Chapter 85

Slavery, Ottoman Rule and Religion

in Literature (I)

Before Communism


This chapter considers the various experiences, which the Bulgarian population had during the time it was part of the Ottoman Empire.

It is important at this stage to point out the significant lack of primary local sources from the at least first two centuries of Ottoman rule. Current Bulgarian views of the period of Ottoman hegemony are inevitably affected by the versions of nineteenth century nationalist revolution and liberation as well as fifty years of Communist anti-Turkish propaganda. They were based on easy assumptions that conditions prevailing in the nineteenth century were typical of the full five hundred years.

The almost universally accepted label is “The Turkish Yoke” with its connotations of slavery and degradation.  It is the job of present day historians to investigate to what extent this popular term was justified throughout the course of Ottoman rule.

We will start with an overview of the social and economic processes that led after three centuries to a re-awakening of national identity and eventual significant mass rebellion. Behind this, lies another question: why was there no significant mass uprising in the previous three centuries?

The first significant factor in initial Ottoman success was their ability to co-opt existing feudal structures in the Balkans into their own structure that ensured stability based on unassailable central power of the Sultan.

At its outset, the majority of ordinary people living in the Balkans may not have felt an increase in oppression. Because of continuous wars, the Christian landowning aristocracy in the Balkans – Bulgarian, Serb, Greek, and Venetian – had ruled the local population with an iron fist in feudal times.  As central power weakened, conflicts between local lords would have increased the misery of the peasantry.  Increasing work demands and taxes in kind would have left little time for the peasants to cultivate their tiny plots of land on which they depended for survival.  During the calamitous fourteenth century, following the Black Death, Bulgarian lands were subject to Ottoman raiding and pillaging.

The Ottoman occupation led to a different form of feudalism, where burdens on local peasants significantly decreased. Ottoman Sultans were well aware of the dangers of allowing the emergence of local rulers with strong power bases that depended on ownership of land. They also wished to encourage assimilation of local populations and promoted talent wherever it was found.

When the Ottoman soldiers were given estates in the Balkans, this was with the proviso that all arable land belonged to the Sultan.   The elite did not own their peasants; they only had the right to their produce.  Peasants generally felt more in control of their lives than they did before the Ottoman takeover.  The courts and the Ottoman bureaucracy controlled and supervised the interaction between the reaya (the peasants) and the timar/estate administrators strictly. 2

Moreover, as their heirs were not able to inherit the estates from their parents – like the landowners in Western Europe could do, they could not organise themselves into a class capable to threaten and unseat the Sultan.

For some time, conversion to Islam was not a necessary prerogative for progress in Ottoman society – from various documents there is evidence, that Christians were still appointed to important positions at the 15th and beginning of the 16th century.  Examples include Umur Bey’s father – the Christian Koskos, the Police Superintendent, who may have been the top Administrative official after the taking of Bursa.   In another document, the historian Gregory Palamas mentions being hosted by the Military Governor or Police Chief of Biga (a town in the district of Çanakkale Province in Turkey), called Mavrozoumis – another Christian.  A letter from the Patriarch of Constantinople verifies that by 1340 there were still Christian Judges, serving in Bithynia (a province in the northwest of Anatolia, adjoining the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus and the Black Sea). 7

   Evidence suggests that many of the members of the Balkan elite were made timar-holders (effectively confirmed their responsibility of the land, which was theirs) while they were still Christians.   Others served as sipahis, well into the 15th century, irrelevant of the fact that they were still Christian. 7

Inevitably, with time, Byzantine, Bulgarian and Serbian leading families willingly converted to Islam and administered their estates – they were working those for the sultan.  They stood out in Ottoman documents by the fact that according to tradition, they were given the patronymic Abdullah – “slave of God”. 7  

Those, who kept their estates, without converting for some time, also had to face the dilemma of a choice eventually.  The converts joined the Ottoman elite – men like Köse Mihal and Saroz, Greek Governor of Bursa – who became the General Evrenos.  Due to their abilities, they found important positions and played a leading role during the period, when the Ottoman Empire was creating its infrastructure. 7

Why did the Bulgarians accepted Ottoman rule for more than four centuries without any major rebellion was clearly very much on the minds of those later writers and agitators keen to rouse the passions of a population seen as too accepting of Ottoman rule.

