Bulgaria Marks 1151 Years since Adoption of Christianity as Official Religion by First Bulgarian Empire

Young children in Bulgarian national costumes are seen in downtown Pliska during the celebrations of the 1151st anniversary since Bulgaria's adoption of Christianity. Photo: Shum

Young children in Bulgarian national costumes are seen in downtown Pliska during the celebrations of the 1151st anniversary since Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity. Photo: Shum

Bulgaria and Bulgarian Orthodox Christians have celebrated the 1151st anniversary since the formal adoption of Christianity as the official state religion in 865 AD under the leadership of St. Knyaz Boris I Mihail (r. 852-889; 893 AD) during the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018 AD).

While in 2015, Bulgaria marked the 1150th anniversary with larger-scale national celebrations, the 1151th year since the adoption of Christianity as the country’s official religion have also been notable, and have once again been centered in Pliska, today a small town in the northeastern Shumen District, which was the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire between 680 and 893 AD.

The 2016 celebrations in Pliska started with the consecration of a 12-meter-tall cross located at “The Yard of the Cyrillic Alphabet”, a private open-air museum set up in 2015 by Armenian Bulgarian businessman Karen Aleksanyan. In addition to the cross, it features also sculptures of the Bulgarian (Cyrillic) letters and a monument of St. Cyril and St. Methodius, the Byzantine diplomats and scholars who created the first Bulgarian and Slavic alphabet, the Glagolithic.

After that, the formal celebrations for the 1151th anniversary since Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity took place at the Monument of St. Knyaz Boris I Mihail in downtown Pliska, reports local news site Shum.

May 2, which is considered as the day of the First Bulgarian Empire’s formal adoption of Christianity in 865 AD, is celebrated by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church as the Day of St. Knyaz Boris I Mihail. It is also the formal holiday of the early medieval Bulgarian capital Pliska.

In their speeches, Pliska Mayor Tonka Nacheva and the Mayor of Kaspichan Municipality (which includes today’s town of Pliska) Milena Nedeva have urged Bulgaria’s government to declare May 2, the Day of Adoption of Christianity, a national holiday.

The Town Council of Kaspichan Municipality already adopted such a proposal to the Bulgarian Cabinet on April 28, 2016.

Consecration of the 12th-meter-tall cross at the Yard of the Cyrillic Alphabet, a private sculpture museum in Pliska. Photo: Shum

Consecration of the 12th-meter-tall cross at the Yard of the Cyrillic Alphabet, a private sculpture museum in Pliska. Photo: Shum

The Yard of the Cyrillic Alphabet in Bulgaria's Pliska, a private open-air sculpture museum. Photos: Yard of the Cyrillic Alphabet

The Yard of the Cyrillic Alphabet in Bulgaria’s Pliska, a private open-air sculpture museum. Photos: Yard of the Cyrillic Alphabet

Cyrillic Yard PliskaIt was in the 9th century Great Basilica in Pliska which is presently undergoing archaeological restoration that in 864 AD St. Knyaz Boris I and the Bulgarian imperial family was baptized into Christianity.

By the middle of the 9th century, as a result of the successful reigns of Khan (or Kanas) Krum (r. 803-814 AD), Khan (Kanas) Omurtag (r. 814-831 AD), Khan (Kanas) Malamir (r. 831-836), and Khan (Kanas) Presian (r. 836-852 AD), the First Bulgarian Empire had become a huge empire spanning from the Black Sea in the east to the Adriatic Sea in the west, and from the Northern Carpathian Mountains in the north to the Aegean Sea in the south, including all or part of the territory of modern-day Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Greece, Turkey, Albania, Macedonia, Hungary, Moldova, and Ukraine  (see map below).

However, the major peoples inhabiting the then Bulgarian Empire – the Ancient Bulgars and the Slavs as well as the local Thracian population and others – worshipped different gods according to their own religions and mythologies.

This led Khan Boris I to decide to unite the different ethnicities in the First Bulgarian Empire with a new common religion, and to pick Christianity (even though Islam and Judaism were also offered to him by foreign emissaries) because Bulgaria was then the only still pagan major European power, and he wanted his empire to be treated as an equal by the Byzantine Empire in the east and the successors kingdoms of the Frankish Empire in the west.

While Khan Boris I initially intended to adopt the Western form of Christianity from the Pope in Rome via the Kingdom of the East Franks (East Francia in modern-day Germany) because Byzantium had been Bulgaria’s major geopolitical foe, he had to change his decision after an unsuccessful war with the Byzantines imposed on him the adoption of the Eastern form of Christianity as part of a peace treaty in 863 AD.

