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Medieval Bulgarian state

1246 - 1371

The span between 1185 and 1241 marked the notable rise of the Bulgarian state. At the end of this period it seemed the only formation in Eastern Europe capable of uniting its population both against the expansion of the Asian barbarians and the advance of the Catholic West. However, the rise days were over and a period of decline of no smaller proportion set in. After the death of Ivan Assen II the throne went twice to his juvenile sons - Kaloyan (1241-1246) and Mikhail Assen (1246-1256). Court intrigues, plots, coups and counter-coups took hold of the country in the absence of a strong hand on the throne to rule it. The inept foreign policy of the regents led to serious territorial waste. The Bulgarian state was losing territories all over. After 1253 Mikhail Assen, no longer a child, made an attempt to restore the status quo. The young Bulgarian tsar was successful in the beginning, but in 1256 he was murdered in a court plot. The new Bulgarian tsar Constantine Tikh (1256-1277) did not manage to veer round. In 1263 his army was defeated by the army of the Byzantine empire which was back on its feet since 1261 and Bulgaria lost the southern Black Sea littoral. Now weaker, Bulgaria fell an easier prey to the Tatars who immediately resumed their vigorous raids against its surviving territories. Constantine Tikh was mentally broken by the defeats. He retired into himself behind the walls of Turnovo, leaving the country to the mercy of fate.

In that extremely critical situation the best features of the Bulgarian people became apparent. The commanders of the provincial regiments applied relentless tactics and showed no mercy in organizing their own resistance against the barbarians who had, until that time, broken the backs of China, India, Russia, Hungary and Poland. All inhabitants of the country and the supplies of food and accoutrements were put up safe in the fortresses. The ravenous Tatars were not good at taking fortresses, so they lost many lives in attempting to get in there. In the dark of the night, the Bulgarians used to get out of the forts and slaughter hundreds of them prowling after food.

In 1277 a man, Ivailo by name, took the masterminding of the resistance against the Tatars in his hands. According to some sources he was a simple farmer, and according to others he was a boyar and keeper of the fortress of Ovech (present-day Provadia). Gradually exhausted the Tatar armies, Ivailo had all regional military divisions join forces, and then carried out the decisive battle against the trespassers. Soon they were defeated and driven out of the Bulgarian lands. Ivailo was crowned tsar but, only three years later, he was murdered in fresh internecine battle for the throne. George Terter was proclaimed tsar. Seven years later he was forced to submit to becoming a vassal of the Tatar khan. The latter did not venture to invade Bulgaria. The reign of the next tsar Smilets (1292-1298) was even more impersonal and humiliating. Upon his death, the Bulgarian throne went straight to Chaka, the son of Nogai - khan of the Mongol Golden horde. Yet, no Tatar troops dared step on Bulgarian land. Bulgaria was, all the same, at the nadir of its political decline.

In the year 1300 Svetoslav Terter (1300-1322), the son of tsar George Terter, saw his chance in the rampant internecine conflict in the khanate of the Tatars, deposed the Tatar from the Bulgarian throne and proclaimed himself as a Bulgarian tsar. With a firm hand, the young and vigorous Bulgarian ruler put an end to the boyar ruinous skirmishes, eliminated through negotiations the Tatar threat, and started fighting for the recovery of the Bulgarian territories lost hitherto. After decades being on the defensive, the Bulgarian state was back on the offensive against Byzantium. As a results of a winning war between 1304-1308, the Bulgarians retrieved the southern Black Sea littoral and eastern Thrace. The Bulgarian foreign policy established fruitful political and economic contacts with Venice and Genoa. Its relations with all Balkan neighbors improved, too.

The measures to restore the Bulgarian state organism had yielded good results. It was comparatively easy for Bulgaria to over-come the dynasty crises of 1322 and 1330. Similar situations in the past had invariably led to lingering stagnation and to an ultimate headlong decline. In 1331 Ivan Alexander came to the throne and ruled Bulgaria for forty years, a political longevity unattained by any other sovereign of Bulgaria after the restoration of its independence in 1185.

At the very beginning of his reign, tsar Ivan Alexander struck with awe Byzantium - Bulgaria's eternal rival in the Balkans. Invading Byzantine troops were stopped and defeated in the vicinity of Russocastro fortress, not far from the big modern Bulgarian port of Burgas. A long period of peace, confirmed by dynastic marriages set in. The relations with the new Balkan power, the kingdom of Serbia founded in the year 1300, were handled in the same pattern. Peace treaties covering the whole range of relations had also been signed with the Venetians and the Genoese.

The successful foreign policy of Bulgaria was no help in stopping the creeping feudal fragmentation of its territory. A number of local feudal governors in Macedonia, Thrace, Moesia and Dobrudja had gradually become independent landlords with purely formal connections with the central authorities in Turnovo. Tsar Ivan Alexander himself gave an example to this end. In 1356 he separated off Vidin from the Bulgarian monarchy and set up his son Ivan Sratsimir as a ruler there. Although the governors of the Bulgarian feudal possessions had never been in obvious conflict with the monarch, their independent foreign policy was not always in line with the sovereign interests of the Bulgarian state, to say nothing of the numerous occasions of strife and collision between the various Bulgarian, Byzantine, Serbian, Wallach and Hungarian feudal possessions in the middle of the 14th century, which had largely contributed to the impermissible depletion of the demographic and economic potentialities of the Christian East.


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