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Author: Ivan Ormandjiev


Ancient, Medieval and Modern History of Thrace

Thrace region, 3,310 sq mi (8,575 sq km), SE Europe, occupying the southeastern tip of the Balkan Peninsula and comprising NE Greece, S Bulgaria, and European Turkey. Its boundaries have varied in different periods. It is washed by the Black Sea in the northeast and by the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean Sea in the south. The Rhodope Mts. separate Greek from Bulgarian Thrace, and the Maritsa River (called the Evros in Greece) separates Greek from Turkish Thrace. The chief cities are Istanbul, Edirne (formerly Adrianople), and Gallipoli (all in Turkey); Istanbul (Constantinople) is generally considered a separate entity. With the exception of the mountainous Bulgarian section, Thrace is mainly agricultural, producing tobacco, corn, rice, wheat, silk, cotton, olive oil, and fruit. Natural gas has been discovered in the region.

At the dawn of history the ancient Thracians, a group of tribes speaking an Indo-European language, extended as far west as the Adriatic Sea, but they were pushed eastward (c.1300 B.C.) by the Illyrians, and in the 5th cent. B.C. they lost their land west of the Struma (Strimon) River to Macedon. In the north, however, Thrace at that period still extended to the Danube. Unlike the Macedonians, the Thracians did not absorb Greek culture, and their tribes formed separate petty kingdoms.

The Thracian Bronze Age was similar to that of Mycenaean Greece, and the Thracians had developed high forms of music and poetry, but their savage warfare led the Greeks to consider them barbarians. Many Greek colonies, e.g., Byzantium on the Hellespont and Tomi (modern Constanţa) on the Black Sea were founded in Thrace by c. 600 B.C. The Greeks exploited Thracian gold and silver mines, and they recruited Thracians for their infantry. Thrace was reduced to vassalage by Persia from c. 512 B.C. to 479 B.C., and Persian customs were introduced.

Thrace was united as a kingdom under the chieftain Sitalces, who aided Athens during the Peloponnesian War, but after his death (428 B.C.) the state again broke up. By 342 B.C. all Thrace was held by Philip II of Macedon, and after 323 B.C. most of the country was in the hands of Lysimachus. It fell apart once more after Lysimachus' death (281 B.C.), and it was conquered by the Romans late in the 1st cent. B.C. Emperor Claudius created (A.D. 46) the province of Thrace, comprising the territory south of the Balkans; the remainder was incorporated into Moesia. The chief centers of Roman Thrace were Serdica (modern Sofia), Philippopolis (Plovdiv), and Adrianople (Edirne).

The region benefited greatly from Roman rule, but from the barbarian invasions of the 3d cent. A.D. until modern times it was almost continuously a battleground. The northern section passed (7th cent.) to the Bulgarians; the southern section remained in the Byzantine Empire, but it was largely conquered (13th cent.) by the second Bulgarian empire after a brief period under the Latin Empire of Constantinople. In 1361 the Ottoman Turks took Adrianople, and in 1453, after the fall of Constantinople, all of Thrace fell to the Turks.

In 1878, N Thrace was made into the province of Eastern Rumelia; after the annexation (1885) of Eastern Rumelia by Bulgaria (which had gained independence in 1878), the political meaning of the term Thrace became restricted to its southernmost part, which was still in Turkish hands. The terms Eastern Thrace and Western Thrace were used for the territories east and west of the Maritsa River. In the first Balkan War (1912-13) Turkey ceded to Bulgaria all Western Thrace and the inland half of Eastern Thrace, including Adrianople, but after its defeat in the Second Balkan War (1913), Bulgaria retroceded all Thrace east of the Maritsa to Turkey.

After World War I, Bulgaria ceded the southern part of its share of Thrace to Greece by the Treaty of Neuilly (1919), thus losing its only outlet to the Aegean. By the Treaty of Sevres (1920) Greece also obtained most of Eastern Thrace except the zone of the Straits and Constantinople; the treaty, however, was superseded by the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), which restored to Turkey all Thrace E of the Maritsa. As a result of subsequent population movements, the ethnic composition of the various parts of Thrace now corresponds largely to the national divisions. The Greek-Bulgarian frontier of 1919 and the Turkish-Greek frontier of 1923 were left unchanged after World War II, during which Bulgaria had occupied (1941-44) Greek Thrace.




Pomaks are the Muslim minority population of the Bulgarian people, whose religion is Orthodox Christianity in their vast majority. But today the members of this group declare a variety of ethnic identities: Bulgarians, a little number of Greeks, and also some declare themselves Turks due to their Muslim religion. The Pomaks are native to some parts of Bulgaria — specifically western and central Rhodopes, of Turkey — specifically European Turkey, of Republic of Macedonia, of Greece — specifically in its northern province of Thrace, of Kosovo, and of Albania. Pomaks speak Bulgarian language as their mother tongue. They are fluent in Turkish, Albanian and Greek as second language in Turkey, Albania, Kosovo and Greece. They are usually considered descendants of native Bulgarians who converted to Islam during the Ottoman rule of the Balkans, although some alternative narratives of their historical identity have been proposed, and according to some authors, their precise origins remain unknown.

