History of the Bulgarian Empire

The First Bulgarian Empire was a medieval Bulgarian state founded in AD 632 in the lands near the Danube Delta and disintegrated in AD 1018 after its annexation to the Byzantine Empire. At the height of its power it spread between Budapest and the Black Sea and from the Dnieper river in modern Ukraine to the Adriatic. It was succeeded by the Second Bulgarian Empire, established in 1185. The official name of the country since its very foundation was Bulgaria. The Empire played a major role in European politics and was one of the strongest military powers of its time. In 717-718 the coalition of Byzantines and Bulgarians decisively defeated the Arabs in the siege of Constantinople thus saving Eastern Europe from the threat of an Arab invasion and Muslim conquest of Europe, and later destroyed the Avar Khanate expanding its territory to the Pannonian Plain and the Tatra Mountains. Bulgaria served as an effective shield against the constant invasions of nomadic peoples from the east in the so called second wave of the Great Migration. Pechenegs and Cumans were stopped in north-eastern Bulgaria and after a decisive victory over the Magyars in 896 they were forced to retreate to and permanently settle down in Pannonia. To the south in course of the Byzantine-Bulgarian Wars the Bulgarians incorporated most of Slavic-populated region of Thrace and Macedonia. After the annihilation of the Byzantine army in the battle of Anchialus in 917 the Byzantine Empire was on the edge of destruction. The Bulgars brought new construction and battle techniques to Europe. The first Bulgarian cities were made of large monolith stones unlike the Roman brick-build fortresses. With an area of 27 kmē the capital Pliska was among the largest towns in Europe. The Inner town had a sewerage and floor heating long before cities such as Paris and London. After the adoption of Christianity in 864 Bulgaria became the cultural center of Slavic Europe. Its leading cultural position was further consolidated with the invention of the Cyrillic alphabet in Preslav, which some credit to the Bulgarian scholar Clement of Ohrid. According to some historians the schools of Preslav and Ohrid were the second universities in Europe after the University of Constantinople.

During the time of the late Roman Empire, the lands of present-day Bulgaria had been organised in several provinces - Scythia Minor, Moesia (Upper and Lower), Thrace, Macedonia (First and Second), Dacia (south of the Danube), Dardania, Rhodope and Hemimont, and had a mixed population of Romanised Getae and Hellenised Thracians. During the Hunnic Invasions of Central and Eastern Europe, Turkic groups named Bulgars settled in the region. Several consecutive waves of Slavic migration throughout the 6th and the early 7th century led to the almost complete slavicisation of the region, at least linguistically.

Little is known about the origins of the Bulgars that reached the Balkan peninsula in the 7th century because during the ages the original Bulgars melted into the local population of what is nowadays Bulgaria. The established theory is that the Bulgars are related to the Huns and originated in Central Asia but their ethnicity is not entirely clear. Clues for this can be found in the advanced calendar and system of government of the early Bulgars. Nevertheless the so called "Hun theory" is still vehemently supported by some historians who base their thesis on a lot of existing documents and sources. In Nominalia of the Bulgarian khans, a late copy of an ancient document, is written that the first ruler of the Bulgars was Avitohol and the second Irnik. Irnik or Ernakh is the name of Attila's youngest son therefore some historians believe that Avitohol was no other than Attila the Hun.