In the last section of his “History”, Paisius describes in detail the fate, which befell the Bulgarian nation at the time of the Ottoman subjugation and their successive passivity in the face of what he would have seen as alien rule.  Remember Paisius wrote several centuries after the fall of Bulgaria and a century before the upsurge of nationalist feeling in the nineteenth century.  Moreover, he was a monk at a time when he would have been acutely aware of the threat posed to the Bulgarian Orthodox Church by the Turkish supported Greek Church. 

He wrote, “So the people from that first generation, during whose lifetime the Bulgarian Kingdom was conquered, lived through tremendous sorrow, grief and tears, until this generation died out.  The next generation bit-by-bit got used to living with the Turks.  The Turks initially were fierce and great predators.  When they had settled in the Byzantine Kingdom and learned many things from the Christian order and law… they were ashamed to steal indiscriminately the property and possessions of the Christians.” 10

What is interesting here is the assumption by the eighteenth century monk that the Bulgarian people suffered “tremendous sorrow” when their kingdom was conquered and that they gradually adapted to the new conditions.

For a pre-communist point of view, we may be able to turn to the much-loved Bulgarian poet, writer and intellectual Pencho Slaveykov, the son of one of the fathers of the Bulgarian Revival movement of the XIXth century – Petko Slaveykov.  In his study “The Bulgarian Folk Songs”, Pencho Slaveykov points out that, the Bulgarians have many reasons to thank the Ottomans:

  1. Firstly, that they were allowed to preserve their Bulgarian nationality and religion, without which present day Bulgaria would not have existed
  2. They were left alone to adapt their life according to the new conditions
  3. After time elapsed, the Bulgarians began to feel a national bond, strengthened by their mutual experiences and their past history
  4. It was the peace, stability and prosperity that life under the Ottomans eventually offered, that resulted in this Bulgarian national consciousness.  The endless line of the Bulgarian monarchs, according to Slaveykov only wasted the energy of the nation in “pointless heroic marches” to take Constantinople, Thessalonica, Duress and many other border fortresses and cities.
  5. Fed up with their leaders’ rule of madness, the nation does the unthinkable – accepts the rule of the people from “another faith” in order to get rid of its own rulers. 1

Slaveykov’s assertions are justified when we review the pragmatic decisions made by the early Ottoman Sultans.

By the time of Murad I the compassionate assimilation and conversion of subject peoples on a voluntary basis was no longer possible, due to the size of territories conquered in such a short period of time.  The small number of Muslims present did not allow for indiscriminate massacre or large scale forcible conversions.  Murad and his administrators solved the problem by reducing the number of slaves (remember that prisoners were considered as booty and the Sultan/Government had a stake of one person in every five) and increasing the number of Janissary soldiers taken. 3

Sometime later, this land regime would disappear and be replaced with one, where estates (chifliks) were privately owned and could be passed to the next generation.   This meant that some privileged individuals from the Sultan’s circle could appropriate the Sultan-owned-land. 3

While Muslims were not allowed to live and trade in most Christian states of Europe, the “people of the Book” – Jews and Christians were welcomed to trade in Ottoman lands, thus invigorating and developing trade there further. 5

 Although many towns had been demolished at their capture, the Ottomans knew that their rebuilding was a priority.  It wasn’t just the Sultan’s responsibility – Muslim clerics, Viziers, court judges, princes and wives and daughters of the sultans paid for, commissioned and built municipal buildings of high quality – schools, baths, mosques, mausoleums, bridges, fountains, hospitals, inns/caravanserais, roads, bazaars and aqueducts. 2 These followed the Islamic model for self supporting communities, in which public health for all inhabitants was a priority.

The experience of Christians within the Ottoman Empire differed.  In the countryside where Turkish administrators depended on the labour of their Christian peasants, capricious oppression was not in anyone’s interests.  In larger towns, the presence of Muslims was stronger and there was much greater violence, periodic discrimination and fanaticism towards non-Muslim citizens, who had moved to the towns in the hope of competing in trade and manufacture.  Up to the 18th century, the Janissaries attacked non-Muslims in towns without punishment or provocation. 2  Communities in the countryside operated with greater freedom and even a degree of autonomy. This regime explains why some Balkan and Rhodop villages became natural centres for rebellion in the nineteenth century.

