Ilinden–Preobrazhenie Uprising

The Ilinden–Preobrazhenie Uprising, or simply the Ilinden Uprising of August - October 1903 (Bulgarian: Илинденско-Преображенско въстание, Ilindensko-Preobražensko vǎstanie; Macedonian: Илинденско востание, Ilindensko vostanie; Greek: Εξέγερση του Ίλιντεν, Eksegersi tou Ilinden), was an organized revolt against the Ottoman Empire, which was prepared and carried out by the Internal Macedonian-Adrianople Revolutionary Organization, with the support of the Supreme Macedonian-Adrianople Committee. The name of the uprising refers to Ilinden, a name for Elijah's day, and to Preobrazhenie which means Transfiguration. The revolt lasted from the beginning of August to the end of October and covered a vast territory from the eastern Black Sea coast to the shores of Lake Ohrid.

The rebellion in the region of 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, where the insurgents proclaimed the Kruševo Republic, which was overrun after just ten days, on August 12. 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, and the creation of a provisional government in Vassiliko, the Strandzha Republic. This lasted about twenty days before being put down by the Turks. The insurrection engulfed also the vilayets of Kosovo and Salonika.

By the time the rebellion had started, many of its most promising potential leaders, including Ivan Garvanov and Gotse Delchev, had already been arrested or killed by 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.


At the turn of the 20th century, the 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 ethnic composition grounds. But the population was highly mixed, and the competing historical claims were based on various empires in the distant past.[page needed] 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.[page needed][page needed]

General Tsonchev's Supreme Committee's band
General Tsonchev's Supreme Committee's band

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 autonomy for Macedonia and Adrianople regions within the Ottoman state with a motto of "Macedonia for the Macedonians".[page needed] 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.[page needed]

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 Christian Macedonian Slav population despite the separation from Bulgaria proper. The idea of Macedonian autonomy was strictly political and did not imply a secession from Bulgarian ethnicity.

Vojvods in Odrin Vilayet before the uprising.

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.[page needed][page needed][page needed] 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.[page needed] 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.

Hristo Chernopeev's band in 1903.

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 the uprising 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.

The position of the Bulgarian government on the uprising. 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.

Old Russian Berdan and Krnka rifles as well as Mannlichers were supplied from Bulgaria to Skopje following the insistence for faster rapid fire by Bulgarian army officer Boris Sarafov. In his memoir, Sarafov states that the main source of funds for the purchase of the weapons from the Bulgarian army came from the kidnapping of Miss Stone as well as from contacts in Europe.

Ilinden Uprising

The banner of the insurgents from Ohrid with Bulgarian flag on it and the inscription Свобода или смърть. The insurgents flew Bulgarian flags everywhere.
The flag of the Struga insurgent detachment. It has also Bulgarian flag on it, and the Bulgarian motto Свобода или смърть.

An account of the dates and details of the uprising were recorded by the anarchist author Georgi Khadziev which was translated by Will Firth. On 28 July, the message was sent out to 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 and around Bitola, around the south-west of what is now North Macedonia and some of the north of Greece. That night and early the next morning, the town of Kruševo was attacked and captured by 800 rebels. Concurrently, after three days of fighting followed by a siege starting on 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 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.

On August 4, under leadership of Nikola Karev, a local administration called Kruševo republic had been set up. That same day and the next, Turkish troops made unsuccessful attempts to retake Kruševo. On August 12, following the Battle of Sliva, a force of 3,500 Ottoman soldiers recaptured and burned Kruševo. It had been held by the insurgents for just ten days. 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.

The reason why the uprising was strategically chosen in the Bitola vilayet, and the broader southwestern region of Macedonia, was due to the fact that it was located the farthest from Bulgaria, attempting to showcase to the Great Powers that the uprising was purely of a Macedonian character and phenomenon. Per one of the founders of IMARO — Petar Poparsov the idea to keep distance from Bulgaria, was because any suspicion of its interference could harm both sides: Bulgaria and the organisation. In fact the uprising soon spread to the adjacent vilayets of Kosovo, Thessaloniki and Adrianople (in Thrace).

Krastovden Uprising

  • 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.

In areas encompassing the uprising of 1903, Albanian villagers were in a situation of being either under threat from IMRO četas or recruited by Ottoman authorities to end the uprising.

Preobrazhenie Uprising

The delegates at Rhodope Mountains congress.

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.

  • 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.

