Wednesday, June 28, 2006

The slayer of Bulgarians: implications for today

The following citations are from Trud newspaper, from the reports Bulgar-Slayer street in Athens is being renamed (May 17) and Bulgar-Slayer street was renamed (May 18):

"The name of Bulgar-Slayer street in the Ilion district in Athens will be changed today to Basil II... The decision was taken by the municipality... after repeated suggestions by Stefan Stoyanov, Bulgarian ambassador in Greece... A total of 17 streets in different districts of Athens carry the name Basil the Bulgar-Slayer, but actually only Bulgar-Slayer is written on the labels... Hundreds of such street labels can be seen throughout Greece..." (May 17)

"Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer street was renamed to Basil II street yesterday... Bulgarian ambassador Stoyanov, who attended the ceremony, will (be allowed to) keep the old label... During the ceremony, some citizens came to express indignation over the renaming." (May 18)

The later report is illustrated with the above photo showing Vasilis Kukuvinos, mayor of district Ilion in Athens (left) and the Bulgarian ambassador Stoyanov showing the old removed label. Above them, the new label can be seen.

Because slaying other people has been for millenia part of the routine job of any self-respecting ruler, possibly the non-Bulgarian (and non-Greek) reader already is wondering what exactly has Basil II done in order to be remembered as the Bulgar-Slayer? Here is a citation from Wikipedia (

"Basil II The Bulgar-Slayer... was Byzantine emperor from January 10, 976 to December 15, 1025 who led the Byzantine Empire to its greatest heights in nearly five centuries... As the second millennium got under way, he took on his greatest adversary, (King) Samuel of Bulgaria... Samuel had extended his rule from the Adriatic to the Black Sea and raided into central Greece, and Basil was determined to reverse the fortunes of the empire. In 1001–1002, the Byzantines were able to reassert their control over Moesia, and in 1003 he raided into Macedonia, taking Skopje... Finally, on July 29, 1014, Basil II outmaneuvered the Bulgarian army in the Battle of Kleidion, with Samuel separated from his force. Having crushed the Bulgarians, Basil was said to have captured 15,000 prisoners and blinded 99 of every 100 men, leaving 150 one-eyed men to lead them back to their ruler, who fainted at the sight and died two days later suffering a stroke. Although this may be an exaggeration, this gave Basil his nickname Boulgaroktonos, "the Bulgar-slayer" in later tradition. Bulgaria fought on for four more years, but finally submitted in 1018."

About the "exaggeration" - most historians estimate the number of the blinded prisoners between 11000 and 14000. Does it matter so much? Had he captured only 6000, he would have only 6000 available for blinding. Had he captured 20000, he would hardly decide that 15000 blind men are enough for his purpose and release the other 5000 unharmed. If you wonder over the technical difficulties associated with blinding so many people in so little time - blinding was the most common punishment in the Byzantine empire, so the procedure was routine and Basil had many employees with the necessary skills.

What are the implications for today? First, this historical event shows us the most dangerous aspect of terror - that it is effective. Blinding the prisoners and sending them back was an act of terror, because it intended to install horror and so to break the spirit of King Samuel and the remains of the Bulgarian army. Indeed, Bulgaria was losing anyway because of its economic and military inferiority to the Byzantine empire, but the 1914 event was the crushing point. Basil's terror was effective although its spreading was hampered by the primitive transport and communications of its time. Today's terrorists are facilitated: the media work for them. If you are a yogurt maker and want to advertise your production, Al Jazeera will charge you, but if you are a terrorist and want to advertise your head-chopping, the same TV will broadcast your video absolutely for free. Another difference: people in the 11th century were braver than us today. After seeing thousands of blinded soldiers, Bulgarians continued resistance for as long as they could, while the murder of only 200 people made Spaniards surrender to the enemy. Bad business.

Another implication: acts of terror will not be condemned by the terrorists' progeny. Time alone brings no catharsis. Of course nobody would blame today's Greeks for what some emperor did a millenium ago. Nobody would insist streets to be named only after perfect people - there would be too few streets to shelter us. But why did the Greeks name the streets Bulgar-Slayer instead of Basil II? They don't criticize the moral side of his actions. They are just proud that they have had such a mighty emperor. Only when Bulgaria is to become a fellow EU member in less than a year, does a Greek municipality decide to rename one (just one) of these streets, and citizens protest. And this is a nation claiming to be fully civilized. I don't care about the defeat of Bulgaria in the 11th century or the mindset of Greeks today. What worries me is the current war and the current enemy. Those who crashed kidnapped planes into the World Trade Center at Sept. 11, blowed up the subway in Madrid, stabbed Theo van Gogh in Holland and exploded 18-months-old Sinai Kenaan in Israel. If we only allow ourselves to be defeated, these acts and the miserable souls who committed them will be glorified in textbooks, corrupting the innocent minds of each generation of children.


programmer craig said...

Hi Maya,

In the 995, Basil II launched a campaign against the Muslim Arabs and won several battles in Syria, relieving Aleppo, taking over the Orontes valley, and raiding further south. Although he did not have the force to drive into Palestine and reclaim Jerusalem, his victories did restore much of Syria to the empire.

I wonder how long the name would have lasted if he'd been called "The slayer of Arabs" instead?

Maya M said...

I think the fuel crisis in the early 1970s is the latest possible moment when a name like Arab-Slayer could exist. Then Arabs became too powerful. I also, while reading the Wikipedia article about Basil II, mentioned the name of Aleppo - the same sity where our friend Highlander recently ate shawarma and creme.