The First Bulgarian Empire (Първo Българско царство, Părvo Bălgarsko Tsarstvo) was a medieval Bulgarian state founded in AD 632 in the lands near the Danube Delta and disintegrated in AD 1018 after its annexation to the Byzantine Empire. At the height of its power it spread between Budapest and the Black Sea and from the Dnieper river in modern Ukraine to the Adriatic. It was succeeded by the Second Bulgarian Empire, established in 1185. The official name of the country since its very foundation was Bulgaria.
The Empire played a major role in European politics and was one of the strongest military powers of its time. In 717-718 the coalition of Byzantines and Bulgarians decisively defeated the Arabs in the siege of Constantinople thus saving Eastern Europe from the threat of an Arab invasion and Muslim conquest of Europe, and later destroyed the Avar Khanate expanding its territory to the Pannonian Plain and the Tatra Mountains. Bulgaria served as an effective shield against the constant invasions of nomadic peoples from the east in the so called second wave of the Great Migration. Pechenegs and Cumans were stopped in north-eastern Bulgaria and after a decisive victory over the Magyars in 896 they were forced to retreate to and permanently settle down in Pannonia.
To the south in course of the Byzantine-Bulgarian Wars the Bulgarians incorporated most of Slavic-populated region of Thrace and Macedonia. After the annihilation of the Byzantine army in the battle of Anchialus in 917 the Byzantine Empire was on the edge of destruction.
The Bulgars brought new construction and battle techniques to Europe. The first Bulgarian cities were made of large monolith stones unlike the Roman brick-build fortresses. With an area of 27 km² the capital Pliska was among the largest towns in Europe. The Inner town had a sewerage and floor heating long before cities such as Paris and London. After the adoption of Christianity in 864 Bulgaria became the cultural center of Slavic Europe. Its leading cultural position was further consolidated with the invention of the Cyrillic alphabet in Preslav, which some credit to the Bulgarian scholar Clement of Ohrid. According to some historians the schools of Preslav and Ohrid were the second universities in Europe after the University of Constantinople.
Little is known about the origins of the Bulgars that reached the Balkan peninsula in the 7th century (according to some sources even earlier) because during the ages the original Bulgars melted into the local population of what is nowadays Bulgaria.
The established theory is that the Bulgars are related to the Huns and originated in Central Asia but their ethnicity is not entirely clear. Clues for this can be found in the advanced calendar and system of government of the early Bulgars.
Nevertheless the so called "Hun theory" is still vehemently supported by some historians who base their thesis on a lot of existing documents and sources. In Nominalia of the Bulgarian khans, a late copy of an ancient document, is written that the first ruler of the Bulgars was Avitohol and the second Irnik. Irnik or Ernakh is the name of Attila's youngest son therefore some historians believe that Avitohol was no other than Attila the Hun.
It is assumed that the Bulgars were governed by hereditary khans. The only similar title found so far is kanasubigi and it was used by only four of the Bulgarian rulers, namely Krum, Omurtag, Malamir and Presian, which were respectively a grandfather, son, grandson and a nephew of Malamir, and after them the title disappears. Other similar but non-kingly titles were attested among Bulgarian noble class and these are kavkan (vicekhan), tarkan, and boritarkan. Starting from there (if there was a vicekhan (kavkhan) so there was a khan, too) the scholars assume the title khan for the early Bulgarian leader. Later iscriptions speak of archonts (a Greek title) and knyaze (a Slavic title). There were several (probably more than 100) aristocratic families whose members, called boila (boyars) who bore military titles and formed a governing class. The religion of the Bulgars is also obscure but it is supposed that it was monotheistic, worshipping the Turkic Sky god Tangra. There is only one mentioning of Tangra in the 8 century inscription near the Madara Rider. All other sources simply talk about Bog, the Slavic and Aryan word for God. More confusingly some Bulgar rulers, renowned for their persecution of Christians were depicted with Christian state symbols. There is a theory that Bulgars were Arians (an early Christian sect). On the top of that, early Bulgar sacred places featured the plan of two concentric squares, typical to Zoroastrian temples.
The migration of Bulgars to the European continent started as early as the 2nd century AD when branches of Bulgars settled on the plains between the Caspian and the Black Sea. Between AD 351 and 389, some of these crossed the Caucasus and settled in Armenia. They were eventually assimilated by the Armenians.
