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Plovdiv is nowadays one of the biggest economic, administrative and cultural centers in Bulgaria and also the country’s second-most populous city. Naturally, that makes it a location, where many of the important memorable events of our recent history (that is to say after the mid-19th century) took place. So, in this blog, we are going to tell you about five events in Plovdiv’s recent history, which had a truly huge political, economic or cultural significance. As for the big events in our ancient and medieval history – well, this is a story for another time.
We must admit that it was our initial idea to list these events in strictly chronological order. But there was simply no way not to start with the most important event not only in our city’s history but – arguably – in the entire history of modern Bulgaria as well – the Unification of Bulgaria. Thus, the chronological order had to be broken.
In a previous blog post, we talked about the three major national holidays in Bulgaria – Liberation Day, Independence Day and Unification Day. We also explained in short about the circumstances, surrounding our liberation in 1878. As it is well-known, the preliminary Treaty of San Stefano never came into force and instead the borders of newly liberated Bulgaria were defined by the Berlin Treaty, signed in the summer of that year.
According to this treaty’s provisions, only the territories of present-day Northern Bulgaria, along with the Sofia region were included within those borders. The lands to the south – including Plovdiv – remained under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. They were, however, separated within a semi-autonomous and self-governing province, which became known as Eastern Rumelia. Plovdiv was the biggest city in the province and was therefore declared its capital.
This partial autonomy, however, was not enough for the Bulgarian population in the Eastern Rumelia. They wanted to be a part of the free Bulgarian state. Thus, as soon as the Berlin Treaty was announced, people both in the North and in the South started creating „Unification committees“, which soon grew into a centralized secret network. At first, however, the political situation was quite turbulent and didn’t allow for any revolutionary activity. In the meantime, both Bulgaria and Eastern Rumelia started establishing their new institutional, political and economic systems.
During the early 1880s this even led to a certain paradox – the conservative government in Bulgaria, supported by our monarch, prince Alexander I Battenberg, who wanted to increase his power, enacted some very restrictive laws, violating some of the people’s rights. Meanwhile, Eastern Rumelia was ruled by a centrist party and its laws were much more liberal and non-restrictive. So, paradoxically, many opponents of the Bulgarian government, including writers, journalists, and public figures, fled from free Bulgaria to Eastern Rumelia, which was still under Ottoman rule. This political situation only lasted for a couple of years, however.
Towards the mid-1880s the international balance of powers had shifted and many people believed that the time to unite Eastern Rumelia with Bulgaria had finally come. It’s impossible to tell about all the historical figures, who played a significant role in these events in such a short blog post. However, we can’t skip mentioning at least three of them – our monarch, Alexander I Battenberg, the Prime Minister Petko Karavelov and the young Chairman of the Parliament Stefan Stambolov, who had previously been a major figure in the liberation movement and who would later hold the position of Prime Minister as well. Both Karavelov and Stambolov were members of the Liberal Party. However, while Stambolov was one of the fierce supporters of the idea to unite Bulgaria as soon as possible, Karavelov advised caution and opposed any immediate action.
In the late summer of 1885 the Central Unification Committee in Eastern Rumelia, with the knowledge and support of Stambolov and some members of the Liberal Party, decided to organize a coup and proclaim the Unification on the 6th of September. Since the government of Eastern Rumelia was situated in Plovdiv, the coup was to happen there.
On the 5th of September, armed militia regiments started gathering in the nearby village of Golyamo Konare (nowadays called Saedinenie, which literally means Unification). During the night they arrived in Plovdiv and took control of the city. While doing so, they encountered no resistance at all – in fact, they were joined by the local police forces. The Governor of Plovdiv gave himself up willingly, for he supported the Unification as well. Not a single bullet was fired and thus, Plovdiv was captured as a result of a „bloodless revolution“. The newly formed government proclaimed that both parts of Bulgaria were now united as one.