For most of its existence, the population of the Empire was divided only on the grounds of religious affiliation – people were not referred to as Serbs, Bulgarians, Greek, but as Muslims, Christians and Jews.  In the same way, Muslims could be Turks, Arabs, Kurds, they could be Shia or Sunni – in official registers, the only descriptive is Muslims. 2, 13   This recognition that the Empire consisted of communities from different faiths was enshrined in the millet system.  This guaranteed significant judicial autonomy for the various recognised religious communities.  Until 1870, however, Christian Bulgarians were made subservient to the Greek Orthodox hierarchy within the Christian Millet.  This created significant resentment based on the well founded suspicion that the Greeks wished to suppress awareness of a distinct Bulgarian culture and history.

For Nationalist historians and later Communists anxious to establish ethnic origins of their Moslem populations, the issue of Christians converting to Islam was potentially thorny.  Here is a list of some reasons for Conversion to Islam of the Christian populace of the empire:

  • Monetary advantage: A 15th century the Bishop of Zagreb made a derisory comment that there were some, who converted voluntarily, driven by “the desire to win silver, become notables and live in luxury”. 2 He also wrote in 1536 “More than 40,000 abandoned Christianity.  ….More and more people are doing so, hoping they will enjoy more peaceful times in what remains of their lives.” 2
  • Enhanced social standing: Joasaph of Bdin in his Eulogy for Filothea and the Priest Peyo in his Torture of George the New from Sofia  also describe ways in which Bulgarians are tempted to convert to Islam thought gifts, proposed marriages with beautiful and rich maidens, social positions, etc. 13, 14
  • Forceful conversion on mass to Islam in the 14 – 15 century took place only in a few areas on the Balkans – Bosnia, Bulgaria, and Albania.   It concerned the unbelieverspeople, who were considered non-Christian as they were Bogomils, Paulicians, etc (it was Constantine Irecheck again, who first made the connection between Bogomilism and the Bulgaro-Mohamedan communities in the mountains of Southern Bulgaria). 

Christians – “the people of the Book” were tolerated by the Ottomans, but had to suffer infringements. 2, 8

  • Second class status: Important reason for conversion was the fact that non-Muslims had second-class status in the Ottoman world.  Certain tolerance was given to Christians and Jews, but they were discriminated against and various restrictions were imposed on them.  Those included the following:
    • Not to build churches beyond a certain height – this is why many of the churches built in Bulgaria during Ottoman times are partially dug into the ground
    • To see a Moslem’s evidence in courts of law always preferred to theirs
    •  To have to pay heavier taxes than their Moslem counterparts  
    • (For men) not to be able to marry a Moslem woman
    • Not to ride horses (later on this rule was relaxed)
    • Not to wear the colour green
    • Not to imitate Muslims in their clothing or hairstyle 1
    • Not to shave the front part of the hair on their head 1
    • Not to bury their dead in Muslim graveyards 1
    • Not to explain the Koran to their children 1

The Bulgarians were also prohibited from discouraging their relatives to accept Islam.  Another disparity between the Christians and the Muslims was that a Moslem could marry a Christian woman, while a Christian man could not marry a Moslem woman.  This also encouraged conversion.

It makes and interesting comparison to contrast the above with the rights of the Irish, under English government.  According to Wikipedia -( , “ in the 1600s and 1700s.   Penal laws prohibited Irish Catholics from:

  • owning land;
  • leasing land;
  • voting;
  • from holding political office;
  • living in a corporate town or within five miles of a corporate town;
  • obtaining education;
  • entering a profession;
  • doing many other things that are necessary in order to succeed and prosper in life.” 18

One can immediately see that the fate of the Bulgarians under the Ottomans was much easier!

If all the Christians had converted, however, this would have bankrupted the Empire at a stroke it was relying on the taxes, received from the non-Muslim population.  This is probably the main reason why the Sultans were not particularly keen to impose forceful conversions. 1, 2

Once the “head tax” was paid by the Christians and Jews, living in the empire, alongside the other obligatory payments, this ensured religious, cultural and even political autonomy, creating a society in which Christian monasteries could be built and expanded. Monks lived and worked in relative freedom. 5

The old nobility on the Balkans generally preserved their lands by conversion to Islam – the only exceptions being Albania and Bosnia.  The many wars, led by the Ottomans, Bulgarians, Serbians, Byzantines, as well as various crusaders at different times, had ensured that there was very little landed aristocracy left on the Balkans, which facilitated Orhan’s ideas to promulgate rewards for military leadership and/or conversion. 

