Posts Tagged ‘Bulgaria’

On This Day in 1014

Posted in General, On This Day on July 29th, 2011 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

July 29th

You probably have never heard of the battle of Kleidion, but you may know of its aftermath. The Byzantines generally hated war: it was costly, unpredictable and vulgar. They preferred to charm, bribe or undermine their opponents. Give the semi-barbaric kinglet a tour of the splendors of Constantinople, present him with a few bolts of silk and the overawed warlord usually would behave himself. (At the same time, encourage his ambitious younger brother.) The Byzantines also used Christianity as a form of diplomacy. Converting to the Orthodox Creed was a submission to the spiritual leadership of the Patriarch of Constantinople–and guess who controlled him. (No, not Jesus.)

But Byzantine subtlety was lost on the Bulgarians. Since the Bulgarians had first crossed the Danube in the 7th century and made the once Greek Thrace irretrievably Slavic, they had been at odds with the Byzantines: sometimes a danger, always a threat. At times, the Bulgarians controlled more of Greece than the Byzantines did. The street signs of Athens could have been in Cyrillic. Forced to fight, the Byzantines experienced all the vagaries of war. The skull of one Emperor became a drinking goblet for the Bulgar king. That particular king was a pagan; Christianity may have improved the table manners of Bulgarian royalty but not their aggressiveness. The wars continued. However, Constantinople was impregnable, the Byzantine navy was unchallenged, and the Empire’s Asian provinces had the wealth and manpower to equip more armies that would eventually push the Bulgarians back.

At the beginning of the 11th century, the Byzantines were led by one of the greatest warriors of his time: Basil II. Indeed, he was such a committed soldier that he never bothered to marry. Ahem. Basil had decided to destroy the Bulgarian Empire, and he had the ability and resources to do it. On this day in 1014, the invading Byzantines outflanked the Bulgarian army, capturing almost the entire force.

Basil had 15,000 prisoners and a pointed message for the Bulgarian king. The captives were blinded. Out of every hundred men, one would be spared (only losing one eye) to guide his blind comrades back home. So, through the Balkans staggered this horrid procession, one blind soldier clutching the shoulder of the blind man ahead him, with an one-eyed man leading them. It took this blind army two months to reach the Bulgarian capital. At this wretched sight, the Bulgarian Tsar died of a heart attack.

Bulgaria would soon be part of the Byzantine Empire. Basil certainly earned the epithet “the Bulgar-Slayer.” Ironically, history looks at the Emperor with a certain respect and even approval. After all, the Byzantines were more erudite and sophisticated than the Bulgarians. The more civilized are always the good guys.

Bulgarian Rhapsody

Posted in General, On This Day on March 3rd, 2011 by Eugene Finerman – 4 Comments

March 3rd

If you go into a Bulgarian restaurant tonight, you would notice the festive atmosphere. It is not merely the thrill of finally having a customer. No, you are in the midst of the celebration of Bulgaria’s Liberation Day.

For lack of evidence, most people don’t believe that Bulgaria exists. Unfortunately, for 500 years the Bulgarians were under the same impression. They were just another subjugated people of the Ottoman Empire. Worse, unlike the Greeks, Serbs or Romanians, the Bulgarians couldn’t even cling to nurturing legends and songs of their heroic resistance. Even in the 14th century, Bulgaria wasn’t much of a country. In the Turkish catalog of conquests, Bulgaria was simply swept up. So, when the rest of the Ottoman Empire succumbed to indolence and stagnation, Bulgaria was a trend-setter.

The Ottoman decline began in the late 17th century when the sultans limited their ambitions to the Harem. Over the next two centuries, the Turkish Empire began losing one province after another. Austria “liberated” Hungary and Croatia. France annexed Algeria. Quoting Homer and Byron, Britain helped free Greece. But Russia was the most aggressive and determined enemy of the Ottoman Empire.