In the North, these events came as a major surprise to most people. It should be reminded that the Unification was a breach of the Great Powers’ agreement in the Berlin Treaty. Stambolov, however, manages to convince Prince Alexander to accept Southern Bulgaria under his rule. Since the deed was already done, the Prime Minister Karavelov and the other political forces also backed the Unification. Throughout the next months, Bulgaria managed to secure international recognition of the act both by diplomacy and by winning a war against Serbia after a surprise attack from the Serbian army.
The Unification is a huge event in our history not only because Northern and Southern Bulgaria became one. It was also one of the few times in our history, in which Bulgaria acted completely on its own without the support of any foreign state and still managed to defy all the Great Powers of the era in order to secure its national interest. Thus, the Unification rightfully takes its place as the most important historical event that took place in our city.
It’s a well-known fact that Bulgaria uses the Slavic alphabet, also known as the Cyrillic alphabet. Maybe it’s a little less known that this alphabet was actually created in Medieval Bulgaria by a group of 9th-century scholars. The most notable among them were Clement of Ohrid and Naum of Preslav. They were both disciples of the brothers Cyril and Methodius, two Byzantine scholars, who had previously invented an early version of the Slavic alphabet – the so-called Glagolitic. The Cyrillic alphabet was in fact named after the younger brother – Cyril. Later both Cyril and Methodius, as well as Clement and Naum were named saints by the Eastern Orthodox Church. It was decided that the Day of St. Cyril and St. Methodius would be celebrated on the 11th of May.
Now let’s travel 1000 years ahead in time. The mid-19th century marked the culmination of the Bulgarian National Revival. This was a time, in which we, Bulgarians, aimed not only at achieving national political independence but also at cultural, educational and religious independence. One of the key elements of the latter was the preservation of the Slavic alphabet and the Bulgarian language in general in spite of the growing attempts to impose the usage of the Greek alphabet on us. It was much more than a matter of language – it was a matter of national identity. And thus, one enlightened man from Plovdiv decided to try and turn the 11th of May from a strictly religious holiday into a public holiday, celebrating Bulgarian language, culture, and education.
Nayden Gerov was a prominent figure in our National Revival movement. At that time he was a teacher at the school „St. Cyril and St. Methodius“ in Plovdiv, which was named after the two brothers. Due to his initiative on the 11th of May 1851, all regular classroom activities at the school were canceled. Instead, the teachers, the students, and the common folk joined in a celebration of the Day of St. Cyril and St. Methodius, which included public readings, songs, and processions on the streets of Plovdiv.
This event marked the turning of the 11th May into one of the biggest Bulgarian public holidays, celebrating culture, education and most notably – our Cyrillic alphabet. Later on, after we switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, the 24th of May became St. Cyril and St. Methodius’ Day. Nowadays it remains a major holiday, on which all educational institutions cancel their regular activities and the students instead join in cultural activities and processions. All of this is a direct result of the events in 1851. So it’s beyond any doubt that this holiday’s first celebration is one of the most notable events in our city’s recent history.
Nowadays the Plovdiv International Fair is the biggest venue for industrial and commercial exhibitions in Bulgaria and holds numerous such events every year. Yet, it remains unknown to some people that it also has quite a bit of history behind its back.
The very first edition of the fair was held way back in 1892. It was organized mainly due to the initiative of our Prime Minister at the time – Stefan Stambolov. As it was already mentioned, he was a very significant figure during the late 19th century, as he was part of the Bulgarian revolutionary movement pre-1878 and also played a key role in the events leading to the Unification of Bulgaria. During the early 1890s, it was his government’s policy to encourage entrepreneurship and support commercial growth. Thus, the government decided to organize an event, where businessmen, traders, and manufacturers would be able to show their products to the world. And the Plovdiv International Fair was born.
Many of you have probably seen the large area just north of the Maritsa river, where the fair takes place nowadays. However, in 1892 it was held in a completely different location – Tsar Simeon’s Garden, or, in other words, Plovdiv’s Central Park. In fact, the park itself was initially created precisely for that purpose. The fair lasted two and a half months and proved to be a major success, especially for rose oil traders, cloth manufacturers, wine producers and – most importantly – tobacco producers, the industry, which made up for the majority of Bulgarian export goods at that time. During this time it was visited by more than 160 000 people, many of whom also had the chance to see for the first time in their lives how electric bulbs and telephones worked, as these innovations were presented in some of the foreign kiosks.
