It is very difficult to find the right place and time to begin this story.
We are dealing with a character whose historical reality has been obscured by layers of mythological supposition.
It is a story about a Bulgarian princess, her dramatic life in Bulgaria, her marriage to the Ottoman Sultan Murad and her subsequent life in Bursa. She lived in the 14th century – a century which for Bulgaria and other countries in the region was characterized by internal turbulence, external threat and ultimate collapse. It was the century, in which her once powerful country was to fall completely under Ottoman rule, only to regain independence five centuries later.
Tamara Maria was the daughter of one of the last kings of Bulgaria, Ivan Alexander and his first wife Theodora. In Bulgaria, she is known fondly under the name Kera Tamara – “Kera” meaning “Lady” in Greek.
Lady Tamara was reputed to be exceptionally beautiful; her beauty was celebrated in folk songs and legends. She was one of only a few women, whose family received a formal proposal from an Ottoman Sultan – notwithstanding the fact that she was a widow at the time and at least 31 years old. The tradition for Ottoman Sultans at the time was to marry very young women or take them as concubines.
Previous to this study, Tamara’s life has been pinned to this one emblematic fact – the fact of her marriage to her country’s ultimate destroyer, Sultan Murad. Commentators, familiar with the birth and rebirth of nations, will have noticed a tendency among nationalist historians – particularly at the outset of these processes – to create a mythology which re-enforces a heroic version of national identity.
Perceptions of the past are tied intimately to national stereotypes, built over centuries and still present today. Thus any study of Kera Tamara must involve the disentangling of historical fact from national mythology.
In order to help this process, it will be necessary to briefly summarise the history of the Bulgarian nation up to the time of our central character. This will help clarify certain current debates about Medieval Bulgaria but also help in our understanding of how this country has come to be perceived both through the writing of nationalist historians and through the products of popular culture such as folk songs, novels and eventually films.
The retelling of the history of the peoples living in that area of the Balkans, that came to be associated with the Kingdom of Bulgaria, will also be helpful in determining some insight into the awareness of our main character. Tamara was – as we will see – was not simply the daughter of a man called Tsar of Bulgaria by his contemporaries. She had a very chequered ethnic background with links to all the neighbouring states. Her self image as a Bulgarian princess, descendant of lines of Bulgarian Tsars, was necessarily complex.
The marriage of a Princess, described by all her contemporaries as beautiful, to a Moslem ruler who later conquered and subjugated her homeland, has caused problems for nationalist historians who would always tend to see this act in the context of sacrifice. The marriage became a traumatic blot in versions of the fall of Bulgaria under the so called Ottoman Yoke. Where in folklore, Bulgarian virgins threw themselves from mountain tops rather than marry their infidel enemies, here was a Princess dispatched in pomp to her husband-to-be.
Prior to her country’s collapse, marriage of a Christian Princess to a Moslem ruler was extremely unusual. Only one other example exists. A Princess whom some sources call Elena 30, 31, married the Tartar Prince Chaka. She was the daughter of Georgi Terter, and sister of Svetoslav Terter; her marriage preceded Tamara’s by one century. In contrast to Tamara though, Elena’s fate has been largely forgotten primarily because the period of Tartar domination was very short. Tamara, of course, married the leader of a dynasty which was to rule Bulgaria for five hundred years.
Today, folk songs are still sung, telling of Tamara’s courageous sacrifice and the imaginary conversations she may have had with Sultan Murad during their life together.
My story will follow Tamara’s life and I will give you some idea of the world she left in Bulgaria and life in her new country – I will describe the clothes worn at the time, food consumed, traditions, the general life in Bursa and will follow the fate of the Bulgarian and Byzantine Royal family as she probably did.
But this is also a story set in the Balkans – a geographical area notorious through history as a place of ethnic conflict. As we have indicated, we cannot consider nation states in isolation. In our story the fates of the Bulgarian Kingdom, the Ottoman Sultanate and the Byzantine Empire were closely intermingled.
Thus we will follow the fate not only of the last family to rule Bulgaria (Tamara’s family) – the Shishmans, but also the last family to rule Byzantium – the Paleologi. Both stories involve their internal fights and how they interacted with each other, the Ottomans and the other European and Balkan powers of the 14th century. We will chart the Ottomans from their arrival in Anatolia until their domination of the Balkans.
The reader must be prepared for a complex journey as we make our careful way through the warehouse of historical data, picking up information, sources and historical interpretations – some to use and others to reject.
Having grown up during Communist times in Bulgaria, I have been fed with a staple diet of doctored history. Only one historical variant was accepted at that time and the same tale was told in every history book – inconsistencies and inconvenient detail was ruthlessly edited. Happily, some years after the fall of communism, Bulgarian historians began to reassess history and to reveal facts, previously undisclosed. Archaeology was given a boost by the significant finds in the last 15 years. Research led to bold new assessments; historical figures were reconsidered, information became much less fickle. In my narrative I have included as many of those revised ideas and new solutions as possible.
My aim is to facilitate your understanding of the interaction of the different national groups, populating the Balkans and the role the Bulgarian nation played in this larger region. This will involve a consideration of what made the Bulgarian nation strong enough to preserve its national identity, language and culture through the five hundred years of Turkish rule.
First I need to give you a brief resume of where and how Bulgaria became a nation state. This will allow you to understand the complex background of the main protagonists in this tale – the family of the Shishmans – the family of my heroine.
So, here we go….