Iran and Bulgaria: The Hubris of Ancient Beginnings

The lavish celebrations of the 1300th Anniversary of the Founding of the so-called First Bulgarian Empire was a curious, very un-socialist matter, steeped in myth and nationalist lore. It appears that an inspiration for this anniversary came directly from the 1971 celebrations of the 2,500th Anniversary of the Founding of the Persian Empire held under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi’s (1919-1980) auspices in monarchical Iran. The Bulgarian leader, Todor Zhivkov (1911-1998) was invited to Iran on the strength of a hypothetical presence of Turkic-speaking Bulgars in Persia’s Bactria (now in Afghanistan and Tajikistan) during the times of Alexander the Great. But Zhivkov refused to attend, perhaps due to Tehran’s too all intimate relations with the United States. Bulgaria, as a member state of the Soviet bloc, used to pride itself on being the most loyal ally of the Soviet Union. Sending an official delegation could be read at the Kremlin as akin to treason, leading to the swift removal of Zhivkov from the post of the General Secretary of the Bulgarian Communist Party.


Monument to 1300 Years of Bulgaria, Shumen

Zhivkov’s daughter, Ludmila Zhivkova (1942-1981) interested in all matters esoteric, pleaded with her father that in his stead she should be allowed to represent Bulgaria during these 2500th Anniversary celebrations in Iran, but to no avail. Despite the fact that Zhivkov gave a cold shoulder to Shah, the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs entrusted the Bulgarian Ambassador with a 2500 Years of the Persian Empire gold commemorative medal that was duly passed to the Bulgarian leader. As President (in the rank of minister) of the Committee of Culture (the ministry of culture was then known under this name in Bulgaria), Ludmila Zhivkova, led the organization of the 1300th anniversary of Bulgaria. These celebrations took place in 1981, a decade after the Iranian ones.


Celebrations of the 2500th Anniversary of the Founding of the Persian Empire, Persopolis in 1971

In Iran the Islamic population was compelled to celebrate the pointedly un-Islamic (and even ‘heathen’) beginning of the Persian Empire. Similarly, in Bulgaria the Slavophone Orthodox population had to celebrate the strangely un-Orthodox (again, ‘heathen’) and non-Slavic (that is, Turkic) beginning of the First Bulgarian Empire. This did no good either to the Shah or Zhivkov. Those who believe in numerology may see such celebrations of grandeur past as a clear sign of hubris. Eight years after the 1971 celebrations in Iran, it led to the nemesis of the Islamic Revolution in 1979 that swept away Shah and his regime. And also exactly eight years after the celebrations in Bulgaria, this hubris led to the nemesis of the 1989 Revolution in this country. Zhivkov was swiftly deposed from his post, alongside the communist regime. A coincidence perhaps, but how much pregnant with symbolic meaning.


March 2016