The Bitola inscription is a medieval Bulgarian stone inscription written in Old Church Slavonic with Cyrillic letters. It is now kept at the Institute and Museum of Bitola, North Macedonia among the permanent exhibitions as a significant epigraphic monument, described as "a marble slab with Cyrillic letters of Ivan Vladislav from 1015/17".
The inscription was found in Bitola in 1956 during the demolition of the Sungur Chaush-Bey mosque. That was the first mosque in Bitola build in 1435. It was located on the left bank of the River Dragor near the old Sheep Bazaar. The plate was found under the doorstep of the main entrance and most probably was taken for building material from the ruins of the medieval fortress. It was destroyed by the Ottomans' conquest of the town in 1385. According to the inscription, the fortress of Bitola was reconstructed on older foundations in the period between the autumn of 1015 and the spring of 1016. At that time Bitola was a capital and central military base for the First Bulgarian Empire. After the death of John Vladislav in the Battle of Dyrrhachium in 1018, the local boyars surrendered the town to the Byzantine emperor Basil II. This act saved the fortress from destruction. The old fortress was located most likely on the place of the today Ottoman Bedesten of Bitola.
After its finding the information about the newly discovered plate was immediately announced through the city. It was brought to Bulgaria with the help of the local Macedonian Bulgarian Pande Eftimov. At that time he met a fellow, who told him that on a new building he worked, a stone with some inscriptions on it was found, and the word "Bulgarians" was seen there. The next morning they went to the building where Pande captured several photos and handed later the materials to the Bulgarian embassy in Belgrade. However, afterwards he was arrested and sentenced to a prison. His photos were sent to diplomatic channels in Bulgaria and were classified. In 1959, the Bulgarian journalist Georgi Kaloyanov, sent his own photos of the plate, taken among the ruins of the mosque to the Bulgarian scientist Aleksandar Burmov, who made a small publication on the inscription in "Plamak" magazine. Meanwhile the plate was transported to the local museum repository. At that time, Sofia avoided giving publicity of this information because Belgrade and Moscow had significantly improved their relations after the Tito-Stalin split in 1948. However, after 1963, the official authorities openly began criticizing the former pro-macedonist policies conducted in Bulgaria and clearly changed its position on the Macedonian Question. In 1966, a new publication on the inscription of the Russian emigrant, living in Yugoslavia - Vladimir Moshin, was published. As result Bulgarian scientists Yordan Zaimov and his wife Vasilka Tapkova-Zaimova were sent in Bitola in 1968. At the Bitola Museum the spouses who have been prepared in advance, take secretly a footprint from the inscription. Probably the action was done with the help of the Bulgarian Committee for State Security. In this way was decipherеd most of the text, which was published by the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences in 1970. Finally, the Macedonian researcher Ugrinova-Skalovska published her version of reading the inscription in 1975.
