The city of Mesimvria – Nesebăr (Несебър) in Bulgarian- is a port on a rocky peninsula on the Black Sea; 35km northeast of the city of Burgas (Pyrgos). During the Hellenistic era the city flourished as a trade centre, maintaining its importance, to a certain degree at least, in the Byzantine years. In the 14th century it came under Bulgarian rule, although it had been occupied by the Genoese for a brief period of time. Just before the fall of Constantinople, and more precisely in February, 1453, it was seized by the Ottomans. In the four centuries that followed the administrative situation changed several times. It was the centre of the of the region, and later it came under the administration of the Anchialos kaza. Mesimvria was the base of the metropolitan of Mesimvria.
2. The Greeks of Mesimvria
During the Middle Ages, the population of Mesimvria was solely Greek. However, documents on the precise number of the population during the Ottoman period are not available to us. Later on, when foreigners visited the city various figures, which, however, were frequently contradictory, were reported. At the end of the 18th century, Wenzel von Brognard described Mesimvria as a city consisting mainly of a Greek population, including 220 families consequently comprising around 1,100 residents. Apart from them, there existed, as well, a considerable number of Turks (50 families, approximately 250 people).1
According to C. Sayger, in 1829 the city was inhabited by 4,000 Greeks, 800 Turks and a few Bulgarians.2 Nevertheless, in the same year, according to A. O. Duhamel, there were 327 houses in Mesimvria in which resided 1,620 persons (1,560 Greeks and 60 Turks).3
In the following decades, the population of the city declined due to migrations. According to a Russian report, which was produced in the years of the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, in Mesimvria lived 1,700 Greeks.4 After the annexation of the autonomous province of Eastern Rumelia by the Principality of Bulgaria, in 1885, formal data are available to us on the number of the inhabitants in the city, coming from the census of the population. In particular, in 1888, out of a total population of 1, 793 inhabitants, 1,503 were Greeks.5 Five years later, in 1893, the number of the residents had increased little. On the basis of their mother tongue, 98 of the inhabitants were Bulgarians and 1,633 were Greeks.6 In the early 20th century, the population increased slightly, consisting of 1,671 Greeks and 115 Bulgarians, out of a total of 1,870.7 Just before the incidents of 1906, and more precisely in 1903, in the report of N. Foudoulis, the Greek consul of Filippoupoli (Plovdiv), 1,750 Greeks were recorded in Mesimvria, out of which 73 persons had a Greek citizenship.8 During the months of the eruption of the Anti-Greek movement, serious prosecutions didn’t take place in the city and consequently the Greek population didn’t emigrate en masse. Immediately after the wars of 1912 - 1918, the Greek population declined to a small degree, while the Bulgarian increased. In 1920 the Greeks were 1,496 in a total of 2,354 residents.9
After 1924, and according to the agreement on the exchange of populations between Greece and Bulgaria, on the 5th of August and on the 5th of October, 1925, the larger part of the Greek population abandoned the city and headed for Greece on the ship ‘Gabriella’. Most of them settled in Nea Mesimvria (288 families), as well as in Kilkis, Athens, in Derveni of Alexandroupoli and in Alexandroupoli. In Mesimvria there remained only 92 Greek families.10
We are not aware of the number of the Greek residents during the Second World War. It seems that the few Greeks who remained were assimilated rather quickly, chiefly through marriages with Bulgarians. According to information from the local Greek community of the area, the inhabitants of Greek origin are estimated at 1,110 persons.11
3. The political developments during the 19th and the early 20th century
The political developments of the early 19th century that shook the Balkans inevitably affected the city of Mesimvria. The residents of the city participated in the organisation and the conduction of the Greek War of Independence of 1821. Many Mesimvrians were members of the Filiki Etaireia (Anagnostis Afxentiadis, Anastasios Komninos, Stamatios Koumbaris, Alexandros Koumbaris, Kiriakos Koumbaris, Panagiotis Koumbaris). Many young Greeks from Mesimvria joined the army of Alexandros Ypsilantis.12In the Russo-Ottoman War (1828-1829), Mesimvria was occupied by the Russian army, which remained there for nine months. After the withdrawal of the army many inhabitants of the city, because of their fear of a possible revenge by the Ottomans, left with the Russians and settled in Bessarabia and Odessa. According to some information, in Mesimvria there remained only seven families.13 Afterwards, some of the emigrants returned to the city, which had had been peopled by Turks and Bulgarians coming from the surrounding villages, as well as by merchants and agents from Constantinople (Istanbul) and the Aegean Islands. Despite that development, the city remained desolate, as it was recorded by Herman von Moltke, who after visiting Mesimvria in 1836 noted that only one third of the total population was left.14 The desolation of the city deteriorated because of plague epidemics.
