... A philatelic journey through the history of Bulgaria ...

1. The First Kingdom (852-1018)


The Bulgarian people are assumed to originate from the Siberian highlands around the Altaj mountains and belong to the same population group as the Huns. Bulgarian tribes (also called Proto-Bulgars) took part in several migrations towards Europe between the 2nd and 6th century, assimilating other population groups along the way. The name "Bulgar" is assumed to originate from a Turkish verb "bulga" which means "to mix, stir or shake", and the subsequent "bulgak" which translates to "unrest, rebellion" or "rebel". Genetically, today's Bulgarians are a mix of Proto-Bulgars, Thrakians (the original people in the Balkans) and Slavs.

In 632 Khan Kubrat (†651) united several Bulgarian nomad tribes on the steppes north of Caucasus between the Kuban river, the Asov Sea and the Black Sea. Kubrat put an end to the Bulgarians nomadic life with frequent but independent raids against the Byzantine empire, and founded a military alliance between the tribes. He negotiated a peace treaty with Byzantium and created a state with an extension from Kuban in the east to the rivers of Donets and Dnjepr in the west and the Black Sea in the south.

Mi 442

A legend tells that Kubrat on his death bed makes his sons bring him a bundle of twigs. Kubrat asks his sons to try to break the bundle in two, but none of them are able to do so. The old man then takes the bundle apart and breaks the twigs one by one. In this way, Kubrat shows his sons how the Bulgarian tribes have to stay united against their enemies. Otherwise, these will defeat them one by one.

However, his sons did not follow his advise. After Kubrat's death the different tribes were divided, and in 680 his 5th son Asparukh led his tribe across the Donau and into Moesia. The following year, 681 he founded the first Bulgarian state in the Balkans in the Dobrudja area.

Mi 4038

Khan Asparukh attacks the Byzantine army:

Mi 1973

Mi 443

Mi 2075

The expansion of the new Bulgarian state was limited by the warrior tribes on the plains to the north and by the Black Sea to the east, and thus had to turn towards the north-west and south-west. Khan Krum (†814) dedicated this whole life to this task. First, he invaded the Avar kingdom to the north-west and incorporated Transylvania in Bulgaria. Then he moved his attention to the south, and in 811 he took Sredets (Sofia) from the Byzantine empire, quickly followed by Nessebur on the Black Sea coast and Adrianople (Edirne) in Thrace.

Nicephorus is taken captive
Mi 1872
The Byzantine emperor Nicephorus attacked Bulgaria in 811 in an attept to regain the lost lands. Krum defeated the Byzantine army and captured Nicephorus. The emperor was later executed as the first of his standing in 500 years. Krum made himself a drinking bowl of the emperors skull.

Mi 1974

Celebrating the victory over Nicephorus
Mi 1873

In 813 Krum's army stood outside the walls of Constantinople. The Bulgarians prepared the attack on the city for nearly one year, but due to Krum's sudden death in April 814 the attack was never initiated.

In addition to his conquests, Khan Krum is also credited the making of the first written laws of Bulgaria.

The Rider of Madara
Mi 444

”The Rider of Madara” is a famous relief in a 100 m high cliff near the village Madara east of Shumen. The relief is included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites and has been assumed to picture Khan Krum. However, recent research dates the relief to around 710 A.D, during the reign of Khan Tervel, the son of Khan Asparukh.
Khan Tervel
Mi 4040

In 852, Khan Boris I inherited the throne of one of the mightiest states in Europe at the time. He is best known for introducing Christianity in Bulgaria in 864. This enabled a peace treaty with the Christian empire of Byzantium and easier acceptance from the other Christian powers in Europe. More important, however, was Boris' achievement of merging the two dominating ethnic groups in Bulgaria, the Christian slavs and the pagan Bulgarians, thus increasing the nation's unity against the abundant foreign enemies.

The baptizing of Khan Boris I:

Mi 1920

Mi 445

Mi 1975

The coronation of
Tsar Simeon I in 893
Mi 447

After 37 years on the throne, Boris I in 889 voluntarily abdicated in favour of his son Vladimir. However, Vladimir tried to reintroduce paganism in Bulgaria, and was overthrown by Boris himself in 893 and blinded. Boris' second son Simeon then took the throne (893-927).

Simeon's constant warfare made Bulgaria the mightiest slavic state in Europe, and he is often denoted in Bulgarian history as "Simeon the Great". He was a well educated and ambitious man, and his leadership was dominated by two major goals: First independence from Byzantine political and religious influence, then make Bulgaria a mighty rival to the Byzantine empire itself. After several decades of victorious campaigns, Simeon ruled over most of the Balkan peninsula. In 913 his army stood outside Constantinople, and Simeon was given the blessing of the Patriarch and the title "Tsar of Bulgaria". Simeon died in 927 during preparations to an attack on Constantinople itself.

