Bulgaria’s Parliament Showcases Originals of Four Bulgarian Constitutions, Honors First Exarch in Special ‘Constitution Day’ Exhibit

The original of the Tarnovo Constitution of 1879, the first Bulgarian constitution which provided for a constitutional monarch and a liberal democracy. Photo: BNT

The original of the Tarnovo Constitution of 1879, the first Bulgarian constitution which provided for a constitutional monarch and a liberal democracy. Photo: BNT

A special exhibition at Bulgaria’s Parliament has been organized to honor April 16, Bulgaria’s Constitution Day, and to the 200th anniversary since the birth of Exarch Anthim I, the first head of the Bulgarian Exarchate, i.e. the autocephalous Bulgarian Orthodox Church reestablished in 1870.

The exhibition has showcased the originals of the four Bulgarian constitutions to date as well as personal belongings to Exarch Anthim I (1816-1888) who was in office as the head of the Bulgarian Exarchate in 1872-1877.

The medieval Bulgarian Empire was destroyed and conquered at by the invading Ottoman Turks at the end of the 14th century ushering into a five-century period known in Bulgarian history as the Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912).

Modern-day Bulgaria reemerged on the political map of Europe and the world in 1878 when it was liberated (some Bulgarian-populated regions were not liberated until 1912 while others were lost for good) as a result of the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-1878.

The war and Bulgaria’s National Liberation had resulted from the organized revolutionary movement of the Bulgarians against the Ottoman Empire which intensified in the fourth quarter of the 19th century. Before and parallel to it, however, came the Bulgarians’ movement for church independence since within the Ottoman Empire they had been stripped of their own church, and had been made subjects of the Constantinople (Ecumenical) Patriarchate whose senior clergy was almost entirely ethnic Greek.

The autocephalous Bulgarian Exarchate, which was the name of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church before it was recognized by the Ecumenical See in 1945 and the Bulgarian Patriarchate was restored officially in 1953, was established in 1870 under a firman (decree) of Ottoman Sultan Abdulaziz (r. 1861-1876), eight years before Bulgaria’s National Liberation.

The Bulgarians saw it as their first official institution encompassing almost the entire Bulgarian-populated territory in the Balkans paving the way for their path to political freedom.

The Tarnovo Patriarchate, i.e. the medieval Bulgarian Orthodox Church died with the demise of the Second Bulgarian Empire. The last Bulgarian autocephalous church was the Ohrid Archbishopric (based in Ohrid in today’s Republic of Macedonia) was allowed by the Ottomans to survive into the early centuries of the Ottoman Yoke but was shut down in 1767 at the insistence of the Ecumenical (Greek) Patriarch leaving him to dominate completely the spiritual affairs of the Eastern Orthodox Bulgarians (which have always been the overwhelming majority despite the existence of vibrant Bulgarian Catholic and Bulgarian Muslim communities).

The first Bulgarian Exarch Anthim I, a educator and clergyman, served briefly because he was deposed and exiled by the Ottoman authorities in 1877, after having stood up for the Bulgarians who rebelled and were massacred by the Ottoman troops and irregulars in the April Uprising of 1876.

He was freed in March 1878, after the Ottoman Empire conceded its defeat by Russia in the war, and in 1879, became the chairman of liberated Bulgaria’s Constituent Assembly in Veliko Tarnovo. After the Constituent Assembly, until his death in 1888, Anthim served as the Metropolitan of Vidin in Northwest Bulgaria.

The Assembly resulted in the adoption of the first Bulgarian constitution, known as the Tarnovo Constitution, which was very progressive for its time. The Tarnovo Constitution was adopted on April 16, 1879, which is celebrated in today’s Bulgaria as Constitution Day.

It established the Third Bulgarian Tsardom (1878-1944/46) as a constitutional monarchy and a liberal democracy although amendments to it were adopted in 1893 and 1911 which strengthened the royal authority.

