A gold coin minted by Tsar Ivan Asen II of the Second Bulgarian Empire; the image shows St. Demetrius of Thessaloniki placing a crown on his head, 18-carrat gold. Photo: Wikipedia
Bulgaria marked on Friday, June 24, 2016, the 775th year since the passing of Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241) known as the most powerful and successful ruler of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396).
Tsar Ivan Asen II’s rule in the first half of the 13th century was largely a period of relative stability and prosperity, successful diplomacy, victorious wars, territorial expansion, and patronage of trade, Orthodox Christianity, and Bulgarian culture. It was under him that the Second Bulgarian Empire came close in size and might to what the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018) was in the first half of the 10th century, under Tsar Simeon I the Great (r. 893-927).
The Second Bulgarian Empire was formed in 1185 after the successful rebellion against Byzantium of two Bulgarian boyars, brothers Asen and Petar (later Tsar Asen I (r. 1187-1196) and Tsar Petar IV (r. 1185-1197)), the so called Asen and Petar’s Uprising). Both Asen and Petar, as well as their third brother, Tsar Kaloyan (1197-1207) were murdered.
Ivan Asen, who was the son of Tsar Asen I, came back from exile in 1217, and successful reclaimed the throne for the House of Asen (Asen’s Dynasty, r. 1185-1257) from the usurper, Tsar Boril (r. 1207-1218).
Tsar Ivan Asen II made Bulgaria the most powerful state in Southeast Europe trough his successful foreign policy (including three dynastic marriages), and his major military victory – the Battle of Klokotnitsa in 1230 – over the against the powerful Theodore Komnenos Doukas (r. 1216-1230 AD), ruler of the Despotate of Epirus, in the Battle of Klokotnitsa in 1230 AD.
In fact, in 2015, Bulgariamarked the 785 anniversary since the Battle of Klokotnitsa.
His victory was reflected in his famous inscription (read it in the Background Infonotes below) in the Holy Forty Martyrs Church in his capital Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo), which was under construction at the time of the Klokotnitsa Battle. He assumed the title of “Tsar of Bulgarians and Greeks”.
Tsar Ivan Asen II’s victory near Klokotnitsa, in which he prevailed with inferior forces over the Despot of Epirus and an aspirant for the Constantinople throne, turned one of the most glorious pages in the history of the Second Bulgarian Empire.
It ruled territories from the Carpathian Mountains in the north to the Aegean and the Adriatic in the south (view the maps at the end of this article). There are indications that this might have been the only period in medieval Bulgaria’s history when it got to control the city of Thessaloniki, the second most important city of Byzantium after Constantinople (which at the time of his reign was in the hands of the Latin Empire of the Western European knights from the Fourth Crusade).
In 1235, Ivan Asen achieved the recognition by the Nicaean Empire, one of Byzantium’s successor states, and thus restoration of the Patriarchate of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church. The Tsar was a patron of the monasteries on the Holy Mountain (Mount Athos in today’s Greece), and was the first Bulgarian ruler ever to mint gold coins.
Tsar Ivan Asen II’s successes were squandered after his death as he left several minor male heirs (two of whom came to rule as underage Tsars, Tsar Kaliman I Asen (r. 1241-1246) and Tsar Mihail II Asen (r. 1246-1256)), and the Second Bulgarian Empire was severely weakened in the second half of the 13th century by internal strife and the attacks of the Tatars (Mongols) from the northeast and of Byzantium (restored in 1261 by the Nicaean Empire) from the southeast.
Even though it was relatively stabilized in the first half of 14th century the Second Bulgarian Empire saw its ulitmate decline in the last quarter of the 14th century when it disintegrated in feudal fights, and the invading Ottoman Turks took advantage of the situation to destroy and brutally conquer it.
Nonetheless, the heritage of Tsar Ivan Asen II persisted throughout the centuries as his rule helped spur the intensive development of Bulgarian culture and literature that later led to the Second Golden Age in the 14th century (the First Golden Age of Bulgarian culture having occurred in the 9th-10th century AD during the reigns of Knyaz (King) Boris I (r. 852-889), Tsar Simeon I (r. 893-927), and Tsar Petar (r. 927-970)).
