Bulgaria’s history is awash in blood, gold and wine. Its most famous ancient inhabitants, the Thracians, were a civilisation of masterful horsemen, wine-drinkers and lovers of song, who left behind hauls of gold. Across Bulgaria loom grand churches and fortresses, commissioned by medieval Bulgarian tsars whose battles spanned centuries, while the most colourful way in which Bulgaria’s history lives on is through National Revival architecture. Countless towns glow with pastel-coloured mansions from the 1800s, contrasting against brutalist blocks that came during post-WWII communism.

Beginnings

Cave excavations near Pleven and in the Stara Planina (Balkan Range) confirm human habitation since the Upper Palaeolithic Period (40,000 BC). However, archaeologists believe cave-dwelling neolithic peoples (6000 BC) were Bulgaria's earliest permanent settlers. Excavations in Mursalevo, western Bulgaria, reveal an impressive degree of town planning among dwellings that date back eight thousand years. In Stara Zagora, burial mounds have been excavated, and burnt wheat and barley provide evidence of early farming. Bulgaria's chalcolithic (copper-using) cultures developed during the fourth millennium BC; a superb collection of chalcolithic artefacts – including possibly the world’s earliest worked gold jewellery – can be admired in the Varna Archaeological Museum.

The Thracians

Several diverse Indo-European tribes, the Thracians, settled in modern-day Bulgaria and attracted a reputation for ferocious warfare and bacchanalian pursuits. Their earliest settlements were based around cave systems and 'sacred' springs. Later, they built more permanent villages with elevated, rudimentary fortresses. Herodotus described them as the second-most numerous people (after Indians) in the world, with global domination only out of grasp because of their lack of unity.

Most powerful were the Sofia-area Serdi; the Getae, from the Danube region; and the Odrysai, from the Rodopi region. The tribes quarrelled, but had a shared culture and language and common religious rites. They were feared warriors and horsemen – as weaponry pieces in museums reveal. The 2nd-century BC Greek historian Polybius described the chronic wars of attrition between the Thracians and the Greek colonists at Byzantium (later, Constantinople, and then İstanbul).

But it wasn’t all nocturnal ambushes, high-speed javelin attacks, and impaling heads on spears (just a few of the Thracians’ wartime tactics). Semi-mythical musician and underworld explorer, Orpheus, was born here: his talent for getting the party started worked seamlessly with that of wine god Dionysus, who was worshipped in orgiastic rituals. The Thracian elite practised polygamy, while unmarried girls were encouraged to be promiscuous. Breathless ancient Greek historians also mentioned Thracians' tattoos – men and women proudly wore geometric and animal designs – and recreational drug use.

The Thracians were accomplished artists and traded jewellery, copper and gold. Excavations near Kazanlâk have unearthed the astonishing gold funerary mask of a Thracian king. The Thracians also influenced Greek and Roman religion, while some Bulgarian names, such as ‘rila’ (for Rila Monastery) and ‘yantra’ (the river through Veliko Târnovo) probably originate from Thracian. However, lacking their own written record, the Thracians' history and culture remain opaque; since Thracian history is known largely from Greek sources, Greek scholars have long been tempted to Hellenise Thracian achievements.

Today's famous Thracian remains include tombs dating from about 4000 BC (in Varna's Archaeological Museum) and several burial mounds in the area around Kazanlâk and Shipka, referred to as the Valley of Thracian Kings. Other Thracian artefacts lie in museums in Haskovo, Smolyan, Sofia and Sliven. Other settlement remains are at Burgas and Nesebâr on the Black Sea, and Plovdiv's Nebet Tepe fortress site.

Greeks, Macedonians & Romans

From the 7th century BC, Greek merchants seeking safe harbours and trade opportunities founded Black Sea ports such as Apollonia Pontica (modern-day Sozopol), Odessos (Varna), Mesembria (Nesebâr), Krounoi/Dionysopolis (Balchik) and Pirgos (Burgas). These ports exported wheat, fish and salt, while Greek pottery was traded for Thracian metalwork and jewellery.

The Greeks avoided Bulgaria's interior, being heavily outnumbered by Thracians there, so few inland towns attest to Greek settlement. Still, the Greeks did influence Balkan religion, arts and culture, and the Bulgarian language retains many Greek words and place names.

