THE BULGARIAN PEOPLE UNDER THE RULE OF THE OTTOMAN EMPIRE 15th-l8th CC
The fall of the medieval Bulgarian states under the Ottoman rule interrupted the Bulgarian people's natural development within the framework of the European civilization. To the Bulgarians that was not just a temporary loss of their state independence as it was in the case of other European peoples which had had this bitter experience at different stages of their history. In the course of centuries the Bulgarians were forced to live under a state and political system that was substantially different from and distinctly alien to the European civilization which had evolved on the basis of Christianity and the Christian economic, social and cultural patterns. The intrusive nature of Islamism and its intolerance to anything that was not part of it, resulted in the continued confrontation between the Ottoman Empire and Christian Europe in the l5th-l8th centuries. That fact drew an iron curtain between the Bulgarian people on the one side, and Europe and the free Slav countries on the other. In other words, Bulgaria was separated from the progressive trends of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment as well as from the nascent modern bourgeois world. The Bulgarians were pushed into a direction of development which had nothing in common with their seven-century history until then, history deeply connected with the natural course of the European political, economic and cultural development.
The Turkish conquerors ruthlessly destroyed all Bulgarian state and religious structures. The natural political leaders of the people in the Middle Ages, i.e. the boyars and the higher clergy, vanished from sight. That deprived the Bulgarians of both the possibility for self-organization and any chance of having foreign political allies for centuries on end.
The place allotted to the Bulgarian people in the Ottoman feudal political system entitled it to no legal, religious, national, even biological rights as Bulgarian Christians. They had all been reduced to the category of the so called rayah (meaning 'a flock', attributed to the non-Muslim subjects of the empire). The peasants who represented the better half of the Bulgarian population were dispossessed of their land. According to the Ottoman feudal system which remained effective until 1834, all of it belonged to the central power in the person of the Turkish sultan. The Bulgarians were allowed to cultivate only some plots. Groups of rural Christian families, varying in number, were put under an obligation to give part of their income to representatives of the Muslim military, administrative and religious upper crust, as well as to fulfil various state duties. The number of the families liable to that payment was determined according to their position in the Ottoman state, military and religious hierarchy. The establishment of that kind of intercourse in agriculture - the fundamental pillar of the economy at that time, clearly led to the total loss of motivation for any real farming or and production improvements both among the peasants and the fief-holders. The complex and incredibly burdensome tax system forced the farmers to produce as much as needed for their families' subsistence, while the feudals preferred to earn a lot more from looting and from the incessantly successful wars waged by the Ottoman empire in all directions until the end of the 17th century.
The Ottoman Turkish state was founded on and propped up by the dogmas of the Koran. At the beginning of the 15th century when the empire prostrated from India to Gibraltar and from the mouth of the Volga to Vienna, it proclaimed itself the supreme leader of Islam - Prophet Mohammed's standard and sword, and a leader of the Koran-prescribed perpetual jihad (holy war) against the world of Christianity. It went without saying that under this conception the Bulgarian Christians could not hope for any. access to even the lowest levels of statecraft. The enormous imperial bureaucratic machinery recruited its staff only from among Muslims.
The Bulgarian people was subjected to national and religious discrimination unheard of in the annals of all European history. During court proceedings, for example, a single Muslim's testimony was more than enough to confute the evidence of dozens of Christian witnesses. The Bulgarians were not entitled to building churches, setting up their offices or even to wearing bright colors. Of the numerous taxes (about 80 in number) the so called 'fresh blood tax' (a levy of Christian youths) was particularly heavy and humiliating. At regular intervals, the authorities had the healthiest male- children taken away from their parents, sent to the capital, converted into Islam and then trained in combat skills. Raised and trained in the spirit of Islamic fanaticism, the young men were conscripted in the so called janissary corps, the imperial army of utmost belligerence known to have caused so much trouble and suffering to both the Bulgarians and Christian Europe.
The Turkish authorities exerted unabating pressure on parts of the Bulgarian people to make them convert their faith and become Muslims. That policy was meant to limit the Bulgarian ethnos parameters and to increase the Turkish population numbers. For, according to the medieval standards in that part of Europe, the affiliation of a given people was determined by the religion it followed. With a view to facilitating the assimilation process, the Turkish authorities took the Christian names of those who had converted into Islam and gave them Arab names instead.