It is assumed that the Bulgars were governed by hereditary khans. The only similar title found so far is kanasubigi and it was used by only four of the Bulgarian rulers, namely Krum, Omurtag, Malamir and Presian, which were respectively a grandfather, son, grandson and a nephew of Malamir, and after them the title disappears. Other similar but non-kingly titles were attested among Bulgarian noble class and these are kavkan (vicekhan), tarkan, and boritarkan. Starting from there (if there was a vicekhan (kavkhan) so there was a khan, too) the scholars assume the title khan for the early Bulgarian leader. Later iscriptions speak of archonts (a Greek title) and knyaze (a Slavic title). There were several (probably more than 100) aristocratic families whose members, called boila (boyars) who bore military titles and formed a governing class. The religion of the Bulgars is also obscure but it is supposed that it was monotheistic, worshipping the Turkic Sky god Tangra. There is only one mentioning of Tangra in the 8 century inscription near the Madara Rider. All other sources simply talk about Bog, the Slavic and Aryan word for God. More confusingly some Bulgar rulers, renowned for their persecution of Christians were depicted with Christian state symbols. The migration of Bulgars to the European continent started as early as the 2nd century AD when branches of Bulgars settled on the plains between the Caspian and the Black Sea. Between AD 351 and 389, some of these crossed the Caucasus and settled in Armenia. They were eventually assimilated by the Armenians. Swept by the Hunnish wave at the beginning of the 4th century AD, other numerous Bulgarian tribes broke loose from their settlements in central Asia to migrate to the fertile lands along the lower valleys of the Donets and the Don rivers and the Azov seashore. Some of these remained for centuries in their new settlements, whereas others moved on with the Huns towards Central Europe, settling in Pannonia. In the 6th and 7th century, the Bulgars formed an independent state, often called Great Bulgaria, between the lower course of the Danube to the west, the Black and the Azov Seas to the south, the Kuban river to the east, and the Donets river to the north. The capital of the state was Phanagoria, on the Azov. The pressure from peoples further east (such as the Khazars) led to the dissolution of Great Bulgaria in the second half of the 7th century. One Bulgar tribe migrated to the confluence of the Volga and Kama Rivers in what is now Tatarstan, Russia. They converted to Islam in the beginning in the 10th century and maintained an independent state until the 13th century. Smaller Bulgar tribes seceded in Pannonia and in Italy, northwest of Naples, while other Bulgars sought refuge with the Lombards. Another group of Bulgars remained in the land north of the Black and the Azov Seas. They were, however, soon subdued by the Khazars. These Bulgars converted to Judaism in the 9th century, along with the Khazars, and were eventually assimilated.

There are two different dates for the year of establishment of present-day Bulgaria, based upon two different interpretations of history. Yet another Bulgar tribe, led by Khan Asparuh, moved westward, occupying today's southern Bessarabia. After a successful war with Byzantium in AD 680, Asparuh's khanate conquered Moesia and Dobrudja and was recognised as an independent state under the subsequent treaty signed with the Byzantine Empire in AD 681. The same year is usually regarded as the year of the establishment of present-day Bulgaria.

After the decisive victory at Ongala in 680 the armies of the Bulgars and Slavs advanced to the south of the Balkan mountains, defeating again the Byzantines who were then forced to sign a humiliating peace treaty which acknowledged the establishment of a new state on the borders of the Empire. They were also to pay an annual tribute to Bulgaria. In the same time the war with the Khazars to the east continued and in 700 Asparough perished in battle with them. The Bulgars lost the territories to the east of the Dnester river but managed to hold the lands to the west. The Bulgars and the Slavs signed a treaty according to which the head of the state became the Khan of the Bulgars who had also the obligation to defend the country against the Byzantine, while the Slavic leaders gained considerable autonomy and had to protect the northern borders along the Carpathian mountains against the Avars. Asparough's successor, Tervel helped the deposed Byzantine Emperor Justinian II to regain his throne in 705. In return he was given the area Zagore in northern Thrace which was the first expansion of the country to the south of the Balkan mountains. However, three years later Justinian tried to take it back by force but his army was defeated at Anchialus. In 716 Tervel signed a trade agreement with Byzantium. During the siege of Constantinople in 717-718 he sent 50,000 troops to help the besieged city. In the decisive battle the Bulgarians massacred around 30,000 Arabs and Tervel was called The saviour of Europe by his contemporaries.

