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Did you know that the face of Europe would have been very different today if it hadn’t been for the Bulgarian khan Tervel who saved the Christian world from Arab invasion?

By the early 700s, the Arabs had conquered most of the Middle East, Mecca and Medina, Jerusalem, Syria, Damascus, Persia, Cyprus, Egypt, Cartagena, Spain, and Lisbon. By 716, they besieged Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, both by land and by sea. Europe had never seen such difficult times. It was about to be crushed by two Muslim fists, one from the West and one from the East.

Bulgar Khan Tervel accepts gifts of gold and silver from Byzantine Emperor Justinian

Constantinople was barely holding after three years under siege until a miracle happened. On August 15th, 718, the Bulgar Khan Tervel took the  Arabs by surprise. The Bulgar army annihilated the invaders, who didn’t return to the Balkans for at least a few centuries. Thus, the Bulgar khan became not only the savior of the Byzantine Empire, which in fact had always been its greatest enemy, but the savior of the entire European Christian civilization.

What would’ve happened if khan Tervel had not stopped the Arabs at Constantinople’s gates? Some historians think that the European society, and therefore most of the world as we know it today, would have been heavily influenced by the Islamic culture. Khan Tervel was called “Savior of Europe” and canonized as a saint by his contemporaries (although Bulgarians became Christian under King Boris a hundred years later).

Why have these historical facts, which were once known to all Europeans, been slowly disappearing from history textbooks? I don’t know, but I recently heard the theory that when Bulgaria joined the Communist bloc, Western Europe turned its back to her in many aspects, and this resulted in the omission of important historical truths.

Many believe than the Madara Rider was carved into the rock in honor of khan Tervel (read my previous post).

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The Bulgarian alphabet is a Cyrillic alphabet and, since Bulgaria’s accession to the EU in 2007, the third official alphabet in the European Union. You can find Cyrillic letters on the euro bills side by side with the Latin and the Greek letters.

Cyril and Methodius holding a scroll with the Bulgarian alphabet. A mural by the Bulgarian icon-painter Zahari Zograf

Most Slavic nations use the Cyrillic alphabet: Belarusian, Bulgarian, Russian, Serb, Macedonian, Montenegrin, and Ukrainian. Some non-Slavic nations also use it: Moldovan, Kazakh, Uzbek, Kyrgyz, Tajik, Mongolian, the people of the Caucasus and Siberia. It is also the official alphabet of the Church Slavonic language of the Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic Church.

The Cyrillic alphabet is a simplified version of the Glagolitic alphabet. The Glagolitic alphabet was created under the orders of the Byzantine Empire and the Byzantine Church to be spread among the Slavic peoples, as an antidote to the Latin alphabet and the influence of the Roman Catholic Church.

The Glagolitic alphabet was created by the scholars Saints Cyril and Methodius, brothers born in Thessaloniki. In the 890s, after a few years of persecution from the Germanic clergy and the Pope, the brothers’ disciples found asylum in Bulgaria. They created the Cyrillic alphabet in order to aid their new patron, tzar Boris I, in spreading Christianity among his people. Read more about Boris I, the ruler who Christianized Bulgaria and enlarged it greatly.

Cyrillic script

The literary school of the Bulgarian Empire was very prolific. Volumes and volumes in Old Bulgarian language using the Cyrillic letters were spread across Eastern Europe, thus spreading literacy and knowledge among the Slavic nations.  Today, the Church Slavonic resembles Old Bulgarian, but the Cyrillic alphabet used in different countries has adapted to fit the needs of the ever-changing local spoken languages.

We Bulgarians believe that our language and the Cyrillic alphabet are at least in part our legacy to the world (I have to say in part in order to avoid criticism from overly patriotic Bulgarians as well as criticism from opponents of the historical evidence).

On May 24th, we celebrate the Slavic alphabet!

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