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Ilinden Uprising

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Ilinden Uprising

The Ilinden–Preobrazhenie Uprising or simply the Ilinden Uprising of August 1903 (Bulgarian: Илинденско-Преображенско въстание, Ilindensko-Preobrazhensko vastanie; Macedonian: Илинденско востание, Ilindensko vostanie) was an organized revolt against the Ottoman Empire, which was prepared and carried out by the Secret Macedonian-Adrianople Revolutionary Organization.[1] The British researcher of the Balkans H. N. Brailsford wrote in his book Macedonia: Its Races and Their Future: "The moment for which the Bulgarian population had been preparing for ten years arrived on the festival of the Prophet Elijah's day — the evening of Sunday, August the 2nd, 1903." [2] At the same time on the other end of the SMARO's territory, in Eastern Thrace, the leaders of the Adrianople Vilayet comitajis, had unanimously agreed that they were not ready for uprising, but out of a feeling of solidarity, had voted for a rising. So in Strandzha the rising had begun on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 19, 1903.[3]

The rebellion in Macedonia affected most of the central and southwestern parts of the Monastir Vilayet receiving the support mainly of the local Bulgarian peasants and to some extent of the Aromanian population of the region. Provisional government was established in the town of Kruševo (to the west of Prilep), where the insurgents proclaimed the Kruševo Republic under the presidency of the school teacher Nikola Karev, which was overrun after just ten days, on August 12.[4] On August 19, a closely related uprising organized by Bulgarian peasants in the Adrianople Vilayet led to the liberation of a large area in the Strandzha Mountains near the Black Sea coast, and the creation of a provisional government in Vassiliko, the Strandzha Republic. This lasted about twenty days before being put down by the Turks.[4]

By the time the rebellion had started, many of its most promising potential leaders, including Gotse Delchev, had already been killed in skirmishes with the Ottomans, and the effort was quashed within a couple of months. The survivors managed to maintain a guerrilla campaign against the Turks for the next few years, but its greater effect was that it persuaded the European powers to attempt to convince the Ottoman sultan that he must take a more conciliatory attitude toward his Christian subjects in Europe.

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Prelude to the uprising

At the turn of the twentieth century, the Turkish Ottoman empire was crumbling, and the lands they had held in Eastern Europe for over 500 years were passing to new rulers. Macedonia and Thrace were regions of indefinite boundaries, adjacent to the recently independent Greek, Bulgarian and Serbian states, but themselves still under the control of the Ottoman Turks. Each of the neighbouring states based claims to Macedonia and Thrace on various historical and racial grounds. But the population was highly mixed, and the competing historical claims were based on various empires in the distant past.[5] The competition for control took place largely by means of propaganda campaigns, aimed at winning over the local population, and took place largely through the churches and schools. Various groups of mercenaries were also supported, by the local population and by the three competing governments.[5][6]

The most effective group was the Internal Macedonian-Adrianopolitan Revolutionary Organization (IMARO), founded in Thessaloniki in 1893. The group had a number of name changes prior to and subsequent to the uprising. It was predominantly Bulgarian and supported an idea for autonomous Macedonia and Adrianople regions within the Ottoman state with a motto of "Macedonia for the Macedonians".[6] It rapidly began to be infiltrated by members of Macedonian Supreme Committee, a group formed in 1894 in Sofia, Bulgaria. This group was called the Supremists, and advocated annexation of the region by Bulgaria.[7]

Since the term autonomy was regularly used in relation to the Macedonian Question, it is essential to note its sense and reason. Its inspiration certainly belonged to the nineteenth-century Balkan practice whereby the powers maintained the fiction of Ottoman control over effectively independent states under the guise of autonomous status within the Ottoman state; (Serbia, 1829–1878; Romania, 1829–1878; Bulgaria, 1878–1908). Autonomy, in other words, was as good as independence. Moreover, from the Macedonian perspective, the goal of independence by autonomy had another advantage. More important, IMARO was aware that neither Serbia nor Greece could expect to obtain the whole of Macedonia and, unlike Bulgaria, they both looked forward to and urged partition. Autonomy, then, was the best prophylactic against partition, that would preserve the Bulgarian character of Macedonia's Slav Christian population despite the separation from Bulgaria proper. The idea of Macedonian autonomy was strictly political and did not imply a secession from Bulgarian ethnicity.[8]

The two groups had different strategies. IMARO as originally conceived sought to prepare a carefully planned uprising in the future, but the Supremacists preferred immediate raids and guerilla operations to foster disorder and a precipitate interventions.[5][9][10] On the other hand a smaller group of conservatives in Salonica organized a Bulgarian Secret Revolutionary Brotherhood (Balgarsko Tayno Revolyutsionno Bratstvo). The latter was incorporated in IMARO by 1902 but its members as Ivan Garvanov, were to exert a significant influence on the organization. They were to push for the Ilinden-Preobrazhenie Uprising and later became the core of IMRO right-wing faction.[11] One of the founding leaders of IMARO, Gotse Delchev, was a strong advocate for proceeding slowly, but the Supremacists pressed for a major uprising to take place in the summer of 1903. Delchev himself was killed by the Turks in May 1903.