Swept by the Hunnish wave at the beginning of the 4th century AD, other numerous Bulgarian tribes broke loose from their settlements in central Asia to migrate to the fertile lands along the lower valleys of the Donets and the Don rivers and the Azov seashore. Some of these remained for centuries in their new settlements, whereas others moved on with the Huns towards Central Europe, settling in Pannonia.
In the 6th and 7th century, the Bulgars formed an independent state, often called Great Bulgaria, between the lower course of the Danube to the west, the Black and the Azov Seas to the south, the Kuban river to the east, and the Donets river to the north. The capital of the state was Phanagoria, on the Azov.
The pressure from peoples further east (such as the Khazars) led to the dissolution of Great Bulgaria in the second half of the 7th century. One Bulgar tribe migrated to the confluence of the Volga and Kama Rivers in what is now Tatarstan, Russia (see Volga Bulgaria). They converted to Islam in the beginning in the 10th century and maintained an independent state until the 13th century. Smaller Bulgar tribes seceded in Pannonia and in Italy, northwest of Naples, while other Bulgars sought refuge with the Lombards. Another group of Bulgars remained in the land north of the Black and the Azov Seas. They were, however, soon subdued by the Khazars. These Bulgars converted to Judaism in the 9th century, along with the Khazars, and were eventually assimilated.
Yet another Bulgar tribe, led by Khan Asparuh, moved westward, occupying today's southern Bessarabia. After a successful war with Byzantium in AD 680, Asparuh's khanate conquered Moesia and Dobrudja , and was recognised as an independent state under the subsequent treaty signed with the Byzantine Empire in AD 681. The same year is usually regarded as the year of the establishment of present-day Bulgaria.
Another theory is that Great Bulgaria, although it suffered a major territory loss from the Khazars, managed to defeat them in the early 670s. Khan Asparuh, the successor of Khan Kubrat, conquered Moesia and Dobrudja after the war with the Byzantine Empire in AD 680. This war ended with a peace treaty in 681. Therefore, according to some researchers, the year of establishment of present-day Bulgaria has to be considered 632, and not AD 681.
After the decisive victory at Ongala in 680 the armies of the Bulgars and Slavs advanced to the south of the Balkan mountains, defeating again the Byzantines who were then forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty which acknowledged the establishment of a new state on the borders of the Empire. They were also to pay an annual tribute to Bulgaria. In the same time the war with the Khazars to the east continued and in 700 Asparough perished in battle with them. The Bulgars lost the territories to the east of the Dnester river but managed to hold the lands to the west. The Bulgars and the Slavs signed a treaty according to which the head of the state became the Khan of the Bulgars who had also the obligation to defend the country against the Byzantine, while the Slavic leaders gained considerable autonomy and had to protect the northern borders along the Carpathian mountains against the Avars.
Asparough's successor, Tervel helped the deposed Byzantine Emperor Justinian II to regain his throne in 705. In return he was given the area Zagore in northern Thrace which was the first expansion of the country to the south of the Balkan mountains. However, three years later Justinian tried to take it back by force but his army was defeated at Anchialus. In 716 Tervel signed a trade agreement with Byzantium. During the siege of Constantinople in 717-718 he sent 50,000 troops to help the besieged city. In the decisive battle the Bulgarians massacred around 30,000 Arabs and Tervel was called The saviour of Europe by his contemporaries.
In 753 died Khan Sevar who was the last scion of the Dulo clan. With his death the Khanate fell into a long political crisis during which the young country was on the verge of destruction. For just 15 years ruled 7 Khans who were all murdered. There were two main fractions; some nobles wanted uncompromising war against the Byzantines while others searched for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. That instability was used by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine V (745-775) who launched nine major campaigns aiming at the elimination of Bulgaria. In 763 he defeated the Bulgarian Khan Telets at Anchialus but the Byzantines were unable to advance further north. In 775 Khan Telerig, by tricking Constantine to reveal those loyal to him in the Bulgarian Court, executed all the Byzantine spies in the capital Pliska. Under his successor Kardam, the war took a favourable turn after the great victory in the battle of Marcelae in 792. The Byzantines were thoroughly defeated and forced once again to pay tribute to the Khans. As a result of the victory, the crisis was finally overwhelmed and Bulgaria entered the new century stable, stronger and consolidated.
