120th Anniversary of Ilinden Uprising

August 2, 2023, marks the 120th anniversary of the outbreak of the Ilinden Uprising (also known as the Ilinden-Preobrazhenie Uprising) in 1903. This armed insurrection of Macedonian and Thracian Bulgarians was organized and implemented by the Internal Macedonian-Adrianople Revolutionary Organization (IMARO) against the Ottoman rule in the European vilayets of the Empire in Macedonia and Thrace.

The uprising came as a result of a 10-year conspiratorial preparation by revolutionary committees spread around the whole country, from Skopje to Solun (Salonika) and from Lake Ohrid across Mt Pirin and the Rhodope Mountains, to the Black Sea coast in the Adrianople (Odrin) Vilayet. The insurrection was en masse in two of the six revolutionary districts on IMARO’s territory: Bitola District (August 2, 1903/July 20 Old Style – St Elijah’s Day or Ilinden in Bulgarian) in Southwestern Macedonia and Adrianople (August 19, 1903/August 6 Old Style – Transfiguration Day or Preobrazhenie in Bulgaria) near Constantinople, the Ottoman capital. The Bitola insurgent headquarters consisted of IMARO founder Damian ‘Dame’ Gruev, Bitola Revolutionary Committee Chairman Anastas Lozanchev and Lieutenant Boris Sarafov of the Bulgarian Army, former leader of the Supreme Macedonian-Adrianople Committee in Sofia. The Adrianople insurgent headquarters was led by anarchist Michail Gerdzhikov, teacher Lazar Madzharov, and Bulgarian Captain Stamat Ikonomov.

Politically, the revolt aimed to achieve autonomy in Macedonia and Thrace which at that point were part of the Ottoman vilayets of Kosovo, Monastir, Salonika and Adrianople. The autonomy would grant the various populations of the regions limited self-governance in a quasi-state, not unlike that of the Ottoman Province of Eastern Rumelia which ceased to exist in 1885 after its unification with Bulgaria. Although Macedonian and Thracian autonomism was not hostile to other ethnicities, the fact that it was promoted exclusively by the Macedonian Bulgarians, which were the majority in the region, raised suspicion of a future Bulgarian military intervention among European diplomatic circles. Such an intervention did not come to pass as Sofia was not ready for a full-scale war against the Ottomans.

The Ilinden Uprising lasted around two months, with some 26,000 insurgents fighting 350,000 Turkish troops. A total of 994 insurgents and 5,325 Turkish soldiers were killed. As many as 201 villages and 12,440 houses were burnt, 4,694 peaceful civilians were killed, butchered and burnt alive, 3,122 women and girls were raped by the Ottomans and 176 were captured. Those who lost their homes numbered 70,835, and 30,000 Bulgarians from the rebellious regions fled to Bulgaria.

In the Bitola District there were 150 battles with 746 insurgents killed, in the Salonika District, 38 battles with 109 insurgents killed, in the Skopje District, 15 battles and 93 killed, and in the Adrianople District, 36 battles, 56 insurgents and hundreds of civilians killed. In the aftermath of the uprising, more than 30,000 Bulgarians from the rebellious regions fled to Bulgaria.

On September 12, 1903, severely outnumbered, IMARO declared an end to the fighting.

Ilinden’s legacy was and remains the cornerstone of the revolutionary history of Macedonian Bulgarians and the IMARO/IMRO. The first historian of the uprising was Hristo Silyanov, who himself took part in it. “This was the voice of the first oath, sworn ten years ago by Damian Gruev in Salonika, and which grew into a nationwide pledge: a foolhardy battle cry to the Empire of the Sultans; a call for fraternal aid to the liberated beyond the Rila and the Rhodope; a call for human sympathy and justice to the whole civilized world,” Silyanov wrote about the beginning of the insurrection.

He also stressed that “it was precisely the fact that the Macedonian regions farthest from Bulgaria and closest to Greece rebelled, that came to emphasize the native Bulgarian character of the movement against Turkish tyranny (…) The uprising in Bitola and Adrianople was massive. The whole nation rose to its feet and linked its fate – life, property and honour – to the outcome of the struggle. No other uprising in the Balkans cost so much devastation and innocent human lives in such a short time. In the face of the insurgent Macedonians Turkey saw the most complete embodiment of Bulgarian rebellion. That is why the Ilinden feat was not only the highest point of struggle in Macedonia, but also a redemptive tribute to the common Bulgarian aspiration for freedom.”

The last IMRO leader Ivan Mikhaylov emphasized that Ilinden was an armed revolt calling for justice for every nation native of Macedonia – an ideal, which was still not fulfilled. “Ilinden is the most expressive moment of an epoch for the Macedonian people – the epoch of the liberation struggle”, Mikhaylov wrote in 1953. “This, of course, still continues. It is an active and incomplete work. That for which the Ilinden generation had wished and dreamed is still the wish and dream of the present generation. When at Lubotrn, Osogovo and near the Olympus mountain, there shall stand united in guard the sons of Macedonia – Bulgarians, Greeks, Albanians, Turks, Rumanians, and others – then this shall not only be the beginning of a new epoch for Macedonia, but it will also mean that old Europe has healed one of its sorest spots. It shall mean a brighter future for south-eastern Europe. Moreover, it shall mean that a blot has been erased from the forehead of the cultured world. Briefly, it shall mean that the ideals of the Ilinden insurrection have been accomplished.”