Meanwhile in late April 1903, a group of young anarchists from the Gemidzhii Circle - graduates from the Bulgarian Men's High School of Thessaloniki launched a campaign of terror bombing, the so-called Thessaloniki bombings of 1903. Their aim was to attract the attention of the Great Powers to Ottoman oppression in Macedonia and Eastern Thrace. As a response to the attacks, the Turkish Army and bashibozouks (irregulars) massacred many innocent Bulgarians in Thessaloniki, and later in Bitola.

By these circumstances the Supremacists' plan went ahead. Under a leadership from Ivan Garvanov IMARO made a decision about military revolt. Garvanov, himself, did not participate in the uprising, because of his arrest and exile in Rhodes. The day chosen for upspring was August 2 (July 20 in the old Julian calendar), the feast day of St. Elias (Elijah). This holy day was known as Ilinden. On 11 July, a congress at Petrova Niva near Malko Tarnovo set the date of 23 July for the uprising, then deferred it a bit more to 2 August. The Thrace region, around the Adrianople Vilayet was not ready, and negotiated for a later uprising in that region.

It is interesting to note the position of the Bulgarian government on the issue. Already during the discussions, Racho Petrov's government supported IMARO's position of an entirely internal character of the rebellion. Apart from Racho Petrov's personal warning to Gotse Delchev in January 1903 about delaying or even canceling the rebellion, the government sent out a circular note to its diplomatic representations in Thessaloniki, Bitola and Edirne, advising the population not to succumb to a pro-rebellion propaganda, as Bulgaria was not ready to support it.[12]

The Ilinden uprising in Macedonia

The dates and details here are from an account by the anarchist author Georgi Khadziev, translated by Will Firth.[4]

  • On 28 July, the message was sent out the revolutionary movements, though the secret was kept until the last moment.
  • The uprising began on the night of August 2, and involved large regions in around Bitola, around the south-west of what is now the Republic of Macedonia and some of the north of Greece.
  • On the night of August 2 and early morning of August 3, the town of Kruševo was attacked and captured by 800 rebels.
  • After three days of fighting and a siege from August 5, the town of Smilevo was captured by the rebels.
  • The town of Kleisoura, near Kastoria, was taken by insurgents about August 5.
  • On August 4 and 5, Turkish troops made an unsuccessful attempt to retake Kruševo.
  • On August 4, under leadership of Nikola Karev, a local administration was set up, now called the Kruševo republic.
  • On August 12, following the Battle of Sliva, an 18,000 people strong Ottoman force[15] recaptured and burned Kruševo. It had been held by the insurgents for just ten days.
  • On August 14, under the leadership of Nikola Pushkarov, some bands near Skopje attacked and derailed a military train.
  • In Razlog the population joined in the uprising. This was further east, in Pirin Macedonia in present-day Bulgaria.
  • Kleisoura was finally recaptured by the Ottomans on August 27.
  • Other regions involved included Ohrid, Florina, and Kičevo. In the Thessaloniki region, operations were much more limited and without much local involvement, due in part to disagreements between the factions of the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization (IMRO). There was also no uprising in the Prilep area, immediately to the east of Bitola.
  • Militias active in the region of Serres, led by Yane Sandanski and an insurgent detachment of the Supreme Committee, held down a large Turkish force. These actions began on the day of the Feast of the Cross (Krastovden in Bulgarian, September 27) and did not involve the local population as much as in other regions, and were well to the east of Monastir and to the west of Thrace.

The Preobrazhenie uprising in Thrace

According to Khadziev, the main goal of the uprising in Thrace was to give support to the uprisings further west, by engaging Turkish troops and preventing them from moving into Macedonia. Many of the operations were diversionary, though several villages were taken, and a region in Strandzha was held for around twenty days. This is sometimes called the Strandzha republic or Strandzha commune, but according to Khadziev there was never a question of state power in the Thrace region. In the Rhodope Mountains, Western Thrace, the upspring expressed only in some cheta's diversions in the regions of Smolyan and Dedeagach.[16]

  • On the morning of August 19, attacks were made on villages throughout the region, including Vasiliko (now Tsarevo), Stoilovo (near Malko Tarnovo), and villages near Edirne.
  • On August 21, the harbor lighthouse at Igneada was blown up.
  • Around September 3 a strong Ottoman force began reasserting their control.
  • By September 8 the Turks had restored control and were mopping up.