Under the great Khan Krum (803-814), also known as Crummus and Keanus Magnus, Bulgaria expanded northwest and southwards, occupying the lands between middle Danube and Moldova, the whole territory of present-day Romania, Sofia in 809 and Adrianople (modern Odrin) in 813, and threatening Constantinople itself. Between 804 and 806 the Bulgarian armies thoroughly eliminated the Avar Khanate and a border with the Frankish Empire was established along the middle Danube. In 811 a large Byzantine army was decisively defeated in the battle of the Varbitsa Pass. The Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I was slain along with most of his troops. Krum immediately took the initiative and moved the war towards Thrace, defeating the Byzantines once more at Versinikia in 813. After a treacherous Byzantine attempt to kill the Khan during negotiations, Krum pillaged the whole of Thrace, seized Odrin and resettled its 10,000 inhabitants in "Bulgaria across the Danube. He made enhanced preparation to capture Constantinople: 5,000 iron-plated waggons were built to carry the siege equipment, the Byzantines even pleaded for help from the Frankish Emperor Louis the Pious. Due to the sudden death of the great Khan, however, the campaign was never launched. Khan Krum implemented law reform intending to reduce the poverty and to strengthen the social ties in his vastly enlarged state.
During the reign of Khan Omurtag (814-831), the northwestern boundaries with the Frankish Empire were firmly settled along the middle Danube by the 827 and magnificent palace, pagan temples, ruler's residence, fortress, citadel, water-main and bath were built in Bulgarian capital Pliska, mainly of stone and brick.
During the short reign of Malamir (831-836) the important city of Plovdiv was incorporated into the country. Under Khan Presian (836-852), the Bulgarians took most of Macedonia and the borders of the country reached the Adriatic and Aegean Seas. The Byzantine historians do not mention any resistance against the Bulgarian expansion in Macedonia which bring the conclusion that it was largely peaceful.
It is assumed that The Bulgars were greatly outnumbered by the Slav population among whom they had settled. Between the 7th and the 10th centuries, the Bulgars were gradually absorbed by the Slavs, adopting a Bulgaro-South Slav language and converting to Christianity (of the Byzantine rite) under Boris I in 864. At that time the process of absorption of the remnants of the old Romanised Thracian population from south of the Danube had already been significant in the formation of this new ethnic group. Modern Bulgarians are normally considered to be of Southern Slavic origin, even though the Slavs were only one of the peoples that took part in the formation of their ethnicity. Some recent studies suggest that the Bulgars were much more numerous than originally thought.This theory is getting more support amongst new Bulgarian historians.
Тhe Byzantines' goal was to achieve with peace what they were unable to after two centuries of warfare: to slowly absorb Bulgaria through the Christian religion and turn it into a satellite state, as naturally, the highest posts in the newly founded Bulgarian Church were to be held by Byzantines who preached in the Greek language. Boris was well aware of that fact and after Constantinople refused to grant autonomy of the Bulgarian Church in 866 he sent a delegation to Rome declaring his desire to accept Christianity in accordance with the Western rites along with 115 questions to Pope Nicolas I . The Bulgarian ruler desired to take advantage of the rivalry between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople as his main goal was the establishment of an independent Bulgarian Church in order to prevent both the Byzantines and the Catholics from exerting influence in his lands through religion. The Pope's detailed answers to Boris' questions were delivered by two bishops heading a mission whose purpose was to facilitate the conversion of the Bulgarian people. However, Nicolas I and his successor Pope Adrian II also refused to recognize an autonomous Bulgarian Church which cooled the relations between the two sides but Bulgaria's shift towards Rome made the Byzantines much more conciliatory. In 870, at the Fourth Council of Constantinople, the Bulgarian Church was recognized as an Autonomous Eastern Orthodox Church under the supreme direction of the Patriarch of Constantinople.
By the late 9th and the beginning of the 10th century, Bulgaria extended to Epirus and Thessaly in the south, Bosnia in the west and controlled the whole of present-day Romania and eastern Hungary to the north. A Serbian state came into existence as a dependency of the Bulgarian Empire and was later fully subordinated under the general and possibly Count of Sofia Marmais. Under Tsar Simeon I (Simeon the Great), who was educated in Constantinople, Bulgaria became again a serious threat to the Byzantine Empire and reached its greatest territorial extension. Simeon hoped to take Constantinople and fought a series of wars with the Byzantines throughout his long reign (893-927). The border close to the end of his rule reached Peloponnese in the south. Simeon styled himself "Emperor (Tsar) of the Bulgarians and Autocrat of the Greeks", a title which was recognized by the Pope, but not of course by the Byzantine Emperor nor the The Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He was recognized "Emperor (Tsar) of the Bulgarians" by the Byzantine Emperor and the Patriarch only at the end of his rule.