A more dangerous adversary for the Thracians arose in the 4th century BC, when Macedonian King Philip II (and later his son, Alexander the Great) conquered Thrace. Philip's new capital, Philippopolis (Plovdiv) became an important military outpost. Odessos (Varna) and Serdica (Sofia) were also occupied.

Macedonian rule ended when Rome defeated them in 168 BC. By the middle of the 1st century AD, Romans occupied Mesembria (Nesebâr) and Odessos (Varna), site of Bulgaria's largest Roman ruins, the Thermae complex.

After AD 46, Bulgaria was divided into the provinces of Thrace, in the south, and Moesia, in the north. Roman fortifications arose at major Thracian and Greek towns along the Danube, such as Ruse and Bononia (Vidin), and at Deultum (Burgas) along the Black Sea coast.

Ulpia Serdica (Sofia) subsequently became the Roman capital of Inner Dacia province (today's northwestern Bulgaria); the impressive Sveti Georgi Rotunda, or Church of St George, attests to this period. By the late 3rd century AD, Ulpia Serdica had become a major regional imperial capital, where Diocletian and subsequent emperors held court.

Bulgaria's other Roman towns include Sevtopolis (Kazanlâk), Ulpia Augusta Traiana (Stara Zagora), Nikopolis-ad-Istrum (north of Veliko Târnovo) and Trimontium (Plovdiv), site of a magnificent (and still working) amphitheatre. From the 3rd century AD onwards Goths, Huns and other warring tribes wreaked havoc, though raids were sporadic and short-lived.

Byzantium & the Bulgars: War & Peace

In AD 330 Roman emperor Constantine the Great founded Constantinople (modern İstanbul) at ancient Byzantium. Constantinople became the Eastern Roman Empire's capital, with a co-emperor ruling in Rome. Bulgaria (and most Balkan territory) fell under the eastern half. All through the 6th-century rule of Emperor Justinian the Great, Bulgaria was relatively stable, and great structures such as Sofia’s original Church of Sveta Sofia were built. However, Slavs, Avars and Bulgars would increasingly threaten the Byzantine Balkans.

From 632, Turkic Bulgars migrated southwest. These warlike Central Asian tribes were archetypical steppe nomads – skilled horsemen, archers and superstitious pagans. The Bulgars roamed from the Caspian Sea to the Black Sea steppes and, when united under Khan Kubrat, soon were roaming Bulgaria, too. The Byzantines could not repel or assimilate this horde; the Turkic tribes gradually settled down, subjugating the Slavs, Greeks and Thracian remnants.

Khan Asparuh (r 681–701) created the First Bulgarian Empire (681–1018), based at Pliska near modern-day Shumen. The empire expanded south and west under Khan Tervel (r 701–721), who helped the Byzantine army repel an Arab advance on Constantinople.

Periods of bloody conflict and wary peace followed between Byzantium and the Bulgars. Khan Krum ‘The Dreadful’ (r 803-814) ruthlessly expanded the empire and besieged Constantinople after the Byzantines destroyed Pliska, and used the skull of vanquished adversary Emperor Nikephoros as a drinking vessel thereafter.

Golden Times

After Krum's sudden and unexpected death, several 9th-century khans annexed further territory: Khan Omurtag (r 814–831) pressed into modern-day Hungary in 829, and Khan Presian’s reign (r 837–852) ended with Bulgarian control over southeastern Europe, including modern-day Romania, Moldova, Macedonia and parts of Greece. Presian's territorial gains brought many Macedonian and other Slavs into his empire; along with Christianity's imminent arrival, this would dramatically change the Bulgars' ethnicity and culture.

Presian's son, Knyaz (Prince) Boris I (r 852–889) cleverly exploited the Constantinople–Rome rivalry; both sought spiritual control over Bulgaria, and Boris played both sides. In 863 he, his family and his court were baptised by Byzantine prelates, but only in 870 did Bulgaria officially go Orthodox, not Roman Catholic. Bulgaria's ruling class was soon immersed in Byzantine court practices, spirituality and culture. (Today, the Church considers Boris a saint).

Boris displayed further political acumen in sheltering the persecuted disciples of two Byzantine missionary monks, Kiril and Metodii (Cyril and Methodius), who had in 855 gone to convert Moravia's Slavs (in today's Slovakia) to Orthodoxy, devising an understandable liturgical language (Old Church Slavonic). Under Boris' and later tsars' sponsorship, theological schools in Macedonia and Bulgaria would develop the Cyrillic alphabet. Bulgarian churchmen thus won freedom from both Rome and Constantinople, with the liturgy in their own emerging Slavic language, not Greek or Latin.

