- European history
The creator of the Bulgarian Alphabet and the first translator of liturgical books from Greek into Old-Bulgarian was Constantine, the Philosopher, better known by his name in religion, Cyril, adopted on his death bed. Constantine-Cyril was born in Solun (now Thessaloniki in Greece). In 863 he and his brother Methodius were sent by the Byzantine emperor Michael III to convert the Western Slavs to Christianity and arrange that the divine service in Greater Moravia is performed in their native tongue.
This was done at the request of Rostislav, the prince of Greater Moravia, whose possessions comprised the lands of now the Czech Republic, Slovakia, part of Slovenia and part of Hungary, at that time inhabited by Slav population.
Undoubtedly, the two Slav apostles knew the Old-Bulgarian language to perfection - this was demonstrated both in the alphabet and in their translations from Greek. “You are Salonikians - addressed them Emperor Michael, - and all Salonikians speak pure Slavonic.”
It is known that their father was Greek, but mother was Bulgarian and their identity is Bulgarian. It is known also that in the Constantinople imperial court Constantine-Cyril (about 827-869) excelled in his learning and was often sent on important missions to the Saracens and the Hasars. His brother Methodius (815-885) was Father Superior of the monastery of Polychron in Vitinia, Asia Minor, where, when the Slavonic script was conceived by Cyril, the two brothers made the first translations of the major liturgical books from Greek into Slavonic.
Both the motives and the exact year in which Constantine-Cyril composed the alphabet (855 or 862-863) lie in obscurity. Some sources evidence that before their departure to Greater Moravia the two brothers taught the Bulgarians, inhabiting the area by the river of Bregalnitza in Macedonia, the Slavonic script, but this fact is not quite certain either. In any case, it is difficult to deny that their letters fully coincided with the sound system of the Old Bulgarian language, which - irrespective of all resemblances - already differed, in one way or another, from the rest of the Slavonic dialects.
So, Constantine-Cyril and Methodius, accompanied by their disciples, started their mission to Moravia towards 863. Welcomed with open arms by the local prince and his subjects, they were actively engaged in propagating divine worship in the Slavonic language. Naturally, this rivalry was not admired by the Western clergymen, predominantly of German origin. This first mission failed and the two brothers arrived back to Constantinople. From here they set out on a new journey, through Venezia, to Rome, carrying with them the holy relics of St. Clement I, Pope of Rome. There, Constantine-Cyrill succeeded in persuading Pope Adrian II, that, as a church language, Slavonic is as adequate as Greek, Latin, or Jewish - a step more than revolutionary in the context of the then Europe, and an argument already discussed in Venezia.
Unfortunately, during their stay in the Holy City Constantine-Cyril fell ill and died (869). His tomb in the “San Clemente” basilica has been conserved till the present day and is a place of veneration for many Bulgarians, as well as for other people of Slav origin. Methodius, consecrated archbishop by the Pope, returned with some of his disciples to his flock in Greater Moravia. Outliving his brother by 16 years, he continued his work in increasingly difficult circumstances, produced by the intrigues of the German clergy.
Immediately after his death in Moravia in 885, his followers were put to persecution, arrests, and tortures, and were finally driven away from the country. In Greater Moravia the Slavonic script and liturgy were gradually ousted by the Latin.
In 886 the two brothers’ disciples, who had survived, set forth to Bulgaria, the country that had been converted to Christianity two decades before. Here they were received with honors by Bulgaria’s Tsar and baptizer Boris I. Having received his blessing and support in the capital city of Preslav, as well as in Bulgaria’s south-western parts, in Macedonia and Ohrid, the adherents of the two brothers from Solun founded two great literary and spiritual schools. Thus, for example, St. Clement (about 838-916) who was sent to Macedonia, and who is known to have been Bulgarian in origin, for only 7 years educated … 3500 peoples!
In this way, after the failed mission of Methodius and his disciples in Greater Moravia, the Slavonic script, as well as the Old Bulgarian language and liturgy developed freely and in full force in Bulgaria. It was from here that in the following centuries they spread to Serbia, Croatia, Kievan Russia, Lithuania, Wallachia, Moldavia, etc.
