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European Kingdoms

Barbarians

 

Barsils (Turks)
Incorporating the Barsilts & Bersulas

The origins of the Bulgars remain unclear, although many theories exist. Generally they may have been related to the Tiele (Tieh-lê) who declared themselves independent of the Jou-Jan during the reign of Khagan Tou-lun (485-492). The Tiele revolt saw them migrate further north and west, one of many Turko-Mongoloid tribes in this region which now forms north-western China and areas of Central Asia. As with the majority of these tribes, they were formed from the Central Asian melting pot of ethnic groups, with Indo-Iranians also forming part of their early ancestry.

Proto-Bulgars may have a shared origin with Oguric-speaking tribes which later formed part of Great Bulgaria in the seventh century and the Volga Bulgar state in the tenth century. The Oguric tribes undoubtedly had their origins on the Kazakh steppe prior to their entry into Eastern Europe. Interaction with Hunnic tribes may have occurred prior to their westwards migration, but the Pontic-Caspian steppe seems a more likely setting, particularly in the aftermath of the collapse of the Hunnic state. They and the other larger groupings which arrived on the Pontic-Caspian steppe between the fourth and fifth centuries collected further, smaller groups along the way which served to dilute their specific origin and, in time, form a more generalised early Turkic set of tribes.

By the sixth century there appears to have been a number of Bulgar groupings on the Pontic-Caspian steppe, particularly in its eastern zones. In fact, the Armenian Geography mentions several Bulgar tribes in the northern Caucasian-Kuban steppe (between modern Georgia and the Sea of Azov). Located a little to the east of these were the Barsils, otherwise referred to as Barsilts or Bersulas, and referred to in a Tibetan source as Par-sil. They are often lumped together with the Bulgars, but they seem to have been a numerous group in their own right, and with a recognised territory which was separate from that of the initial Bulgar lands. The scholar Yang Shao-yun has linked the Barsils with a specific Tiele tribe, the Báixí which, if correct, would pinpoint them as a sub-set of the Bulgars.

Post-migration, the Barsils could be found to the east of the main body of Bulgars, in the northern Caucuses. They apparently formed their own state or territory which was known as Bersilia - land of the Barsils - but they are still assumed to be one of many groups which could be considered to be proto-Bulgars. This territory occupied the western bank of the Volga between the northern edge of the Caspian Sea and modern Volgagrad, although it may also have stretched southwards to impinge upon the territory of the Alani. The Barsils may first have settled the region in the 580s-590s, according to a story which was written down much later (in the chronicle of the Jacobite patriarch of Antioch, Michael of Syria, who used earlier sources - see below).

At first, any early-arriving Bulgar and other Turkic tribes were dominated in the northern Caucuses by the Goths who occupied a large extent of the northern Black Sea coast (the Bulgars have been posited as a reason for a series of Gothic migrations in the second century AD, but this is too early for the Bulgars to be in the region). Some early Bulgar elements may also have been forced into the Pontic steppe from their earlier homeland by the expansionist conquests of the Göktürks in the sixth century, further increasing Bulgar numbers.

When the Avars first arrived in the region, the Barsils, Sabirs, and Unogurs quickly capitulated, apparently 'struck with horror'. With the collapse of the first Avar khaganate the Barsils regained a degree of their nomadic existence. Even so, much of this had already been swapped for permanent settlement, and they were soon to be regarded as vassals of Great Bulgaria, albeit seemingly lying outside this confederation's general borders. This territory is also sometimes referred to as being under the control of the Alani, but is too far north for anything other than fleeting Alani vassalage (Michael of Syria seems to be especially guilty of this seeming error).

Qaghan Kubrat, founder of the first Bulgar state

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson and Vassil Karloukovski, from The Origin and Deeds of the Goths, Jordanes, from the Chronicle of Fredegar / Latin Chronicle (author unknown but the work has been attributed to Fredegar since the sixteenth century thanks to his name being written in the margin), from An Introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples, Peter B Golden (1992), from Armenian Geography, Pseudo-Movsês Xorenac'i, from Rulers of Bulgaria, Professor Milcho Lalkov, from Volga Bulgaria Stories for Children, S Shamsi & I Izmailov (Kazan, 1995), and from External Links: Proto-Bulgarian Runic Inscriptions, Vassil Karloukovski, and The Balts, Marija Gimbutas (1963, previously available online thanks to Gabriella at Vaidilute, but still available as a PDF - click or tap on link to download or access it), and Gothica, Jordanes (full text available online at Archive.com), and Turkic History, and Kroraina, Vassil Karloukovski.)

552

In Central Asia, the Rouran khagan faces an uprising by the early Göktürks, one which is supported by the Western Wei. The Rouran are defeated in battle to the north of Huaihuang (now the prefecture city of Zhangjiakou in northern China's Hebei Province). The Göktürk people are now free to become the main power in the region.

Map of Central Asia AD 550-600
As was often the case with Central Asian states which had been created by horse-borne warriors on the sweeping steppelands, the Göktürk khaganate swiftly incorporated a vast stretch of territory in its westwards expansion, whilst being hemmed in by the powerful Chinese dynasties to the south-east and Siberia's uninviting tundra to the north (click or tap on map to view full sized)

They move away from their traditional homeland in the southern Altai and migrate into the Orkhon Valley in Central Mongolia. This forms the centre of Göktürk power during their period of empire, but their rapid expansion may be responsible for pushing the proto-Bulgars westwards over the next half a century to settle in the Caucuses, and the Avars after them.