In 753 died Khan Sevar who was the last scion of the Dulo clan. With his death the Khanate fell into a long political crisis during which the young country was on the verge of destruction. For just 15 years ruled 7 Khans who were all murdered. There were two main fractions; some nobles wanted uncompromising war against the Byzantines while others searched for a peaceful settlement of the conflict. That instability was used by the Byzantine Emperor Constantine V (745-775) who launched nine major campaigns aiming at the elimination of Bulgaria. In 763 he defeated the Bulgarian Khan Telets at Anchialus but the Byzantines were unable to advance further north. In 775 Khan Telerig, by tricking Constantine to reveal those loyal to him in the Bulgarian Court, executed all the Byzantine spies in the capital Pliska. Under his successor Kardam, the war took a favourable turn after the great victory in the battle of Marcelae in 792. The Byzantines were thoroughly defeated and forced once again to pay tribute to the Khans. As a result of the victory, the crisis was finally overwhelmed and Bulgaria entered the new century stable, stronger and consolidated.

Under the great Khan Krum (803-814), also known as Crummus and Keanus Magnus, Bulgaria expanded northwest and southwards, occupying the lands between middle Danube and Moldova, the whole territory of present-day Romania, Sofia in 809 and Adrianople (modern Odrin) in 813, and threatening Constantinople itself. Between 804 and 806 the Bulgarian armies thoroughly eliminated the Avar Khanate and a border with the Frankish Empire was established along the middle Danube. In 811 a large Byzantine army was decisively defeated in the battle of the Varbitsa Pass. The Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I was slain along with most of his troops. Krum immediately took the initiative and moved the war towards Thrace, defeating the Byzantines once more at Versinikia in 813. After a treacherous Byzantine attempt to kill the Khan during negotiations, Krum pillaged the whole of Thrace, seized Odrin and resettled its 10,000 inhabitants in "Bulgaria across the Danube". Due to the sudden death of the great Khan, however, the campaign was never launched. Khan Krum implemented law reform intending to reduce the poverty and to strengthen the social ties in his vastly enlarged state. During the reign of Khan Omurtag (814-831), the northwestern boundaries with the Frankish Empire were firmly settled along the middle Danube by the 827 and magnificent palace, pagan temples, ruler's residence, fortress, citadel, water-main and bath were built in Bulgarian capital Pliska, mainly of stone and brick.

During the short reign of Malamir (831-836) the important city of Plovdiv was incorporated into the country. Under Khan Presian (836-852), the Bulgarians took most of Macedonia and the borders of the country reached the Adriatic and Aegean Seas.

It is assumed that The Bulgars were greatly outnumbered by the Slav population among whom they had settled. Between the 7th and the 10th centuries, the Bulgars were gradually absorbed by the Slavs, adopting a Bulgaro-South Slav language and converting to Christianity (of the Byzantine rite) under Boris I in 864. At that time the process of absorption of the remnants of the old Romanised Thracian population from south of the Danube had already been significant in the formation of this new ethnic group. Modern Bulgarians are normally considered to be of Southern Slavic origin, even though the Slavs were only one of the peoples that took part in the formation of their ethnicity.

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The reign of Boris I (852-889) began with numerous setbacks. For ten years the country fought against the Byzantine and Eastern Frankish Empires, Great Moravia, the Croats and the Serbs forming several unsuccessful alliances and changing sides. In August 863 there was a period of 40 days of earthquakes and there was a lean year which caused famine throughout the country.

In 864 the Byzantines under Michael III invaded Bulgaria on suspicions that Khan Boris I prepared to accept Christianity in accordance with the Western rites. Upon the news of the invasion, Boris I started negotiations for peace. The Byzantines returned some lands in Macedonia and their single demand was that he accept Christianity from Constantinople rather than Rome. Khan Boris agreed to that term and was baptised in September 865 assuming the name of his godfather, Byzantine Emperor Michael. The pagan title "Khan" was abolished and the title "Knyaz" assumed in its place. The reason for the conversion to Christianity, however, was not the Byzantine invasion. The Bulgarian ruler was indeed a man of vision and he foresaw that the introduction of a single religion would complete the consolidation of the emerging Bulgarian nation which was still divided on a religious basis. He also knew that his state was not fully respected by Christian Europe and its treaties could have been ignored by other signatories on religious basis.