The decline of Mesimvria continued even after the creation of the autonomous province of Eastern Rumelia in 1878, and especially after 1885, when the region was annexed to the Principality of Bulgaria. The trade relations of the city with Ottoman markets were limited. The city came under the administration of Anchialos and many of its inhabitants emigrated en bloc to Pyrgos and to other cities of the Black Sea region.15
During the Anti-Greek movement (1906), Mesimvria did not sustain any serious damage as it had had happened, for instance, to Anchialos. Nevertheless, on 31 August half of the residents of the city were compelled by fear to sign a document, with which they recognized the authority of the .16
4. The economy of the city during the 18th and 19th century
The professional occupations of the Mesimvrians were connected to the sea (trade, fishing, ship building). However, the interest of the foreigners-chiefly military men who passed through the Black Sea regions- was centered on the port due to its strategic importance. Nevertheless, for the locals its great significance lay in its commercial importance. The main merchandise was lumber and afterwards, as the ship-building industry evolved, the wooden parts of the ships, mainly those for the regions on the lower Danube, which were conveyed through the city of Silistra.17 In Mesimvria, approximately 80 to 100 ships were constructed per annum, according to W. von Brognard.18 Another significant merchandise was cereals. The most distinguished merchants had under their control a substantial portion of the grain trade in Dobrudja’ s and the Balkan shores of the Black Sea. Until the middle of the 19th century, the merchants coming from Mesimvria owned offices in the cities of the lower Danube and southern Russia and had strong connections with the city of their origin. However, from the late 19th century the significance of the city and its trade fleet begun to decline.19
Fishing, as well, was quite important for the inhabitants of Mesimvria. Until the middle of the 19th century, large amounts of bonitos (palamida), common mackerels and brills were fished, a part of which was sold to all the markets of southern Bulgaria. After a great reduction in the fish-population in the third decade of the 19th century, fishery along with other sources of livelihood connected with the naval economy collapsed, satisfying only the immediate survival needs of the locals.20 Nevertheless, it is probable that this decline had had started earlier, in the 1820’s. A. O. Duhamel, in a statistical table of Rumelia, which he had compiled, noted that the great majority of the population was occupied in the construction of ships and in the transportation of passengers, while fishery was not developed.
Around the city vineyards existed, from which large quantities of wine were produced.21 This fact is to a certain degree contradictory to the report of Charles de Peyssonnel, who in the last quarter of the 18th century described Mesimvria as a small Greek village, which was known for the low quality of the wine it produced.22
5. Greek Education
Until the beginning of the 19th century, education in Mesimvria had not surpassed the level of the ecclesiastical schools. In 1818, the Greek community of Mesimvria acquired a Greek school after the substantial donation of a wealthy Greek merchant, Alexandros Koumbaris. However, despite the donation of Koumbaris, the financial condition of the school remained difficult even after the Greek War of Independence. The economic problems of the school were dealt with in 1856, after the Crimean War, when Koumbaris again bequeathed 150,000 roubles and the revenues of some houses in Odessa.23 For decades that was the sole school in the city. Nevertheless, in 1878 a girls’ school also operated besides the boys’ school.24
At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, the boys’ school (with five or six classes) and the girls’ school, despite its financial difficulties, continued to operate in Mesimvria. To those was added a nursery school, which existed until 1906.25
After the events of 1906, the Greek school was taken over by the Bulgarians. With the enforcement of the law ‘On Public Education’ that was passed in 1891, according to which all the children of the Bulgarian citizens owed to have their elementary education in the Bulgarian language,26 the Greek school in Mesimvria ceased to exist. In 1912, the Ministry of Education decided to allow the elections of local school committees, after some of the Greek communities sent relevant petitions. As a result, a school committee was elected in Mesimvria, the members of which were five well-off educated Greeks of the city. The committee was one of the only three committees, which were approved of the Ministry of Education;27 nevertheless, no information is available on whether the Greek school of Mesimvria re-opened or not.