The reaction of the Ottoman Turks to the uprisings was savage and involved overwhelming force. The only hope for the insurgents was outside intervention, and that was never politically feasible. Indeed, although Bulgarian interests were favoured by the actions, the Bulgarian government itself had been required to outlaw the Macedonian rebel groups prior to the uprisings, and sought the arrest of its leaders. This was a condition of diplomacy with Russia.[10] The waning Ottoman empire dealt with the instability by taking vengeance on local populations that had supported the rebels. Casualties during the military campaigns themselves were comparatively small, but afterwards thousands were killed, executed or made homeless. Historian Barbara Jelavich estimates that about nine thousand homes were destroyed,[6] and thousands of refugees were produced. According to Georgi Khadziev, 201 villages and 12,400 houses were burned, 4,694 people killed, with some 30,000 refugees fleeing to Bulgaria.[4]

On September 29, the General staff of the Uprising sent the Letter N 534 to the Bulgarian government, appealing for immediate armed intervention:
"The General staff considers its duty to turn the attention of the respectable Bulgarian government to the disastrous consequences for the Bulgarian nation, if it does not carry out its duty towards its birth brothers here, in an impressive and active manner, as imposed by the power of the circumstances and the danger, which threatens the all-Bulgarian fatherland – through war."[17]

Still, Bulgaria was unable to send troops to the rescue of the rebelling fellow Bulgarians in Macedonia and Adrianopol Thrace. When IMARO representatives met the Bulgarian Prime-Minister Racho Petrov, he showed them the ultimatums by Serbia, Greece and Romania, which he had just received and which informed him of those countries’ support for Turkey, in case Bulgaria intervened to support the rebels.[18] At a meeting in early October, the general staff of the rebel forces decided to cease all revolutionary activities, and declared the forces, excepting regular militias, to be disbanded.[4] After the uprising, IMARO became more strongly associated with the Supremacists, and with the goal of hegemony by Bulgaria.[10] The savagery of the insurrections and the reprisals did finally provoke a reaction from the outside world. In October, Franz Joseph of Austria-Hungary and Nicholas II of Russia met at Mürzsteg and sponsored the Mürzsteg program of reforms, which provided for foreign policing of the Macedonia region, financial compensation for victims, and establishment of ethnic boundaries in the region.[7] The reforms achieved little practical result apart from giving more visibility to the crisis. The question of competing aspirations of Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, and local advocates for political autonomy were not addressed, and the notion of ethnic boundaries was impossible to implement effectively. In any case, these concerns were soon overshadowed by the Young Turk revolution of 1908 and the subsequent dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.

Subsequent history

The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 subsequently split up Macedonia and Thrace. Serbia took the major portion of Slavic Macedonia, in the north, which roughly corresponds to the Republic of Macedonia. Greece took Aegean Macedonia in the south, and Bulgaria was only able to obtain a small region in the northeast: Pirin Macedonia.[7] The Ottomans managed to keep the Edirne region, where the whole Thracian Bulgarian population was put to total ethnic cleansing by the Ottoman empire.[20] The rest of Thrace was divided between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey following World War I and the Greco-Turkish War. Most of the local Bulgarian political and cultural figures were persecuted or expelled from Serbian and Greek parts of Macedonia and Thrace, where all structures of the Bulgarian Exarchate were abolished. Thousands of Macedonians left for Bulgaria, joining a still larger stream from devastated Aegean Macedonia, where the Greeks burned Kilkis, the center of Bulgarian politics and culture, as well as much of Serres and Drama, Greece. Bulgarian (including the Macedonian dialects) was prohibited, and its surreptitious use, whenever detected, was ridiculed or punished.[21] Internal Macedonian-Adrianople Revolutionary Organization supported the Bulgarian army during the Balkan Wars and World War I. After the post-World War I Treaty of Neuilly, the combined Macedonian-Adrianopolitan revolutionary movement separated into two detached organizations: Internal Thracian Revolutionary Organisation and Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organisation and continued its struggle against Serbian and Greek regimes in the following period to 1934.

IMRO had de facto full control of Bulgarian Pirin Macedonia (the Petrich District of the time) and acted as a "state within a state", which it used as a base for hit and run attacks against Yugoslavia and Greece. IMRO began sending armed bands called cheti into Greek and Yugoslav Macedonia to assassinate officials and stir up the spirit of the oppressed population.