The text of the inscription is partially damaged by the steps of the thousands of worshipers who visited the mosque. The reconstruction of the Macedonian scientist Ugrinova-Skalovska is very similar to the following reconstruction made by the Yugoslav/Russian researcher Vladimir Moshin (1894-1987) and the Bulgarian Prof. Yordan Zaimov (1921-1987). With some conjectures made by Moshin and Zaimov to reconstruct the damaged parts, the text reads as follows:
|“||† Въ лѣто Ѕ ҃Ф ҃К ҃Г ҃ отъ створенїа мира обнови сѧ съ градь зидаемъ и дѣлаемъ Їѡаном самодрьжъцемъ блъгарьскомь и помощїѫ и молїтвамї прѣс ҃тыѧ влад ҃чицѧ нашеѧ Б ҃чѧ ї въз()стѫпенїе І ҃В ҃ i връховънюю ап ҃лъсъ же градь дѣлань бысть на ѹбѣжище и на сп҃сенѥ ї на жизнь бльгаромъ начѧть же бысть градь сь Битола м ҃ца окто ҃вра въ К ҃. Конъчѣ же сѧ м ҃ца ... исходѧща съ самодрьжъць быстъ бльгарїнь родомь ѹнѹкъ Николы же ї Риѱимиѧ благовѣрьнѹ сынь Арона Самоила же брата сѫща ц ҃рѣ самодрьжавьнаго ꙗже i разбїсте въ Щїпонѣ грьчьскѫ воїскѫ ц ҃рѣ Васїлїа кде же взѧто бы злато ... фоѧ съжев ... ц҃рь разбїенъ бы ц҃рѣмь Васїлїемь Ѕ ҃Ф ҃К ҃В ҃ г. лтѣ оть створенїѧ мира ... їѹ съп() лѣтѹ семѹ и сходѧщѹ||”|
|“||In the year 6523 since the creation of the world [1015/1016? CE], this fortress, built and made by Ivan, Tsar of Bulgaria, was renewed with the help and the prayers of Our Most Holy Lady and through the intercession of her twelve supreme Apostles. The fortress was built as a haven and for the salvation of the lives of the Bulgarians. The work on the fortress of Bitola commenced on the twentieth day of October and ended on the [...] This Tsar was Bulgarian by birth, grandson of the pious Nikola and Ripsimia, son of Aaron, who was brother of Samuil, Tsar of Bulgaria, the two who routed the Greek army of Emperor Basil II at Stipon where gold was taken [...] and in [...] this Tsar was defeated by Emperor Basil in 6522 (1014) since the creation of the world in Klyutch and died at the end of the summer.||”|
During the 10th century the Bulgarians established a form of national identity, that despite far from modern nationalism, helped them to survive as a distinct entity through history. The inscription confirms that Tsar Samuil and his successors considered their state Bulgarian. The stone plate reveals, the Cometopuli also had incipient Bulgarian ethnic consciousness. The proclamation announced the first use of the Slavic title "samodŭrzhets", that means “autocrat”. The name of the city of Bitola, is besides mentioned in the inscription for the first time. In North Macedonia, the official state doctrine refers to John Vladislav as one of the first Macedonian Tsars, and ruler of "Slavic Macedonian Empire", but there is no historical support for such assertions. Moreover, the stone definitively reveals the ethnic self-identification of the last ruler of the First Bulgarian Empire before its conquest by Byzantium. Even, according to Ugrinova-Skalovska (1926-2018), the claim on his Bulgarian ancestry is in accordance with the Cometopuli's insistence, to bound their dynasty to the political traditions of the Bulgarian Empire. Per Skalovska, all Western and Byzantine writers and chroniclers at that time, called the inhabitants of their kingdom Bulgarians.
Despite some fringe views espoused especially by the Macedonist Horace G. Lunt, that the plate might have been made during the reign of Ivan Asen II ca. 1230, or the inscription might be composed of two pieces, lettered at different times, or might even be a forgery, the mainstream academic opinion gives its support to the thesis that the plate is an original artifact, made during the rule of Ivan Vladislav of Bulgaria.
The inscription was found in SR Macedonia, then part of SFR Yugoslavia, where for political reasons any direct link between the Cometopuli and the First Bulgarian Empire was denied. Originally exhibited in the local museum, the stone was locked away in 1970, after Bulgarian scientists took a footprint and published a book on the inscription. Immediately after this publication, a big Bulgarian-Yugoslav political scandal arose. The museum director was fired for letting such a mistake happen. After the collapse of Yugoslavia, the stone was re-exposed in the medieval section of the museum, but without any explanation about its text. The historical and political importance of the inscription was the reason for another controversial event in the Republic of Macedonia in 2006 when the French consulate in Bitola sponsored and prepared a tourist catalogue of the town. It was printed with the entire text of the inscription on its front cover, with the word Bulgarian clearly visible on it. News about that had spread prior to the official presentation of the catalogue and was a cause for confusion among the officials of the Bitola municipality. The French consulate was warned, the printing of the new catalogue was stopped and the photo on the cover was changed.
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