Bulgaria celebrates Sunday, March 22, 2015, 785 years since one of the most important victories in its 1400-year history: the victory of Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241 AD), ruler of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), against the powerful Theodore Komnenos Doukas (r. 1216-1230 AD), ruler of the Despotate of Epirus, in the Battle of Klokotnitsa in 1230 AD.
Tsar Ivan Asen II’s victory near Klokotnitsa, in which he prevailed with inferior forces over the Despot of Epirus and an aspirant for the Constantinople throne, turned one of the most glorious pages in the history of the Second Bulgarian Empire.
It ruled territories from the Carpathian Mountains in the north to the Aegean and the Adriatic in the south (see the maps at the end of this article) restoring most, if not all, of the territorial, military and economic might of the First Bulgarian Empire (632 / 680-1018 AD), and spurring intensive development of Bulgarian culture and literature that later led to the Second Golden Age in the 14th century (the First Golden Age of Bulgarian culture having occurred in the 9th-10th century AD during the reigns of Knyaz Boris I (r. 852-889), Tsar Simeon I (r. 893-927), and Tsar Petar (r. 927-970)). More about the history of the Battle of Klokotnitsa read in the Background Infonotes below.
In addition to being commemorated all across Bulgaria, the anniversary from Tsar Ivan Asen II’s victory in the Battle of Klokotnitsa is a special local holiday for two Bulgarian cities: the city of Veliko Tarnovo (“Great Tarnovo”) in Central Northern Bulgaria, which was the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire, and the southern town of Asenovgrad, which owes its name to the medieval Asen’s fortress and the Asen Dynasty (House of Asen) that ruled Bulgaria in 1185-1257 AD.
That is why the city of Veliko Tarnovo and the town of Asenovgrad have held celebrations with a variety of public and cultural events with mass participation.
The most formal events commemorating Tsar Ivan Asen’s victory in the Battle of Klokotnitsa in 1230 AD have been the laying of wreaths and flowers at the monument of the great Bulgarian leader in the town of Asenovgrad, and visits to the famous Asen’s Fortress nearby, one of Bulgaria’s most important strongholds in the Middle Ages; the serving of a special liturgy in the Holy Forty Martyrs Church in Veliko Tarnovo, which was being built by Tsar Ivan Asen II at the time of the Klokotnitsa Battle, as testified by his famous inscription (read it in the Background Infonotes below), and the laying of wreaths and flowers on the sarcophagus of Tsar Kaloyan (r. 1197-1207), predecessor and uncle of Tsar Ivan Asen II, which is kept inside the Church.
All of the formal events dedicated to the commemoration of the 785th anniversary since the Battle of Klokotnitsa have been attended by political figures from the central government and the local authorities.
The celebrations of Tsar Ivan Asen II’s victory in 1230 AD are seen as a prelude to the upcoming celebrations later in 2015 of an even more important anniversary: 830 years since the Rebellion of Asen and Petar which liberated Bulgaria from Byzantium, and created the Second Bulgarian Empire (later the brothers became Tsar Asen I, r. 1187-1196, and Tsar Petar IV, r. 1186-1197; they ruled as co-emperors, and were succeeded by their young brother Kaloyan, r. 1197-1207). The anniversary from Asen and Petar’s Rebellion from 1185 AD will be celebrated by Bulgaria on October 25, 2015.
The Battle of Klokotnitsa occurred on March 9, 1230 AD, near the town of Klokotnitsa (in today’s Haskovo District in Southern Bulgaria). In the Battle of Klokotnitsa, the inferior forces of Tsar Ivan Asen II (r. 1218-1241 AD), ruler of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1396 AD), soundly defeated the armies of Theodore Komnenos Doukas (r. 1216-1230 AD), ruler of the Despotate of Epirus, one of the three Byzantine Greek successor states formed after Western European crusaders from the Fourth Crusade conquered Constantinople in 1204 AD, and set up the so called Latin Empire (1204-1261 AD). The Battle of Klokotnitsa is considered one of the most important military victories in the 1400 years of Bulgarian history.
Around 1221–1222, the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II signed an alliance treaty with Despot Theodore Komnenos Doukas from the Epirus Despotate which allowed Theodore Komnenos to focus on expanding against the Latin Empire by conquering Thessaloniki but also by capturing some Bulgarian territories such as Ohrid in the region of Macedonia. After the death of Latin Emperor Robert of Courtenay (r. 1221-1228 AD), his successor to the throne of the Latin Empire, Emperor Baldwin II was just 11 years old, and the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II appeared as the most likely choice of a regent for him. As a result, he and the Bulgarian Empire were considered an obstacle by Theodore Komnenos who was aspiring to the throne of Constantinople in order to resurrect the Byzantine Empire. Thus, in early March 1230 AD, Theodore Komnenos invaded Bulgaria with a large army in violation of his alliance with Tsar Ivan Asen II, and without a declaration of war. The Bulgarian Tsar, with a smaller army, marched to meet him surprisingly quickly. On March 9 (March 22), 1230, the their armies met near the town of Klokotnitsa. Tsar Ivan Asen II had the broken alliance treaty to be pierced on his spear and used as a flag. In a battle that lasted till sunset, the Epirotians were completely defeated, and only a small force under the despot’s brother, Manuel Komnenos Doukas, managed to escape. The rest were killed in the battle or captured, including the entire royal court of Epirus and Theodore Komnenos himself.
After the Battle of Klokotnitsa, the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II released the captured soldiers without any conditions, while the nobles were taken to the Bulgarian capital Tarnovgrad (today’s Veliko Tarnovo). His fame for being a merciful and just ruler went ahead of his march to the lands of Theodore Komnenos, and they were regained to Bulgaria without resistance. These included the territories between the Black Sea, the Aegean Sea, and the Adriatic Sea. The captured Despot Theodore Komnenos was kept as a prisoner in Tarnovgrad for seven years; he was blinded after his involvement in a conspiracy there. He was released in 1237, after the Bulgarian Tsar Ivan Asen II married his daughter Irene, and returned to Epirus where he died in 1253.
Tsar Ivan Asen II’s Inscription in the Holy Forty Martyrs Church. In order to commemorate the Battle of Klokotnitsa, the Bulgarian Emperor had an inscription carved in one of the marble columns of the Church “Holy Forty Martyrs” in the capital of the Bulgarian Empire, Tarnovgrad (Veliko Tarnovo):
“In the year 6738 (1230), third indiction, I, John Asen, in God Christ true Tsar and sovereign of the Bulgarians, son of the old Tsar Asen, raised from the foundations and decorated with art this holy church in the name of the Holy Forty Martyrs, with the help of whom in the twelfth year of my reign when this temple was being decorated, I made war in Byzantium and defeated the Greek army and captured their Tsar, Kyr Teodore Komnenos, together with all his bolyars. And I occupied all of his land from Odrin (Adrianople) to Drach (Dyrrhachium), Greek and also Albanian and Serbian; and the towns around Constantinople and this very town were ruled by the Frizes (Latins), but they also subjugated to my empire; because they had no other Tsar but me and thanks to me they spent their days, because God ordered this, because without Him neither a deed, nor a word is done. Glory to Him forever, amen.”