Following Byzantine imperial practice, Boris retired to a monastery in 889 for his final years. However, when his son Vladimir tried to restore paganism, Boris deposed and blinded him. Younger brother Simeon (r 893–927) stretched Bulgaria's borders from the Adriatic to the Aegean, and the Dnieper River in the north. Ruling from a new capital, Preslav, Tsar Petâr (r 927–968) oversaw a cultural golden age of church building, fine arts and manuscript production. However, Preslav was badly damaged during 960s wars with the Kievan Rus and Byzantium and never recovered.

Decline & Fall

After Preslav's destruction, Tsar Samuel (r 997–1014) moved the capital to Ohrid (in modern-day Macedonia; his castle still towers above Ohrid's massive lake). However, he lost the 1014 Battle of Kleidion/Belasitsa to the Byzantines; according to a legend, Emperor Basil II (r 976–1025) had 15,000 captured Bulgarian soldiers blinded and returned to Samuel, who died of shock. While Samuel actually died months later, the defeat was impressive – Basil was nicknamed Voulgaroktonos ('Bulgar-Slayer' in Greek). In 1018, Ohrid fell, and Bulgaria was annexed.

Byzantium's later decline led aristocratic brothers Asen and Petâr to rebel; their Second Bulgarian Empire (1185–1396) had Veliko Târnovo as capital. Bulgaria now cast a wary eye westward: in the perfidious Fourth Crusade of 1204, Western knights invaded Constantinople, destroying the Byzantine state. In 1205, self-declared 'emperor' Baldwin of Flanders foolishly invaded Bulgaria: he was captured and terminally imprisoned in the tower at Tsarevets Fortress in Veliko Târnovo.

Asen's diplomatically savvy son, Tsar Ivan Asen II (r 1218–41), became southeastern Europe's most powerful ruler, and Veliko Târnovo became an important cultural centre. In 1230 he defeated Byzantine successor armies at the Battle of Klokotnitsa. After his death, however, Bulgaria disintegrated between Tatar and Arab invasions and internal fighting.

The Turkish Yoke

After 1362 Ottoman Turks swarmed into the northern Balkans; within 30 years, they possessed Bulgaria, holding it for five centuries.

Despite some rosy depictions of life under the Turks, they regarded non-Muslims as second-class citizens, so many Bulgarians were deprived of major rights and suffered harsh punishments for the most insignificant of offences. Like most of the Balkans, Bulgaria was isolated from Christian Western Europe, and missed out on its cultural and intellectual advances. In all, up to half of Bulgaria's population was either killed or enslaved (young boys were seized and converted into the sultan's Janissary guard, while girls were kidnapped into Turkish harems). Churches and monasteries were destroyed, closed or turned into mosques. Sporadic uprisings were quashed ferociously, and many Bulgarians fled.

Ottoman aristocrats inhabited the cities, consigning Bulgarians to the mountains and villages. Haidouks (armed rebels) fought the occupiers from the hills. As elsewhere in Ottoman lands, the Turks courted mountain-dwelling populations in strategic regions such as the Rodopi Mountains – here, Bulgarian converts to Islam (today's Pomaks) won exemption from taxes and enjoyed legal rights denied to their Christian neighbours.

Bulgaria's national, cultural and Christian identity survived largely because of monks in monasteries (such as Rila) that the Turks tolerated or couldn't control. They carefully preserved rituals, traditions and important manuscripts, keeping Bulgarian culture alive until it could re-emerge safely.

National Revival

The Bulgarian monasteries that had preserved Bulgarian culture and history sparked the 18th- and 19th-century National Revival. This reawakening coincided with similar nation-state sentimentality in Western Europe, and was influenced by monk Paisii Hilendarski – his name was taken from his time at the Serbian-sponsored Hilandar Monastery at Mount Athos, Greece.

Hilendarski collected information to compile the first history of the Slav-Bulgarian peoples in 1762. He roamed the land, reciting his history to illiterate people (the Turks forbade Bulgarian-language publications). It was an instant hit, stirring long-suppressed nationalist feelings. Hilandarski's emphasis on the great deeds of Bulgaria's medieval tsars fuelled populist pride.