As the self-anointed heir of Byzantium and the champion of the Slavic Peoples, Russia vowed to free the Balkans from the Ottoman Empire. Holy Mother Russia even intended to reclaim Constantinople for Christendom. (Of course, there were also some secular advantages to having naval access to the Mediterranean.) Russia had already driven the Turks out of Crimea and Rumania. In 1877, it was ready to complete the crusade. Bulgaria’s independence was at hand.

The Russo-Turkish War was between the two most inept powers in Europe. If Turkey was “the sick man of Europe”, Russia was the stupid lummox of the continent. But a lummox is usually quite strong; and even when it trips over its own feet, it will crush anyone beneath it. Turkey couldn’t move out of the way. After a short but bloody war, Russia nearly achieved her goal. Constantinople had yet to be taken, and the sudden presence of the British navy in the Black Sea was intended to discourage any further Russian ambition. However, Bulgaria, Macedonia and Bosnia were liberated, or at least had changed from Turkish rule to Russian domination.

Acknowledging the obvious, Turkey ceded these territories in the Treaty of San Stefano, signed on March 3, 1878. Bulgaria was once again an independent country (although a presumably Pro-Russian one) and a very large country at that. In addition to its ancestral lands, Bulgaria now encompassed Macedonia and Thrace.

The other Great Powers of Europe-Britain, Austria-Hungary and Germany-were alarmed by the prospect of Russian control of the Balkans. Forming a united front in 1878, they met in Berlin and forced Russia to surrender most of her gains. You almost have to feel sorry for Russia. The Lummox was pitted against the combined wiles of Bismarck and Disraeli. (That does seem an invincible, irresistible combination; in fact, the two brilliant rogues actually liked each other. What a joint press-conference that would have been!)

Bulgaria’s independence was acknowledged but on more humble dimensions. Macedonia and Thrace actually were returned to the Ottoman Empire. (Bosnia’s final status was undecided but would be administered by Austria-Hungary. That certainly would prove eventful.)

Nonetheless, half a Bulgaria is better than none, and Bulgarians still celebrate March 3rd as National Liberation Day. Of course, Bulgaria still coveted that lost territory. In 1912, in alliance with Greece and Serbia, Bulgaria fought and defeated Turkey. The following year, Greece, Serbia and Turkey allied to fight Bulgaria. And in 1914, Turkey and Bulgaria were allied against Serbia AND Russia.

Hey, that’s the Balkans.

Byzantine Eugenics

Posted in General, On This Day on July 26th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

July 26, 811:  The Emperor Nicephorus Should Have Stuck to Accounting

Have you ever wondered why the Greeks don’t look like Colin Farrell, Val Kilmer or anyone else in the cast of “Alexander”?

Of course, you could say that Oliver Stone is a lunatic; and that would end the argument. However, if you further added that Macedonians are not Greeks, then I would venture this correction. In antiquity, Macedonians were the equivalent of redneck Greeks. They would have fewer teeth than Athenians, and would probably paste hardware decals on their chariots. Nonetheless, they would have been–barely (over Demosthenes’ battered body)–included in the Hellenic world.

Which brings us back to our original question: why do Greeks look like Armenians? (Come on: you can’t tell the difference, either.) The fact is that they are Armenian, the descendants of a massive relocation program undertaken by the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I.

By the ninth century, Greece was largely unpopulated. Five centuries of barbarian invasions were not great for demographics. Those Hellenes who had not been massacred or carried off into slavery huddled behind the walls of the few remaining cities. Yet across the Bosphorus, Anatolia was thriving. (Visigoths, Huns, Bulgars and Slavs evidently couldn’t swim.) Emperor Nicephorus (r. 802-811), who was a financier by training, decided to redistribute Anatolia’s surplus population to Greece. The Armenian provinces had people to spare, and the Imperial coercion was mitigated with the promise of free and rich lands.

