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European Kingdoms

Barbarians

 

Bulgars (Turks)
Incorporating the Ases, Balandzhars, Bandzhars, Belendzhers, Chdar-Bulgars, Duc'i Bulkar, Esegels, Hajlandurkh, Hajlandurs, Kuchi-Bulkar, Kupi-Bulgars, Pugurs, Unoguns, Unogundurs, Suvars, & Yases

Bulgar origins remain unclear, although many theories exist and a few of them are likely enough to be accurate. The most reasonable origin seems to be 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.

MapThe proto-Bulgars may have been Tiele or a sub-group which was controlled by them, with the migration allowing the proto-Bulgars to establish a stronger identity of their own. Homelands have been posited for them in Kazakhstan and the north Caucasian steppe, although the latter ignores their Central Asian and early Turkic origins. In the early phase of their existence, proto-Bulgars are generally accepted as being Turko-Mongoloid steppe people, part of a vast wave of mounted nomadic tribes which appeared in Central Asia from the third century AD onwards (the Xionites among them - see map link, right, for more detail).

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.

Further dilution occurred as the new arrivals mixed with any remaining Slav groups, those which had not migrated north or west to escape the Huns. 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).

The variation in names for the proto-Bulgars is relatively vast, covering Balkars, Blkars, Bolgari, Bolgars, Bolghars, Bulgari, Bulghars, Bulhi, Bulkhars, Bushki, and Malkars, plus the more Asiatic and possibly original forms, Ba-go, Bao-guo, Bu-gu, and Pu-ku, along with others. There were also various subdivisions and ethnic affiliates which could be found amongst or alongside the main mass of Bulgars, many of which are little more than Bulgars with further variations of the name. These included the Alani (certainly an identifiable group in their own right, but they were a wide-ranging people and some groups could easily have joined the proto-Bulgars on the steppe) and Ases (the same as the Yases, below - a nomadic group which may have been involved in the invasion of Sogdiana around 130 BC), plus Balandzhars, Bandzhars, Barsils, and Belendzhers (all in Dagestan on the north-western coast of the Caspian Sea), and the 'immigrant' Chdar-Bulgars (or Cdar Bulkar, perhaps the hardest group to locate - they are generally placed in the basins of Big Rombit (Eja) or Don (at the north-eastern tip of the Sea of Azov), or in northern Dagestan).

Then there were the Duc'i Bulkar (or Duci Bulgar - the same as the Kuci Bulgars listed below), Esegels (or Asijie - part of the 'Western Wing' of the Göktürk empire in AD 651), the Hajlandurkh and Hajlandurs (both possibly variations of the Onogur name), Khazars (most definitely not Bulgars as such - they formed an empire of their own in direct competition with the Bulgars), Kuchi-Bulkar (Bulgars of the River Dnieper (Kocho), which enters the northern Black Sea to the west of Crimea - also known as the Duci Bulgars listed above), Kupi-Bulgars (or Kup'i Bulgar - Bulgars of the River Kuban or Kuphis which flows from the Caucuses Mountains into the Sea of Azov) Kutigurs or Kutrigurs (a readily-identifiable division with their own visible history), Olxontor Blkar (Onogur Bulgars), Onogurs (or Oghondor, or even Olhontor-Blkar - another readily-identifiable division which, confusingly, may still be one and the same group as the early Bulgars), Pugurs (possibly the European version of Chinese names for Bulgars - Bu-gu or Pu-ku), Unoguns, Unogundurs, Venenders (disputed - they could either be Onogurs or remnants of the Venedi - or both!), Sabirs (an identifiably separate group), Suvars (or Subars - also seemingly involved in the invasion of Sogdiana), Yases (see the Ases, above), and others. Many of these later became indivisible from the Bulgars themselves.

The medieval Balkan Bulgars appear to have claimed an Attilid (Hunnic) origin for their ruling house, as shown by the Bulgarian prince list - meaning descent from Attila, however unlikely this may be in fact. Attila was a powerful figure to the medieval states, especially those which occupied territory which had once been part of the Hunnic empire. Claiming descent from Attila would be akin to Germanic tribes claiming descent from Woden. The Bulgar name is typically etymologised from the Turkic 'bulga-', meaning 'to stir, confuse, disturb (someone), produce a state of disorder', which could be rendered in English as 'the disturbers', a suitable name for nomads. However, rather astonishingly this explanation is seen by some experts as being derogatory and unsuitable. A consensus about a potentially more suitable meaning seems not to have been reached.

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.

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.)

c.422

Just about the earliest indisputable record of Bulgars being in Europe refers to a battle between Bulgars and Langobards. This takes place somewhere on the northern slopes of the Carpathians, and this particular group of Bulgars are probably acting as recruits of the Huns. The battle is recorded by Paulus Diaconus and Fredegarius, although the dating is approximate (a date of circa 415 seems more appropriate to fit in with Langobard migration).

Map of Eastern Europe AD 450-500
Soon after the middle of the fifth century AD the Hunnic empire crashed into extinction, starting with the death of Attila in 453. His son and successor, Ellac, was killed in battle in 454, and the Huns were defeated by the Ostrogoths in 456, ending Hunnic unity (click or tap on map to view full sized)

c.467

Oguric-speaking tribes have recently been pushed out of the Kazakh steppe by the Sabirs due to population pressures from farther east and a domino effect of tribal movement in a westwards direction. Now they make their presence felt on the Pontic-Caspian steppe. The Saragurs attack the Akatirs and other tribes which had been part of the enforced Hunnic union.