Rhodope Mountains Uprising

In the Rhodope Mountains, Western Thrace, the uprising expressed only in some cheta's diversions in the regions of Smolyan and Dedeagach.


A convoy of captured Bulgarian IMRO activists.

The reaction of the Ottoman Turks to the uprisings was one of 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.[page needed] 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 afterward, thousands were killed, executed or made homeless. Historian Barbara Jelavich estimates that about nine thousand homes were destroyed,[page needed] 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.

On September 29, the General staff of the Uprising sent the Letter N 534 to the Bulgarian government, appealing for immediate armed intervention:

Still, Bulgaria was unable to send troops to the rescue of the rebelling fellow Bulgarians in Macedonia and Adrianople, 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. 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. After the uprising, IMARO became more strongly associated with the Supremacists, and with the goal of hegemony by Bulgaria.[page needed] 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.[page needed] 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

Letter from the General Staff of the Monastir (Bitola) Revolutionary Region to the Bulgarian Government, requesting military intervention for the salvation of the local Bulgarians.
The partition of Macedonia and Thrace in 1913.

The Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913 subsequently split up Macedonia and Thrace. Serbia took a portion of Macedonia in the north, which roughly corresponds to North Macedonia. Greece took Aegean Macedonia in the south, and Bulgaria was only able to obtain a small region in the northeast: Pirin Macedonia.[page needed] The Ottomans managed to keep the Edirne region, where the whole Thracian Bulgarian population was put to total ethnic cleansing by the Ottoman Empire.[page needed] 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 Macedonian Slavs 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 Slavic dialects) was prohibited, and its surreptitious use, whenever detected, was ridiculed or punished. 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.


Celebration of the Ilinen Uprising in Bitola during WWI Bulgarian occupation of Southern Serbia.
Petrova Niva monument, dedicated to the Preobrazhenie Uprising, near Malko Tarnovo, Bulgaria.
Makedonium monument, dedicated to the Ilinden Uprising, Kruševo, North Macedonia.

Portrayals of the insurrections by later historians often reflect ongoing national aspirations. Historians from North 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. 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 Ilinden-Preobrazhenie Uprising was celebrated by the Macedonian and Thracian diaspora in Bulgaria and by all factions within the IMARO. It was commemorated officially in Macedonia under Bulgarian rule when it occupied then South Serbia during World War I and World War II. Celebrations occurred also in 1939 and 1940 in defiance of the ban by Serb authorities. The leaders of the Ilinden uprising are today celebrated as heroes in modern-day North Macedonia. They are regarded as Macedonian patriots and as founders of the drive for Macedonian independence. The names of the IMARO revolutionaries like Gotse Delchev, 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 North Macedonia. Today, 2 August is the national holiday in North Macedonia, known as Day of the Republic, 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 North 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 North 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. Nevertheless, some of the Macedonian historical scholarship and political élite have reluctantly acknowledged the Bulgarian ethnic character of the insurgents. Krste Misirkov, regarded nowadays in North Macedonia as one of the most prominent proponents of Macedonian nationalism of the early 20th century, states in his brochure On the Macedonian Matters (1903) that the uprising was supported and carried out primarily by that part of Macedonia's Slavic population which had Bulgarian national identity.

The dominant view in Bulgaria 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. More, the first name of the IMRO was "Bulgarian Macedonian-Adrianople Revolutionary Committees". Initially its membership was restricted only for Bulgarians. It was active not only in Macedonia but also in Thrace. Since its early name emphasized the Bulgarian nature of the organization by linking the inhabitants of Thrace and Macedonia to Bulgaria, these facts are still difficult to be explained from the Macedonian historiography. They suggest that IMRO revolutionaries in the Ottoman period did not differentiate between 'Macedonians' and 'Bulgarians'. Moreover, as their own writings attest, they often saw themselves and their compatriots as 'Bulgarians' and wrote in Bulgarian standard language. 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.

Nevertheless, on August 2, 2017, the Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov and his Macedonian colleague Zoran Zaev placed wreaths at the grave of Gotse Delchev on the occasion of the 114th anniversary of the Ilinden–Preobrazhenie Uprising, after the previous day, both have signed a treaty for friendship and cooperation between the neighboring states. The treaty also calls for a committee to "objectively re-examine the common history" of Bulgaria and Macedonia and envisages both countries will celebrate together events from their shared history.


In Bulgaria

In North Macedonia


See also


Uses material from the Wikipedia article Ilinden–Preobrazhenie Uprising, released under the CC BY-SA 3.0 license.