The Pomaks in Bulgaria are referred to as Bulgarian Muslims (bulgari-mjusulmani), or under the ethnographic names Ahryani, Torbeshi, etc. They mainly inhabit the Rhodope Mountains in Smolyan Province, Kardzhali Province, Pazardzhik Province and Blagoevgrad Province. There are Pomaks in other parts of Bulgaria as well. There are a few Pomak villages in Burgas Province, Lovech Province, Veliko Tarnovo Province and Ruse Province. According to the 2001 census there are 131 531 Muslim Bulgarians in Bulgaria. During the 20th century the Pomaks in Bulgaria were the subject of three state-supported assimilation campaigns — in 1912, the 1940s and the 1970s which included the change of their Turkish-Arabic names to ethnic Bulgarian ones and in the first campaign conversions from Islam to Eastern Orthodoxy. The first two campaigns were abandoned after a few years, while the third was reversed in 1989. The campaigns were carried out with the justification that Pomaks are ancestral Bulgarians who had been converted to Islam by force and who therefore needed to be repatriated back to the Bulgarian national domain. These attempts were met with stiff resistance by some Pomaks.

Alternative origins of the Pomaks show that a specific DNA mutation which emerged about 2,000 years ago on a rare haplotype is characteristic of the Pomaks. Its frequency increased as a consequence of high genetic drift within this population. This indicates that the Pomaks are an isolated population with limited contacts with their neighbours. The DNA tree line of Pomaks suggests the hypothesis that Pomaks are descendants of ancient Thracian tribes.

According some historians the Pomaks in the Rhodope Mountains are successors of the Cumans that converted to Islam in the end of the 11th or the beginning of the 12th century after establishing contact with missionaries from North Africa and the Middle East. This theory is further backed by the fact that in the 9th century many Muslims moved from Bulgaria to Hungary but were ordered expelled by Pope Nicholas I in 866, yet enjoyed many freedoms and were even allowed to serve in the military and in border guard units during the 11th and 12th century.

After the Bulgarians got their independence the conflict with the Pomaks intensified. Unwilling to recognize the authority of the governor of the autonomous province of Eastern Rumelia and helped by S. G. B. St. Clair, a British officer of Polish descent, the Pomaks from the area of Kurdzhali rebelled. Their Republic of Tamrash survived until 1886, when it was ceded to the Ottoman Empire.

This act inspired others to follow. The Republic of Gjumurjina was established in 1913 as a reaction to the annexation of Aegean Thrace by Bulgaria in the Balkan Wars. There were armed bands of Pomaks in the Rhodope Mountains from 1942 until 1945, fighting for independence from Bulgaria.

The Bulgarian authorities were not inactive either. Each uprising was followed by the forced resettlement of the rebels. One of the largest of these happened at the end of the 1940s. As a result of the activities of Pomak fighters in the Rhodope, several communities were deported to northeastern Bulgaria (Razgrad, Shoumen).

In 1881, 1912-1913 and 1942, three large scale campaigns were conducted to make Pomaks do the opposite of what their predecessors had done: they were forced to convert to Christianity. The Communists brought in a change of tactics. They began changing Pomak names for Bulgarian ones. Their policy reached its culmination with the so-called Revival Process, but it actually started in 1956, when it was decided that Pomaks "had to realize their Bulgarian nationality".

Pomaks responded with self-isolation and the creation of their own legends about the hardships they had suffered. The description of the heroes, who walked in a single file, "wearing white shirts, their forelocks waving in the air", literally repeats the haydutin's final wish in the folk song before he is hanged by the Turks.



Momchil Yunak

Momchil Yunak or Momchil Voyvoda (died 7 July 1345) was a 14th century Bulgarian independent feudal lord and Voivode in the Rhodopes and the Aegean region. He was legendary fighter against the Turkish invasion of the Balkans.

Momchil was initially the head of a large gang persecuted by the Bulgarian authorities, which forced him to flee to the Byzantine Empire, where he was accepted into Emperor Andronicus III Palaeologus' service, after which he moved to Serbia to serve Stefan Dušan. During the civil war for the Byzantine throne, Momchil aided John VI Cantacuzenus to become emperor, for which he was awarded to govern the region of Smolyan in 1343. In 1344, he defeated a Turkish fleet near Portolagos and seceded from the Byzantine Empire, proclaiming himself an independent ruler in the Rhodope and the Aegean coast, with the capital of his domain in Xanthi. However, on 7 July 1345, he was attacked by an allied Byzantine-Turkish force headed by John VI Cantacuzenus and Umur Bey. His army, numbering a few thousand, was defeated, and Momchil himself was killed.

In Bulgarian folklore, Momchil Yunak is glorified in numerous songs and epic tales as a defender of the people and a prominent fighter against the invading Turks.


