The image of two men, one young and sporting a dark beard and the other older and white-bearded, with books and parchments in their hands, are to be found all over Bulgaria. There are countless statues and posters, church murals, and icons. Their images multiply on 24 May, when long processions of students crowd the central streets of every city carrying posters, usually decorated with flowers.
Their names are also to be seen everywhere: on schools, streets, the National Library, and one of the oldest universities in the country. This is an impressive feat for two people who lived 1,200 years ago and who, according to some historians, were not even Bulgarian.
Born in the 9th century Salonika, Cyril and Methodius achieved something which still shapes the cultural landscape of Bulgaria and Europe. As with so many things, it started with politics.
In the mid-9th century, thousands of pagan Slavs had settled within and around Byzantium, forming a buffer zone between that state and Rome. Both centers of power were keen to spread their own form of Christianity among these Slavs as an effective tool for gaining political influence in medieval times.
In Constantinople, Patriarch Photios had a bright idea. At that time, only three languages were permitted for the saying of mass and the copying of the Holy Scriptures: Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. What if, Photios thought, Byzantium preached to the Slavs in their own tongue? Translating the Bible and the liturgy into a language they could understand would very likely convert more souls, and increase the influence of Byzantium. Emperor Michael III liked the idea, but there was a hurdle. Greek letters were unfit to express all the Slavonic sounds. A new alphabet, tailored to the phonetics of the Slavonic language, had to be created. This would require someone with a deep knowledge of the Slavonic and other languages, and also of Christian philosophy and scripture.
Fortunately for Photios and Michael III, they had such a man. Born in the 820s into the family of a Thessaloniki official, Cyril was fluent in Slavonic. Bulgarians claim that he had learned the language from his supposedly Bulgarian mother. Another explanation is that he picked it up from the many Slavs in the city. Besides being a brilliant linguist, Cyril was also an accomplished philosopher. He was less than 40 when he was sent to proselytize among the Khazars in the Crimea. He produced some impressive arguments but ultimately failed, as the Khazars opted for Judaism. However, the Khazar Mission established Cyril as an exceptional theologian and public speaker.
When in 862 Prince Rastislav of Great Moravia (today part of the Czechia and Slovakia), asked Emperor Michael III for missionaries to convert his people to Christianity, Cyril was the obvious choice. By the time when he and his elder brother Methodius, who was a scribe, left for Moravia, Cyril had already devised an early version of the Slavonic alphabet.
Known today as Glagolitic (the name comes from the Slavic verb glagoliti, to speak), it looks strange to modern eyes, and rightfully so. Many of its letters were borrowed from Armenian, Coptic, and Hebrew scripts, and others were Cyril’s invention.
Upon arrival in Great Moravia, the two brothers wasted no time. They started translating the Holy Scriptures and teaching local boys the Glagolitic alphabet.
Initially, they were welcomed, but things did not go smoothly. Rome sent its own missionaries to Great Moravia and protested that the Byzantine monks were using an uncanonical language to say Mass and for the holy texts. In 867, Cyril went to Rome where he successfully argued the use of the Slavonic language and alphabet in church and scripture. He never left Rome. In 869, he fell ill and died, aged 42. Cyril was buried with full honors in the San Clemente Basilica. His tomb has been a destination for Bulgarian state dignitaries for many years.
Meanwhile, Methodius remained in Great Moravia. He advocated the use of the Glagolitic alphabet for 20 years, but finally, Western Christianity prevailed. Soon after Methodius died, in 885, aged 69, the pope banned the celebration of mass in the Slavonic language. Methodius’s most trusted disciples were expelled.
This is when Bulgaria entered the story.