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The Slavs - Episode 3


Exoduses, Migrations, Conquests

Exoduses, migrations, conquests. Those three words: exoduses, migrations, conquests, sum up the story of Eastern Europe in the 6th century after Christ. Violently shaking the kaleidoscope of history, new racial groups made their appearance on the European stage. Wave after wave, hordes of nomadic barbarians from the steppes of Asia, overran the eastern territories of Europe. In the course of their relentless westward advance, they encountered the Slavs. At that time the Slavs inhabited an area stretching from the Carpathian Mountains to the Baltic Sea, more or less corresponding to present day Western Russia. The Slavs had to give up their territory to the tribes of Asian nomads and they spread out over lands that altogether were five times vaster than their original homeland. The barbarians from the east kept on wandering in search of new lands, but the Slavs settled down in the regions they conquered.

These new territories varied considerably, both in the influence exerted by the neighbouring cultures and in climate. And so each of the Slavic groups developed individual characteristics. The distinctions that came into existence were not so much a question of race or language. They concerned the way of life and type of activity. The tribes with a peasant type origin started farming and colonised zones that were practically virgin. The Slavs of the steppes on the other hand were semi-nomadic horsemen and they preferred herding and livestock rearing.

Other groups, the ones that eventually took the names of Slovenes, Croats and Serbs spread across the Balkan Peninsula, they reached as far as the Adriatic Sea. That was where the first contacts and clashes began between the Slavs and the Latin world. To the North, after crossing the Carpathian Mountains and occupying the territories where the Poles, Czechs and Slovaks still live, the Slavs encountered the Germanic world. For centuries this was to be a relationship fraught with tension.

In the Balkans the Southern Slavs were deeply influenced and moulded by Byzantium, capital of the Roman Empire of the East. The destinies of the Slavic tribes at the end of the mass migrations were then very different. Of that far off time of adventurous shiftings of entire peoples very few traces are left. But we discovered one of them on the eastern border of present day Hungary. It's the grave of a Slavic horseman buried with his mount. Proof of how important horses where to the Slavs in conquering new lands.

Elsewhere, for example in the heart of the Carpathian Mountains in Romania those remote times are recalled, not by archaeological remains, but by traditional customs. The method of communicating from one mountain to another with these immense trumpets is extremely old. Originally they where used to warn the arrival of Slavic invaders. Ever since then, Romania has remained an island in the midst of one the most extensive seas of humanity to be found on this planet. The invisible ocean that is the land of the Slavs.


The Avars

This is one of the many Slavic universities where the origins of the Slavs are studied. Under the supervision of their professor, some students are applying the same techniques used 16 centuries ago, to construct a typical Avar hut. The Avars were an ancient group of Turkish origin. In the 6th century AD they overran many parts of Europe. The aim of the experiment is to show how this people decided early on in its history to give up the nomadic life and settle down, just like the Slavs. But why start an account of the early Slavic settlements with references to a non-Slavic people. For more than 100 years Slavs and Avars, lived in very close contact. When they migrated, very often they settled in the same place. But for a certain period the Avars were overlords and the Slavs their subjects. During this time of growth, the Slavic tribes began to take on national characteristics. Crafts developed, little villages were built that soon became towns.



It was the beginning of the 7th century, and most of the new settlements gazed with a mixture of fear, hate and admiration towards the city that was to be their model: Byzantium. Today it's called Istanbul and it's the capital of an Islamic country, but at that time it was one of the poles of the Christian world. The great Christian churches had minarets added on to them, but the original mosaics help us to picture what life must have been like in Byzantium and compare it with modern Istanbul.

The Emperor Justinian and his court are portrayed in other mosaics at Ravenna in Italy. The reign of Justinian was a high point in the story of the Eastern Roman Empire and of Byzantium. But only 50 years or so after the death of Justinian and the Empress Theodora, a grave threat menaced the city and the imperial court. At daybreak on the 27th of July 626 Avar hordes attacked the gates of Byzantium. The war didn't last long. Within 10 days, the Byzantines had put the Avars to flight. One important result of this defeat of the Avars was that the Slavic tribes, who till then had suffered under their ruthless dominion, now came into their own.


King Samo

Out of death and decay was born the Kingdom of Samo. Samo was a Frankish merchant who was acclaimed King of the Czechs, the Serbs and the Moravians. But the Kingdom of Samo was short lived. The time had not yet come for the Slavic people to have a stable and lasting form of government.


The Bulgars

That moment was to come a few years later, thanks to another group of nomads on the move from the plains of the east towards Europe: The Bulgars. It was the year 680 when the Bulgars reached the banks of the Danube facing the plain of Dobruja, in present day southern Bulgaria. The crossing of the Danube by those countless human waves remains an exiting, heroic episode in the story of the Bulgarian people. An exploit described over the centuries in songs, sagas, paintings and finally films. This is Asparuh. Asparuh, the founder of the Kingdom of Bulgaria. The coming of the Bulgars drew an immediate reaction from Byzantium. For Asparuh, it meant war. The Byzantines were defeated and new horizons were opened up for the Bulgars. A new homeland to be created.

In the space of a century the Bulgar state became a great kingdom. To the south it bordered with Byzantium, to the north with the Franks. Fortifications and strongholds were built, like the one at Madara, where the huge bas-relief sculpture of a horseman has become an emblem of Bulgaria. Pliska was born, the country's capital.


Kahn Krum

This was where Kahn Krum reigned, the warrior king who introduced strict but enlightened laws.

"In this world, a weak people can do nothing, not even survive. I do not know when, but the day will come in which there will be neither weak peoples nor strong peoples, that is to be the future. In order to pass his days on this earth in harmony and balance, man needs very few things, no more than what he can carry on the back of his horse, between it's mane and it's tail, all else is superfluous and makes man wicked and self indulgent. As from today a great council will be set up, a council of Bulgar nobles and Slavic princes. I will give the laws, the laws of truth for each and every man."