The Byzantines' goal was to achieve with peace what they were unable to after two centuries of warfare: to slowly absorb Bulgaria through the Christian religion and turn it into a satellite state, as naturally, the highest posts in the newly founded Bulgarian Church were to be held by Byzantines who preached in the Greek language. Boris was well aware of that fact and after Constantinople refused to grant autonomy of the Bulgarian Church in 866 he sent a delegation to Rome declaring his desire to accept Christianity in accordance with the Western rites along with 115 questions to Pope Nicolas I. The Bulgarian ruler desired to take advantage of the rivalry between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople as his main goal was the establishment of an independent Bulgarian Church in order to prevent both the Byzantines and the Catholics from exerting influence in his lands through religion. However, Nicolas I and his successor Pope Adrian II also refused to recognize an autonomous Bulgarian Church which cooled the relations between the two sides but Bulgaria's shift towards Rome made the Byzantines much more conciliatory. In 870, at the Fourth Council of Constantinople, the Bulgarian Church was recognized as an Autonomous Eastern Orthodox Church under the supreme direction of the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Although the Bulgarian Knyaz succeeded in securing an autonomous Church, its higher clergy and theological books were still Greek which impeded the efforts to convert the populace to the new religion. Between 860 and 863 the Byzantine monks of Slavic origin Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius created the Glagolitic alphabet, the first Slavic alphabet by order of the Byzantine Emperor, who aimed to convert Great Moravia to Orthodox Christianity. However these attempts failed and in 886 their disciples Clement of Ohrid, Naum of Preslav and Angelarius, who were banished from Great Moravia, reached Bulgaria and were warmly welcomed by Boris I. The Bulgarian Knyaz commissioned the creation of two theological academies to be headed by the disciples where the future Bulgarian clergy was to be instructed in the local vernacular. Clement was sent to Ohrid in southwestern Bulgaria where he taught 3,500 pupils between 886 and 893. Naum established the literary school in the capital Pliska, moved later to the new capital Preslav. In 893, Bulgaria adopted the Glagolitic alphabet and Old Church Slavonic (Old Bulgarian) language as official language of the church and state and expelled the Byzantine clergy. In the early 10th century the Cyrillic alphabet was created at the Preslav Literary School.

Simeon sends envoys to the Fatimid Chaliph to form an alliance against the Byzantines. The two sides were close to an agreement but on their way back the Bulgarian delegats were captured by the Byzantines who managed to distract the Arabs from that alliance. By the late 9th and the beginning of the 10th century, Bulgaria extended to Epirus and Thessaly in the south, Bosnia in the west and controlled the whole of present-day Romania and eastern Hungary to the north. A Serbian state came into existence as a dependency of the Bulgarian Empire and was later fully subordinated under the general and possibly Count of Sofia Marmais. Under Tsar Simeon I (Simeon the Great), who was educated in Constantinople, Bulgaria became again a serious threat to the Byzantine Empire and reached its greatest territorial extension. Simeon hoped to take Constantinople and fought a series of wars with the Byzantines throughout his long reign (893-927). The border close to the end of his rule reached Peloponnese in the south. Simeon styled himself "Emperor (Tsar) of the Bulgarians and Autocrat of the Greeks", a title which was recognized by the Pope, but not of course by the Byzantine Emperor nor the The Ecumenical Patriarch of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He was recognized "Emperor (Tsar) of the Bulgarians" by the Byzantine Emperor and the Patriarch only at the end of his rule. Between 894 and 896 he defeated the Byzantines and their allies the Magyars in the so called "Trade War" because the pretext of the war was the shifting of the Bulgarian market from Constantinople to Solun. In the decisive battle of Bulgarophygon the Byzantine army was routed and the war ended with favourable for Bulgaria peace which was, however, often violated by Simeon. In 904 he captured Solun which was previously looted by the Arabs and returned it to the Byzantines only after Bulgaria received all Slavic-populated areas in Macedonia and 20 fortress in Albania including the important town Drach. After the unrest in the Byzantine Empire that followed the death of Emperor Alexander in 913 Simeon invaded Byzantine Thrace but was persuaded to stop in return for official recognition of his Imperial title and marriage of his daughter to the infant Emperor Constantine VII. After a plot in the Byzantine court Empress Zoe rejected the marriage and his title and both sides prepared for a decisive battle. By 917 Simeon broke every attempts of his enemy to form an alliance with the Magyars, the Pechenegs and the Serbs and Byzantines were forced to fight alone. On 20 August the two armies clashed at Anchialus in one of the greatest battles in the Middle Ages. The Byzantines suffered an unprecedented defeat leaving 70,000 killed on the battlefield. The pursuing Bulgarian forces defeated the reminder of the enemy armies at Katasyrtai. However, Constantinople was saved by a Serb attack from the west; the Serbs were thoroughly defeated but that gave precious time for the Byzantine admiral and later Emperor Romanos Lakepanos to prepare the defense of the city. In the following decade the Bulgarians gained control of the whole Balkan peninsula with the exception of Constantinople and Pelopones.

