For Another’s Freedom: Bulgarian Rebel Leaders Who Fought to Liberate Greece
Bulgaria and Greece are (the) two European countries that are about as ancient as it gets. But possibly the first thing that comes to mind regarding their relations in historical terms are the horrific, back-stabbing Modern Era wars the two contemporary nation-states fought in the 20th century.
That is for sure a sad thought but one that’s also indicative of the persisting patterns of “perceiving” or “imagining” “the other” in the Balkans (or just “Imagining the Balkans” in the words of historian Maria Todorova’s world-famous book title).
It is all the more so given that it refers to the already (supposedly) more “westernized” eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula (vis-à-vis the Western Balkans, i.e. the former Yugoslavia) where European Union member states Bulgaria, Greece, and Romania could be considered as somewhat of a “stability belt”.
Yet, while Bulgaria and Greece were on the opposing sides in three major interstate wars in the 20th century (the Second Balkan War, the First World War, and, technically, the Second World War), and happened to be adversaries in the Cold War thanks to Bulgaria’s occupation by Stalin’s Red Army, the common Bulgarian-Greek history in the Modern Era actually boasts some rather astonishing and inspiring examples of heroism for the other’s sake which are undeservedly overlooked.
That’s not even counting the Middle Ages: when Bulgaria (the First and Second Bulgarian Empires) and Byzantium (technically Greece’s medieval predecessor), according to some estimates, fought nearly 200 wars against one another wars for a period of 700 years (!!!).
At the same time, however, they also cooperated massively: Bulgaria borrowed lavishly from the higher culture of the Byzantine Empire, with Eastern Orthodox Christianity and the Bulgarian Script (also known as Slavic or Cyrillic) being just the top examples; Constantinople made use of the medieval Bulgarian Empire’s military might, most notably in the often forgotten Battle of Constantinople in 718 AD in which the Ancient Bulgar cavalry routed the mighty Arab forces stopping the Arabs’ advance into Europe even more categorically than Charles Martel did at Poitier 14 years later (or what became known as the Battle of Tours).
Of course, in the 14th century Bulgarians and Greeks failed miserably at coming together to stop the invading Ottomans, with the well-known result of Ottoman Turkey gaining control over much of Europe for several long, sad centuries.
In Modern times, relations between the re-emerging nations of Bulgarians and Greeks were similarly tumultuous politically as well as culturally, with the Bulgarians borrowing from the traditions of modern Greek education to establish their own modern schools, and at the same time rebelling against the authority of Greek bishops imposed on the Bulgarian Christians by the Ottomans, and seeking to restore Bulgaria’s independent church (which they did in 1870 with the Bulgarian Exarchate) in order to fight back against perceived cultural assimilation.
In a nutshell, in the popular mind the examples of confrontation between Bulgaria and Greece dominate the image of their relation, and the significance of their “successful joint projects” remains unknown or unappreciated.
For the Freedom of Greece
The Greek War of Independence from the Ottoman Turkish Empire is a staggering example of Bulgarians supporting Greeks that few in today’s Bulgaria – and, indeed, few of those people from around the world who are interested in the region – are aware of.
Starting in 1821 as an armed rebellion, and turning into a great power war, the Greek War of Independence was initiated by the underground organization Filiki Eteria (“Society of Friends”) founded in 1814 to liberate Greece from the Ottomans, which immediately included a number of Bulgarian members.
According to estimates of Bulgarian and Greek historians, the number of Bulgarians who fought for the Liberation of Greece from the Ottoman Empire was greater than that of all other foreign volunteers combined. That number is estimated by some scholars at 4,000.
In addition to the Bulgarian members of the Filiki Eteria organization, as soon as the Greek War of Independence kicked off, a number of Bulgarians from all over the Balkans flocked individually or even in armed groups to the Peloponnese Peninsula where the Greek rebellion was centered.
A total of five Bulgarian freedom fighters were promoted to the ranks of generals of the Greek Army during the independence war. They were usually nicknamed “the Bulgarian”.
