On Unifying Around Our Common History – Tsar Samuil Erga Omnes

Naum Kajchev




Naoum Kaytchev

Naum Kajcev 400x500Objectively unifying our common history, from the time of Tsar Samuil, from the Middle Ages in general, and from later eras, will make us all, the citizens of both countries, more united and more enriched in a European way.

As people in the know are probably well aware, over the past four months, expert-level discussions between Bulgaria and North Macedonia about our common history have been bogged down over differences regarding certain historical figures and processes – not only over Gotse Delchev, but recently over differences in how to present the case and of medieval rule Tsar (Emperor) Samuil in history textbooks (in this case – for students in the seventh grade).

Essentially, in terms of modern historical science, research has shown no particular dilemma about the state ruled by Samuil, as the nature of this empire has long been clarified. Although to a lesser degree than the more famous ancient historical figures Philip and Alexander the Great, Tsar Samuil also has a firm and permanent place in world science. For understandable reasons, the ruler of Prespa and Ohrid played a significant role in the history of the Byzantine Empire, which is why Byzantine studies – a long-established, prestigious branch of medieval studies, with its own significant traditions, has been looking into Tsar Samuil for decades and even centuries.

Modern World Science about Samuil

My peer from the Joint Historical Commission, Prof Momchil Metodiev, presented to all members of the Commission a list of 21 books on Byzantine history published by authoritative English-language academic publishers over the past 30 years, which directly or indirectly deal with the identity of Tsar Samuil. On this list were definitive publications such as The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium and The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire, and the specialised monographs by Paul Stevenson, Byzantium's Balkan Frontier: A Political Study of the Northern Balkans, 900-1204, and by Catherine Holms, Basil II and the Governance of Empire, 976-1025. All of them unanimously define and name the state that Samuil ruled as “Bulgaria”. This same thesis has also been made by major research centres in France, Germany and Russia.

However, this consensus is not only held amongst distant schools of research in history; this consensus is also noted and held here in our region of the world, the Balkans. Greece and its authoritative branch of Byzantine studies have always treated the state of Tsar Samuil as per the consensus, but the changes that have occurred in other countries in the Balkans are far more of interest. We know that in the former Yugoslavia, for understandable reasons, Tsar Samuil had been portrayed in a different light. However, since the 1990s, historians from countries of the former Yugoslavia have begun to break away from this self-imposed isolation from world science and abandoned the theses that had been imposed on them for non-scientific reasons.

For Croatian historians, Tsar Samuil is significant on account that after the reign of [medieval Bulgarian] Tsar Simeon, under Samuil Bulgaria once again became a neighbour state of Croatia. Samuil was also the ruler who tried to overpower the medieval Croatian state, albeit not to much success. Right at the end of the tenth century, Samuil’s troops marched deep into Dalmatia, with some accounts stating they reached as far as the city of Zadar. The first volume of the definitive, multi-volume History of the Croats published by Matica Hrvatska devotes a whole section about this incursion, under the title “The Cometopuli Uprising and the Attempt to Re-establish the Bulgarian Kingdom” (pp. 602–603).

Other authors in the same publication cite the “Bulgaro-Macedonian great” Samuil (p. 57), whose "Bulgarian armies" had little success in their campaign to capture Zadar. By virtue of this description, they meant the “Bulgarian” state, which had shifted its centre to what nowadays is in the geographical region of ​​Macedonia.

This change in thesis is even more significant in Serbia, where Byzantine studies are more well-established. After the 1990s, historians there abandoned the old theses from Yugoslav times and adopted the generally accepted view that Tsar Samuil was Bulgarian. The book “Samuilova država” (Samuil’s State), by the historian from the Byzantine Institute of the Serbian Academy of Sciences and the Arts (SANU), Srdjan Pirivatrić, which takes a detailed look into the arguments advocated to date, played a significant role in this change.

The contemporary Serbian position on history is even illustrated by the title of a dedicated article by the late director of the Institute of History in Belgrade, Tibor Živković, “Bulgarian Tsar Samuil's March on Dalmatia”.

Za obedinuvanjeto okolu nasata zaednicka istorija car Samoil erga omnesSource: skopje24.mk

It is not surprising that scholars from another ex-Yugoslav school of historical studies, from Kosovo, also hold similar views. For example, Gjon Berisha, Scientific Secretary of the Institute of History in Priština, in his exhaustive work “Albanians between the Western and Eastern Church during the 11th -15th Centuries” also noted that “from a political and ecclesiastical point of view, Samuil’s empire is considered a continuation of the empire of Simeon and Petar; for both its founders and for the Byzantines, it is simply a Bulgarian Empire” (p. 229). A similar view is also held in Albania itself, where the first volume of the representative academic collective Historia e popullit shqiptar (History of the Albanian People) (2002) has no dilemmas in stating that under Samuil the centre of the Bulgarian state moved from Preslav in the east to Prespa and Ohrid (p. 187).