Thus, in 864 AD, Khan Boris I became Knyaz Boris I Mihail – taking the name of his baptist, Byzantine Emperor Michael III (r. 842-867 AD), and in 865 AD there was baptism en masse for the entire Bulgarian population. Thus, even though the subsequent years saw the first major clashes between the Pope in Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople over the “Bulgarian Question”, i.e. whose diocese the large and powerful newly baptized Bulgarian Empire should belong to, Bulgaria remained in the camp of Eastern Orthodox Christianity subsequently helping pass it on to later emerging nations such as Serbia and Russia, and thus modifying forever the history of Europe. Knyaz Boris I Mihail sealed the success of his deed in 886 AD when Bulgaria officially adopted the Bulgarian script, also known as the Slavic script – first the Glagolithic and then the Bulgarian (Cyrillic) alphabet.

Because of his contribution to making Bulgaria a Christian nation with its own script, culture, and literature, Tsar Boris I has been canonized as a saint by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. His memory is honored every year on May 2, which is why this date was selected for the celebrations of the anniversary since the formal adoption of Christianity.

Bulgaria recently marked also the 1146th anniversary since the foundation of the autocephalous (autonomous) Bulgarian Orthodox Church (on March 4, 870) when the First Bulgarian Empire was granted the right to have an independent Bulgarian Archbishopric (which became recognized as a Patriarchate in 927 AD).

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Background Infonotes:

Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity as the formal and only state religion took place in 864-865 AD under the leadership of Khan / Knyaz Boris I Mihail (r. 852-889; 893 AD).

As a result of the successful reigns of Khan (or Kanas) Krum (r. 803-814 AD), Khan (Kanas) Omurtag (r. 814-831 AD), Khan (Kanas) Malamir (r. 831-836), and Khan (Kanas) Presian (r. 836-852 AD), by the middle of the 9th century the First Bulgarian Empire had become a huge empire spanning from the Black Sea in the east to the Adriatic Sea in the west, and from the Northern Carpathian Mountains in the north to the Aegean Sea in the south, including the entire or part of the territory of modern-day Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Greece, Turkey, Albania, Macedonia, Hungary, Moldova, and Ukraine. However, the major peoples inhabiting the Bulgarian Empire – the Ancient Bulgars (whose religion is known as tengriism) and the Slavs as well as the local Thracian population and others – worshipped different gods according to their own religions and mythologies. This was true even though there were entire areas in the then Bulgarian Empire which had been Christianized in earlier periods, and even though the first Khans from the House of Dulo are believed to have been Christians who were baptized by the imperial court of the Eastern Roman Empire, i.e. Byzantium: Khan (Kanas) Kubrat (r. ca. 630-ca.660) who founded the so called Old Great Bulgaria in 632 AD on the territory of much of modern-day Ukraine and Southwest Russia; Khan (Kanas) Asparuh (r. ca. 680-700) who expanded the state to the southwest technically creating modern-day Danube Bulgaria around 680 AD; and Khan (Kanas) Tervel (r. 700-718/721) who saved Europe from an Arab invasion during the siege of Constantinople in 717 AD. This led Khan Boris I to decide to unite the different ethnicities in the First Bulgarian Empire with a new common religion, and to pick Christianity (even though the adoption of Islam and Judaism were also offered to him by foreign emissaries) because Bulgaria was then the only still pagan major European power, and he wanted Bulgaria to be treated as an equal by the Byzantine Empire in the east and the successors of the Frankish Empire in the west.

While Khan Boris I initially intended to adopt the Western form of Christianity from the Pope in Rome via the Kingdom of the East Franks (East Francia in modern-day Germany) because Byzantium had been Bulgaria’s major geopolitical foe, he was forced to change his decision after an unsuccessful war with the Byzantines imposed on him the adoption of the Eastern form of Christianity as part of a peace treaty signed in 863 AD. This resulted after the First Bulgarian Empire had had to fight simultaneously Byzantium in the southeast and Great Moravia in the northwest. Thus, in 863 or 864 AD, a mission from the Patriarch of Constantinople Photios came to Pliska and converted the Bulgarian Tsar, his family and high-ranking dignitaries, who were baptized as Christians. Khan Boris I became Knyaz Boris I Mihael – taking the name of his baptist, Byzantine Emperor Michael III (r. 842-867 AD), and in 865 AD there was baptism en masse of the entire Bulgarian population. Thus, even though the subsequent years saw the first major clashes between the Pope in Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople over the “Bulgarian Question”, i.e. whose diocese the large and powerful newly baptized First Bulgarian Empire should belong to, Bulgaria remained in the camp of Eastern Orthodox Christianity subsequently helping pass it on to later emerging nations such as Serbia and Russia, and thus modifying forever the history of Europe.

Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity, however, went far from smoothly, and not only because of the clashes between the Pope in Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople over whose diocese the newly converted Bulgarians should belong to. In 865, conservative Bulgar aristocrats from all 10 komitats (administrative regions) of the First Bulgarian Empire revolted against Boris, who now took the Christianized title of Knyaz (i.e. King) in order to restore the old religion, tengriism. Knyaz Boris I managed to suppress the revolt executing 52 Bulgarian boyars (heads of noble families). According to some sources, he also had their entire extended families executed. Until the end of his life, Knyaz Boris was haunted by guilt about the harshness of his measures and the moral price of his decision in 865. In his later correspondence with Pope Nicholas I, the Knyaz asked whether his actions had crossed the borders of Christian humility, for which the Pope offered forgiveness: “You have sinned rather because of zeal and lack of knowledge, than because of other vice. You receive forgiveness and grace and the benevolence of Christ, since penance has followed on your behalf.”