“Hajji Hristo the Bulgarian”
No doubt the most famous of the Bulgarians who fought for Greece in 1821-1832 was Hajji Hristo “the Bulgarian” (also transliterated as Hadzhi Hristo)
Hijji Hristo had a rather exciting fate. He was born in 1783, the year of the Treaty of Paris which ended the American Revolutionary War acknowledging the birth of the United States of America.
According to different sources, Hajji Hristo was a native of the Bulgarian-populated village of Nisiya (today in Northwest Greece), or of the city of Pazardzhik, or of the city of Sliven – in Southern Bulgaria.
His father and brother were killed in 1806 while fighting on the side of the Serbs against the Ottomans in the First Serbian Uprising (1804-1813), in which Hristo also participated.
After that, Hristo fled to Bosnia, then to Venice and Cyprus, finally reaching Alexandria where he served in the forces of the almighty Ottoman vassal Mohammad Ali Pasha of Egypt, and later went to Syria where he served in the forces of Hursit Pasha, who was then made governor of Peloponnese.
The outbreak of the Greek rebellion there in 1821 prompted the Bulgarian Hajji Hristo to desert to the rebels, becoming one of their outstanding military leaders during the siege of the major town of Tripolitsa. He was welcomed to the Greek rebel army by the leaders of the Greek revolution, Theodoros Kolokotronis and Alexander Ypsilantis.
In 1822, the troops of Kolokotronis routed a 30 000-strong Ottoman army near Dervenakia, with the regiment of Bulgarian volunteers commanded by Hajji Hristo playing a major role in the battle.
In May, 1824, Hajji Hristo “the Bulgarian” was promoted to general. He subsequently proposed to the Greek leaders to organize a cavalry unit, thus becoming the creator and first commander of the cavalry of modern-day Greece.
The intensification of the war in Greece led Ottoman Sultan Mahmud II (r. 1808 – 1839) to request aid from his vassal, the ruler of Egypt, Mohammad Ali Pasha.
The latter sent an army commanded by Ibrahim Pasha to Greece in 1825, which succeeded in forcing the rebels to retreat to the mountains.
Ibrahim Pasha’s forces captured Hajji Hristo during the historic battle of Navarino Bay (October 20, 1827) in which the intervening navies of Britain, France, and Russia destroyed the combined Ottoman-Egyptian navy.
The Bulgarian military leader Hajji Hristo was so highly valued for his military contribution that one of the conditions of the British, French, and Russian forces after the routing of the Ottoman naval forces at Navarino Bay was his release.
After he was freed, the Bulgarian continued his participation in the Greek Liberation War until its end in 1832 when Greece was formally recognized as autonomous state.
A number of other Bulgarian fighters who fought for the freedom of Greece not unlike Hajji Hristo could not return to their home towns in the Ottoman-occupied Bulgarian lands so many chose to stay in liberated Greece and participated actively in the public life of the Hellenic republic.
Hajji Hristo remained in Athens. In 1843, he was elected a deputy in the Greek national assembly representing the Bulgarians living in Greece. He fathered four daughters and two sons, and died in 1853.
A monument in Athens recognizes his contribution to the fight for the freedom of Greece.
In the Footsteps of Garibaldi: Kapitan Petko Voivoda
A few decades after the Greek Independence War, another Bulgarian figure stood out in the continuing fight for the liberation of all Greek lands – Petko Kiryakov, also known as Kapitan Petko Voivoda.
(“Voivoda”, or “voivode”, meaning a “war leader” or “warlord”, was a medieval title for a military commander from the time of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD) which during the period known as Ottoman Yoke (1396/1422 – 1878/1912), i.e. the time when Bulgaria was part of the Ottoman Empire, was assumed by the leaders of Bulgarian haiduti, Robin Hood-style rebel bands waging guerilla warfare against the Ottoman forces.)
Unlike Hajji Hristo, who fought for Greece’s freedom as part of its newly formed military, Petko Kiryakov was primarily active in the fight for the freedom of his native area which back then featured a more numerous Bulgarian population.