Bulgarians in Adrianople

The ancient city of Adrianople plays a key role in the past of the Thrace region and of the Bulgarian state. The building of harmonious and efficient system of education from the Bulgarians in East Thrace has important significance about the Bulgarian and Balkan history. The Bulgarians in Adrianople at the end of 19th and beginning of 20th century had four secondary schools — one for boys and one for girls, respectively for Orthodoxies and for Eastern Catholics. The Orthodox secondary school for boys is named after its benefactor, Dr Petar Beron. The Eastern Catholic secondary schools for boys and girls are under the auspices of different catholic orders. Because of its importance, the question about the education of the Bulgarians in Adrianople was analyzed in many scientific works.

Ivan Ormandjiev was graduate from the secondary school "Dr Petar Beron". He was a teacher in the towns of Xanthi, Burgas and Sofia. He wrote historical works about his native land, and published documents. Extremely interesting are the memoirs of former pupils of the Bulgarian secondary schools in Adrianople, collected by Ormandjiev. The memoirs of the former pupils are an extremely rich deposit of data of every kind. It is written there about the eating habits, food, clothes, free time, generally about everyday life; about the organization of the education and the architecture of Adrianople.



Addendum: We are going to initiate a separate heading on the Thracian Question the way it was presented by Ivan Ormandjiev — viz., long years secretary of the Thracian Scientific Institute/TSI/, a subsidiary branch of the Macedonian Scientific Institute /MSI/. The modern Thracian Diaspora left a wealth of written heritage and cultural vassalage. Those artifacts are seldom difficult to define while their terminology is covered by veil of mythology and nationalistic crest. Here in the review we do not take sides, since it would hurt at least several international political treaties between Greece, Turkey and Bulgaria. Besides the epical dimensions of Thrace are beyond doubt and shouldn't be dealt as one-dimensional postulate of a single nation, least of all be it a nation of Pomaks (or hybrid Christian-Mohammedans/.

At the time of appearance of the Turks on the Balkans (in early 14th century), there were no Pomaks or any other offshoot of religion other than Orthodox Christianity. Beside the Paulicians (Manicheans), who were a form of Eastern Protestantism, the Turks were the only other bearers of flourishing religion (Islam) while the Byzantine Empire was in the last phase of decay, administrative and corporal. Thus it was not surprise that the Seldjuk Turks, a central Asiatic nomads, penetrated as far as Brusa in Minor Asia and threatened the mere existence of Constantinople, pearl of the East. It would have been otherwise if the Christians weren't so disunited, overpowered by the Crusades and having the Balkans divided between Bulgaria, Serbia and other petty realms. The Turks by that time had become a power more than mere Asiatic warlords — viz., they had incorporated in their rows much Christian populace from the conquered territories, willy-nilly by consensual tax-paying or forceful service-rendering. This policy worked for 500 years and it was no wonder that it became the only source of defending the integrity of a Mediterranean zone falling apart, in lieu of the great geographic discoveries XV-XIX centuries.

The geopolitics of the Turks is one side of the medal. The other side which became a gnawing bone was the discontent of the Christianity itself, which gave rise of a colossus Russia as counterpart to Turkey and simultaneously didn't disregard the Classical legacy of the Balkan peninsula it terms of Greeks and the other Orthodoxy. By the 19th century there were so many ethnic enclaves in the Balkans that it truly represented a powder keg in terms of nationality revolt, which it did in several upsurges culminating with the Balkan Wars and First World War. The Ottoman empire didn't existed anymore while Istanbul (with its hinterland of Eastern Thrace) were the only remnants having in common with Europe.

This is in short the genesis and development of the Thracian Question. It is more a historical entity than a cultural phenomenon. The Bulgarians had a good share in it and here is the place to re-introduce the main theme of the book and its title bearer. Who was Momchil Yunak? It s good to read a book about him, much more that he is consistently mentioned in historical works of at least two late Byzantine authors, Nicephorus Gregoras and John Cantacuzenus. The latter had played a formidable role in late Medieval history of the Balkans. He was co-regent of two Byzantine emperors, Andronicus III Palaeologus and John IV Palaeologus. He caused a civil war in Byzantium which lasted 30 years (1341-1371), and to the dismay of his compatriots was the first to make a coalition with the Turks against his own people. He even gave his daughter as wife to sultan Orkhan. The tradition of the Turks was ignominious, once the mother was Christian her children could retain the religion of the mother but should wear the name of the father. Thus it becomes easy to comprehend how a new ethnos appeared in five centuries.

Momchil Yunak as a lesser communality was a Bulgarian, a Rhodopian. He was a feudal serf to the lands of Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Alexander, then became a soldier ("Stratiote") with the Byzantine army, then he left on his own skills and indemnities to be recruited as mercenary by both John Cantacuzenus and John IV Palaeologus. He betrayed both of them and fought against compact army of Byzantines and Seldjuk Turks. During that time he ruled over his own Despotate with the title Sevastocrator, encompassing whole Western Thrace (1341-1343). Momchil's capital was in Xanthi with possessions in Rhodopi mountain and the bay of Porto Lagos. He died in battle and was later glorified in numerous songs and epic tales as defender of the people and first prominent fighter against the invading Turks, ditto.


Picture 1: Sample illustration on the text above.

(i). Momchil's capital was in Xanthi with possessions in Rhodopi mountain and the bay of Porto Lagos (1341-1343).



Copyright © 2011 by the author.