The creation of a new alphabet, designed for a particular language, would generally engage the efforts of many generations. If the other European alphabets were the result of a long evolution, Constantine-Cyril devised his script by one single act.
The apostle of Slavs was not only creator of their script. Together with his brother Methodius and his disciples he was the man who made the first translations into the new written language, elevating it to the sacral level of Jewish, Latin and Greek.
In this sense, the work of Constantine-Cyril, the Philosopher, left a lasting imprint on the Christian fate of Eastern Europe. It became incorporated in the struggles between the Eastern and the Western church for their diocese, and delineated the zones of religious confessions, which have marked the cultural boundaries of the continent for centuries, until the present day.
The Christian Church in those times was dominated by the trilingual dogma. Christianity could be preached in the three sacred languages – Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Cyrill and Methodius rejected this dogma with strong arguments. “If God sends sunlight, air and rain to all the peoples - Cyril protested – this is to testify that God loves all people in the same way. Why do you think then that God wants to be praised only in the languages of three peoples?” It is not accidental that the Glagolic alphabet was created in 855 in Bulgaria, long before the mission to Moravia in 863. It is true that the holy brothers took great pains to include Panonians, Moravians, and Slavs along the Middle Danube into the historical act. But neither the Moravian State nor the tiny Panonian Principality could become the seat of the new civilization, which in its roots was Slavic-Bulgarian. And yet, this period cast a bridge between the Latin West and the Orthodox East that granted hopes for a future fruitful dialogue between the two parts of Europe. One part was marked by Latin culture whose symbol was St. Benedict, and the other was dominated, culturally and politically, by Byzantium and Bulgaria whose symbol were the holy brothers of Solun. Their deeds were a harbinger of the Renaissance in Europe.
Three are the saints, patrons of the Old continent – St. Benedict of Nurcia and the Apostle Constantine - Cyril Philosopher and Methodius. While the deeds of Benedict of Nurcia cannot be linked with any particular country and belong to the Latin world, the creation of Cyrill and Methodius survived through the ages because of the existence of the Bulgarian State.
From the Greek Alphabet to the Bulgarian Alphabet
Their alphabet is known as Cyrillic and still today most of the Slavic countries, including Russia, use an extension of that alphabet.
In Bulgaria, you will find not a subset nor an extension, but the pure Cyrillic alphabet of the original 30 letters.
The Old Bulgarian language is a basis for the creation of Russian, Serbian, Slovene, Croatian variants and gained the significance of a universal literary Slavonic language. The modern Bulgarian literary language is characterized by dropping of the case forms, by the use of the definite article, by nine tenses, four moods, etc.
Having inherited a strong and vital state from his predecessors, but defeated in almost all of the wars he waged, Boris I (852-889) made some far-sighted and far-reaching steps, which predetermined Bulgaria’s historical fate. In 864 he converted his court to Christianity and made the Christian religion official in the whole of his kingdom, balancing between the contradictory interests of Rome and Constantinople during the entire period of his reign and achieving various advantages for his country. The momentous affiliation of Bulgaria to the Christian civilization, through its Byzantine model, brought about considerable dividends in her international relations. Moreover, this act catalyzed the on-going, and already advanced, process of assimilation of the Proto-Bulgarians by the Slavic majority - a process in which the Bulgarian nationality crystallized: Slavic in its self-identification, language and traditions.
In 886, invited by Tsar Boris-Michael, the disciples of the Slav apostles Cyrill and Methodius, who had been sent away from Greater Moravia by that time, arrived in Bulgaria. They were received with great honors by the Bulgarian governor of Belgrade (Serbia’s capital today) as soon as they had reached the border. With the approval of Boris I, two spiritual centers of tremendous significance for Slavic culture were formed in the capital city of Pliska, as well as in the other central town - Ohrid, in Macedonia. Only in Ohrid, in the course of 7 years as many as 3500 students were educated.