At the end of 1922, the Greek government started to expel large numbers of Bulgarians from Western Thrace into Bulgaria and the activity of the Internal Thracian Revolutionary Organization (ITRO) grew into an open rebellion. The organisation eventually gained full control of some districts along the Bulgarian border. In the summer of 1923, the majority of the Bulgarians had already been resettled to Bulgaria. Although detachments of the ITRO continued to infiltrate Western Thrace sporadically, the main focus of the activity of the organisation now shifted to the protection of the refugees into Bulgaria. IMRO's and ITRO,s constant killings and assassinations abroad provoked some within Bulgarian military after the coup of 19 May 1934 to take control and break the power of the organizations.


Portrayals of the insurrections by later historians often reflect ongoing national aspirations. Historians from the Republic of Macedonia see them as a part of the move for an independent state as finally achieved by their own new nation. There is, in fact, very little historical continuity from the insurrections to the modern state, but Macedonian sources tend to emphasize the early goals of political autonomy when IMARO was established. The Supremacist faction pushed for the insurrections to take place in the summer of 1903, while the left wing argued for more time and more planning.[22] Historians from Bulgaria emphasize the undoubted Bulgarian character of the rebels, but tends to downplay the moves for political autonomy that were a part of the IMARO organization prior to the insurrections. Western historians generally refer simply to the Ilinden uprising, which marks the date on which uprising began. In Bulgaria it is more common to refer to the Ilinden-Preobrazhenie uprising, giving equal status to the activities commenced at Preobrazhenie near to the Bulgarian coast of the Black Sea and limiting an undue focus on the Macedonian region. Some sources recognize these as two related but distinct insurrections, and name them the Ilinden uprising and the Preobrazhenie uprising. Bulgarian sources tend to emphasize the moves within IMARO for hegemony with Bulgaria, as advocated by the Supremacist and the right wing factions.

The leaders of the Ilinden uprising are celebrated as heroes in the Republic of Macedonia. They are regarded as Macedonian patriots and as founders of the drive for Macedonian independence in Macedonia. The names of the IMARO revolutionaries like Pitu Guli, Dame Gruev and Yane Sandanski were included into the lyrics of the anthem of the Socialist Republic of Macedonia Denes nad Makedonija ("Today over Macedonia"). There are towns named after the leaders in both Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia. Today, 2 August is the national holiday in Republic of Macedonia, known as Day of the Republic,[23] which considers it the date of its first statehood in modern times. It is also the date on which, in 1944, a People's Republic of Macedonia was proclaimed at ASNOM as a constituent republic of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. The ASNOM event is now referred as the 'Second Ilinden' in Republic of Macedonia, though there is no direct link to the events of 1903. In Bulgaria Ilinden and Preobrazhenie days as anniversaries of the uprising are publicly celebrated on a local level, primarily in the Pirin Macedonia and Northern Thrace regions.


There have been long going disputes between parties in Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia about the ethnic affiliation of the insurgents. The opinion of most Macedonian historians and politicians is that Preobrazhenie uprising was a Bulgarian uprising, not related with the Ilinden one, which was organized by Macedonians.[24] Nevertheless some of the Macedonian historical scholarship and political élite have reluctantly acknowledged the Bulgarian ethnic character of the insurgents.[25][26][27] The Bulgarian view is that at that time the Macedonian and Thracian Bulgarians predominated in all regions of the uprisings and that Macedonian ethnicity did still not exist.[28] It has also to be noted that some attempts from Bulgarian officials for joint actions and celebration of the Ilinden uprising were rejected from Macedonian side as unacceptable.[29][30]


Ilinden Peak on Greenwich Island in the South Shetland Islands, Antarctica is named after the uprising.

See also



  • The english daily newspaper "Times", issues about the Ilinden uprising in August, 1903
  • Twenty-four letters from Macedonia - 1903, John MacDonald
  • Durham, Edith. (1905). The Burden of the Balkans
  • Brailsford's photographs)
  • Pozzi, Henry. (1935). Black hand over Europe. F. Mott and Co., London (for online version of relevant pages, click here)
  • MacDermott, Mercia. (1978). Freedom or Death — the life of Gotse Delchev. London: Journeyman Press
  • (for online version of relevant pages, click here)
  • Poulton, Hugh. (1995). Who are the Macedonians? C.Hurst & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., London
  • Prof. Dimitar Gotsev: Ilinden-Preobrazhenie Uprising of 1903 - Ideals and Heroism Dedicated to the 105th anniversary from the events

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