Victories and Conversion

In peacetime laws, and in war victories. In 809 Kahn Krum captured the Byzantine fortress of Serdica. As an act of reprisal the Emperor of Byzantium, Nicephorus, raised Pliska to the ground. Finally, after two years of war, the Byzantine army was trapped and wiped out by the forces of Kahn Krum. Nicephorus was slain in the battle and tradition has it that the victorious Bulgar king drank from the skull of his enemy. This and other key moments in the history of Bulgaria, are vividly illustrated in this precious 14th century Bulgarian codex, the Chronicle of Constantine Manasses. Events, such as the conversion and baptism of Price Boris for example. Today this codex is kept in the Vatican Library, at the heart of the Christian faith, to which Boris was converted.

Boris' conversion was not a purely spiritual experience. He realised that is was politically indispensable for Bulgaria to enter the Christian fold. Boris was succeeded by his son Simeon, but not with the old title of Kahn, which had pagan associations. He was proclaimed Tzar, or Caesar, like the Christian emperors. Simeon encouraged the evangelisation and conversion of his subjects. For Bulgaria this was the golden age. The arts and literature flourished. This enlightened king went down in history as Simeon the Great.


The Vikings

With the creation of the first Bulgarian Empire, other states also began to make their appearance on the European stage. The birth of the first Russian state is linked, in part at least, with the arrival of another non-Slav people. [Rosfelt?] in northern Denmark. These stones mark the graves of Viking warriors. The water there are arranged suggest the hull of a ship, in fact the resemblance is intentional. Every ring of stones is a collective tomb for the crew of a Viking ship. The Vikings reached the most distant lands. They landed on the shores of the Baltic and of the English Channel. They made their way up rivers in search of new territories. They followed the course of the river Dnieper, towards the Black Sea. And they left settlements dotted along their route. They also landed at the little agricultural town of Kiev.


The First Russian State

From this encounter between Scandinavians and Slavs, emerged the first Russian state. It's not by change that 'Rus' is a Viking name. Before long Kiev became an important commercial centre for trade between Byzantium, the Arab world and Western Europe. Together with Kiev, the fortified cities of Novgorod and Smolensk developed. German, Hungarian, Jewish and Armenian merchants set up branch offices. Cargoes of valuable furs and hides were dispatched to the Lithuanian ports of the Baltic.

In the space of a few years, Kiev was transformed into a cosmopolitan city. Weapons and fabrics from Holland, Oriental silks and jewels were among the foreign goods imported. All this trading brought Kiev into contact with many different cultures. Byzantine artists taught the Russians the secrets of their techniques. And the Byzantine bishops instructed them in theology and the spiritual life of the Eastern Church. In the 10th century after Christ, Russia became Christian.


King Vladimir

The King who ruled in Kiev was Vladimir. He ordered a kind of crusade against the heathens and their idols. His real aim however was to widen the borders of his country. But this early Russia that took its place among the Christian nations, acquiring a veneer of Byzantine civilisation and winning European status, enjoyed only a brief moment of glory. The brilliant civilisation of Kiev vanished, crushed by the invading Mongols. Farther north, two centuries later, its place was taken by Moscow.


The Southern Slavs

From north to south. We come to the coast of Yugoslavia to learn something of the Southern Slavs: Slovenes, Croats and Serbs, three peoples with different destinies. The Slovenes withdrew inland, they came under the sway under the German cities of the Holy Roman Empire, but retained some degree of freedom. The Croats, peopled part of Dalmatia and lost their independence in the 11th century with the arrival of the Hungarians. Unlike the Slovenes and the Croats, the Serbs evolved in the shadow of the Byzantine world.


Great Moravia

The influence of Byzantium also made itself deeply felt in the first Slavic state of central Europe: Great Moravia. Today, few traces remain of its empire. Over a thousand years ago, it extended across the whole of present day Czechoslovakia. From its very birth, Great Moravia was a land of struggles. The Germanic clergy opposed the revolutionary new form of worship written in Slavonic by Cyril and Methodius, the apostles of the Slavs. Religious controversy rapidly degenerated into armed conflict.


Poland and the Struggle between Slavs and Germans

And so began that endless struggle between Slavs and Germans that was to darken the future destiny of another state: Poland. The first chronicle that tells of the origins of Poland dates back to the 12th century. This is how it describes the country:

"A land where the air is healthy, the ground is fertile, the waters team with fish and the men are warriors."

Fortified cities sprang up, and Krakow became the capital. This is the Barbican Fort. From those distant times up till the events of Second World War, the Poles always had to fight in order not to be overcome by the expansionistic ambitions of the German states. The tragic facts of our own century. It's to be hoped that this was the last time these two peoples, Slavs and Germans, were to confront each other in this way, after centuries and centuries of wars and massacres.

Strange, though it may seem, it was the nearness of Protestant Germany that led the Poles, by reaction to Roman Catholicism. All the other Slavs remained loyal to the Eastern Orthodox Church. Poland's preference for Catholicism was political in motivation and in a way still is. In fact the hymn to Our Lady of Częstochowa became the rallying cry of the Solidarity union.


Moslem Invaders

From Poland back to Yugoslavia. Here at Mostar, a tower keeps alive the memory of another long and bitter struggle: between Moslems and Slavs. A struggle that in the fantasy of the people also involved patron saints. An 18th century icon shows Saint Demetrious killing a Turk. The Tower of Skulls was built by the Turks in the 15th century, to commemorate a massacre they inflicted on the Christians. Moslems invaders on one side, pressure from the Germans on the other. It was this centuries old dilemma that moulded the identity and character of the Slavs of today.