This heritage of the medieval Bulgarian high culture not only helped the Buglarians survive as a people during the dark centuries of the Ottoman Yoke but also served as the foundation for the Bulgarian National Revival in the 18th-19th century that ultimately led to Bulgaria’s resurrection and restoration.
The Battle of Klokotnitsa occurred on March 9, 1230 AD, near the town of Klokotnitsa (in today’s HaskovoDistrict in Southern Bulgaria). In the Battle of Klokotnitsa, the inferior forces of Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241 AD), ruler of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), soundly defeated the armies of Theodore Komnenos Doukas (r. 1216-1230 AD), ruler of the Despotate of Epirus, one of the three Byzantine Greek successor states formed after Western European crusaders from the Fourth Crusade conquered Constantinople in 1204 AD, and set up the so called Latin Empire (1204-1261 AD). The Battle of Klokotnitsa is considered one of the most important militaryvictories in the 1400 years of Bulgarian history.
Around 1221–1222, the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II signed an alliance treaty with DespotTheodore Komnenos Doukas from the Epirus Despotate which allowed Theodore Komnenos to focus on expanding against the Latin Empire by conquering Thessaloniki but also by capturing some Bulgarian territories such as Ohrid in the region of Macedonia. After the death of Latin Emperor Robert of Courtenay (r. 1221-1228 AD), his successor to the throne of the Latin Empire, Emperor Baldwin II was just 11 years old, and the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II appeared as the most likely choice of a regent for him. As a result, he and the Bulgarian Empire were considered an obstacle by Theodore Komnenos who was aspiring to the throne of Constantinople in order to resurrect the Byzantine Empire. Thus, in early March 1230 AD, Theodore Komnenos invaded Bulgaria with a large army in violation of his alliance with Tsar Ivan Asen II, and without a declaration of war. The Bulgarian Tsar, with a smaller army, marched to meet him surprisingly quickly. On March 9 (March 22), 1230, the their armies met near the town of Klokotnitsa. Tsar Ivan Asen II had the broken alliance treaty to be pierced on his spear and used as a flag. In a battle that lasted till sunset, the Epirotians were completely defeated, and only a small force under the despot’s brother, Manuel Komnenos Doukas, managed to escape. The rest were killed in the battle or captured, including the entire royal court of Epirus and Theodore Komnenos himself.
After the Battle of Klokotnitsa, the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II released the captured soldiers without any conditions, while the nobles were taken to the Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo). His fame for being a merciful and just ruler went ahead of his march to the lands of Theodore Komnenos, and they were regained to Bulgaria without resistance. These included the territories between the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the Adriatic Sea. The captured Despot Theodore Komnenos was kept as a prisoner in Tarnovgrad for seven years; he was blinded after his involvement in a conspiracy there. He was released in 1237, after the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II married his daughter Irene, and returned to Epirus where he died in 1253.
Tsar Ivan Asen II’s Inscription in the Holy Forty Martyrs Church: In order to commemorate the Battle of Klokotnitsa, the Bulgarian Emperor had an inscription carved in one of the marble columns of the Church “Holy Forty Martyrs" in the capital of the Bulgarian Empire, Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo):
“In the year 6738 (1230), third indiction, I, John Asen, in God Christ true Tsar and sovereign of the Bulgarians, son of the old Tsar Asen, raised from the foundations and decorated with art this holy church in the name of the Holy Forty Martyrs, with the help of whom in the twelfth year of my reign when this temple was being decorated, I made war in Byzantium and defeated the Greek army and captured their Tsar, Kyr Teodore Komnenos, together with all his bolyars. And I occupied all of his land from Odrin (Adrianople) to Drach (Dyrrhachium), Greek and also Albanian and Serbian; and the towns around Constantinople and this very town were ruled by the Frizes (Latins), but they also subjugated to my empire; because they had no other Tsar but me and thanks to me they spent their days, because God ordered this, because without Him neither a deed, nor a word is done. Glory to Him forever, amen."