Khan Omurtag (814 - 831)

Omurtag

THERE IS AN ANCIENT ROMAN SAYING: even the most glorious victory is nothing but a gleam of fire. Khan Omurtag, who succeeded his father Krum to the throne in 814 seems to have drawn wisdom from these words. He always kept an eye on the intrigues of the Byzantines who were still hitter about his father's stunning victories. He also had to consider the threats to the other borders.


Khan Omurtag, though willing to make peace with his neighbors, waged successful wars against the Frankish Empire and the Khazars, and the new borders of the Bulgarian state were established further northwest near Belgrade and Branichevo. To the east the state expanded all the way to the Dnieper. Those wars were started by Bulgaria's enemies and, according to historical sources, Khan Omurtag's ships sailed up to the middle reaches of the Danube. Only the wars with Byzantium were a failure, and the results marked a turning point in Bulgarian diplomacy.

A peace treaty was signed for a period of thirty years, alleviating tension at the Bulgarian-Byzantine border. Byzantine prisoners were exchanged for Slavs from the imperial territories. When concluding the peace treaty, the two rulers expressed their respect for each other, each taking oath by the other's ritual the Byzantine Emperor performed the Bulgarian pagan rite and Khan Omurtag's envoys went through the Christian ceremony. Moreover, the Bulgarian army helped suppress a peasant revolt against the basileus in Constantinople, led by Thomas the Slav.

With diplomatic skill and military power Omurtag managed to handle the Hungarians too, thus maintaining peace for his subjects. He took firm control of internal affairs, completing the process of Bulgaria's consolidation as a unified and powerful state. Whoever dared to encroach on its territory or to impair the power of the state was punished severely.

Yet the Khan preferred to use peaceful means to bring Bulgars and Slavs together and unite them into a single nation. He himself married a Slav and gave two of his sons Slav names: Enravotha and Zvinitsa. He treated both the nobles and the populace with wisdom and vision. In the capital and the surrounding "inner lands" he established order and the rule of law. His power was considerable even in the "outer lands", further away from Pliska. The nobles from both assisted him in his rule.

However, Khan Omurtag persecuted the preachers of Christianity who came to Bulgaria from neighboring Byzantium. He believed them to be an instrument of Byzantine influence which would bring ruin to the new state. Even his firstborn son Enravotha who had dared to adopt Christianity fell victim to this persecution and was denied succession to the throne.

The acquired power and a period of peace allowed the Khan to engage in active construction. The capital, which had been burned by the Byzantines, was restored. A new palace, a ceremonial hall and an internal fortified wall were erected. The new palace-fortress on the river Ticha was adorned with two lions standing on four pillars - a symbol of Bulgarian power. An inscription on a stone pillar round near the construction site read: "May God let the ruler he put into power trample upon the emperor as long as the Ticha flows, as long as.. .he reigns over the multitude of Bulgarians and overcomes his enemies". The Khan erected another fortified palace on the Danube, indicative of his self-confidence as a ruler and of the prosperity of his state.

The memorials of his time provide a precious account of the way of life of medieval Bulgarians, of their culture and of Khan Omurtag's hope that the new state would endure. Inscriptions on pillars and stones have immortalized the deeds of the Khan and his men. Conscious of the transience of human life and the imperishability of what has been made by human hands, he ordered the following inscription to be made on a pillar in 831: "A good life though he may have led, a man shall die and another shall be born. May the later-born who see this remember its creator".


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