The Monument of the Shipka Battle Pass in Central Bulgaria, the decisive battle of the Liberation War essentially won by the Bulgarian volunteers against overwhelming odds. Photo: Wikipedia
Bulgaria and Bulgarians around the world celebrate on Saturday, March 3, the 140th anniversary since the country’s National Liberation from the Ottoman Empire on March 3, 1878.
The Team of ArchaeologyinBulgaria.com wishes happy Liberation Day (March 3) to its Bulgarian and Bulgaria-loving readers from around the world!
The medieval Bulgarian Empire, which was feudally fragmented in spite of boasting high culture and Pre-Renaissance or Early Renaissance art, was conquered by the Ottoman Turkish invaders at the end of the 14th century, ushering into five centuries of what is known in Bulgaria‘s history as the period of Ottoman Yoke (1396-1878/1912).
The Ottoman conquest and subsequent five-century rule set Bulgaria’s development back centuries largely obliterating its high medieval culture, killing off or assimilating an enormous share of the Bulgarian population, and denigrating the rest to a slave-like status.
While the Bulgarians fiercely resisted the Ottoman rule in a number of ways including by staging at least 60 uprisings, revolts, and mutinies of varied scale, by keeping up guerrilla resistance (the so called hayduti, or haiduks), and by volunteering in the forces of other great and small powers fighting Ottoman Turkey, their revolutionary struggle for freedom and independence took a better organized form only during the National Revival Period (18th-19th century).
It intensified especially in the third quarter of the 19th century culminating into April Uprising of 1876 which was crushed with savage brutality by the Ottoman troops and irregulars (30,000 Bulgarians were massacred) – just like any other revolt ever staged by the Bulgarians.
The difference this time was that a US journalist working for the British press, Januarius MacGahan (1844-1878) told the world the stories of the Ottoman atrocities against the Bulgarians which led the otherwise competing great European powers of the time to agree on the need of a humanitarian intervention in Bulgaria.
Paradoxically, as a result of these developments, both Russian Tsar (Emperor) Alexander II (r. 1855-1881) and the American journalist Januarius MacGahan have been referred to separately as the “Liberator of Bulgaria" because of their respective roles in Bulgaria’s liberation.
The grave of American journalist Januarius MacGahan in his home town of New Lexington, Ohio, identifying him as the Liberator of Bulgaria because of his reports that covered the Ottoman atrocities against the Bulgarians during the April Uprising of 1876. Photo: Postdif, Wikipedia
The monument of Russian Emperor Alexander II known as the Tsar Liberator – in Russia – for freeing the serfs in 1861, in Bulgaria – for its liberation from Ottoman Turkey in 1878. Photo: Bulgarian Presidency
Before that, in December 1876-January 1877, there was an attempt to settle the conflict in Bulgaria (and the rest of the Balkans) peacefully, at the Constantinople Conference in which the great European powers agreed to establish two autonomous Bulgarian entities within the Ottoman Empire – Western Bulgarian Region with its capital in Sofia, and Eastern Bulgarian Region with its capital in Veliko Tarnovo. This plan was ultimately rejected by Ottoman Turkey paving the way for the war.
Known in Bulgaria as the Liberation War, the Russian-Turkish War started in the spring of 1877, and in spite of some grave difficulties for the Russian forces, eventually led to a victory over the Ottomans a year later.
During the war, the forces of the Russian Empire (which were made up of Ukrainians, Russians, Belarusians, and Finns, among others) lost nearly 16,000 men in combat, and approximately 90,000 men who died of diseases and combat inflicted wounds. Romania, which was a Russian ally in the war, lost 1,300 men in combat.
The war formally ended on March 3, 1878, with the Peace Treaty of San Stefano, a small town near the Ottoman capital Istanbul (Constantinople), between Russia and the Ottoman Empire, reviving Bulgaria on the political map of Europe and the world.