The aforementioned A. Koumbaris often travelled to Europe and brought from there various books in Greek and Latin. The school library was established in 1818, when Koumbaris donated 600 volumes, on every one of which was written: “A donation of Alexandros Dimitriou Koumbaris to the school of Mesimvria. 22nd of March, 1818”.28 In the following years, Koumbaris enriched the library with new donations: in 1858 he donated 204 volumes and in 1859 411 more. There existed in the library many rare publications of the works of Strabo, Plutarch, Aristotle, various books in French, Latin and Italian, as well as manuscripts. In 1881, mainly because of the damage that it sustained during the Russo-Ottoman War, the library had only 600 books. However, during the following decades, the enrichment of the library continued. In 1906 it had 3,000 books.29 later the library was destroyed. It is quite possible though that a part of the book collection was taken by the Greeks who abandoned Mesimvria. Today only 60 of those valuable books, the oldest of which is dated back to 1515, are housed in the National Library of the Saints Cyril and Methodius in Sofia comprising the special “Mesimvrian collection”. Along with the library of Mesimvria there also existed an archaeological collection, which later became the basis of the present archaeological museum of the city.
During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, two educational Greek associations were created in Mesimvria. In 1881, the ‘Charity and Educational Fraternity’ was referred to as being “established of old”. Some memebers of the society had their origins from the neighbouring Anchialos. The activities of the educational society “Orpheus”, which was operational in 1906, are not known.30
Greek cultural life continued for decades later. After the political change in 1898, the first successful attempt for the establishment of a Greek cultural society took place in Mesimvria. The society of the cultural and humanitarian collaboration of Bulgarian and Greek citizens “Mesimvria” was granted permission to operate in 12 February, 1992. Its main aims are the establishment and development of the traditional friendly relationship between Bulgaria and Greece and of the cultural interactions, as well as the exchange of achievements, experience and material between Bulgarian and Greek museums, as well as cultural and educational foundations.31 Special attention is given to the teaching of the Greek language.
7. The Churches of Mesimvria
The foreigners who visited the city were always impressed by its ancient history, the traces of which were quite visible even 2,000 years after the establishment of the Greek colony. The numerous Byzantine churches of the city in particular caused great admiration. W. Von Brognard described the ancient monuments of the city as signs of past greatness. During his visit to the city 13 churches existed, where old icons 800 years old were kept.32
At present time in Mesimvria more than 40 churches are preserved wholly or partly. Most of them are medieval. In the Ottoman period the authorities allowed the construction of one church only, the ‘Ascension’, which is known today as the church of St Spas. It was built and decorated with frescoes in 1609, when Kyprianos was metropolitan, thanks to the financial support of the ocal benefactor Theodosios Kappadoukas. The church is small, as the other churches of the same period, partly underground, with small windows, without a dome nor a bell-tower, so as not to stand out from the other buildings. However, all of its inner walls were frescoed. The frescoes have been maintained until today. In this church was kept the funeral stela of the Byzantine princess Kantakouzini Palaiologina, who after her death in 1441 was buried in the old cathedral, namely the church of St Sophia. Although the other churches of the city are older, the most impressive frescoes and icons date from the Ottoman period. The most important is the church of St Stephen, known also as the new cathedral, that was painted in 1559.
The rich cultural and historical inheritance of Mesimvria led to the city’s being named a ‘city-museum’ in 1956. In 1983, the city was included in the UNESCO World Heritage list. Today Mesimvria is one of the most renowned touristic centres of Bulgaria.
1. Ников, П., “Едно неизвестно описание на българския черноморски бряг от 18 век”, Годишник на Софийския университет – Историко-филологически факултет 28:3 (1931), p. 16.
2. Френски пътеписи за Балканите XIX век 2 (София 1981), p. 191.
3. Руски пътешественици по българските земи XVII-XIX век (София 1986), p. 146.
4. Никитин, С.А., Очерки по истории южных славян и русско-балканских связей в 50-70 годах XIX века (Москва 1970), p. 27.
5. Резултати от преброяване на населението в Северна и Южна България на 01.І.1888. Бургаски окръг 1 (София 1888), p. 53.
6. Резултати от преброяване на населението на Княжество България на 1.Ι.1893, Окръг Бургас 1 (София 1893), pp. 40-41.
7. Резултати от преброяване на населението на Княжество България на 31.ΧΙΙ.1900, Окръг Бургас 1 (София 1900), pp. 44-45.
8. Κοτζαγεώργη, Ξ. (ed.), Οι Έλληνες της Βουλγαρίας. Ένα ιστορικό τμήμα του περιφερειακού ελληνισμού (Thessaloniki 1999), p. 224.
9. Резултати от преброяване на населението в царство България на 31.XII.1920. Окръг Бургас 1 (София 1928).
