopes are on a new political party again: GERB (Citizens for European Development of Bulgaria). GERB has won the elections in 2009. They state their priorities as fighting crime and corruption, while preserving family as the cornerstone of Bulgarian society and achieving energy independence.

Time will tell whether GERB will be able to help Bulgaria towards better living conditions, while respecting Bulgaria's beautiful natural environment.

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More about Strandja

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The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page. - St. Augustine