In fact, Kapitan Petko Voivoda was also an international revolutionary who fought for the freedom of both Bulgaria and Greece.
Petko Kiryakov was born in 1844 in the village of Dogan Hisar, today Esimi (Aisymi) in Northeast Greece, near the town of Alexandroupolis.
After a local Turkish landlord killed Petko’s brother in 1861, he set off to the nearby mountains organizing a small detachment of rebels (“cheta”), which fought against the Ottoman authorities defending the local population of Bulgarians, Greeks, and others from their excesses. His first marriage was with a local Greek girl with whom he had a son named Georgi.
In 1864, Petko Kiryakov was invited to Greece by the Athens revolutionary committee that was organizing a rebellion against the Ottomans on the island of Crete.
He went to the Athens military school, and was then sent to the region of Macedonia in order to try and prepare a simultaneous uprising against the Ottomans. After spending time there, Petko reported back to Athens that the region was not ready to revolt, and shortly after that left for Italy where he met with the legendary revolutionary leader Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Kapitan Petko Voivoda spent several months with Garibaldi staying at his home in Caprera, Italy, and learning from him what Petko himself described as “invaluable lessons” on revolutionary, freedom-fighting tactics.
Garibaldi supported the idea of staging a revolt in Crete and helped organize a regiment of 220 Italian volunteers.
In Athens, these were joined by 67 Bulgarians. The 22-year-old Petko Voivoda, and Garibaldi’s aide, Friedrich, were initially in charge of the international troops.
Upon arriving in Crete, the “Garibaldi Unit” was placed under the command of Greek general Panos Koroneos, whereas Petko Voyvoda was put in command of a smaller unit of Bulgarians and other foreigners. During the Crete revolt the Bulgarian freedom fighter took part in 21 battles, 5 of which were especially severe, and was given the title of “kapitan”, i.e. “captain”.
As the Crete Revolt was suppressed, the capitulation terms required that the rebels surrender their weapons and pass with their heads bowed between two lines of Ottoman soldiers.
Considering this to be an utter humiliation, Petko Voivoda was the only one who did not comply with the armistice terms. He fled the island with 18 other men to Alexandria, Egypt. After that he traveled to Marseille, met once again with Garibaldi in Italy, and returned to Athens.
There, he survived an Ottoman plot against his life, and left for his native area to fight for the freedom of Bulgaria. His voyage was extremely daring as he took a ship together with 40 Bulgarians dressed in Ottoman uniforms, and on his way to the Bulgarian lands, he even “inspected” an Ottoman naval base located on an Aegean island pretending to be a Turkish general.
In 1869-1878, Petko Kiryakov was active with his armed followers in the area of the Rhodoppe Mountains (today’s southern Bulgaria, northeast Greece, and European Turkey).
His troops played a crucial role in preventing atrocities against the local population by Ottoman irregulars during the Russian-Turkish War of 1877-1878, which ultimately liberated Bulgaria.
However, the Russian troops did not reach Kapitan Petko Voivoda’s area of operation, and these lands were not included in the new Bulgarian state.
After Bulgaria’s liberation in 1878, Petko Kiryakov moved to the Black Sea city of Varna.
He became in Bulgarian politics which led to repressions against him in the 1890s pro-Russian views. He died in 1900.
There are 22 monuments of Kapitan Petko Voivoda in Bulgaria, one on the Gianicolo Hill in the capital of Italy, Rome, close to the monument of Garibaldi, and one in Greece, in his native village, errected by a local resident in the yard of a private hotel.
The lives and examples of people such as Hajji Hristo the Bulgarian and Kapitan Petko Voivoda are hardly remembered not just in everyday life, but also when it comes to the relations between the nations of Bulgaria and Greece, and the wider European liberation movements.
They should be because what they did is simple but magnificent reminder of the will to follow high ideals even if your sacrifice might be for another’s kin, not necessarily your own.
*Note: An earlier version of this article appeared on Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency).
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