10. Βακαλόπουλος, Α. – Μαραβελάκης, Μ., Αι προσφυγικές εγκαταστάσεις εν τη περιοχή Θεσσαλονίκης (Thessaloniki 1955), p. 274.
11. Κοτζαγεώργη, Ξ. (ed.), Οι Έλληνες της Βουλγαρίας. Ένα ιστορικό τμήμα του περιφερειακού ελληνισμού (Thessaloniki 1999), p. 101.
12. Βακαλόπουλος, Α. – Μαραβελάκης, Μ., Αι προσφυγικές εγκαταστάσεις εν τη περιοχή Θεσσαλονίκης (Thessaloniki 1955), p. 274.
13. Тонев, B., Българското Черноморие през Възраждането (София 1995), p. 50.
14. Κωνσταντινίδης, Μ., «Η Μεσημβρία παρ’ Ευξείνω», Αρχείον του θρακικού λαογραφικού και γλωσσολογικού θησαυρού 21 (1956), p. 22.
15. Κοτζαγεώργη, Ξ. (ed.), Οι Έλληνες της Βουλγαρίας. Ένα ιστορικό τμήμα του περιφερειακού ελληνισμού (Thessaloniki 1999), p. 243.
16. Βαλσαμίδης, Π. «Πρόσφυγες από την Ανατολική Ρωμυλία στην Αδριανούπολη και το Δεδέαγατς (Αλεξανδρούπολη) κατά τη διάρκεια του Μακεδονικού αγώνα», Επιστημονικό συνέδριο Μακεδονικός Αγών. 100 χρόνια από τον θάνατο του Παύλου Μελλά. Thessaloniki, 12-12 Νοεμβρίου 2004 (2006), p. 265.
17. Щерионов, Щ., Южното Черноморие през Възраждането (стопанско-историческа характеристика) (София 1999), p. 151.
18. Ников, П., Едно неизвестно описание на българския черноморски бряг от 18 век”, Годишник на Софийския университет – Историко-филологически факултет 28:3 (1931), p. 16.
19. Щерионов, Щ., Южното Черноморие през Възраждането (стопанско-историческа характеристика) (София 1999), p. 157.
20. Щерионов, Щ., Южното Черноморие през Възраждането (стопанско-историческа характеристика) (София 1999), p. 132.
21. Руски пътешественици по българските земи XVII-XIX век (София 1986), p. 146.
22. Френски пътеписи за Балканите XV- XVII век 1 (София 1975), p. 306.
23. Тонев, B., Българското Черноморие през Възраждането (София 1995), p. 161.
24. Κοτζαγεώργη, Ξ. (ed.), Οι Έλληνες της Βουλγαρίας. Ένα ιστορικό τμήμα του περιφερειακού ελληνισμού (Thessaloniki 1999), p. 271.
25. Κοτζαγεώργη, Ξ. (ed.), Οι Έλληνες της Βουλγαρίας. Ένα ιστορικό τμήμα του περιφερειακού ελληνισμού (Thessaloniki 1999), p. 289.
26. Κοτζαγεώργη, Ξ. (ed.), Οι Έλληνες της Βουλγαρίας. Ένα ιστορικό τμήμα του περιφερειακού ελληνισμού (Thessaloniki 1999), p. 276.
27. Κοτζαγεώργη, Ξ. (ed.), Οι Έλληνες της Βουλγαρίας. Ένα ιστορικό τμήμα του περιφερειακού ελληνισμού (Thessaloniki 1999), p. 301.
28. Стоянов, М., “Несебърската сбирка от гръцки старопечатни книги в Народната библиотека Кирил и Методи”, Известия на народната библиотека „Кирил и Методий” VII (1967), p. 256.
29. Κοτζαγεώργη, Ξ. (ed.), Οι Έλληνες της Βουλγαρίας. Ένα ιστορικό τμήμα του περιφερειακού ελληνισμού (Thessaloniki 1999), p. 354.
30. Κοτζαγεώργη, Ξ. (ed.), Οι Έλληνες της Βουλγαρίας. Ένα ιστορικό τμήμα του περιφερειακού ελληνισμού (Thessaloniki 1999), p. 396.
31. Κοτζαγεώργη, Ξ. (ed.), Οι Έλληνες της Βουλγαρίας. Ένα ιστορικό τμήμα του περιφερειακού ελληνισμού (Thessaloniki 1999), p. 117.
32. Ников, П., “Едно неизвестно описание на българския черноморски бряг от 18 век”, Годишник на Софийския университет – Историко-филологически факултет 28:3 (1931), p. 16.