After Simeon's death, however, Bulgarian power slowly declined. In a peace treaty in 927 the Byzantines officially recognized the Imperial title of his son Peter I and the Bulgarian Patriarchate. The peace with Byzantium did not bring prosperity to Bulgaria. In the beginning of his rule the new Emperor had internal problems and unrest with his brothers and in 930s was forced to recognize the independence of Rascia. The main blow came from the north: between 934 and 965 the country suffered five Magyar invasions. In 944 Bulgaria was attacked by the Pechenegs who looted the north eastern regions of the Empire. Under Peter I and Boris II the country was divided by the egalitarian religious heresy of the Bogomils. In 968 the country was attacked by Kievan Rus, whose leader, Svyatoslav I, took Preslav and established his capital at Preslavets. Three years later, Byzantine Emperor John I Tzimiskes interfered into the struggle and defeated Svyatoslav at Dorostolon. After that, Boris II was deceived and solemnly dethroned at Constantinople and eastern Bulgaria was proclaimed a Byzantine protectorate.

After the Byzantine betrayal the lands to the west of the Iskar river remained free and the resistance against the Byzantines was headed by the Comitopuli brothers. By 976 the forth brother Samuil concentrated the whole power in his hands after the deaths of his eldest brothers. When the rightful heir to the throne, Roman, escaped from captivity in Constantinople, he was recognized for Emperor by Samuil in Vidin and the later remained the chief commander of the Bulgarian army. Brilliant general and good politician, he managed to turn the fortunes to the Bulgarians. The new Byzantine Emperor Basil II was decisively defeated in the battle of the Gates of Trajan in 986 and barely escaped. Five years later he eliminated the Serbian state. In 997 after the death of Roman who was the last from the Krum dynasty Samuil was proclaimed Emperor of Bulgaria. However, after 1001 the war turned in favour of the Byzantines who captured the old capitals Pliska and Preslav in the same year and from 1004 launched annual campaigns against Bulgaria. They were eased by a war between Bulgaria and the newly established Kingdom of Hungary 1003. In 1014 Emperor Basil II defeated the armies of Tsar Samuil in the Battle of Belasitsa and massacred thousands, acquiring the title "Bulgar-slayer" (Voulgaroktonos). He ordered 14,000 Bulgarian prisoners blinded and sent back to their country. At the sight of his returning armies Samuil suffered a heart attack and died. By 1018 the country had been mostly subjugated by the Byzantines.

The Second Bulgarian Empire was a medieval Bulgarian state which existed between 1185 and 1396 (or 1422). A successor of the First Bulgarian Empire, it reached the peak of its power under Kaloyan and Ivan Asen II before gradually declining to be conquered by the Ottomans in the late 14th-early 15th century.

The Byzantines ruled Bulgaria from 1018, when they conquered the First Bulgarian Empire, to 1185, although initially it was not fully integrated into the Byzantine Empire, for example preserving the existing tax levels and the power of the low-ranking nobility. The independent Bulgarian Orthodox Church was subordinated to the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople, and the Bulgarian aristocracy and tsar's relatives were given various Byzantine titles and transferred to the Asian parts of the Empire. There were rebellions against Byzantine rule in 1040-41, the 1070s and the 1080s, but these failed.