A variety of ways and means was used in the assimilation of the Bulgarian people. Some of these were the aforementioned 'blood tax', and the regular kidnaping of children, pretty women, girls and young men to Turkish families. Quite frequently, whole areas were encircled by troops and their inhabitants forced to adopt Islam and new Arab names, while the objectors were 'edifyingly' slain. In those cases, however, the 'new Muslims' were allowed to go on living in the compact Bulgarian environment, i.e. as a community which retained both its language and its Bulgarian national consciousness. The present-day Bulgarian Muslims representing about five percent of modern Bulgaria's population, are descendants of those Mohammedanized Bulgarians, whom the Bulgarian Christians used to call pomaks (from the Bulgarian root-words macha or maka, meaning harassed or caused to suffer). And yet the thousands of Bulgarians whom Bulgaria lost once and for all were those who had been subjected to individual conversion to Islam. For, it is only natural that having fallen into a community of strangers, speaking a different language and practicing different customs and faith, they had easily and quickly been assimilated. The genocide carried out by the Ottoman Turks during hostilities in the Bulgarian lands, at the time of uprising or riot suppression, during the frequent spells of feudal anarchy, or even of Ottoman troops move-ups from garrison stations to the battle-field, had struck heavy blows on the Bulgarian nation. The Bulgarian Christian population was treated as infidel and hostile and it was outlawed even at the time of peace. Individual and mass emigration of Bulgarians to foreign lands was another cause for no lesser losses to the Bulgarian nation. There were times when whole regions became depopulated. Thus, in 1688-1689 the whole of the northeastern Bulgarian population emigrated and in 1829-1830 the same thing happened with the population of southeastern Bulgaria, Thrace, etc. Unprotected by Bulgarian state, religious and cultural institutions the immigrants, with only few exceptions, amalgamated into the people whose country had received them. That was the way in which thousands of Bulgarian immigrants had vanished in Romania, Hungary and Serbia.
During the l5th-l7th centuries the Bulgarian nation had suffered a gradual but grave biological collapse which predetermined, to a large extent, its demographic, economic, political and cultural place in the European civilization. According to some Bulgarian historians' estimations, the beginning of the Turkish oppression in the 15th century found Bulgaria with a population of about 1.3 million. Those were the then demographic parameters of any of the large European nations, for example, the population in the present-day territories of England, France or Germany. One hundred years later, the Bulgarians were already down to 260,000 people and remained as many in the course of two more centuries. The demographic growth was suppressed through genocide, Mohammedanization and emigration. The biological collapse of the l5th-l7th centuries had repercussions which are still being keenly felt. The Bulgarian nation, nowadays, amounts to some ten million people while its European equals in number, back in the 15th century, are now sixty to eighty million-strong.
The unbearable conditions during the Ottoman yoke could not deaden the Bulgarians' anxiety for resistance. Deprived of social and political organizations of their own, they were unable to undertake any sizeable liberation initiatives. Thus, during the first centuries of the oppression, armed resistance was only of local and sporadic nature. The so-called haidouk movement was its most frequent manifestation. The haidouks were brave Bulgarians who took refuge in the high-mountain woods, organizing there small armed detachments and bringing them down for merciless struggle against the provincial administrators. This guerrila-type struggle continued for centuries on end (one group destroyed was instantaneously replaced by another) and succeeded in sustaining the morale of the Bulgarians by preserving, to some extent, their properties and their honor. In some places, it even had the authorities maintain more humane relationships with the Bulgarian Christians. The haidouk movement indirectly encouraged and safeguarded other forms of resistance such as maintaining the style of life, the language, the traditions and the religion, or incompliance with forced obligations and refusal to pay heavy unjustifed tax.
Liberation uprisings were the supreme form of struggle against the oppressors. The first one broke out still in 1408. Significant uprisings, proclaiming the independence of Bulgaria, took place in 1598, 1686, 1688 and 1689. They were connected with the anti-Ottoman wars waged by the West European Catholic states with which some Bulgarian representatives, mainly merchants and both Orthodox and Catholic clergymen, had established joint venture contacts. All insurrections were quelled and accompanied with inhuman atrocities.
The Bulgarian people were living through one of the most difficult periods in its centuries long existence. It had been deprived of its state, its church, its intelligently and its legitimate rights. Furthermore, its survival as an ethnos had also been put at stake. Linder the heel of that powerful, ruthless and uncivilized Asiatic despotism, it lasted out but remained without any substantial material and spiritual resources needed for its further development. Thus, the Bulgarians, along with all the other European peoples which had been engulfed by the Ottoman empire, were to lag some centuries behind the attainments of present-day Europe.
- Translated from the book "Bulgaria Illustrated History" by Maria Nikolotva
- Bulgarian text by Bojidar Dimitrov, PhD.
- Published by BORIANA Publishing House, Sofia, Bulgaria
text used here with permission from translator, save modifications for noding