(EUROPE: 501 to 1000 CE – continued)

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EUROPE: 501 to 1000 CE (8 of 10)

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The Bulgars into Europe

The Bulgars have been described as a Turkic people, speaking a language described by Wikipedia as "alongside with Khazar, Hunnic and Chuvash, a member of the Oghuric branch of the Turkic language family." The Bulgars were a herding people who fought their way westward from Asia, raiding for plunder in the Balkans during the rule of Justinian I, and then retreating.

The Bulgars came under Avar domination. A man named Kubrat, Kuvrat or Kurt, meaning "Wolf," rose to prominence among the Avars and Bulgars. He had a Bulgar mother and an Avar father. Kubrat grew up as a hostage in Byzantium. Freed from captivity, between the years 630 and 635, in what today is the Ukraine (north of Constantinople's empire), he organized a federation consisting of Avars and Bulgars – Onoguria.

Within a few decades, Onoguria divided and some of the people from there moved southward across the Danube River into the Balkans. According to a Byzantine chronicler this was the year 679. Constantinople was annoyed but busy warring against the Muslims.

The Bulgar invaders were under a military leader, or khan. They were uninterested in farming and made themselves lord and master over Slav farmers they came upon, exploiting peasant labor – a form of plunder with continuity.


Onoguria is in the map's upper right corner.

With Constantinople's defeat of the Muslim-Arab siege in 678, it felt free to attack the Bulgars, but by now the Bulgars had consolidated their power and were able to withstand its attacks. The warring lasted into the 800s. In 811, the Khan of Bulgaria, Krum the Fearsome, outwitted the Byzantines and trapped them in closed valleys, killing nearly all of them, including the Byzantine emperor, Nicephorus. Krum made a drinking cup of Nicephorus' skull – an object of pride during feasting with his captains.

Krum harassed and laid siege to Constantinople in 813. Constantinople's citizenry climbed their city's walls for a view of those they considered exotic barbarians. A description of the attackers survives.

Krum offered sacrifices after the custom of his nation by slaughtering men and cattle before the Golden Gate [a gate to the city]. He then washed his feet in the sea and performed his ablutions, after which he besprinkled the people crowding around to do him honor. Returning to his camp he passed through the array of his concubines who worshiped and glorified their lord. note24

Krum's appeals to his gods was to no avail. His army was unable to penetrate Constantinople's walls, and he had no fleet of ships to block Constantinople's contacts by sea. He returned to Thrace, whence he had come.

More Cultural Diffusion

As early as the 500s and 600s, Christianity had been spreading slowly and in bits and pieces from Byzantium to the Bulgars, despite their having considered Byzantium decadent. But the Bulgars also recognized Constantinople as advanced in civilization – as having writing, books and learning.

Living more than 200 years side by side with the Slavs, and intermarrying with them, the Bulgar's difference from the Slavs diminished. The Slavs had been more culturally advanced, and it was their alphabet and language that the Bulgars adopted.

Bulgaria became the first Slavic state on the Balkan peninsula worthy of being called a state.  Khan Boris (r 852-89) adopted Christianity and opened Bulgaria to influences from Constantinople. And he sent one of his sons, Simeon, to be educated by the Byzantines.

Simeon ruled Bulgaria from 893 to 927. He wanted to help his fellow Bulgars culturally and helped in translating numerous books into the language of the Slavs. He also continued the tradition of his forefathers in opposing Constantinople as a power. Simeon held the title of emperor – tsar in his Slavic language. He wished to destroy Constantinople's power in order to enhance the power and grandeur of his kingdom, and he warred against Constantinople through most of his reign. Four times within eleven years Simeon advanced to Constantinople and attacked its walls, without success. 


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