The tug-of-war over Tsar Samuil – Bulgarian or Macedonian?

Tsar Samuil figures prominently in both Bulgarian and Macedonian history, a fact that is a source of great animosity between the two countries.

"King Samuil of Bulgaria - sculpture from Fortress of Samuil, Petrich, Bulgaria" Credits: Wikipedia/CC/Nikola Gruev

King Samuil of Bulgaria – sculpture from Fortress of Samuil, Petrich, Bulgaria
Credits: Wikipedia/CC/Nikola Gruev

Tsar Samuil is not simply a historical figure – he is an important part of nationalistic claims in both countries. On the one hand, the official doctrine of Macedonia is inspired by the propaganda of Tito’s communist Yugoslavia, which claims that the Tsar Samuil was the head of a Macedonian empire. This allegation is based on the geographic scope of the empire, which included lands from the Black Sea to the Adriatic, where southwestern cities such as Ohrid were of crucial importance. In addition, Macedonian scholars tend to emphasize the cultural, social and linguistic distinctiveness of Tsar Samuil’s empire, in order to support the claim that Macedonians have long been a separate nationality with their own distinct language and history. However, Bulgarian scholars emphasize the fact that allegedly the Tsar Samuil used the word Bulgarian to describe himself and his kingdom. This latter interpretation supports the popular belief in Bulgaria that Macedonians are in fact Bulgarians by origin. While Bulgaria recognized the existence of a Macedonian state in 1991, it has still not confirmed the existence of a Macedonian identity or a Macedonian language, which is believed to be a dialect of Bulgarian. The tension between the two countries on this subject has been so significant that in 2012 the European Parliament urged the Republic of Macedonia to create a joint expert committee with Bulgaria in order to tackle the sensitive issue of history education in the two countries.

The Byzantines under emperor Basil II defeat the Bulgarians (top). Tsar Samuel dying in front of his blinded soldiers (bottom) From Manasses Chronicle - Vatican manuscript (XIV century)

The Byzantines under emperor Basil II defeat the Bulgarians (top). Tsar Samuel dying in front of his blinded soldiers (bottom)
From Manasses Chronicle – Vatican manuscript (XIV century)

An incarnation of nationalistic claims

Samuil was the Tsar of the First Bulgarian Empire from 997 till 1014, succeeding Emperor Roman I, who died childless. Before becoming tsar, he co-ruled the empire with Roman I, as leading commander of the imperial army. He was known as a great strategist, having won many victories and thus expanding the Bulgarian empire. Notably, his armies conquered European possessions of the Byzantine Empire, such as large parts of current-day Greece. By these victories, the Bulgarian Empire gained a considerable influence over most of the southwestern Balkans. However, from 1001 onwards, the war turned in favour of the Byzantines. Eventually, in 1014, the Bulgarians were completely defeated by the Byzantines at the Battle of Kleidion. According to legend, following the capture of the Bulgarian army, the Byzantine commander Basil II had 99 out of every 100 men blinded, with the remaining hundredth man left with one eye so as to lead his compatriots home. It is claimed that when Tsar Samuil saw the broken remains of his army, he suffered a heart attack and died. By 1018, the last Bulgarian strongholds had surrendered and the First Bulgarian Empire was abolished. Thus, the reign of Tsar Samuil coincides with the end of the First Bulgarian Empire. However, he is still seen as a great hero – two nations even argue as to who can rightfully claim his heritage. The two nations mentioned are Bulgaria and Macedonia.

Continued episodes of friction between the two countries

Samuel's monument in Skopje, Macedonia Credits: Wikipedia/CC/Rašo

Samuel’s monument in Skopje, Macedonia
Credits: Wikipedia/CC/Rašo

There have been multiple examples of animosity between the two countries due to disputes over the Tsar Samuil. In June 2011, as part of the Skopje 2014 project, a 5-meter marble statue of the Tsar Samuil was erected in Skopje. While the Bulgarian Foreign Ministry remained silent on the matter, the Bulgarian historian Bozhidar Dimitrov mocked the immense monument, declaring that “it is great to see neighboring states erect monuments of Bulgarian tsars”. As of January this year, it became clear that Sofia is in fact intending to erect its own monument of the famed Tsar, this in connection with the marking of the 1000th anniversary of his death. The monument will comport remnants of the Tsar, accorded to Bulgaria by the Greek government. This has caused strong reactions among Macedonian historians, who see it as “a joint attack on the part of Bulgaria and Greece and another blow to Macedonia’s history, future and EU integration process”.

It is thus clear that the ethnic affiliation of the Tsar Samuil is still a current and highly sensitive issue in the region, this despite the fact that the Tsar has been dead for a millennium.

Maria Hviding