17 May 2021

Holy New Martyrs of Batak

Icon of the Martyrs of Batak

The Orthodox Church commemorates today the New Martyrs of Batak – the people who died in that village during the April Uprising, as a result of the Ottoman atrocities. The Batak martyrs are important not only to Orthodox history, but to the history of radicalism in the UK and the West more broadly. The Eastern Question Association was formed largely in response to the reports of the slaughter at Batak. Indeed, William Morris’s own pro-Russian and anti-imperialist sentiments were galvanised by his sympathy for the suffering Bulgarian peasantry.

The Bulgarian cause, which was highlighted and commemorated in literature by Ivan Vazov, in fact grew out of the Ottoman Empire’s attempts to modernise and to establish a bureaucratic uniformity over all of its territories. In order to meet a budget deficit in the mid-1870s, the Ottoman Empire began to cut services and raise taxes on its Christian population, particularly in the Balkans. This led to tensions and uprisings, particularly in Herzegovina by the Bosnian Serbs. The Bulgarian people as well rose in revolt in 1876 after several stages of careful planning. They stockpiled ammunition and had even begun making makeshift cannon out of cherry wood. Four revolutionary districts were established, at Vratsa, Veliko Tărnovo, Sliven and Plovdiv. Planning for a fifth revolutionary district in Sofia had to be discontinued on account of the poor local conditions, and the Plovdiv revolutionary district was moved to Panagyurishte.

The Panagyurishte district leaders met to discuss strategy, but one of the delegates of the district betrayed them to the Ottoman authorities. After the revolt started and the Bulgarian revolutionaries had attacked the local police, expecting other groups around the country to do the same, the Ottoman army, which had advanced warning of the uprising, moved in to crush the rebellion. They relied heavily on Slavic Muslim irregulars – başı-bozuks – commanded by Ahmet Aga, to subdue the populace. After an initial skirmish, the rebel leaders in Batak, one of the main villages in the Panagyurishte district, surrendered to the Turks on a promise that the village would be spared. That promise was not honoured.

What happened after that was one of the single most gruesome mass killings committed on European soil in the nineteenth century. As many as five thousand civilians in Batak were rounded up and systematically shot, tortured, mutilated, raped, beheaded, impaled and burnt alive. The last torturous death was the one Ahmet Aga commanded for the leader of the rebellion, Trendafil Kerelov. Some of the villagers fled for safety into the Holy Sunday Church (Света Неделя) in Batak and barricaded themselves inside. They held off the başı-bozuks for three days, during which time the Turks repeatedly fired on the church and tried to scale the roof and bash in the doors. It was thirst which drove the survivors out, and when they surrendered they too were put to the sword and beheaded.

The massacre was reported in the Western press by Ohio war correspondent Januarius MacGahan and New York diplomat Eugene Schuyler, who managed to visit Batak, albeit with significant hindrance from the Ottoman bureaucracy, several days after the massacre. MacGahan wrote:
We looked into the church which had been blackened by the burning of the woodwork, but not destroyed, nor even much injured. It was a low building with a low roof, supported by heavy irregular arches, that as we looked in seemed scarcely high enough for a tall man to stand under. What we saw there was too frightful for more than a hasty glance. An immense number of bodies had been partly burnt there and the charred and blackened remains, that seemed to fill it half way up to the low dark arches and make them lower and darker still, were lying in a state of putrefaction too frightful to look upon. I had never imagined anything so horrible. We all turned away sick and faint, and staggered out of the fearful pest house glad to get into the street again. We walked about the place and saw the same things repeated over and over a hundred times. Skeletons of men with the clothing and flesh still hanging to and rotting together; skulls of women, with the hair dragging in the dust, bones of children and of infants everywhere. Here they show us a house where twenty people were burned alive; there another where a dozen girls had taken refuge, and been slaughtered to the last one, as their bones amply testified. Everywhere horrors upon horrors.
As a result of this investigative reporting by MacGahan and Schuyler, the reaction to the Bulgarian atrocities was widespread and profound. The Disraeli government’s policy of support for the Ottoman Empire was roundly discredited in the eyes of the British public, and not least among the radicals, whose activity also began to take on an anti-war and anti-imperialist perspective on account of the ‘Eastern Question’. As a result, the British government declined to aid their traditional Ottoman friends during the Russo-Turkish War of 1877 – which resulted in the liberation of Bulgaria from Ottoman tyranny.

The cost borne by the Bulgarian people, however, was altogether too high. Even today, the Holy Sunday Church in Batak has been rededicated as a shrine to those killed in the massacre, and the bones of the victims have been preserved. The memory of these martyrs is still of great importance to the Bulgarian people and to the Orthodox Church. Holy new martyrs of Batak, pray unto Christ our God that our souls may be saved!

Holy Sunday Church, Batak, Bulgaria

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