Between 894 and 896 he defeated the Byzantines and their allies the Magyars in the so called "Trade War" because the pretext of the war was the shifting of the Bulgarian market from Constantinople to Solun. In the decisive battle of Bulgarophygon the Byzantine army was routed and the war ended with favourable for Bulgaria peace which was, however, often violated by Simeon. In 904 he captured Solun which was previously looted by the Arabs and returned it to the Byzantines only after Bulgaria received all Slavic-populated areas in Macedonia and 20 fortress in Albania including the important town Drach.
After the unrest in the Byzantine Empire that followed the death of Emperor Alexander in 913 Simeon invaded Byzantine Thrace but was persuaded to stop in return for official recognition of his Imperial title and marriage of his daughter to the infant Emperor Constantine VII . After a plot in the Byzantine court Empress Zoe rejected the marriage and his title and both sides prepared for a decisive battle. By 917 Simeon broke every attempts of his enemy to form an alliance with the Magyars, the Pechenegs and the Serbs and Byzantines were forced to fight alone. On 20 August the two armies clashed at Anchialus in one of the greatest battles in the Middle Ages. The Byzantines suffered an unprecedented defeat leaving 70,000 killed on the battlefield. The pursuing Bulgarian forces defeated the reminder of the enemy armies at Katasyrtai. However, Constantinople was saved by a Serb attack from the west; the Serbs were thoroughly defeated but that gave precious time for the Byzantine admiral and later Emperor Romanos Lakepanos to prepare the defense of the city. In the following decade the Bulgarians gained control of the whole Balkan peninsula with the exception of Constantinople and Pelopones.
After Simeon's death, however, Bulgarian power slowly declined. In a peace treaty in 927 the Byzantines officially recognized the Imperial title of his son Peter I and the Bulgarian Patriarchate. The peace with Byzantium did not bring prosperity to Bulgaria. In the beginning of his rule the new Emperor had internal problems and unrest with his brothers and in 930s was forced to recognize the independence of Rascia. The main blow came from the north: between 934 and 965 the country suffered five Magyar invasions. In 944 Bulgaria was attacked by the Pechenegs who looted the north eastern regions of the Empire. Under Peter I and Boris II the country was divided by the egalitarian religious heresy of the Bogomils.
In 968 the country was attacked by Kievan Rus, whose leader, Svyatoslav I, took Preslav and established his capital at Preslavets. Three years later, Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimiskes interfered into the struggle and defeated Svyatoslav at Dorostolon. After that, Boris II was deceived and solemnly dethroned at Constantinople and eastern Bulgaria was proclaimed a Byzantine protectorate.
Missionaries from Constantinople, Cyril and Methodius, devised the Glagolitic alphabet, which was adopted in the Bulgarian Empire around 886. The alphabet and the Old Bulgarian language gave rise to a rich literary and cultural activity centered around the Preslav and Ohrid Schools, established by order of Boris I in 886. In the beginning of 10th century AD, a new alphabet — the Cyrillic alphabet - was developed on the basis of Greek and Glagolitic cursive at the Preslav Literary School. According to an alternative theory, the alphabet was devised at the Ohrid Literary School by Saint Clement of Ohrid, a Bulgarian scholar and disciple of Cyril and Methodius. A pious monk and hermit St. Ivan of Rila (Ivan Rilski, 876-946), became the patron saint of Bulgaria. After 893 Preslav became the truly new Bulgarian capital.
During his reign Simeon gathered many scholars in his court who translated enormous number of books from Greek and wrote many new works. Among the most prominent figures were Constantine of Preslav, John Exarch and Chernorizets Hrabar who is believed by some historians to have been Simeon himself. The was intensive construction of churches and monasteries throughout the Empire including the Great Basilica in Pliska which was one of the biggest structures of the time with its length of 99 m and the splendid Golden Church in Preslav. The Bulgarian capital was also famous for its ceramics which adorned the public and religious buildings. Beautiful icons and church altars were made of special ceramic tiles. There were numerous goldsmith and silversmith workshops who produced fine jewellery.