The Patriarch John XIVth Kalekas of Constantinople (1334 – 1347) was so concerned of the conversions that he deemed it necessary to send two letters to the Christians of Nicaea – one in 1338 and another one in 1340.  He wanted to encourage those still faithful to the Christian religion not to convert, but it is more interesting what he said to the ones who had already converted.  Despite the fact that they had accepted Islam as their religion, if they kept Christianity in their hearts and maintained their Christian duties, their soul would be saved.  It was this concession, which probably led to the foundation of the first Crypto Christian centres in Asia Minor. 4   Crypto-Christianity usually referred to the secret practice of the Christian religion, while attempting to disguise it as another religion or observing the rituals of another religion publicly, while privately practicing Christianity.   It was prevalent during times, when Christians were persecuted or outlawed.   I also suspect that many of the Christian women, featured in our story, who converted on their marriage to the various Ottoman Sultans, may have been Crypto-Christians.

For the Balkan Orthodox Christians, Islamic rule was seen to be a great deal less destructive than Catholic rule.  At the time when the Hungarians took Ivan Stratsimir hostage, there were mass forceful conversions to Catholicism, not only for the citizens of Vidin, but also to the ruling family.  The Catholic Crusading armies brought devastation to the Balkans twice – in 1204 and 1444.  Generally, very few people converted willingly to Catholicism in the Balkans, despite the efforts of the papacy. 2

Despite all this, the Balkans remained predominantly Christian in character (about 80% of the population of the Empire remained Christian) 5, while Anatolia, which was exposed to many more years of Islam and Turkish domination – from the time of the Seljuks of Rum, followed by that of the Ottomans, stayed predominantly Muslim.  Even when people converted to Islam, they retained their language and used it predominantly.  The Turkish was used as an administrative language in the towns. 2

Unfortunately, with time the Empire became more conservative, fanatical and less tolerant to Christianity.  The best-known examples of forceful conversion came from the Rhodop Mountains around 1666.  Previously to those, the only forceful conversions were those of Christian children, taken into the Janissary corpse, which left pain and suffering, which was deeply embedded into the Balkan consciousness.  Most of the forceful conversions in Albania were also done mainly in the 17th century. 6

The diminished population of the Balkans was soon augmented by the Ottoman policy of repopulation – new settlers were constantly brought over to the Balkans and groups of Balkan peasants were sent to Anatolia to fill the gaps there.  An important aspect of this re-population was the treatment of Christian women, who were taken for wives or concubines by the soldiers of the invading armies – widows were married again, young girls and every free woman was used to increase the Ottoman race.  This produced a vigorous race with a cosmopolitan blood, which created an Empire, competing with those of the Greeks and Romans in richness of blood. 3  

Comparing again with the situation in Ireland, where the oppressor was another Christian nation, with a reputation for culture – England.  From 1729 to 1844 the potato crops – the main diet of the Irish – failed totally or partially, which meant that the Irish population was starving to death.  From 1846 to 1851 – 1,000,000 to 1,500,000 people have died and another 1,000,000 had emigrated abroad, while further millions immigrated before and after this period.  The poor nutrition caused and allowed the spread of “measles, diarrheal diseases, tuberculosis, most respiratory infections, whooping cough, many intestinal parasites, and cholera.  Potentially lethal diseases, such as smallpox and influenza, were so virulent that their spread was independent of nutritional levels”.  This lead to eviction of the working peasants by their master (often-absentee landlords), increased the death tall and led to uprisings.  At the same time the export of food for England continued, life stock usually passing through the worse famine stricken areas.  One needs to compare this situation again, with the situation in Bulgaria. 18

The length of the famine in Ireland made it well known, which allowed help to be sent from most unexpected corners. Large sums of money were donated by charities: Irish soldiers and people employed by the East India Company were credited to have made the first donation of £14,000 from Calcutta.    Pope Pius IX sent funds and so did Queen Victoria – £2,000. 18  In 1845, the Ottoman Sultan Abdülmecid stated his intention to send £10,000 to the starving farmers but Queen Victoria requested that the Sultan only send £1000, because she herself had sent only £2000. The Sultan sent the £1000 sterling but also secretly sent three ships full of food. The English courts tried to block the ships, but the food arrived at Drogheda harbour and was left there by Ottoman sailors to the famine victims, with which the Sultan won their eternal gratitude. 19

