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Five Hundred Years of Ottoman Rule

One period in Bulgarian history that is more often talked about and stands out above the rest is the 500 year period under Turkish rule. The Ottoman Empire was established early on in the 14th century by Osman I, a prince from Asia Minor. His army pushed the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire westwards and soon the Ottoman army became a strong global force. By 1389 the fate of the whole of the Balkan Peninsula was sealed when the Serbian army was defeated at Kosovo. By 1393 the Turkish army occupied most of Bulgaria and despite two failed uprisings against the Turkish oppressors in 1394 and 1444, Constantinople, the last upholder of the Orthodox world  fell in 1453 and help from the outside world disappeared.



Life under the Turkish Yoke

Within a few years of Turkish occupation more than half of the Bulgarian population had been enslaved, massacred or moved to another part of the Ottoman Empire. Life became extremely tough for the Bulgarians as the Turks took the most fertile land and dominated the most prosperous towns. The Bulgarian people became serfs of the rich Turkish Saphis or knights and were forced to pay high taxes to them.

The Turks also attempted to force the population to convert to Islam by creating a blood tax whereby the oldest male child was taken from the family and indoctrinated into the Muslim faith before being forced to join the Ottoman army. Those families who chose to follow Islam “voluntarily” were exempt from the blood tax and in some parts of Northern Bulgaria and the Rhodope Mountains this campaign proved successful.
The difference in Bulgaria religion meant that the Turks had no respect for the Orthodox Bulgarian faith and as a consequence they looted monasteries and relegated the leaders of the Orthodox Church to follow orders from the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Bulgarians were treated with little respect; women were often raped, they were robbed of any valuables they had and left to live a life of poverty and strife. All major centres of Bulgarian culture were ruined, most literature was lost or destroyed and Bulgarian culture was suppressed isolating it from many of the processes that occurred throughout the rest of Europe.

The Bulgarians tried to fight back with repeated rebellions particularly when European neighbours succeeded in forcing back the Turks who had encroached on their land.  However these revolts failed and eventually by the 17th century Bulgarians resigned themselves to life under the Turkish yoke.  Some towns like Kotel, Kopravishtitsa and Elena were awarded certain privileges not given to the rest of the country and these towns were allowed to flourish and prosper through trade. Bulgarian merchants in these towns grew wealthy and were allowed to restore churches with some of the profits they accumulated.
In the 18th century Ottoman provincial government declined and gave rise to Turkish bandits known as Kardzhali. This stimulated feelings of how corrupt Turkish society was within the indigenous Bulgarian population and fuelled them with hope that they may be able to rid themselves of the Turks. Some Bulgarian men fled to the forests to become haiduti or outlaws.

The National Revival

Western political ideas gradually combined with the rebirth of Bulgarian national consciousness to form a movement based on securing independence. The Bulgarian National Revival commenced with St Paisius of Hilendar’s work “Istoriya Slavyanobolgarskaya” which recounted Bulgarian medieval history and in turn revived the spirit of the nation. Educated Bulgarians began to finance the construction of schools and publication of Bulgarian textbooks. In 1821 neighbouring Greece revolted against the Turks and inspired the Bulgarians to do the same. Revolutionary leaders organised groups across the country. The key leaders of the time were Vasil Levski, Hristo Botev, Georgi Rakovski and Lyuben Karavelov. They are still honoured in Bulgarian society today. Rakovski came up with a plan to free Bulgaria but he died before it could be implemented and so the other three revolutionaries tried to organise the people to fight against the Turks, however Levski was put to death by the Turks as a consequence in 1873 and the remaining two leaders disagreed on what course of action to take.



The April Uprising

Finally in April 1876 the Bulgarian people revolted against Turkish rule. The uprising was organised by the Revolutionary Committee and was spurred on by the 1875 revolution in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The revolt was strongest around Plovdiv, Macedonia (which was part of Bulgaria) and Sliven. The uprising failed because the Ottoman army brought reinforcements from outside of the area. As a punishment, villages were looted and about twelve thousand Bulgarians were executed. The horrific treatment of the Bulgarian people aroused international attention with people like William Gladstone launching a campaign against the Bulgarian tragedy, which was supported by renowned intellectuals like Charles Darwin, Oscar Wilde, Victor Hugo and Giuseppe Garibaldi.  The fiercest response came from Russia who saw the results of the uprising as a chance to iron out differences between great powers like the Ottoman Empire. The Conference of Constantinople took place in 1876 and was attended by delegations from the The Ottoman Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Russia, Britain, Germany and Italy. The conference aimed to bring peace and a settlement to the Bulgaria Problem. Russia and Britain disagreed on the territory, which should be included in the independent Bulgaria – Russia favoured the inclusion of Macedonia, Thrace, Dobruzha and Moesia, whilst the British wanted a much smaller territory including only territory north of the Balkan Mountains. Eventually a compromise was reached excluding Thrace and Macedonia. The Ottomans seemed to accept the compromise but rejected the plan in the final stages with the secret support of Britain.

The Russian Invasion

In light of this turn of events, the Russians felt they had no choice but to declare war on the Turks. Romanians, Bulgarians and Russians fought side by side eventually inflicting a decisive victory at the Battle of the Shipka Pass. Finally, once most of Bulgaria was in Russian hands, the treaty of San Stefano was agreed with the Sultan in 1878 giving Bulgaria most of the land populated by Bulgarians. The Sultan was in a weak position and could not oppose the plan however, France and Britain curbed Russian power in the Balkans by forcing the establishment of a limited autonomous Bulgarian state under Turkish rule. The instrument of that limitation, the Treaty of Berlin, revived longstanding Bulgarian territorial frustrations by placing the critical regions of Macedonia and Thrace beyond Bulgarian control. Both of those disputed regions had substantial Bulgarian populations. During the next sixty years, Bulgaria would fight unsuccessfully in four wars, in a variety of alliances, to redress the grievance. None of the four wars brought substantial new territory to Bulgaria.