Of course, there still was a problem with Bulgarian invasions, but the Emperor intended to take care of that. He certainly tried; today is the 1208th anniversary of Nicephorus’ death and defeat of his army. Mountain passes in Bulgaria can be tricky. Nicephorus was a much better accountant than general. He apparently also made an excellent goblet. The Bulgar Khan used Nicephorus’ skull as a drinking vessel.

Nonetheless, Nicephorus’ head had thought of a way to stabilize and revive Greece. It is just that Greeks no longer look like Greek Gods.

Bulgarian Memories

Posted in General on April 17th, 2009 by Eugene Finerman – 4 Comments

I just learned that my humor does not readily translate into Bulgarian. 

You may remember that I commemorated the battle of Kleidon.  (For most of you, it was also an introduction.) 

http://finermanworks.com/your_rda_of_irony/2008/07/29/on-this-day-in-1014/

For a Bulgarian reader, however, the story was all too familiar.  In a polite rebuke, she objected to my depiction of the battle between her ancestors and the Byzantines.  (Of course, her ancestors lost; she probably would have ignored me if the Bulgars had won.)  In fact, I had noted that history had a snobbish bias toward the “civilized” Byzantines, who behaved with memorable savagery to their Bulgar prisoners–blinding 15,000 of them and letting them grope their way home. 

Bulgaria would soon be part of the Byzantine Empire. Basil certainly earned the epithet “the Bulgar-Slayer.” Ironically, history looks at the Emperor with a certain respect and even approval. After all, the Byzantines were more erudite and sophisticated than the Bulgarians. The more civilized are always the good guys.

I explained that my humor may have been lost in translation and asked her what was the Bulgarian word for irony.  (Ironically, their word is “irony.”)  I reassured her of my respect for her country and told her what a wonderful time I had there when I was a shaggy vagabond traversing Europe.

What was so memorable about Bulgaria?  The people: they really spoiled me.  In 1975, Americans were rather rare in Eastern Europe and almost unknown in Bulgaria.  Why did I decide to go there?  The country was unavoidable if I intended to travel from Greece to Istanbul (and you know that I wouldn’t miss my beloved Constantinople).  You could get a visa at the border; apparently Bulgaria felt so overlooked that it was not worried about western spies.  Of course, the Iron Curtain country did impose some restrictions on me.  While there, I was expected to report to an Intourist Office every three days.  And believe it or not, that was my first encounter with Bulgarian hospitality. 

As I left the Sofia train station to make my way to the Intourist Office, I found myself confronted and confounded by the Cyrillic alphabet.  I could not read the street signs; I was instantly lost.  Someone at the train station  had told me what bus to take.  As I was struggling to figure out what the fare was, someone paid for the lost young American.  No one on the bus could speak English, but everyone was nodding and smiling.  Through some sort of sign language, they asked me where I was from.  And they were looking out for me, letting me know when I  had reached my stop.

Of course, you would expect the Intourist Office to be an obvious facade for the Secret Police, and I suppose anyone on the staff could have killed me with a single karate chop.  However, I have found myself more threatened by Tourist Bureaus in Austria and France.  No, the Bulgarians seemed very pleased by the presence of an actual American tourist.  (And someone did speak English.)  Intourist’s services included arranging a place for me to stay–yes, the better to spy on me–and I was booked into a boarding house.  I would be staying with a real Bulgarian family.

On the way to the boarding house, I got lost again.  In the Cyrillic miasma, I took the wrong bus.  My fellow passengers included two college students, one of whom spoke some French, so at least I could understand the depths of my predicament.  Rather than abandon the lost American, they got off the bus and personally guided me to my boarding house.  My Francophone rescuer did ask one thing of me:  to meet them in Sofia’s Central Park in two days.  His girlfriend spoke excellent English and she would be our translator; he had so much that he wanted to ask the real and rare  American.