But, to return to the Bulgarian case!  Despite of, or possibly because of the Ottoman conquest of the 14-15th centuries, the Balkans never saw the religious wars, which overwhelmed Western Europe. A variety of religions, faiths and beliefs flourished throughout the Balkan lands.  In the 14th century the Balkans, under the auspices of Ottoman Empire would offer a place of safety to many and various refugees, persecuted in their own lands on the basis of religion or ethnicity by the fiercely intolerant Christian Catholic Europe: the previously mentioned Jews, various Christian heretics, etc. In addition, although the religious divide between Christians and Muslims was insurmountable, the practicalities of their common interests meant that they had to find a rapprochement. 5

The heavy taxes, mentioned above, imposed by the High Porte in Istanbul, allowed every taxpayer – Bulgar, Serb, Greek, Armenian or Jew, to have the freedom to worship in their own faith through the millet system, as long as they fulfilled their tax requirements of the sultan.  

The centuries of stability under the Ottomans meant increased prosperity for the Bulgarian population.  Peace allowed more arable land to be used; also, irrigation systems were improved, which meant that more crops could be produced. The mobility of peasants, who sometimes migrated to quite distant places – in search of pasture or to find seasonal work as carpenters, servants, stonemasons or field hands, allowed the continuation of the smallholdings in the Balkans for a long time. 2

Although some Christians earned great wealth from trade, farming and crafts, their wealth was difficult to spot – it was only during the 18/19 centuries, that the houses of prosperous Christian and Jewish citizens, which until then had modest and inconspicuous exteriors, meant not to attract attention to the success of the owners, became much more imposing and magnificent.  Perfect examples are the beautiful and impressive houses of the wool merchants and traders in Koprivshtitza and Plovdiv.

This affluence brought more education and culture which, unlike the case in Ireland was not prohibited – the rich traders were sending their children to be educated abroad, where they became ardent supporters of the current revolutionary ideas, supporting the rise of nationalism all over Europe.  On their return, many became teachers and spread those ideas further.

The greater productivity of agriculture accommodated the growth of towns and cities.  The populations of towns were also enlarged by more Christians, Muslims and Jews choosing to live there, where they could find greater independence. 2

For many centuries, the nations living on Balkans had been on the frontier between Christian Europe and the Muslim East.  But, in a uniquely Balkan manner, Christianity – both Eastern Orthodox and Roman – and Islam have merged themselves with the local beliefs and superstitions, creating a mesmerising spiritual melting pot.  “At the huge Balkan crossroads of religions and cultures there are now remnants of long-perished religious practices and cults, disused temples, synagogues and cemeteries, and Islamic sites that live side by side with functioning religious entities”. 17

The mingling of the Balkan cultures, which followed the domination of the Ottomans on the Balkans led also to an “explosion of vision and creativity”.  Nationalists will argue over whether this explosion was the result of incompatibility of Moslem and Christian cultures or the adaptation of one to the other.  Certainly, in the development of language, many Turkish borrowings became established.  Gastronomic terminology in the Balkans became and remains largely Turkish – baklava, kiofte, kebab, giuvetch etc. 1, 13

There is a debate about the typical styles of domestic architecture, two story houses incorporating external staircase, large balconies and on the first floor a central social area with divans running the length of four walls. Were these houses the result of Bulgarian or Turkish design?

Evidence of the artistic legacy of the opposition of cultures can be found in the churches, built by law deep into the ground so that their height would not rival that of the mosques.  Here in succeeding centuries, woodcarvers and icon painters produced masterpieces.

 One only needs to go to Bulgarian folk music to find songs, incorporating elements and instruments, as well as characters from all over the Balkans – Serbian, Macedonian, Ottoman, Jewish, Moldavian, etc.  One also need not forget the paramount role, which folk music had on the retention of the Bulgarian identity. 5


However, any uprisings and revolts, which took place on the Balkans would be suppressed by the Ottomans with cruelty, brutality and ruthlessness.

