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Eastern Europe

Rulers of Bulgaria: Khan Kubrat

by Professor Milcho Lalkov PhD, 10 June 2007. Updated 23 April 2022

Khan Kubrat (632-651)

The name Khan Kubrat first appeared in Eastern Roman chronicles in about 632 when his tribe, the Unogonduri, threw off Avar domination and formed their own tribal kingdom.

Khan Khubrat succeeded in uniting the various Bulgar tribes in the lands to the north of the Caucasus, between the Kuban, the Sea of Azov, and the Black Sea. These tribes, and a host of other, proto-Turkic tribes had jostled for superiority on the Pontic steppe following the collapse of their former masters of the Hunnic empire.

Huns, Khazars, Kutrigurs, Utigurs, and various other Turkic peoples were all part of this melange of tribes and ethnic groups on the steppe, most of which seemingly exhibited the traits of early Turkic tribes. Khan Kubrat was the first of various warlords to be able to put a stop to the carefree raids by the tribes. This Bulgar chief from the 'House of Dub' felt vaguely that in such crucial times the Bulgars were in need of unity.

With foresight, patience and a statesman's will he laid the foundations of a military and tribal alliance. Its capital was Phanagoria on the Taman peninsula. Eastern Roman chroniclers referred to it as Great Bulgaria. In this prototype of a medieval state, Khan Kubrat tied kinship and tribal chieftain ambitions into an involved but historically-justified knot, creating the conditions for development and growth.

With time the nobles came to understand the khan's insight: only a state system which was similar to that of Constantinople could hope to unite the Bulgar tribes. Kubrat made peace with the mighty empire to the south and was awarded the title of patrician by Emperor Heraclius. With the title, accompanied by generous gifts, the basileus was hoping to keep the powerful Bulgarian ruler on his side. and was probably also using him as a buffer against the Avars.

Map of Eastern Europe AD 632-665
In AD 632, Qaghan Koubrat came to power as the head of an Onogur-Bulgar confederation, and three years later he was able to throw off Avar domination to found Great Bulgaria (click or tap on map to view full sized)

Peaceful relations with Constantinople allowed the khan to defend the independence of Great Bulgaria against continual Khazar attacks. The tribal state of Khan Kubrat, who is also mentioned as 'Kurt' in the Name List of Bulgarian Khans, expanded outwards from the Kuban in the east to the rivers Donets and Dnieper in the north and west, to the Sea of Azov, and to the Black Sea in the south.

There is a legend which states that, as the khan was dying, he ordered his sons to fetch a bundle of sticks and told them to break the bundle in two. When none of the sons managed to break the bundle, the Khan took the sticks and broke them one by one with his feeble hands. The sons understood their father's message: their strength depended upon their unity. The Eastern Roman chroniclers, Theophanes and Nicephorus, wrote that Kubrat's bequest to his sons was to preserve their unity, 'so that they would dominate everywhere and never become other peoples' slaves'.

The khan died some time after AD 651 as a powerful and respected ruler. The five sons, however, went their separate ways and Great Bulgaria gradually fell apart.

River Kama
The River Kam (Kama) joins the mighty Volga just below the site of Kazan, founded as a border post by the Volga Bulgars to keep a watchful eye on the neighbouring Volga Finnic tribe of the Mari and the Bjarmian Udmurts

The first-born son, Batbayan (Bayan), remained in his father's lands and was soon subdued by the Khazars (in AD 668). The second son, Kotrag, founded a state in the confluence of the Volga and the Kam, which survived until the beginning of the thirteen century and was known as Volga Bulgaria. Kuber led part of the Bulgars westwards into Pannonia and settled in territory which had formed areas of Macedonia. Altsek and his group of Bulgars reached Italy.

The fifth son (or third - sources conflict), Asparukh (or Isperikh), was elected to further the work of his father. He led one of the Bulgar tribes west to the Danubian delta where he laid the foundations of the Bulgarian state, which was to retain its independence until 1393. Its descendant is today's republic of Bulgaria.

By so doing, Asparukh fulfilled his father's bequest.



Text copyright © Rulers of Bulgaria by Professor Milcho Lalkov PhD. One images by Tekla Alexieva, Buyan Filchev, and Hristo Hadjitanev. Published by Kibea Publishing Company, Sofia, Bulgaria. Map by P L Kessler / The History Files.