The amendment of the Tarnovo Constitution of 1911 known as the “Silver Constitution” is notable because it put into law the result from Bulgaria’s Declaration of Independence of 1908. Until then, the newly liberated Bulgaria had been a Principality (i.e. a Kingdom), with its monarch bearing the title of Knyaz (“Prince” or “King”), and still a tributary (vassal) state to the Ottoman Empire. With the Declaration of Independence made on September 22, 1908, Bulgaria restored its medieval titles of Tsardom (technically meaning “an empire”) and “Tsar” (“Emperor”). These changes were reflected in the constitutional amendments in 1911.

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The Silver Constitution of 1911, an amendment to the Tarnovo Constitution after Bulgaria declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire and restored its medieval titles of Tsardom and Tsar. Photo: BNT

The Silver Constitution of 1911, an amendment to the Tarnovo Constitution after Bulgaria declared its independence from the Ottoman Empire and restored its medieval titles of Tsardom and Tsar. Photo: BNT

The exhibition organized by the Bulgarian Parliament showcases a total of six originals of the Bulgarian Constitutions – the three originals of the Tarnovo Constitution from 1879, 1893, and 1911, plus the originals of the two constitutions of the People’s Republic of Bulgaria (i.e. communist Bulgaria, 1944/48-1989), adopted in 1947 and 1971, and the current liberal democratic Constitution adopted in 1991 after the collapse of the communist regime in 1989.

It is dubious as to whether the two communist constitutions of Bulgaria are worthy of the name given their undemocratic nature. They are nonetheless interesting documents since the 1947 Constitution made Bulgaria a republic (after a referendum whose results are questionable), and the 1971 Constitution known as Zhivkov’s Constitution, after the long-time Bulgarian communist dictator Todor Zhivkov (in office 1954/56-1989), which formally proclaimed the leading role of the Bulgarian Communist Party, and communist Bulgaria’s “reliance” on the Soviet Union (USSR).

In addition to the originals of all Bulgarian constitutions to date, and the personal belongings of Exarch Anthim I, the first head of the restored Bulgarian Orthodox Church, including his mantle and scepter, the Constitution Day exhibit also features Anthim’s parliament bell in his rose as the Chair of the Constituent Assembly of 1879.

The parliamentary bell of Anthim I used during Bulgaria's Constituent Assembly of 1879. Photo: BNT

The parliamentary bell of Anthim I used during Bulgaria’s Constituent Assembly of 1879. Photo: BNT

“Each of these documents has been shown before but this is the first time we are showing all of them together,” says Mihail Gruev, Director of Bulgaria’s State Archive Agency, as cited by BGNES.

The exhibition includes 12 information posters dedicated to the development of Bulgarian constitutionalism, and 16 posters dedicated to the life and work of Anthim I, the Bulgarian Exarchate, and the Constituent Assembly of 1879.

“Each of these constitutions was called to life in turbulent times and ages, whenever the socio-economic relations had to be arranged in a new way. The Tarnovo Constitution is the main law which restored our statehood, and regulated the citizens’ rights and freedoms. The next Constitution is from 1947, after the end of World War II, and is connected with the change of the form of government, from a monarchy into a republic. The Constitution of 1971 came to life in order to mythologize an ideology whose end came with the present Bulgarian Constitution of 1991. It is essential that the modern-day Constitution reproduces the most democratic solutions from the Tarnovo Constitution, Bulgaria’s Parliament Speaker Tsetska Tsacheva has stated at the opening of the exhibit.

She adds that Exarch Anthim I was one of the people in Bulgarian history who is justifiably described as a spiritual leader of the nation.

April 16, Constitution Day, is traditionally a day of open doors at the Bulgarian Parliament.

The exhibition on the Bulgarian Constitutions and the 200th anniversary since the birth of Exarch Anthim I has been organized together with the State Archive Agency, the National Church Museum of History and Archaeology, the Veliko Tarnovo Regional Museum of History (Museum of Bulgaria’s National Revival and the Constituent Assembly of 1879), and the Klisura Monastery “St. Cyril and St. Methodius”.

Exarch Anthim I (in the middle), the first head of the restored Bulgarian Church, together with other Bulgarian revivalists, i.e. prominent figures from the National Revival period in the 18th-19th century. Photo: BNT

Exarch Anthim I (in the middle), the first head of the restored Bulgarian Church, together with other Bulgarian revivalists, i.e. prominent figures from the National Revival period in the 18th-19th century. Photo: BNT

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