As mentioned previously, the predominant interpretation of the Turkish/Ottoman rule of Bulgaria in communist times was presented with the term “yoke” and was described as a long chain of murders, rapes, forceful changes of religion and other related horrors, all the way from the XIVth century to the XIXth century

This interpretation, however, was not invented by the communist regime. It arises from social and cultural changes in XIX century. The emergence of a wealthy Bulgarian middle class, the schooling of their children, the growth of nationalist revolutionary fervour throughout Europe, the decline and corruption of Ottoman rule, the conflicting interests of the great powers – these are powerful factors in the formation of a national myth.

It is now accepted, that in his History, Paisius of Hilendar was the first Bulgarian writer, who presented the Turks in a negative light – as tyrants, plundering thieves, violating the Christian religion. 13

There was a lack of original historical documents to tell the population of the past glory of the Bulgarian state – thеse were destroyed, hidden in monasteries and taken out of the country for the sake of their preservation, or suppressed by the Ottomans or the Greek Orthodox hierarchy who were anxious to prove their right to dominate all Orthodox activity within the Ottoman Empire. 10    This was the reason, which encouraged Paisius of Hilendar to write his “Slavo-Bulgarian History” in 1762 “for the use of the Bulgarian people”. 12    In Bulgarian schools set up by private donation in prosperous towns and villages, generations of teachers would inspire their pupils with this text.

The growing cultural maturity of the nation was enhanced by the progressive work, done by the “chitalishta” – cultural and educational centres, which awakened and encouraged the desire to re-gain the Bulgarian independence and to strengthen the identity of the nation.  The heightened interest in the Bulgarian past brought new folk songs and legends. Their representation of the past had more to do with the present situation – the need to agitate the population into opposition to current Ottoman rule.

The survival of folklore, both new and old, as a testament to surviving Bulgarian culture is due to no little part to the exertions of the Miladinov brothers, as well as a large group of other dedicated collectors.   They devoted their lives in the mid-nineteenth century to the collection and preservation of folk songs and stories from all over the Bulgarian-speaking region. They collected songs, forgotten by most of the population, who were the result of a rich oral tradition, developed though the centuries, depicting forgotten events, characters and times.  The 19th century became known with the overwhelming desire of the Balkan intellectuals to gather, record, and publish the folk heritage of their nations as written poetry. 22

Interestingly, the Miladinov brothers died in an Istanbul gaol, having been denounced to the Ottoman authorities by the Greek Patriarch as troublemakers.

A new tool appeared – the theatre and it quickly started to play a major part in the ideological struggle for the hearts and minds of the Bulgarian People.  New melodramas were written and acted out in schoolrooms and chitalishta by amateur actors – often the same revolutionary agitators, the teachers and other cultured people in the town/village. The theme of the Ottoman cruelty had existed for several centuries – it would be reinforced by theatrical melodrama – where again the stereotypical steadfast Bulgarian maiden resisted her tyrant’s blandishments and faced death rather than take the Muslim faith and so remained faithful to her beloved, the family and her religion. 10

 By spreading the word about the glorious past of the Bulgarian nation, they were providing an incentive for a national uprising. 11

The negative perception of the Ottomans in the West continued again in the theatre.  The reader may remember the negative way the Ottomans were presented by the fathers of the English drama – in Tamburlaine the Great (part I and part II) by Christopher Marlow, Othello, by William Shakespeare, Selimus, Emperor of the Turks  by Robert Greene, The Raging Turk  by Thomas Goffe,  with All’s Lost by Lust  by Thomas Middleton and William Rowley,The Renegado by Philip Massinger.   The playwrights often confused the national identity of their hero – a Turk is often presented as a Moor.  The anti-Islamic portrayal of the hero represented the European (English in this case) fears about the fast expansion and apparent invincibility of the Ottoman Empire.  The Ottomans were presented as incredibly wealthy and enjoying opulence and luxuries.  They were also portrayed as possessing “insatiable greed”, being of “cruel disposition” and ruling through “festering corruption”. 16 This view would persist through the centuries.

The reputation for cruelty that the late Ottoman Empire acquired in the West was heightened by the Greek struggle for freedom in the 1830s. Writers like Byron, painters like Delacroix, left colourful representations of Ottoman excesses.  These representations fitted with deep-seated fears of the exotic alien culture ruling over the eastern Mediterranean.