Despite the success of the 1892 event, afterward, the fair went through some turbulent decades. It wasn’t until 1933 that it was decided to make it an annual event. The contemporary venue, mentioned in the previous paragraph was built in 1937 and it has faithfully served its purpose ever since.
Football is the King of sports, right? And even though the quality of contemporary Bulgarian club football is questionable, to say the least, we can’t help, but note that the first professional football club in our country was established in Plovdiv. We are talking, of course, about „Botev Plovdiv“, a team, whose name derives from the last name of our famous poet and revolutionary Hristo Botev. It comes as a surprise to many foreigners, but in Bulgaria it’s typical to name sports clubs after our national heroes. Another typical example is the football club „Levski Sofia“ (est. 1914), named after Vasil Levski, arguably the most significant figure in our national independence movement.
Anyway, going back on topic, „Botev Plovdiv“ was established in 1912, which rightfully earns it the title of being the oldest football club in Bulgaria. In 1917 the club adopted its famous yellow-and-black jersey colors, which gave its players the nickname „The Canaries“. Throughout its history of more than a century „Botev“ has had its highs and lows, winning the First League Title in 1929 and 1967, but also dropping in the lower divisions in the early 2000s. In recent years, however, it’s once again emerging as one of the leading clubs in the country, having returned in the First League and winning the National Cup in 2017.
Having said all this, we can’t help but mention Plovdiv’s other teams. The most important one among them is „Lokomotiv Plovdiv“ (est. 1926), the great rival of „Botev“, who defeated them in the final of the most recent edition of the National Cup. There are also two more clubs – „Maritsa“, who have been playing in the lower divisions since the 1990s and „Spartak Plovdiv“, who, despite their glorious past (most notably their infamous First League Title in 1963), underwent a hiatus in the 2000s and reappeared just recently (2018) in the amateur league.
For the final event, we are leaving the 19th and the early 20th century and we are diving straight into the contemporary world of thrash metal. The late 1990s might not have been Metallica’s best years, true. But for us 1999 marked one of the biggest cultural events in our recent history. During June of that year Plovdiv was the European City of Culture for one month – coincidentally, exactly 20 years later, in 2019, our hometown was elected to be European Capital of Culture for the whole year. But, going back to 1999, the biggest event in the June cultural calendar was the Metallica concert, held in an old football stadium next to the Rowing canal.
The significance of the event was increased quite a lot by the fact that this was the very first Metallica concert in Bulgaria (in more recent years the band has played two more times in our country – in 2008 and in 2010, both times in Sofia).
For some people, it would probably be close to impossible to understand how much this meant in a post-communist state such as Bulgaria. Just a decade earlier it had been practically unimaginable to be able to see a famous metal band from the West play live in our country. And this was the case with the whole Eastern bloc, really – if you want to get a first-hand impression of the hype, just go on YouTube and check out some footage from Metallica’s legendary 1991 concert in Moscow. Similar craziness ensued here as well, with metalheads from all over the country coming towards Plovdiv.
Also, it should be noted that in 1999 we were still suffering the consequences of the biggest social and economic crisis in our recent history. Thus, Metallica’s concert was a giant breath of fresh air for our poverty-stricken country.
Apart from the crowd of 60 000 on the stadium itself (which makes it one of the top 5 concerts with the most audience in our country’s history!), the concert was viewed by tens of thousands of others, since it was broadcasted live on the Bulgarian National Television. Many of the lucky fans, who were in the stadium on the 11th of June 1999 still remember and write about this event with great fondness and consider it to be one of the greatest experiences of their lifetimes. Thus, the scope and the cultural and social impact of the event were so huge, that it rightfully deserves its place among the most significant events in our city’s history.
You can view the live broadcast of the entire concert on the Bulgarian National Television here.
You can see the official photos from the concert here.
Author: Free Plovdiv Tour Guide – Nikolay Nedyalkov