By the late 12th century the Byzantines were in decline after a series of wars with the Hungarians and the Serbs. In 1185 Peter and Asen (described in contemporary accounts as Vlachs) led a revolt against Byzantine rule and Peter declared himself Tsar Peter II (also known as Theodore Peter), firmly claiming to inherit the authority of the First Bulgarian Empire. After little more than a year of warfare the Byzantines were forced to acknowledge Bulgaria's independence, though fighting continued. The peoples who took part in the rebellion and formed part of the new state certainly included Slavic-speaking Bulgarians and, alongside them, Cumans, Vlachs and Greeks: Peter styled himself "Tsar of the Bulgars, Greeks and Vlachs".

Resurrected Bulgaria occupied the territory between the Black Sea, the Danube and Stara Planina, including a part of eastern Macedonia and the valley of the Morava. It also exercised control over Wallachia and Moldova.

Tsar Kaloyan (1197=1207) entered a union with the Papacy, thereby securing the recognition of his title of "Rex" although he desired to be recognized as "Emperor" or "Tsar". He waged wars on the Byzantine Empire and (after 1204) on the Knights of the Fourth Crusade, conquering large parts of Thrace, the Rhodopes, as well as the whole of Macedonia. He decisively defeated the Latins in the Battle of Adrianople (1205) and thus crushed their power in the very first year of its creation and prevented their influnce on the larger parts of the Balkans. The power of the Hungarians and to some extent the Serbs prevented significant expansion to the west and northwest.

After the death of Kaloyan during the reign of his cousin Boril (1207-1218), the country lost significant territories to Hungary, the Latin Empire and the Despotate of Epirus. Under Ivan Asen II (1218-1241), Bulgaria once again became a regional power, liberating the lost lands and occupying Odrin and Albania. After the major success at Klokotnitsa in 1230 the Epirus Despotate became a vassal tributary to Bulgaria.

Under Ivan II's successors, Bulgaria once again declined. The Mongols raided the Balkans in the early 13th century, devastating Bulgaria in 1242, and Bulgaria was forced to pay tribute to the Khans of the Golden Horde. After 1246 the Empire Nicaea annexed Macedonia, Rhodope mountains and part of Thrace. The Hungarian kingdom occupied the province of Belgrade. Gradually Bulgaria lost control and traditional significant political influence over Wallachia, where the power of the regional nobles was strengthened and subsequently were established local principalities. By the reign of Michael II Asen 1246-1256, Bulgaria was reduced to a small state on the south bank of the lower Danube. Under Constantine I Tikh the country lost Macedonia and the crisis drove to peasant war, raised by the swineherd Ivailo, who managed to sit on the Bulgarian throne from 1277 to 1280. Ivailo achieved great military success against the external enemies: defeated the Byzantines in two major battles and temporarily drove away the Tatars from the northeastern parts of the Empire. However, he failed to cope with the aristocracy and was later killed. The Tatar hegemony continued to 1300, when their khan Toktu ceded Bessarabia the new Bulgarian Emperor Theodore Svetoslav and stopped taking tribute. This had positive economic effect. During the reign of Theodore Svetoslav Bulgaria regained much of its former strength and prestige. After a successful war against Byzantium he signed peace with continued to his death in 1322.