By the early 19th century the Bulgarian economy had grown, with merchants from Plovdiv and Koprivshtitsa supplying wool, wine, metals and woodcarvings to Turkey and Western Europe. An educated and prosperous urban middle class emerged, especially after the Crimean War, when the victorious allies persuaded Turkey to open up to foreign trade.

Bulgarian merchants built grand private homes and public buildings in the distinct National Revival style. Woodcarvers from Tryavna and painters from Samokov developed a unique Bulgarian style in designing them. Bulgarian art, music and literature also flourished, and Bulgarian-language schools were opened. Towns and villages built chitalishta (reading rooms), providing a communal forum for cultural and social activities and political chatter. Turkish recognition of an autonomous Bulgarian Orthodox Church followed in 1870.

Revolution & Freedom

The 1876 April Uprising in Koprivshtitsa came after long planning by revolutionaries such as Georgi Rakovski, Hristo Botev and Bulgaria’s iconic hero Vasil Levski. The Turks indiscriminately massacred 30,000 Bulgarian civilians, destroyed scores of villages and plundered hundreds more.

Western Europe was outraged; Russia cited the massacre in declaring war on Turkey in 1877. Some 200,000 Russian soldiers died for Bulgarian freedom, as the Russian army (and its Bulgarian volunteers) crushed the Turks. With Russian forces only 50km from İstanbul, the Ottomans capitulated. As part of the Treaty of San Stefano, signed on 3 March 1878, Turkey finally recognised Bulgarian autonomy and ceded Bulgaria 60% of the Balkans.

However, Russophobic Western European powers reversed this with the Treaty of Berlin, signed on 13 July 1878. It awarded the area between the Stara Planina ranges and the Danube, plus Sofia, to an independent Bulgarian principality. The Thracian Plain and Rodopi Mountains became Ottoman 'Eastern Rumelia'. Macedonia, renamed 'Western Rumelia', also remained Ottoman, as did Aegean Thrace. This ill-conceived treaty infuriated every Balkan nation, sparking decades of war: between 1878 and WWII, Balkan countries (including Bulgaria) fought six wars over border issues.

The Nascent State

On 16 April 1879, Bulgaria's new national assembly adopted its first constitution in Veliko Târnovo. On 26 June, Germany's Prince Alexander Battenberg was elected head of state. On 6 September 1885 the Bulgarian Principality and Eastern Rumelia were reunified after a bloodless coup. Central European powers were angered by this contravention of the Berlin Treaty, and Turkish troops massed for war.

The Austro-Hungarian Empire incited Serbia to fight Bulgaria, but Serbian troops were quickly repelled; the Bulgarian army advanced deep into Serbia, prompting Austria to call for a ceasefire. The Great Powers finally recognised the reunified Bulgaria.

War and its Discontents

Alexander's forced abdication in 1886 brought Prince (later King) Ferdinand Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to power. Prime minister Stefan Stambolov helped accelerate economic development, while two important political parties were founded: the Social Democrats (the communist forerunners) and the pro-peasant Agrarian Union. In 1908, King Ferdinand I took advantage of the Young Turks revolt to declare complete independence from Turkey.

After a decade of guerrilla warfare against the Turks in Macedonia and Greece, Montenegro, Bulgaria, Greece and Serbia united in 1912. In this, the First Balkan War, Serbian troops easily swept down through Macedonia, and Greek naval power denied Turkey reinforcements. However, Bulgaria's invaluable infantry bore the brunt of the Turkish counter-attack; this, and the Bulgarian obsession with Macedonia, caused a disgruntled Bulgaria to attack its allies (the Second Balkan War) in 1913. Quickly defeated, Bulgaria lost hard-won territory; Turkey grabbed back Adrianople (today's Edirne), too.

Unsurprisingly, a bad-tempered Bulgaria joined the Central Powers (ironically, allying it with Turkey) in 1915. Bulgarian soldiers spent the next years staring down Allied troops at the 'Salonika Front' (today's Macedonia–Greece border). However, by 1918 Ferdinand's pro-German policies forced his abdication. His son, Boris III, took over.

The 1919 Treaty of Neuilly-sur-Seine awarded Aegean Thrace to Greece and southern Dobrudzha to Romania. Bulgaria was also humiliated by war reparations, inciting political and social unrest. The 'radical' ruling Agrarian Party renounced claims to Macedonia (now divided between Greece and the newly established Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes). A right-wing military coup followed in 1923. Two years later, at Sofia’s Sveta Nedelya Cathedral, communist terrorists failed to assassinate Boris III, killing around 150 bystanders instead. In 1934 the right-wing Zveno group's military coup gave Tsar Boris dictatorial powers.