Under the San Stefano Treaty, the newly liberated Bulgaria encompassed most of what are the three historical and geographic regions traditionally populated by Bulgarians: Moesia, Thrace, and Macedonia. However, this treaty was not final, and was revised at the Congress of Berlin three months later. The result was the Berlin Treaty which was signed by all European great powers at the time.
For reasons mostly having to do with the great power rivalry between Britain and Russia, and Austria-Hungary and Russia, with the “Iron Chancellor" of Germany Otto von Bismarck balancing the interests of the great powers, the Berlin Treaty resulted in reducing the newly liberated Bulgaria to about a fourth of all Bulgarian-populated regions in the Balkans and a third of the territories granted to it by the San Stefano Treaty, stripping it of territories in the geographic regions of Macedonia, Thrace, the Western Outlands, and Northern Dobrudzha (view the map below).
Proposed boundaries of the two autonomous Bulgarian entities according to the Constantinople Conference of 1876-1877. Map: Electionworld, Wikipedia
The newly liberated Bulgaria after the Treaty of San Stefano (March 1878) and the Treaty of Berlin (July 1878). Map: Todor Bozhinov, Wikipedia
Despite its National Liberation, the newly liberated Principality of Bulgaria (ruled by a Knyaz meaning “Prince" or “King") was a vassal state of the Ottoman Sultan, while another part of Bulgabria was fashioned into the Ottoman autonomous region of Eastern Rumelia.
The Principality of Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia were unified in the National Unification of September 6, 1885, another national holiday in today’s Bulgaria called Unification Day.
Unified Bulgaria declared its Independence from Ottoman Turkey on September 22, 1908, celebrated in today’s Bulgaria as Independence Day, also a national holiday.
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 of 1908, Bulgaria restored its medieval titles of Tsardom (technically meaning “an empire") and “Tsar" (“Emperor"). These changes were reflected in the constitutional amendments of 1911.
Thus, the period in Bulgarian history before the Soviet occupation and Soviet-orchestrated coup of September 9, 1944, and the establishment of the communist regime is known as the Third Bulgarian Tsardom (1878-1944/46), a successor to the First Bulgarian Empire (632/680-1018) and the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396).
Thus, Bulgaria’s National Liberation from Ottoman Turkey was a process which began, rather than ended, on March 3, 1878. The southernmost parts of today’s Bulgaria were liberated only in the Balkan War of 1912-1913, while many of the other lands in the Balkans that were Bulgarian-populated at the time were lost for good by Bulgaria in the Second Balkan War (1913), World War I (1915-1918), and World War II (1941-1945).
March 3 was first celebrated as Bulgaria’s Liberation Day in 1880, and became a national holiday in 1888. It was reinstated as the Republic of Bulgaria’s main national holiday in 1990, after the end of the communist period.
“Bulgaria after the Treaty of Berlin", a litography by Bulgarian painter Nikolay Pavlovich depicting the partitioned Bulgaria as three sisters representing the three historic provinces and geographic regions of Bulgaria – Moesia, Thrace, and Macedonia, depending on their status after the Berlin Treaty: the first sister Moesia (representing the Principality of Bulgaria) stands free (in the middle); the second sister, Thrace, representing the autonomous region of Eastern Rumelia, stands subordinated to the Ottoman Sultan (on the left), and the third sister, Macedonia, stands still in the chains of the Ottoman Yoke (on the right, in the background). Photo: ClubHistory138
“Unified Bulgaria", a litography by Bulgarian painter Nikolay Pavlovich, on the Unification of the Principality of Bulgaria and Easter Rumelia. It is a follow-up of the previous litography depicting the partitioned Bulgaria (see above); now Moesia and Thrace, two of the three sisters representing Bulgaria’s three historic and geographic regions, Moesia, Thrace, and Macedonia, are pictured standing together free and united. The third sister, Macedonia, is seen in the background on the right still in the chains of the Ottoman Yoke. Photo: Bulgarian National Radio