The withdrawal of the Mongols from Europe in the early 14th century stabilized the situation in the Balkans and Bulgaria reassumed something like its modern borders. But Bulgaria was threatened by the rising powers of Hungary to the north and Serbia to the west. In 1330 the Bulgarians under Michael III were heavily defeated by the Serbs at Velbuzhd, and some parts of the Empire came under Serbian sway. Under Ivan IV (Ivan Alexander) 1331-1372 Serbian threat was ended and the Byzantines were defeated at Rusokastro. The territorial expansion included the Rhodope mountains and several important towns on the Black Sea coast. This was a period known as Second Golden Age because of the thriving culture. Eventually after his death Bulgaria was left divided into rival states; one of the two largest ones was based at Veliko Turnovo and the other at Vidin, ruled by Ivan's two sons. The two brothers and despot Dobrotitsa from the Principality of Carvuna did not make an attempt to unite and they were even engaged in a military conflict for Sofia. Weakened Bulgaria was thus no match for a new threat from the south, the Ottoman Turks, who crossed into Europe in 1354. In 1362 they captured Philippopolis (Plovdiv), and in 1382 they took Sofia. The Ottomans then turned their attention to the Serbs, whom they routed at Kosovo Polje in 1389. In 1393 the Ottomans occupied Turnovo after a three-month siege. It is thought that the south gate was opened from inside and so the Ottomans managed to enter the fortress. In the next year the Ottomans captured the Carvuna Principality and Nikopol the last town of the Turnovo Tsardom fell in 1395. Next year the Kingdom of Vidin was also occupied, bringing the Second Bulgarian Empire and Bulgarian independence to an end.

The supreme power in the country belonged to the Emperor. His official title was: "In Christ God faithful Emperor and Autocrat of all Bulgarians" which often included "Greeks". The most significant meaning was that he was Emperor of the whole Bulgarian people, even to those beyond the borders of the Empire. The legislative and executive powers were concentrated in his hands. If the heir of the ruler was under age, the regency was headed by the mother-Empress. The Bolyar Counsel, called also Sinklit included the Great Bolyars and the Patriarch. Their task was to discuss important questions about the external and internal policy such as declaration of war, formation of alliance or signing peace. The last word always belonged to the Emperor. Sometimes Counsels with extended members were assembled, where the nobility, the clergy and "the other people" usually gathered to discuss condemnation of heresies: 1211, 1350, 1360. The only right the ordinary people had was to approve the decisions made by the nobility. The main administrative unit in 13-14th centuries was hora which replaced the komitat from the First Bulgarian Empire.

The Medieval Bulgarian economy did not differ much from the other Eastern European states and relied mainly on agriculture, mining, traditional crafts and trade.

The main agricultural regions of the country were the Danubian plain and Thrace. The most widespread grains were wheat, barley and millet. From the 13th century the importance of vegetables, orchards and grapes grew. The main wine-producing areas were the Black Sea coast, along the Struma, southern Macedonia. Livestock breeding was well developed. There were many sheep, pigs and cattle.

The 12th-14th centuries gave a strong impetus to metallurgy and mining. Bulgarian smiths produced hammers, pliers, axes, saws, looms; different arms and armours. In the 13th century Saxon miners, who made ore extracting more efficient and introduced new mining methods, arrived in western Bulgaria. They inhabited mainly the regions of Chiprovtsi and Kyustendil. There used to be gold mines in the Eastern Rhodopes. About 50 different types of handicraft were known in Medieval Bulgaria, the most important being leathermaking, shoemaking, carpentry, weaving; production of food and drinks (bread, butter, cheese, wine).

In the 13th and 14th centuries Bulgaria became a thriving cultural centre. The flowering of the Turnovo school of art was related to the construction of palaces and churches, to literary activity in the royal court and the monasteries, and to the development of handicrafts.

In the 14th century many new monasteries were built under the patronage of Ivan Alexander on the northern slopes of Stara Planina, especially around the capital and in the area of Sofia, which was nicknamed "Second Athon". The numerous monasteries across the Empire were the very centre of the cultural, educational and spiritual life of the Bulgarian society. Ather the mid 14th centuries, many monasteries began to build fortifications under the thread of Tukr invasions, such as the famous Tower of Hrelyu in the Rila monastery. There used to be perfectly organised defensive network of fortresses which consisted of several lines along the Danube, the Balkan mountains, the Rhodope, the coast. The main fortress was Turnovo which was virtually impregnable and was never conquered by force. Other major castles included Vidin, Silistra, Cherven, Lovech, Sofia, Plovdiv, Lyutitsa, Ustra and many others.

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