Steadfastly, Tsar Boris I continued his mission. In 893 he summoned a Church Council in Pliska. There “pagan Pliska” was replaced by Veliki Preslav as Bulgaria’s capital. The Byzantine priests were sent away, because the country already had well-educated ecclesiastics of her own. And most importantly, at the 893 Council the Bulgarian Slavonic language was declared to be the official administrative and church language. This tongue was comprehensible to the common people. It formed the basis of a cultural tradition that, within a few decades only, overflowed Bulgaria’s frontiers and became spread far beyond them.
Having accomplished the work of his life, Tsar Boris, still in his strength, retired to a monastery. His reign had a cultural impact on the development of all Slavs and the whole of Eastern Europe. He died in 907. However, before finding eternal peace, in 893 he had to prove his loyalty to Christianity once again; in 893 he left the monastery for a while - to dethrone and blind his first-born son Prince Vladimir, who had been conspiring to restore heathendom.
After he died, Boris I became the first saint of the Bulgarian Church - the church he himself created. Nowadays, his Proto-Bulgarians, Turkic name, wrongly identified with the Slavonic name of Borislav; is in current usage in almost all countries that belong to the Christian civilization.
Tsar Simeon the Great (893 - 927)
THE VERSATILE TALENTS OF TSAR SIMEON were unequalled by any other Bulgarian ruler during the Middle Ages. Simeon had just turned 27 when he took the helm in 893. His contemporaries called him “the Great” in acknowledgement of his talents as a military commander and diplomat and his spiritual strength. This son of Prince Boris received a top-notch education in the famous Magnaur Academy in Constantinople, attended by the children of Byzantine notables. He was preparing to become the head of the Bulgarian Church. However, he was destined to cast off the cassock and to replace at the throne his brother Vladimir, deposed and blinded after his attempt to return to paganism.
Simeon’s rule was defined by two main goals: to break away from Byzantine political and religious influence and to turn Bulgaria into a powerful rival of the centuries-old empire. The task required tremendous energy, understanding of the laws of history and admiration of culture. Prince Simeon possessed every one of those qualities. As soon as he took the helm, he replaced the Greek language in liturgy with Bulgarian. The capital was moved from Pliska to Preslav.
Byzantium’s rulers underestimated Bulgaria’s ambition to follow an independent political and religious course. In 893 they moved the market for Bulgarian goods from Constantinople to Thessaloniki, subjecting Bulgarian tradesmen to higher taxes. In the subsequent prolonged war, the first one in Europe to be fought for economic reasons, the initial battles were won by the Bulgarians.
For two decades Simeon fought with the Byzantines, repulsed the attacks of Hungarians and entered into an alliance with the Pechenegs against Byzantium. After a crushing victory of the Bulgarians in 896 near Bulgarophygon in Eastern Thrace, the Byzantine emperor had no choice but to sue for peace. The market was returned to Constantinople and Byzantium had to pay annual tribute to Bulgaria. Distrust mounted between Preslav and Constantinople.
The hostilities were often reopened by both sides and after a series of battles Simeon pushed the border of the Bulgarian state to within twenty kilometers of Thessaloniki. He was striving to destroy Byzantium and build a Bulgaro-Byzantine empire.
In 913 his banner was unfurled in front of the gates of Constantinople. In the imperial palace he received the patriarch’s blessing and the title of Tsar of Bulgaria.
Shortly thereafter, the Byzantines attempted to form an alliance with the Pechenegs and the Serbs against Bulgaria. Enraged, Simeon took Adrianople. After luring the Serbian king and the Pecheneg chief to his side, Simeon fought a decisive, bloody battle on 20 August 917 by the river Achebi, between Anchialo and Messembria. The imperial army suffered a heavy defeat. The Byzantines were put to chaotic flight in which many were trampled or met death at the hands of their enemies, reads a chronicle by Scylitzes.
