The five centuries of Ottoman rule are by far the most controversial part of Bulgarian history.
Popular opinion views it as a period of a degrading foreign dominance. It robbed its Bulgarian subjects of their European identity and imposed a foreign culture that many consider inferior. In addition, the folk memory has preserved tales of violence and humiliation that remain in the core of Bulgaria’s national identity.
Needless to say, this view is hardly shared by the large Turkish minority in the country. Many history scholars have started trying to popularize a more balanced view of the period.
A consolidation of Turkish tribes in Anatolia in the early 14th century was to have lasting consequences for the region. The numerous Ottoman armies quickly swallowed up the weakened Byzantine Empire and immediately turned to the segmented Balkan states, at the time ridden by internal skirmishes and feudal wars.
In 1393, the Bulgarian capital Tarnovo fell. This essentially put an end to the Bulgarian state and independent church. Three years later the quasi-independent Vidin Kingdom was also conquered.
Almost overnight, the Bulgarians turned into an ethnic and religious minority. Their state and church ceased to exist, and the Bulgarian aristocracy and literary elite were extinguished.
LIFE UNDER THE OTTOMANS
A relative religious acceptance (given the low standards of the time) was part of the Ottoman recipe for success.
Non-Muslims, however, never enjoyed equal rights. They paid higher taxes, suffered discrimination, and had no access to political, military, or trade careers.
The empire encouraged the settlement of the ethnic Turkish population into potentially rebellious Christian lands. Turkish soon became the lingua franca of commerce and administration in urban centers, where mosques, public baths, and administrative buildings were erected. Cities became divided into neighborhoods based on religion. The villages, on the other hand, remained primarily Christian and Bulgarian-speaking.
The authorities encouraged religious conversion. Many converted in search of social advancement, better economic opportunities, lower taxes, or the monetary reward offered to new converts. Indeed, some of the Balkans’ brightest minds adopted Islam and rose to high positions of power within the empire, which famously promoted officials based on merit, not origin.
The famous blood tax was an institutionalized practice of forceful conversion to Islam. It consisted of taking young Christian boys away from their families and turning them into elite soldiers called Janissaries. They were provided with extensive military training and quality education. As a result, many rose to high positions of power within the empire.
Though relatively limited in scope, approximately 2,000 boys were taken each year from all the empire’s Balkan provinces. The practice left a deep scar and is lamented in many folk songs.
The administrative division in the Ottoman Empire was based on religion, rather than ethnicity.
Christians formed the semi-independent Orthodox administrative division (millet) under a Greek patriarch. The community was self-governed for matters related to religion, education, and personal life. Greek church officials, however, made sure the religious services were held in Greek and were as a whole dismissive of their Slavic-speaking parishioners.
It is no coincidence that the first acts of the National Revival in the 19th century were aimed at receiving recognition for an independent Bulgarian church.
THE SICK MAN ON THE BOSPHORUS: THE EMPIRE'S DECLINE
The Second Siege of Vienna (1683) put an end to Ottoman expansion in Europe.
By the mid 1800s, the empire was in a deep crisis and headed toward its ugly and bloody fall in the early 20th century.
With the increased instability, a systematic harassment of the Christian population began. At the same time, the new idea of a national ethnic-based identity and a national state was gaining popularity in the Bulgarian lands.