World War II

Bulgaria declared neutrality when WWII began. However, German troops advancing toward Greece menacingly massed along the Danube, and Hitler offered up Macedonia to entice Bulgaria, which, once again, joined the (losing) Germanic side.

Allowing the Nazis free passage, Bulgaria declared war on Britain and France, but not Russia. Bulgarian soldiers occupied Macedonia and northern Greece and deported 13,000 Greek and Macedonian Jews to Nazi death camps, in order to delay doing the same with their own Jews, due to public opposition.

On 28 August 1943, one week after meeting Hitler, Tsar Boris III died. Boris’ infant son, Tsar Simeon II, succeeded him. Allied air raids in winter 1943–44 damaged Sofia and other towns. A coalition government sought peace, but failed, leading Russia to invade. On 9 September 1944 the part-communist resistance coalition, the 'Fatherland Front', took power. Even before war's end, ‘people’s courts’ saw thousands of ‘monarch-fascist’ supporters imprisoned or executed.

Red Bulgaria

The Fatherland Front won November 1945 elections, with communists controlling the new national assembly. Leader Georgi Dimitrov's Soviet-styled constitution declared the People’s Republic of Bulgaria on 15 September 1946. The royal family were exiled. The Stalinist regime held show trials for 'traitors', collectivised agriculture and undertook industrialisation and modernisation programs. Dimitrov’s successor, Vâlko Chervenkov, was dubbed ‘Little Stalin’ for his unquestioning loyalty.

Dictator Todor Zhivkov's long rule as head of state (1954–89) saw prosperity under Soviet protection. Bulgaria received cheap oil and electricity, plus exporting and contracts with Eastern Bloc and Non-Aligned Movement states. However, the secret police became an instrument of Zhivkov's totalitarianism, dealing ruthlessly with dissidents and diaspora critics. The service was rumoured to have masterminded the 1981 assassination attempt on Pope John Paul II by a Turkish gunman. (However, Bulgaria has always denied this and conflicting theories exist). As the Soviet bloc weakened in the 1980s, and Bulgaria's economy, too, nationalism surged, targeting Turks, Pomaks and Roma, who were pressured to adopt Bulgarian names. A Turkish exodus ensued, though many returned and prospered later.

The Transition to the West

By 1989 perestroika had reached Bulgaria. On 10 November, an internal Communist Party coup dismissed Zhivkov, and the party allowed elections, renaming itself the Bulgarian Socialist Party (BSP). A broad opposition coalition, the Union of Democratic Forces (UDF), failed to unseat the BSP in the June 1990 parliamentary elections – making Bulgaria the first ex-Soviet state to resurrect communists.

While the incompetence of both blocs caused frequent changes in government, elections were generally irrelevant in transition-era Bulgaria, as power and wealth consolidated around overnight millionaires, bodyguards, former spies and other adventurers in the new 'capitalism'. Throughout the 1990s, an impoverished public held protests over government failures. In 1997, prime minister Ivan Kostov pledged to fight crime and corruption while attracting investment. However, doing this while making painful NATO- and EU-mandated reforms was difficult.

In 2001 Bulgarians elected their once-exiled king as prime minister. Simeon Saxe-Coburg-Gotha had formed the National Movement Simeon II (NMSII) only two months earlier. His coalition included the Movement for Rights and Freedoms (MRF), the ethnic Turkish party of wealthy businessman Ahmed Dogan, and promised economic prosperity, plus NATO and EU membership. Although Simeon's popularity did not endure, those goals were reached – Bulgaria joined NATO in 2004 and the EU in 2007.

Subsequent years brought further political turmoil with a banking crisis and vehement political protest. Loss of trust in prime minister Plamen Oresharski brought down his government in July 2014, after nearly a year of fierce protests. This made way for boomerang politician Boyko Borisov, who had resigned his government in February 2013, only to return for a second time as part of a coalition government in November 2014. Meanwhile, a trickle of EU funding allowed for the rejuvenation of some of Bulgaria's historic sights, and in 2015 Plovdiv was formally approved by the EU Council as the European Capital of Culture for 2019, giving some reason for young Bulgarians to be optimistic about their country's future and its place on the European stage.