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Country of the Week: Bulgaria

In Countries by Continental StaffLeave a Comment

This week we’re visiting a hugely engrossing and sometimes overlooked European country – Bulgaria. With two empires to its name, and centuries of history and war, it’s going to be quite the trip!

  • Capital (and Largest City): Sofia
  • Population (2015): 7,153,784 (101st)
  • Total Area: 110,994 km² (105th)
  • Official Language: Bulgarian
  • Currency: Bulgarian lev (лв.) (BGN)
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St. Alexander Nevsky Cathedral in Sofia

History of Bulgaria

From antiquity through most of the classical period, Bulgaria was under the sway of nearby powers and empires. This included the vast Persian Empire around the 6th century BCE and later both Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire. Following the collapse of Western Rome, Bulgaria was left to the Byzantines, a time that also saw Christianity arrive in the country. Slavic peoples settled here as well, mixing with the existing Thracians and providing the beginnings of the ethnic makeup of the modern country.

The First Bulgarian Empire

In the late 7th century CE, the Bulgar people moved south and established a capital in the region. After suing for peace with the Byzantines, a Bulgarian Empire was born. The country made great strides over the next couple centuries, including a decisive victory over the Byzantines at the Battle of Pliska. Here, the Khan of Bulgaria (Krum) led his army and killed Nikephoros (the Byzantine Emperor) – thereby increasing the country’s territory twofold. Eastern Orthodox Christianity continued to find a place amongst the people, while subsequent rulers increased the country’s land even more (especially during the Golden Age of Simeon the Great’s reign). However, the Byzantine’s struck back and in 1018 had won enough victories to formally end the First Bulgarian Empire.

The Second Bulgarian Empire

The Byzantines (under Basel II) granted benefits to the people of Bulgaria in an effort to stave off rebellion. Following the emperor’s death, Bulgarian nobles (namely the Asen dynasty) led an uprising and soon established a Second Empire based out of Tarnovo. The Asen dynasty increased the wealth of the country greatly, while the cultural arts flourished. In many ways, Tarnovo and Bulgaria were compared positively to Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire – which were in decline. However, the end of the Asen dynasty soon gave way to internal squabbles, which then opened the door for a nearby power to take advantage.

Ottoman Bulgaria

In 1393, the Ottoman Turks captured Tarnovo and soon claimed the rest of the country – doing away with the Bulgarian nobility. Christians were heavily taxed and national identity dwindled under the Islamic empire. For nearly 500 years, the Ottomans held sway in the country – putting down revolts and uprisings wherever they occurred. It took until the 1700’s for a proper independence movement to come about – which resulted due to a national enlightenment (part of an awakening throughout Europe). After a massacre by Ottoman forces, other major European powers looked for a solution. When the Ottoman’s refused their council, the Russian Empire defeated the Ottomans – with aid from Bulgarian volunteers.

The Bulgarian State and War

The following treaty resulted in an independent Bulgaria with much of its former lands intact. This lasted all of a few months, until the other Great Powers broke up the country for fear of a new regional force in the Balkans – and thereby sowing the seeds of an ‘us against them’ mentality amongst the Bulgarian people and government. As a result, Bulgaria began to militarize quickly, winning regional wars and claiming nearby land. WWI however was trying for the country’s pride and economy – as they fought on the side of the losing Central Powers.

The trials faced by the country following the war led to the rise of the authoritarian Tsar Boris III. When WWII kicked off, Bulgaria was a member of the Axis Powers. Despite this, the country didn’t participate in the invasion of the Soviet Union and was able to stop the deportation of its Jewish people. When Boris died, chaos took over. Eventually, the communist Fatherland Front seized power in a coup and declared for the Allies near the end of the war.

Modern Bulgaria

During the Cold War, Bulgaria was a member of the Eastern Bloc (though not part of the USSR). While initially very repressive, reforms and a loosening of restrictions occurred during the 1950’s – which led to a higher standard of living and later economic success (though there were still occasional speed bumps). Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, a new parliamentary democracy was formed and elections were held – with the socialists (the reformed communists) winning.