Tsar Simeon
the Great
Mi 217

Tsar Simeon attacks
Constantinople in 913
Mi 1921

Tsar Simeon defeats the
Byzantine army at Acheloos 917
Mi 1975

During the reign of Simeon also Bulgarian culture and litterature got an enormous uplift. Simeon was himself educated in Constantinople, and was an advocate for Bulgarian artwork and language during what is called "The Golden Era" in Bulgarian history.

Prince Sviatoslav of Kiev
attacks Bulgaria 968
Mi 1874

After Simeon's death in 927 Bulgaria was gradually weakened due to inner discord and religious disagreements, as well as constant warfare against the country's neighbours. Prince Sviatoslav of Kiev was bribed by Byzantium to attack Bulgaria in 968/69, and the Bulgarian Tsar Peter I was forced to abdicate. The Byzantine emperor John Tzimiskes invaded Bulgaria in 971 to drive Sviatoslav out, but also took the opportunity to annex the eastern parts of the country and dethrone Peter's son Boris II.

Tsar Samuil's
campaign against Byzantium
Mi 1977
Emperor John Tzimiskes
attacks Bulgaria in 971
Mi 1875

From his base in the still independent parts of Bulgaria west of the Iskar river (in Macedonia), Tsar Samuil (997-1014) together with his brothers tried to liberate the rest of the country from Byzantium. After several victorius campaigns the Bulgarians were gradually pushed on the defensive by superior Byzantine forces. In 1014 the Byzantine Emperor Basil II defeated Samuil's army in a terrible battle at Kelidion in Macedonia. Around 14,000 Bulgarian prisoners were blinded on Basil's order. However, every 100th man got to keep one eye to lead the others home. Two days after the battle, Samuil died of heart attack, allegedly due to the horrible sight of the returning prisoners. After the battle, Basil was given the nickname "Basil the Bulgar Slayer". 4 years later the Bulgarian state finally collapsed and was fully incorporated into the Byzantine empire.

The Cyrillic alphabet

The Glagolithic alphabet
Mi 1915

The holy brothers
Cyril and Methodios
Mi 307

The Cyrillic alphabet
Mi 1914

There is little certain information about the development of a dedicated Slavic alphabet during the 800's. Two greek brothers and monks from Salonika, Cyril (827-869) and Methodios (825-885), are generally acknowledged as the creators. The brothers were sent by the Byzantine emperor to Moravia in 862 after a request from Prince Rostislav, who wanted to develop a Slavic Lithurgy to stem the influence of Frankish priests. Here Cyril and Methodios discovered or developed the Glagolithic alphabetet, which already in 863 was put into use in both religious and official documents.

St. Naoum teaching
Mi 446

Khan Boris I, introducing Christianity as the Bulgarian national religion in 864, realized that the new alphabet would enable the use of Bulgarian language both in his administration and the church. He therefore commissioned disciples of Cyril and Methodios to etablish two schools to teach Bulgarian language based on the new alphabet. St. Naoum (†910) from Moravia was one of the founders of the new literary school in the Bulgarian capital Pliska in 885 or 886. The school was later moved to the new capital Preslav by Tsar Simeon in 893. St. Kliment of Ohrid (†896), a disciple of Cyril and Methodios, was given the task of establishing a theological school in Kutmichevitza in Macedonia. Durting the first 7 years (886-893) this school attracked more than 3000 students. The university in Sofia is named after Climent Ohridski, who is buried in the St. Climent monastery in Ohrid.

St. Kliment of Ohrid
Mi 212

St. Climent simplified the newly developed Slavic/Galgolithic alphabet and named it "Cyrillic" after his master. However, as the most influential literary and cultural centre in Bulgaria for more than 100 year, also the school in Preslav is assumed to have played an important role in the development of the new alphabet. The Cyrillic alphabet is based on Greek letters, but uses consonants from the Glagolithic alphabet for sounds that are not used in Greek. Gradually, the modernized alphabet outperformed the Glagolithic alphabet in Slavic litterature.

Rila Monastery

Rila Monastery
Mi 560

The holy Iwan Rilski
Mi 559

The Curch of the Holy Virgin
Mi 561

The holy Iwan Rilski (876-946), Bulgaria's national saint, is counted as the founder of the Rila Monastery. The monastery is build where Rilski lived as hermit during the 900's. After the Ottoman occupation the monastery fell into decline, but got a tremendous uplift when Rilski's remains were brought there in 1469. After a devastating fire in 1833 the monastery was rebuilt with guild funding.

The numerous historical and architectonical monuments in Rila Monastery include the Hrelyo tower from 1335, the 5-domed Church of the Holy Virgin and the original monastery kitchen from the 1800's. Rila Monastery is included in the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Rila Monastery and St. Iwan Rilski were selected as motives when the Bulgarian postal administration in 1946 issued their first official maximum cards. Two of the cards are shown here as examples.



  • Crampton, R.J: "A Concise History of Bulgaria", Cambridge University Press 1997
  • Aschehougs and Gyldendals Great Norwegian Encyclopedia
  • http://www.bulgaria.com:8080/history/bulgaria/index.html
  • http://www.bulgaria.com:8080/history/rulers/index.html