Romantic attachment to the idea of Greece as the cradle of western civilization encouraged western powers, including the French and English fleets to intervene on the Greek side when rebellion flared. Christian atrocities were played down and Turkish reaction was exaggerated.  However, none of this affected Bulgaria to any significant degree.  Western policy toward the Ottomans’ remaining European possessions was led mainly by a fear of Russian expansion into the Mediterranean.  This fear led to the perceived need to prop up the Ottoman Empire.

                For the western powers, there was a conflict between awareness of cultural difference and political expediency.  While progressive political thinkers from Victor Hugo to Gladstone espoused the cause of “oppressed Christian populations” in the Ottoman Empire, this was balanced by a fear of the growing power of Russia and its territorial and commercial ambitions.

All negativisms that could be attached to Ottoman administration, rule and to the Islamic religion were a result of the stereotypical binary opposites, emerging at the time, when the West was debating whether to “liberate” the enslaved countries or shore up the Ottoman Empire to reap themselves the benefits from their trade routes, economic and natural resources and strategic areas. 1

The Crimean War (1855 – 1856) whose origins lay ostensibly in Russian claims to a role of protector of Orthodox Christians in the Ottoman Empire, had a rousing effect on the newly emerging revolutionary movements in Bulgaria. Although Russia was defeated by the Western powers, the perception of Turkey as “the sick man of Europe” encouraged nationalists throughout Europe to see the Ottoman Empire as ripe for disintegration.  An armed revolt became the preferred alternative.  The Bulgarian Revolutionary Central Committee was set up and based in Bucharest, Romania.  It sent revolutionary activists – apostles, whose task was to set up internal revolutionary organisations to lead the revolt. 

This chimed with the activities of other nationalist revolutionary movements aiming to get rid of the old large empires.  These tendencies were demonstrated all over Europe – Garibaldi had the same revolutionary message to the Italian people. 

A significant part of the Bulgarian population was ready to rebel – particularly in the mountain villages that had prospered from the wool trade.  But rebellion was difficult to co-ordinate and when, in 1876, the April Uprising erupted, it attracted patchy support and was crushed with spectacular cruelty.  Its failure and the following atrocities played an important part in attracting European attention to Bulgaria. Not only were the sufferings of the Bulgarian people publicised in all western newspapers, but also the excesses of the irregular forces of Bashibozouks that the Empire was forced to rely upon.

Pod Igoto” – Vazov’s “Under the Yoke”, the writings of Botev, Slaveykov (father and son), Karavelov and other writers of the Revival period, described the atrocities committed by the Ottoman armies in the crushing of the April Uprising.   They aimed to awaken again the Bulgarian identity and to encourage the desire to change the fate of the country.  They also intended to create sympathetic supporters from the Russians. 9  

The liberation movement was led by educated young men, enthused by revolutionary ideas.  It is not surprising therefore that they identified themselves with others fighting for greater freedom in Christian Empires such as the Hapsburg Empire or Russia. We must note the political opinions, demonstrated by some Bulgarian authors, like the former revolutionary Zahary Stoyanov (1884 -1892) in “Notes on Bulgarian Uprisings”, where the author denounced Russian autocracy as equally intolerable and unacceptable as the Ottoman one.  Stoyanov commented: “Why do we need Russia, when they beat there in the same way they do in Turkey”. 15   In his trilogy “Gathering the Harvest” Constantine Petkanov (1891 -1952) developed the theme, initially laid out by Paisius of Hilendar in his “History”, that the Greeks and not the Ottomans were perceived as the real threat to the Bulgarian culture and identity in the period of the first half of the XIX century. 13

As we have seen the rebellion failed and so Bulgaria was “liberated” from the “Turkish Yoke” by the Russians. The subsequent machinations of the Great Powers, including the imposition of a German princeling as King of Bulgaria, caused great heartache for those revolutionaries who had survived.

During the first few years after the liberation of Bulgaria from the Turkish rule, the phrase “Turkish Yoke” gained popularity, based on the writings of the Czech historian Konstantin Jiriček and his History of the Bulgarian People.  He had picked this up from Paisius of Hilendar.  The famous Bulgarian historian Zlatarski also developed the theme and helped to imbed it in the Bulgarian consciousness.  1