Throughout the 1990’s, the country suffered through economic stagnation and was generally worse off than before. However, as the country entered the new millennia, things began to change. Soon, Bulgaria was a member of both NATO and the European Union. While there are consistent concerns about government corruption, Bulgaria appears to be headed in the right direction.

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A windmill in Nesebar, along the Black Sea coast

Bulgarian Culture

The culture of Bulgaria comes mainly from its three historical ethnic influences – Thracian, Slavic, and Bulgar. In addition, nearby tribes and great powers have impacted the country over the years – whether it be the Ottomans, Romans, or Greeks. The country is often considered a strong example of ‘east meets west’, whether it comes to religion, tradition, or music.

Folk Culture

Folk heritage and tradition in Bulgaria is amongst the most robust and rich in the world. This is true in music and dance, as well as many other cultural arts. The tradition of music in Bulgaria goes back to the Middle Ages and has seen influences from all around the region throughout the centuries. Folk music in the country is known for its unique sound and innovative melodies. Traditional dances and costumes are also commonly seen in Bulgaria.

Bulgarian Cuisine

Bulgarian food is similar to that of other Balkan nations and takes its influence predominantly from Greek, Turkish, and Slavic backgrounds. Yogurt, shopska salad, and kozunak bread are just a couple of the common dishes. While meat is eaten, it is not as popular here as in other European countries – with Bulgarians exhibiting a preference for salads. The country is also known for a centuries old fruit brandy called rakia and a large amount of wine.

Sports in Bulgaria

The most popular sport in Bulgaria is, far and away, soccer. The two most successful clubs are both based out of the city of Sofia, while the national team has found some success – even finishing 4th in the 1994 World Cup. Other activities such as weightlifting, wrestling, volleyball, and gymnastics have proven fruitful for Bulgaria on the international stage.

Famous Bulgarians

One of the most well known Bulgarians is the soccer player Dimitar Berbatov, formerly of Manchester United (now at PAOK in Greece). Nina Dobrev, of Degrassi: The Next Generation and Vampire Diaries fame was born in the country and is a dual Bulgarian-Canadian citizen. Bulgarian opera singer Boris Christoff was widely lauded as one of the best basses of the past century. Going even further back, historians believe that Spartacus, the gladiator and leader of a slave uprising in ancient Rome, was born in what is now Bulgaria.

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A traditional Bulgarian folk dance group

Geography of Bulgaria

Bulgaria is found on the eastern part of the Balkan Peninsula, bordering five different countries; Greece, Turkey, Serbia, Macedonia, and Romania. The dominating geographical features are two separate plains (Danubian and Thracian) and two mountain ranges (Balkan and Rhodope) – all of which possess a great variety of different landscapes within. The country also borders the Black Sea, with a coastline of 354 kilometres.

The largest city by far is the capital Sofia, which is home to over 1.2 million people. It is considered a growing commercial and business centre, as well as a very affordable city. No other city numbers over 400,000 people, but Plovdiv and Varna are also worth mentioning.

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Hiking in the picturesque Bulgarian mountains

Facts about Bulgaria

  • Bulgaria hasn’t changed its name since 681 CE
  • Until 1989, Bulgaria was the second largest wine exporter in the world
  • The number of valuable archaeological monuments in the country is third only to Greece and Italy in Europe
  • Shaking your head is meant to show you agree with something as opposed to nodding
  • Bulgarian yogurt is considered the best in the world thanks to a special bacteria
  • The bagpipe is used in some traditional music
  • Bulgaria adopted the Cyrillic alphabet before Russia
  • The army has never lost a flag in war
  • Martenitsa (bracelets of red and white yarn) are exchanged during the Grandmother March on March 1 – which welcomes the spring season
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Tsarevets fortress in Veliko Tarnovo – a former stronghold of the Second Empire

Last Word

That’s it for our exploration of Bulgarian history and culture. If you’re interested in travelling to this fascinating country, check back later for our Travel Guide and Currency Spotlight!


Stay tuned to the Current for our Country of the Week. We’ll explore the familiar and the foreign, plus uncover some hidden gems (see them all HERE).

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