The victory further fuelled Simeon’s dream to become the lord of Bulgarians and Byzantines. He extolled himself as “Simeon, by the will of God lord of all Bulgarians and Byzantines”. Obsessed by his goal of domination, he marched against Byzantine towns and demolished them, posing an immediate threat to Constaninople. In his ambition to sit in the imperial palace, he sought an alliance with the Arabs and negotiated with the emperor, the patriarch and the pope. He vented his anger on Byzantium’s ally, the Serb prince, who after a short war was forced to cede part of his territory to Bulgaria. Even a defeat by the Croats did not discourage Simeon. It was at the height of the preparations for the storm of Constantinople that he died of a heart attack on 27 May, 927.
The incessant wars waged by Simeon the Great turned Bulgaria into the most powerful Slavic state in Europe. On the cultural side, an unprecedented upsurge was taking place in Preslav and Ohrid. Newly erected palaces and churches adorned the capital, which the contemporaries called Great Preslav. The famous ‘Preslav-style” tile work originated from this period. The highly educated ruler, perhaps the most enlightened monarch of Europe at the time, became a patron of arts and letters. Under his patronage the Bulgarian creative spirit drew the best of the cultural heritage of the neighboring Byzantium. This flourishing of Bulgarian culture became known as the Golden Age.
Simeon was closely involved in the activity of the Presbav literary circle. Its eminent members translated the best works of Byzantine theologists. The most distinguished writers among them were Joan Exarch (Six Days bishop Constantine (Evangelium), and a monk of the name of Hrabr, possibly Simeon himself (On the Letters) Their original works and educational activity raised Bulgaria to the heights of spiritual achievement. Its literary works were read by the other Slavic states as well. Apocrypha flourished too, based on biblical stories.
Old Bulgarian was firmly established as a language, contributing to the survival of the nation at least as much as the sword did, and to the fame of Tsar Simeon, rightfully called Bulgaria’s Charles the Great.
Tsar Ivan Asen II
The son of Kaloyan’s brother, Ivan Asen II, sat on the Turnovo throne from 1218 to 1241. Although his military undertakings were successful, he put under his scepter vast territories between the Black, the Aegean and the Adriatic Sea mainly through diplomatic moves. As a rule, the exchanges in these negotiations were his own marriages or the weddings of his daughters, whose feminine charms he obviously was able to sell at a good price. Allied by marriage with the Hungarian king, he received as dowry the Belgrade and Branichevo districts (today in Serbia), and his relationship with the Latins in Constantinople made him guardian of their underage emperor.
Bulgaria became again the most powerful state on the Peninsula - well administered, with a flourishing foreign trade, living in peace and exceptional religious tolerance. The Bulgarian church was once more recognized as an independent patriarchate.
In 1230, Ivan Asen was victorious in battle against the Byzantines near the village of Klokotnitza, when he fought the Byzantines belonging to a state known as the State of Epirus - in this battle Ivan Asen took their emperor Theodore Comnenus and his aristocrats prisoners, but set the thousands of ordinary soldiers free. This gesture, as well as his overall peace policy, accounted for the fact that, later, his death was lamented by everybody - no matter whether Bulgarians, Greeks, or other people from the neighboring countries.
Although the family of Ivan Asen II did not exist for a very long period as a Bulgarian dynasty, many of its members infused their blood in the veins of monarchs, hierarchs and aristocratic families, some of which, in Italy, for example, have their living representatives even today.
CYRILL AND METHODIUS AND THEIR FIVE DISCIPLES -THE SEVEN SAINTS
Today we have evidence of the names of only five of the personal disciples of Cyril and Methodius. These are Clement Ohridski /of Ohrid/, Naoum, Angelarius, Gorazd and Sava. Least are the data about SAINT SAVA. His name is mentioned only in the homily of Clement Ohridski, as well as in Tzar Boris’s Synodic of 1216, where Saint Sava is placed next to the other four disciples of the Solun brothers.