I stayed with a family of four: parents and two adolescent children.  Once again, my nationality conferred a charisma on me.  Everyone had questions for me, and one of the teenagers did speak English.  The landlady offered me free meals, so I gratefully accepted the accompanying interrogation.  There was a dichotomy in the nature of the questions.  The young Bulgarians, raised on Communism, wanted to know when the American workers would collectivize our factories; I told them, “Never, the unions would not allow it.”  Their parents, remembering the Hollywood films before the World War, asked me about their favorite actors.  I had to tell them that Tyrone Powers was dead but I could reassure them that Alice Faye was alive and well. 

Somehow I did find my way to Sofia’s Central Park, and there were my two rescuers along with English-speaking girlfriend.  We talked for hours, and the general topic was the arts.  They were very excited about an American film recently shown in Sofia.  The Bulgarian government evidently thought that “The Godfather” was a perfect portrait of American life.  I agreed that the film was excellent but not quite typical of most Americans; they suspected as much.  They wanted to know what I knew of Bulgarian literature; you can guess my awkward response.  I did tell them that Russian writers were very popular in college curricula.  Perhaps a little vicarious Slavic glory was better than none.  They told me how popular Ernest Hemingway was in Bulgaria.  They were surprised to learn that Hemingway was out of fashion in American academia: he was considered sexist and simplistic.

Given their knowledge of Hemingway, I was intrigued to know what had passed the government censors.  I asked them about a sympathetic Russian character in “For Whom the Bell Tolls .”  In my unexpurgated edition of the novel, Hemingway wrote as an epilogue that the Russian would return to the Soviet Union and be killed in the purges.  I asked my Bulgarian friends if that detail was in their edition of the novel.  Their answer was “No.”   They did not question or challenge me on this point.  On the contrary, they said nothing but nodded, accepting both my honesty and its political awkwardness.  The rest of our conversation must have been innocuous because I can’t remember it, but I have not forgotten them or the many other people who showed me their warmth and interest.  (Even one of the Intourist staff gossiped with me about “Dr. Zhivago”; she heard that it was a beautiful film.) 

I had planned to spend three days in Sofia.  I stayed five.  How could I leave when I felt like the guest of honor?

Byzantine Eugenics

Posted in General, On This Day on July 26th, 2007 by Eugene Finerman – Be the first to comment

Have you ever wondered why most Greeks don’t look like Colin Farrell or Val Kilmer?

Of course, you could say that Oliver Stone is a lunatic; and that would end the argument. However, if you further added that Macedonians are not Greeks, then I would venture this correction. In antiquity, Macedonians were the equivalent of redneck Greeks. They would have fewer teeth than Athenians, and would probably paste hardware decals on their chariots. Nonetheless, they would have been–barely (over Demosthenes’ battered body)–included in the Hellenic world.

Which brings us back to our original question: why do Greeks look like Armenians? (Come on: you can’t tell the difference, either.) The fact is that they are Armenian, the descendants of a massive relocation program undertaken by the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I.

By the ninth century, Greece was largely unpopulated. Five centuries of barbarian invasions were not great for demographics. Those Hellenes who had not been massacred or carried off into slavery huddled behind the walls of the few remaining cities. Yet across the Bosphorus, Anatolia was thriving. (Visigoths, Huns, Bulgars and Slavs evidently couldn’t swim.) Emperor Nicephorus, who was a financier by training, decided to redistribute Anatolia’s surplus population to Greece. The Armenian provinces had people to spare, and the Imperial coercion was mitigated with the promise of free and rich lands.

Of course, there still was a problem with Bulgarian invasions, but the Emperor intended to take care of that. He certainly tried; today is the 1196th anniversary of Nicephorus’ death and defeat of his army. Mountain passes in Bulgaria can be tricky. Nicephorus was a much better accountant than general. He apparently also made an excellent goblet. The Bulgar Khan used Nicephorus’ skull as a drinking vessel.

Nonetheless, Nicephorus’ head had thought of a way to stabilize and revive Greece. It is just that Greeks no longer look like Greek Gods.