Frequent wars with the neighboring Byzantine Empire, the acceptance of Christianity, and the adoption of the Cyrillic alphabet mark the 330-year history of the First Bulgarian Kingdom.
After receiving an official recognition in 681 AD, the Bulgarian Kingdom continued carving out territory from the Byzantine Empire under Khan Krum, adopted Christianity as a state religion under Kniaz Boris I, and reached its cultural and commercial golden age under Tsar Simeon the Great.
By the end of the 10th century, the weakened state was under constant attack and fell under Byzantine rule in the early 11th century.
EXPANSION: KHAN KRUM THE FEARSOME
(reigned 803 – 814 AD)
The 9th-century ruler Khan Krum doubled the territory of Bulgaria, instituted the first legal code, and strengthened and centralized the Bulgarian state.
Today, however, he is best known for defeating and killing the Byzantine Emperor Nikephoros I, and making a drinking cup out of his skull, an act that justly earned Krum the nickname “The Fearsome.”
CHRISTIANITY IS OFFICIAL: KNYAZ BORIS I
(reigned 852 – 889 AD)
The greatest achievement of Knyaz Boris I was the realization that the country, until then split along ethnic and religious differences, needed a new state religion as a unifying force.
After evaluating offers from both Rome and Constantinople, the Knyaz settled on Eastern Orthodoxy, though not before carefully using the tensions between the West and the East to secure an independent Bulgarian church.
THE GOLDEN AGE: SIMEON I THE GREAT
(reigned 893 – 927 AD)
Having accepted Christianity as a state religion some years earlier, Knyaz Boris was preparing his third son Simeon to become the head of the Bulgarian church. Simeon was sent to Constantinople where he received the finest education for his time.
Son number one, however, lasted just a few short years as a king before he was dethroned by his own father. There is speculation that the grave offense committed was the attempt to reinstate paganism and, in that way, overturn his father’s greatest legacy. For this, Boris’ first son was blinded and ostracized.
Simeon was chosen to succeed the throne and soon proved to be a successful, intelligent, and energetic leader who led the Bulgarian state to a great territorial expansion and unrivaled cultural heights.
Simeon fought his fair share of wars, many with the Byzantine Empire, received recognition as an emperor after a series of political maneuvers, and built the new capital Preslav, a place free of pagan and old Proto-Bulgarian influences.
Simeon’s longest-lasting achievement, however, is the wide adoption of the new Cyrillic alphabet and the unprecedented cultural and literary peak reached during his reign.
THE FALL: SAMUIL
(reigned 997 – 1014 AD)
The Byzantine Emperor Basil II, later to be called the Bulgarslayer, was a capable commander and tireless campaigner who was determined to conquer the entire Balkan Peninsula.
After suffering a defeat by the Bulgarian King Samuil early in his career, Basil became infatuated with the idea of destroying Bulgaria.
A quarter of a century later, Basil achieved his goal when, after a surprise attack, he conquered 14,000 Bulgarian troops, blinded 99 of them and left the 100th with one eye to lead them back home. At the sight of his devastated army returning, Samuil collapsed and died.
Although the state clung to life for a few extra years, this was the de facto end of the first Bulgarian state.