Cyrillic Alphabet day in Bulgaria is better known as ‘Bulgarian Education, Culture and Slavonic Literature Day and is celebrated every year on the 24th May following the Orthodox Julian calendar.(Slavic countries that follow the Roman Catholic calendar the Cyrillic alphabet day is celebrated on 5th July)
To many of us around the world celebrating an alphabet sounds on odd thing to do but in Bulgaria and a few other Countries that use the Cyrillic alphabet, it is regarded as a very important national holiday festival equal to that of Liberation Day, 3rd March or even Christmas day.
Importance of an Alphabet
Adopting Latin, Greek or any other foreign alphabet will allow you to read and write but why should you have to do that when your speech and culture are different from others?
Different dialects produce different sounds different sounds can require different alphabets. Whether we realise it or not, an alphabet gives us a sense of identity of where we are from and among other things it gives us an independence of expression different from that of other nationalities.
Origins of the Cyrillic Alphabet
The Cyrillic alphabet is a writing system which began to develop in the 9th century and it has a most fascinating and interesting story behind it which I shall endeavor to give you a shortened version of historic events for the purpose of this post.
In the year 852 AD King Boris of Bulgaria came to the throne and at that time he commanded a very large area of Europe and with it, a great military and economical power. Most of Europe during the 9th century was predominantly Christian. Bulgaria however, was not, and much fighting between countries over border territories were always breaking out.
Bulgaria was seen by the other Christian countries to be Barbaric, a nation of pagans, and were therefore considered inferior and so the many treaties between warring European neighbours were always going to be broken.
The Byzantine Empire over the preceding two hundred years had long been the arch enemy of the Slavs and during 863 under Emperor Michael III war was declared on King Boris and due to several unfortunate events of misfortune Boris was eventually forced to make peace with the Byzantines.
Fighting wars are expensive and so King Boris in his wisdom, decided to align himself with Rome and adopt Christianity for his people to ensure the security and future prosperity of his Bulgarian Kingdom.
Bulgaria was granted to be an ‘autocephalus’ church, (this is a posh word that means it is self governed and answers to no other higher authority, in this example, Rome.) and King Boris was given the Christian title of Knyaz and on several occasions had to put down small uprisings by his own political staff against his decisions.
During this period Greek speaking missionaries began to arrive in Bulgaria and were preaching from Byzantine Holy Books. Boris became worried that this old enemy would gain a cultural and maybe political influence over the Bulgarian people if this were to continue.
The Slavonic language had no writing system of its own and I believe Boris knew the importance of this and how the Slavic identity and culture could be eroded away. I must also point out, that this period in history, the only language or writing of the Holy Scriptures that were allowed and recognised by the Church were Greek, Hebrew and Latin.
Constantine (Cyril) and Methodius
Meanwhile, Prince Rastislav of Great Moravia, (now known as the Ukraine) asked the Byzantine Emperor at the time to send him missionaries that could preach in Slavonic. The Byzantine Emperor, Michael saw this as an opportunity to spread Byzantine influence quickly and he sent two brothers who were half Slavic by birth ( their mother was Bulgarian) to Prince Rastislav in Great Moravia. Those monk missionary names were, Constantine (Cyril) and Methodius.
Constantine and Methodius began to spread Christianity throughout the Slavic nations of Great Morovia, Bulgaria and Pannonia (known today as Hungary and a part of Austria) In 863 they set to work and devised an alphabet which used 26 consonants and 18 vowels and began translating the Bible into Slavonic for the first time
This system became known as the Glagolitic alphabet, which was based on 3 holy elements in Christianity: The cross triangle and the circle.
They also trained young student monks to develop the alphabet and they soon had a large educated following of disciples.
The Church and the Slavic Cyrillic Alphabet
As mentioned previously writing the Holy Scripture in any other language would be classed as heresy and a big no, no. Eventually Constantine and Methodius were brought to trial over the conflict of their work. After much debate, Constantine and his brother Methodius gave an award winning speech as to the advantages of allowing translated works of the Bible and were allowed to proceed with their holy work.
In 868 Pope Adrian confirmed the importance of their work and placed their translated books on the altar in St Peters Basilica in Rome, thus making Slavonic an official language in Christianity.
During a visit to Rome that same year Constantine died and it was while on his death bed he adopted the Christian name of Cyril.
Methodius returned to Great Moravia as Archbishop and continued to spread Gods word in Slavonic.
In 885 AD a new Pope was elected and unfortunately for Methodius and his disciples he didn’t quite see it the way that his predecessor did and demanded that the preaching of the scriptures should be told in Latin. A warrant for the arrest of Methodius and his followers was given,.
Methodius died prior to his imprisonment and over 200 of his students were thrown into jail or sold as slaves. Fortunately, 5 of his disciples escaped to Bulgaria where King Boris gave them refuge and gave them all the assistance they needed in carrying on with their work.
Many stories have evolved as to how the 5 monks escaped some say King Boris himself ransomed them to enable them to continue work which was so important for Bulgarian culture, some say they fled in a make-shift raft across the River Danube, while others say it was God’s will.
One story tells that while the Monks were in prison, an earthquake of significant magnitude happened which collapsed many buildings including their prison. Many prisoners were killed in the falling rubble but several managed to escape when the tremors released the shackles they were bound with and they were able to walk free.
The Cyrillic Alphabet
Two of the five escapees Clement and Naum under the commission of King Boris founded 2 literary universities in Bulgaria Preslav and Ohrid where thousands of student monks were taught and many thousands of transcripts were written into the Slavic language. More importantly, they also went on to create a similar but better version of the Glagolitic alphabet and named it in honour of their teacher. The Cyrillic alphabet was born.
The Cyrillic alphabet, spread from Bulgaria to Croatia, to Serbia, and eventually to Kievan Rus now known as Russia as well as several other countries.
Today, the Cyrillic alphabet is used by 252 million people in 12 different countries, give or take a few.
The Cyrillic alphabet is also the third official script of the European Union and is the fourth recognised and official language of the Church of Rome
St Cyril and St Methodius
St Cyril and St Methodius became known as the ‘Apostles of the Slavs’ and were canonized as saints in 1880 when Pope Leo Xlll entered their feast into the Roman Catholic calendar. In 1980 Pope John Paul ll declared them patron saints of Europe.
Like all Saints Days it is usually remembered the day of their passing in the case of St Cyril this is February 14th and St Methodius April 6th. The Cyrillic alphabet which is often referred to as the Bulgarian alphabet is a unique invention that paved the way for the progress and development for Bulgaria as a nation.
Now after reading this post, reflect for a moment, and think of the importance of the alphabet to all of us and where we would be without one!