The Göktürks soon follow them to establish their domination over the nomadic tribes of the Pontic-Caspian steppe - especially the Ogurs, Onogurs, Sabirs, Utigurs, and the main body of Bulgars (although some groups may already have moved to Pannonia under the sudden onset of Avar domination). The extent of Göktürk domination over the Bulgars is unclear.

c.580s - 590s

The twelfth century chronicle of the Jacobite patriarch of Antioch, Michael of Syria, uses earlier sources to describe the arrival of at least one group of proto-Bulgars on the Pontic-Caspian steppe (although certainly not the first). The story is a conglomeration of facts pertaining to several events from different periods in time, all of them united around the story of the expansion of Khazar political power in the second half of the seventh century.

According to the story, three 'Scythian' brothers (perhaps indicating an Indo-Iranian origin or cultural bias) set out on a journey from the mountain of Imaon (Tien-Shan) in Asia and reach the River Tanais (the modern Don). Here one of the brothers, called Bulgarios, settles in Upper and Lower Moesia and Dacia. No doubt he and his 10,000 followers can be used as an Eastern Roman buffer against the Avars whom Maurice pushes to the north of the Danube by 599.

Bulgarian troops of the eighth century
Oguric-speaking warriors on the Pontic-Caspian steppe in the sixth century would have been largely indistinguishable from each other but, under Eastern Roman influence, some would have begun to resemble the Romans just like the eighth century Bulgars shown here

The other two brothers enter the country of the Alani, which is called Barsalia (Bersilia - the land of the Barsils). Their towns are built with assistance from the Eastern Romans to serve as a buffer against the steppe nomads. One of these towns is named as Caspij, identified by most historians as the area around the Torajan Gates or Caspian Gates (Derbent).

The Bulgars and the Pugurs ('puguraje' - a Bulgar ethnic affiliate group) inhabit these places, seemingly providing an origin for the Barsils themselves. One of the brothers is named as Khazarig - probably an attempt to provide an origin story for the Khazars (it is the Khazars who later dominate those Barsils who do not migrate northwards to join the Volga Bulgars).

Coincidentally, perhaps, around the same time an Unogonduri tribal leader by the name of Houdbaad becomes dominant in 'Patria Onoguria', the land of the Onogurs, a Turkic group which is largely inseparable from the early Bulgars themselves.

Avars
The Avars pictured here are on their way to conquer Sirmium from the Eastern Romans, which they successfully managed in AD 582, fourteen years after the confirmed founding of their khaganate in the Carpathian Basin

c.632 - c.651

FeatureQaghan Koubrat is the first to lay the foundations of a Bulgar military and tribal alliance. He forms a capital at Phanagoria on the Taman Peninsula near Crimea, and his tribal state quickly blossoms into a tribal empire by the name of Great Bulgaria (see feature link for more on Koubrat).

It has been suggested that he is working with Eastern Roman influence. Curiously, and perhaps not coincidentally, a similar confederation has already recently formed as a 'Slav Kingdom' between Carinthia and Moravia, possibly part of a Roman-inspired chain of defences against the Avars.

By this time the Altyn Ola horde has been absorbed, along with the Kutrigurs and Utigurs. Many other Turkic tribes have also begun to lose their individual identity, eventually to become Bulgars. Koubrat makes peace with the Eastern Roman empire and is awarded the title of patrician by Emperor Heraclius. Koubrat, though, dies some time after 651 and his creation - Great Bulgaria - gradually falls apart.

668

Great Bulgaria disintegrates following a massive Khazar attack during their period of expansion in the second half of the seventh century. According to tradition, Qaghan Koubrat's son and successor, Bat Bayan, and his brothers part company, each leading their own followers. Bat Bayan and his followers remain in their adopted land and are soon subdued by the Khazars.

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)

The second son, Kotrag, takes his people northwards where they found a state in the confluence of the Volga and the Kam (Kama), known as Volga Bulgaria (or the Volga Bulgars), which survives until the beginning of the thirteenth century. This state eventually includes in its number the majority of the population of Barsils (although it may take a generation or two for the migration northwards to be complete - see AD 682, below).

682

The social and economical development of the various proto-Bulgar groups has progressed at various rates. Those proto-Bulgars who live on the lowlands of the western Caspian Sea coast (in what had been referred to as Barsilia - see above - but which later becomes Dagestan) have been settled for some time. Even by the early sixth century they had replaced their nomadic traditions with permanent settlements, some of which are referred to as towns.

Now the notes from a mission which is conducted by Bishop Israel provide an idea about 'the magnificent town of Varachan', which has streets and squares. 'Skilful carpenters' work there, having made a huge cross which has been decorated with images of animals, while goldsmiths have manufactured golden and silver idols. The bishop's mission shows that Christianity is intensely preached amongst the Dagestan Bulgars. He insists that Christian churches are built in the region.

Lower Volga
Barsilia was a nebulous stretch of territory in the sixth and seventh centuries AD which can be located on the west bank of the Lower Volga, approximately between modern Volgagrad and Astrakhan

800s

By this time, as the Volga Bulgars form a coherent state of their own (otherwise referred to as Pontic Bulgars), Eastern Roman sources - notably the Patriarch-historian Nikephoros - are referring to them as the Onogundur-Bulgars. The proto-Bulgars of Barsilia are not mentioned again except in connection with the Volga Bulgars, which probably shows that any who have not migrated to Volga Bulgaria have been absorbed by the Khazars.