Then, perhaps prompted by the Eastern Roman empire, the Ogurics raid Sassanid-held Transcaucasia, ravaging the Georgian kingdoms of Egrisi and Iberia and also Armenia while on their way southwards.

The Ogurics also appear in a listing of tribes in the supplement to the Syriac translation of 'Pseudo-' Zacharias Rhetor's Ecclesiastical History, composed around AD 555 and based on an earlier text. The supplement (perhaps not fully reliable for the fifth century situation) mentions the tribes of Onogur, Ogur, Sabir, Burgar (Bulgar), Kutrigur, Abar, Kasar (this name is uncertain, possibly also being Kasir or Akatzir - although it bears a startling similarity to the later Khazars), Sarurgur (Sarugur/Saragur), Xwâlis, and Abdel ( Hephthalites).

Hephthalite coins
Shown here are both sides of a silver drachm which was issued by the Hephthalites and which imitated issuances of the powerful but unlucky Sassanid Shah Peroz

They are described in the clichéd phrases which are reserved for nomads in the ethnographic literature of the period. Beyond these scant notices, nothing is known of the later history of the Saragurs. They are probably incorporated into other more powerful tribal unions, their amalgamation being induced by the movements of other steppe peoples, perhaps the Sabirs, who enter the region by the late fifth and early sixth centuries.

480

Another of the earliest written records involving the Bulgars is dated to this year when they serve as allies of the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno against the Ostrogoths. The restlessness of this Germanic group has been creating increasing problems in their management for the Romans, and they often need bringing back into line.

550/551

The Gothic writer Jordanes, a bureaucrat in the Eastern Roman capital of Constantinople, completes his sixth century work at this time, entitled Getica. Among many other things, it provides an account of the people of the Acatziri who live to the south of the Goths (Tauric Goths). Beyond them, above the Pontic Sea (Black Sea), is the habitat of the 'Bulgari', seemingly neighbouring the Hunnic branches of the Altziagiri (possibly the Altyn Ola horde) and Saviri (probably Sabirs). However, the Bulgars temporarily disappear from the historical record around this point in time as the Kutrigurs come to the fore. All of the tribes are soon overwhelmed by the Avars.

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.

558

The Altyn Ola are eventually absorbed by the early Bulgars, probably immediately prior to the formation of Great Bulgaria. However, the notion that possible Hun descendants may enter the Bulgarian gene pool seems to be highly controversial and open to strong objections. If it happens at all, the number of actual Huns rather than their many subject peoples who are not of Hunnic descent is likely to be a minute part of the population.

Around the same time - AD 558, prompted by Kutrigur agitation at the advance of the Avars - this group raids Eastern Roman territory. The result is that Emperor Justinian commands his Utigur allies to attack the Kutrigurs and the two groups virtually annihilate one another. Their remnants are largely absorbed by the Avar union during its brief period of ascendancy over the Pontic steppe, and then probably by Great Bulgaria which succeeds the union.

Hunnic nomad warrior
This illustration shows a horse-borne Hun killing an Eastern Roman soldier although, even though they were direct successors of the Hunnic empire and were initially led by Huns, the Kutrigurs and Utigurs were more probably of Turkic descent

560s - 571

A people, country, and town with the name in later Islamic sources of Belendzher or Balandzhar is mentioned for the first time by the Arab historian at-Tabari in connection with events from the 560s. Sassanid-controlled Armenia is invaded by four peoples - 'abkhaz', 'b-ndzh-r' (Bandzhar), 'b-l-ndzh-r' (Balandzhar), and the Alani.

Between these two dates, İstemi, the khagan of the western Göktürks, defeats the peoples who are noted in later Arab sources as 'b-ndzh-r' (Bandzhar), 'b-l-n-dzh-r' (Balandzhar), and Khazars, who then agree to serve him. The scholar, A V Gadlo, concludes that the name 'bandzhar' refers to the Ogurs, and 'balandzhar' is a Perso-Arabic form of the Onogur/Utigur name.

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, takes 10,000 people with him, parts from his brothers and, with the permission of Eastern Roman Emperor Maurice, settles in Upper and Lower Moesia and Dacia. Here, no doubt, they can be used as a buffer against the Avars whom Maurice pushes to the north of the Danube by 599. The need for this additional migration can be attributed to Khazar pressure on the Caspian steppe.

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). 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. This is possibly an origin story for Uturgur, founder of the Khazarig dynasty of Hunno-Bulgar leaders of the Kutrigurs and Utigurs, and also possibly an origin story for the Avars in that the leader who commands them on their east-west migration is Kazrig. It could be the case that Kazrig/Khazarig actually does command all of these groups, at least for a time.

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. His dominance succeeds that of Sandlikh of the Utigurs. His state has its heartland on the Taman Peninsula, an outcrop of territory on what is now the Russian side of the Strait of Kerch and the southern coast of the Sea of Azov, opposite Crimea. Patria Onoguria now dominates Bulgar concerns.