Logically, and taking into account what has been attained in world and Balkan historiography, the view held by Albanian historians in the Republic of North Macedonia is also the same. For example, our peer from the State University of Tetovo, Qerim Dalipi, in his article "Dardania between Byzantium and External Attacks in the XI century" also focuses on the clash between Byzantium and the "Bulgarian Emperor Samuil" and the former’s success in conquering “the Bulgarian Empire” in 1018 (p. 27). A similar point of view is also held by an older generation of Albanian historians, such as Nebi Dervishi (The Ethnic Culture of the Ohrid Basin, pp. 45–46).

So what are the grounds for this consensus by different historiographies here in the Balkans and around the world? First of all, the wide array of sources – Byzantine, western, eastern, as well as our own – such as the famous Bitola Tablet from 1015 of Tsar Ioan Vladislav, Tsar Samuel's nephew. There is ample evidence that leads modern researchers to conclude that "what is significant is that Samuil referred to his state as Bulgarian; moreover, Byzantine sources refer to it as Bulgarian" (Anthony Kaldellis. Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood. The Rise and Fall of Byzantium, 955 a.d. to the First Crusade. Oxford University Press, p. 82).

Tsar Samuil and the Joint Historical Commission

In line with this global scientific context, in February 2019 the Joint Historical Commission proposed the joint commemoration of Tsar Samuil as part of the common history of the two present-day states, Bulgaria and North Macedonia. This was confirmed by the bilateral intergovernmental commission in June 2019 and then by the governments of both countries a month later. It is therefore a great pity that since then such a joint commemoration for Tsar Samuil, as well as for other specific, joint historical figures – St. Clement of Ohrid and St. Naum of Ohrid, and even of the holy brothers Saints Cyril and Methodius, has not been done.

Since autumn last year, we have been looking into the same historical figures again, but now in the context of how they are to be portrayed in history textbooks for the seventh grade. We were therefore surprised when our peers from Skopje refused to adhere to the decision made in 2019 on Tsar Samuil. According to their explanations, which were also made publicly, one policy were to be applied for remembrance, i.e. memorials through the commemoration of common historical figures and events, but another were to be applied for education in the Republic of North Macedonia. For the Bulgarian members of the Commission, in light of such clearly unambiguous historical evidence, it was unacceptable for Tsar Samuil to be portrayed in one way in school textbooks, and in another way – in joint commemorations for the general public. There can only be one Tsar Samuil – Tsar Samuil erga omnes.

Our peers from the Republic of North Macedonia have also emphasised that a "multi-perspective approach" to history should be respected. None of us reject the significance of different points of view on historical events and figures, but this is possible only when these points of view are backed by the relevant sources and arguments. This is what is meant by a correct and adequate approach to history – being in line with the huge body of sources and the prevailing interpretation of historical processes in historiography. A dozen times we directly asked our peers from Skopje: cite at least one historical source that proves the other "perspectives” – that Samuil was some "Macedonian" king or even the ruler of some unidentified group of non-Bulgarian Slavs. No answer has been forthcoming.

Multi-perspectivity undoubtedly has its own noteworthy role in the teaching of history, but this is something different. According to an authoritative definition, “multi-perspectivity is a form of the presentation of history in the classroom, where historical fact is presented from at least two different perspectives of participating or involved contemporaries, who have different social positions and interests” (U. Mayer et. al (eds.) Wörterbuch Geschichtsdidaktik, p. 143–144). These perspectives – so long as it is possible for these to be reconstructed and presented – are based on the accounts of contemporaries of the historical event and not on our current projections on the past. Therefore, almost all methodical materials on multi-perspectivity highlight that this, above all, requires working with appropriate sources.

Back to Unsubstantiated Historical Disputes or Forwards into Agreeing on the Common History of Both Countries?

As has already been outlined, sources and world (and Balkan) historiography give a clear and dominant thesis on Tsar Samuel and his state. The correct portrayal of Tsar Samuil’s accomplishments in school textbooks requires compliance with this thesis; it is not possible to state anything else as being valid. The other versions – that Samuil was some sort of non-Bulgarian "Slavic" or "Macedonian" ruler – are marginal and, methodologically, more suitable for inclusion in higher-level studies. 

As early as 1991, the Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium noted "the dispute over whether Samuil created a Macedonian, Western Bulgarian or Bulgarian state is ahistorical, as it projects contemporary ethnic differences on the past”. No one claims that Bulgarian statehood, culture or identity from the time of Tsar Samuil are equivalent to today's. The scale and complexity of the political and cultural heritage of Samuil and his state, imbued with the spirit of the holy brothers Saints Cyril and Methodius, their disciples St. Clement and St. Naum of Ohrid, and the holy knyaz (prince) Boris the Baptiser, are not the exclusive property of anyone. Objectively unifying our common history, from the time of Tsar Samuil, from the Middle Ages in general, and from later eras, will make us all, the citizens of both countries, more united and more enriched in a European way.


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Naum Kajchev

Naum Kajchev teaches new and contemporary Balkan history at Sofia University "St. Clement of Ohrid ". He is the author of the books Macedonia, Desired: The Army, the School and the Construction of the Nation in Serbia and Bulgaria (1878-1912) and Illyria from Varna to Villach: Croatian National Revival, Serbs and Bulgarians (until 1848). He is also the Deputy Chairman of the Joint Commission on Historical and Educational Issues between Bulgaria and Northern Macedonia.