Supposedly, SAINT GORAZD was born in a rich aristocratic family in the lands of present-day Slovakia. In 885 Archbishop Methodius, on his death bed, named him as his successor. Since he belonged to the local feudal elite, Gorazd might have not been driven away by the German ecclesiastics. It is even possible that for a certain period of time he was archbishop. There exist some data, however, in evidence of Gorazd’s activity in the neighbourhood of Krakow, Poland, where his name is included in a 14th century church calendar (under the date of 17 July). It is interesting that in Slovakia today he is celebrated on the same day. What is more: the Slovaks consider Gorazd to be their first saint.
The persecutions and inquisitions they suffered from the German clergy, made the other three saints flee to Bulgaria, of which they “dreamt, thought and hoped to find peace in”. The Bulgarian governor of Belgrade (the capital of Serbia today) hurried to send them away to his sovereign Tsar Boris I, who, on his part, “yearned for such men”. It is known of Clement, Naoum, and Angelarius that they joined the apostles from Solun a long time before their mission to Greater Moravia started in 863, so that they were directly committed to the translation of liturgical books into Old Bulgarian. The first two of these are known to be Bulgarians, the third may be considered Bulgarian to a high degree of certainty.
It was not SAINT ANGELARIUS fate to engage in large-scale activities in the court of Tsar Boris I. Ruined by the persecutions in Greater Moravia, he died very soon in 886.
SAINT CLEMENT (about 838-916) was the eldest disciple of Cyrill and Methodius. According to his hagiology, he had worked together with them on the translation of the Bible and other liturgical texts. Not long after his return to Bulgaria, in 886-887 Tsar Boris I sent him in the Ohrid district, Macedonia. Here he baptized children, wrote lectures and sermons, taught the native people to cultivate their gardens, cured the sick, built churches and monasteries, for a period of seven years educated 3500 children in reading and writing.
In 893 he was consecrated bishop of the same district. He is author of 63 edifying and 26 laudatory homilies, of numerous hymnological works, services, etc. As put by his Greek hagiographer, archbishop Theophilactus, St. Clement of Ohrid “devised other representations of the letters, clearer that those devised by the wisest Cyrill”. This particular statement has provided an argument for many scholars to consider St. Clement to be the genuine author of the “clearer” Cyrillic script, while the Glagolitic alphabet was ascribed to his teacher Constantine-Cyrill, the Philosopher.
The place that remained vacant after Clement, was taken by SAINT NAOUM . Until then he had spent about seven years in the capital city of Preslav, where he fulfilled his mission similar to that of Clement in Macedonia. Naoum’s name is linked with the flourishing of a great literary school in the Bulgarian capital. In Macedonia he lived until his death in 910 at an advanced age. Saint Clement outlived him by six years. The relics of the illustrious bishop have been preserved in a monastery in the town of Ber, Greece.
The memory of the apostolic activity of St. Clement and St. Naoum is still alive in the surroundings of Ohrid. Churches, monasteries and other material remains, as well as tales and legends, are the immediate evidence of their righteous and noble deeds. Even nowadays the names of Clement and Naoum are favourite Christian names among the native population.
In fact, for more than 1100 years now Bulgarian people of all generations have venerated the work of Clement, Naoum, Angelarius, Gorazd and Sava. Each one of them has a holiday celebrated by the Bulgarian Church tradition. Moreover, these five men, together with the two brothers from Solun, are honored each year on 27 July, and their festival is called the day of the Seven Saints /Sveti Sedmochislenitzi/. In the Church of the same name, part of St. Clement’s hand has been kept as an invaluable relic.
In 1979 Pope John Paul II pronounced the creators of the Slavic alphabet, the two Bulgarians Sts. Cyrill and Methodius, patrons of Europe. And this is the greatest, though symbolic recognition of Bulgarian contribution to European civilization.
Each year, on May 24 in Bulgaria, we celebrate the brothers St. Cyrill and St. Methodius and this is a magnificent day of Bulgarian and Slavic writing and culture, unique in the world. “Let May 24 become an international day of culture in the name of a better future of humanity.”
Prof. Rodo Lenchik, Columbia University, New York