Knyaz Boris realized that the Christianization of Bulgaria gave Byzantium great influence over the domestic affairs of the Bulgarian Empire. Thus, juggling the differences of Rome and Constantinople, he eventually managed to get Byzantium’s Ecumenical Patriarchate as well as the Pope in Rome to recognize an independent (autocephalous) Bulgarian Archbishopric, which was created in 870 AD in an unprecedented development for Europe because independent churches had been only those founded by Apostles or Apostles’ disciples. For example, the Papacy in Rome had been challenging Constantinople’s claim of equality to Rome on the grounds that the Church of Constantinople had not been founded by an Apostle of Jesus Christ. Nonetheless, this development was also a success for Byzantium, and during the decade after 870 AD, Pope Adrian II and his successors kept trying desperately to convince Bulgaria’s Knyaz Boris to leave Constantinople’s religious sphere.

Knyaz Boris I Mihail sealed the success of his deed, the adoption of Christianity, in 886 AD when Bulgaria welcomed the disciples of St. Cyril and St. Methodius, St. Kliment Ohridski and St. Naum Preslavski, helping them to teach thousands of Bulgarian clergymen to serve in Bulgarian. Thus, Bulgaria adopted the Bulgarian script, also known as the Slavic script – first the Glagolithic and then the Bulgarian (Cyrillic) alphabet. This allowed Knyaz Boris, and his successor Tsar Simeon I the Great to declare Bulgarian (also known as Old Bulgarian or Church Slavonic) as the official language of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church during the Council of Preslav in 893 AD (which also moved Bulgaria’s capital from Pliska to Veliki Preslav (Great Preslav)). As all over Europe religious services were held in the “official” church languages Latin and Greek, this “nationalization” of the liturgy language by Bulgaria became another exceptional development in medieval Europe after the recognition of the independent Bulgarian church.

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The Great Basilica “St. Sofia” in the city of Pliska, capital of the First Bulgarian Empire between 680 and 893 AD, was built between 866 and 875 AD, after Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity as the official state religions in 865 AD under Knyaz Boris I Mihail (r. 852-889; 893 AD).

The Great Basilica in Pliska, the first capital of Bulgaria south of the Danube, was the largest Christian cathedral in Europe in the Middle Ages. It was 102.5 meters long and 30 meters wide, which means it was 20 meters longer than the Hagia Sophia Cathedral in Constantinople, the titular temple of the Ecumenical Patriarchate during the period of the Byzantine Empire, and about 30 meters longer than the Old St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome (the predecessor of today’s St. Peter’s Cathedral). Thus, the Great Basilica in Bulgaria’s Pliska was technically the largest Christian temple in Europe until the 17th century, i.e. until the completion of the Papal Basilica of St. Peter in the Vatican in 1629 AD.

The Great Basilica in Pliska was built with huge white limestone quadrae from the quarries in the nearby town of Kyulevcha. Around the basilica there was a large monastery complex and the residence of the Bulgarian Archbishop (between 870 and 917 AD), and the Bulgarian Patriarch (from 917 AD onwards). In this monastery complex, Bulgarian archaeologists have found a scriptorium for the “production” of medieval books in Old Bulgarian, also known as Church Slavonic. As Bulgaria’s National Museum of History points out, “it is with these books that the monastery monks and missionaries converted [to Christianity] the peoples of modern-day countries Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Romania, Moldova, Serbia in the 9th-10th century.

The Great Basilica in Pliska was still standing until the Late Middle Ages but was razed to the ground by the Ottoman Turks after their invasion at the end of the 14th century, and in the 15th century, because according to the laws of the Islamic Ottoman Empire no Christian temple could stand taller than a Muslim man mounted on a horse. The construction material from the unique buildings in Pliska was used by the Ottomans for the construction of the Turkish military barracks and the Tombul Mosque in the nearby city of Shumen,, and whatever had been left of it by the 19th centur – for the construction of the Varna-Ruse railway in 1866 under Ottoman governor Midhat Pasha.

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Pliska and Veliki Preslav (Great Preslav) are two of the capitals of the First Bulgarian Empire. Pliska was the capital of the First Bulgarian Empire in 680-893 AD, and Veliki Preslav in 893-970 AD, at the height of the Bulgarian state. The state capital was moved from Pliska to Veliki Preslav, a new medieval city nearby, in 893 AD in order to seal Bulgaria’s adoption of Christianity and the Bulgarian (Slavic, Cyrillic) script. The ruins of both Pliska and Veliki Preslav can be seen today in the Shumen District in Northeast Bulgaria.