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European Kingdoms

Barbarians

 

Great Bulgaria
AD c.632 - 668

In the seventh century AD a tribal state arose which was known as Great Bulgaria or, alternatively, as 'Old Great Bulgaria' or by the Latin name, Magna Bulgaria, or even Patria Onoguria (land of the Onogurs, a Turkic group which was largely inseparable from the Bulgars themselves). This state had 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. The centre was at Phanagoria, former eastern capital of the Cimmerian Bosporus kingdom.

Throwing off Avar domination in AD 635 to establish itself, this state incorporated a large mix of tribes and even ethnic groups in its rather uncertain borders. This mix included the various survivors of the Hunnic empire, such as the Altyn Ola horde, and the decimated remnants of the Kutrigurs (better known as Kotraks in the seventh century) and Utigurs. It also included a great number of the other, largely Turkic, tribes of the Pontic steppe, along with the Avar khaganate itself.

A separate group of Bulgars occupied land to the east of this state, forming their own state or territory which was known as Bersilia - land of the Barsils (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 above for the entry). 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 empire the Barsils regained a degree of their nomadic existence, but they were soon 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 fleeing Alani vassalage (Michael of Syria seems to be especially guilty of this seeming error).

With the collapse of Great Bulgaria these various groups probably dissipated into the surrounding population in Ukraine, on either side of the Don. The majority of Barsils migrated northwards to the Middle Volga alongside one large group of Bulgars where they formed the Volga Bulgar state. Many other groups had most likely already integrated themselves fully into the various Bulgar divisions and had lost their individual identities as a result. However, many of these groups had formerly been dominated by the Huns, and even the notion that any Hun descendants may have entered the Bulgarian gene pool seems to be highly controversial and open to strong objection - even if those descendants were not specifically ethnic Huns themselves but were instead other early Turko-Mongoloid groups which had been pressed into service by the empire. If it happened at all (which is a near certainty), then the number of actual Huns rather than their many subject peoples who were not of Hunnic descent is likely to be a minute part of the population.

The creation of Great Bulgaria caused other problems too. Population pressures on the Pontic steppe had been growing, with the invasion of the Huns in the late fourth century providing possibly the first major impetus for Slavic migration northwards to escape. Invasions by the Avars in the early sixth century and then creation of this Bulgar empire in the early seventh century did the rest. Slav migration by then was in full swing, largely northwards where they placed the Baltic peoples of a large swathe of this territory under great pressure. Other Slav groups headed west, establishing migratory routes that were soon followed by at least two major groups of Bulgars.

Qaghan Kubrat, founder of the first Bulgar state

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information 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 the work of Theophilactus Simocatta, from Istorija Khazar, M I Artamonov (Leningrad, 1962), from Izvestija o sarmatah, burtasah, bolgarah, mad'jarah, slavjanah I russkih Abu-Ali-Ahmeda ben Omara ibn Dasta, D A Hvol'son (1869), from Etnicheskaja istorija Severnogo Kavkaza, A V Gadlo, from Derbend-Nameh, Mirza A Kasem-Beg (translated from select Turkish versions with texts and notes in Memoires de l'Academie imperiale des Sciences, St Petersburg, 1861), and from External Links: 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 Turkic History.)

c.632 - c.651

Khan or Qaghan Kubrat / Koubrat

Created the Great Bulgarian state out of 'Patria Onoguria'.

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). 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.

Map of Eastern Europe AD 632-665
Qaghan Koubrat of Great Bulgaria and his warrior sons
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), while below that is a modern illustration of Qaghan Koubrat and his warrior sons at the height of their power

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 dies some time after 651 and his creation - Great Bulgaria - gradually falls apart. He is buried - perhaps - at Pereshchepina, where the treasure of the same name is discovered in 1912.

c.651 - 668

Bat Bayan

Eldest son. Defeated by Khazars in 668. End of Great Bulgaria.

651

A Chinese account of the Western Göktürk 'Western Wing' division lists five tribes which includes the Esegels (Ezgil or Asijie, soon to be found along the Volga with the Bulgars). The leader of the first tribe of Esegels is one 'Kül-erkin' ('Qiue-syjin' in its Chinese form - possibly a title rather than a name). He is 'most prosperous and strong, the number of his soldiers reached several tens of thousands'. Alongside him are the other four tribes of this division: another Kül-erkin or Qiue-syjin, this time of the Kashu or Geshu (Khazars - the same man as head of both tribes?); Tun-shabo(lo)-syjin of the Barskhan; Nizuk-erkin (Nishu-syjin) of a second tribe of Ezgil (Esegels); and Chopan-erkin (Chuban-syjin) of a second tribe of Kashu (Khazars).

fl 651

Kül-erkin / Qiue-syjin

Leader of a tribe of Esegels.

fl 651

Nizuk-erkin / Nishu-syjin

Leader of a tribe of Esegels.

652 - 653

The growing Islamic empire begins to threaten Armenia. Aided by the Eastern Romans, Armenia defends itself, but the Arab campaign continues northwards into the Caucuses under General Salman. He concentrates on the towns and settlements of the western coast of the Caspian Sea and on defeating the Khazars. A description of this campaign is based on a manuscript by Ahmed-bin-Azami, and it mentions that '...Salman reached the Khazar town of Burgur... He continued and finally reached Bilkhar, which was not a Khazar possession, and camped with his army near that town, on rich meadows intersected by a large river'.

This is why several historians connect the town with the proto-Bulgars. The Arab missionary Ahmed ibn-Fadlan also confirms this connection, as he mentions the fact that, during his trip to the Volga Bulgars in 922, he sees a group of five thousand Barandzhars (balandzhars) who had migrated a long time ago to Volga Bulgaria [following the collapse of Great Bulgaria].

The Caspian Sea around Dagestan
Could at least one group of peoples who lived close to seventh century Dagestan and the western shores of the Caspian Sea have been Venedi who had been dragged there by the returning Huns and their other associates?

According to Ibn al-Nasira, after capturing Belendzher-Bulker (Bulkhar-Balkh where many Khazar-dominated Belendzheris had been taken prisoner - for 'Bulker' read 'Bulgar'), Salman reaches another large town, called Vabandar, which has 40,000 houses (families?). M I Artamonov links the name of that town with the ethnicon of the Unogundur Bulgars (seemingly related to the former Onogurs/Utigurs), which is given as 'v-n-nt-r' by the Khazars (in the letter by their Khagan Joseph). It is shown as 'venender' or 'nender' by the Arabs, and as Unogundur-Onogur by the Eastern Romans. Variations of 'v-n-nt-r' appear in 668, 982 and 1094, and all suggest that elements of the Venedi have been pinpointed without the authors really knowing their identity.

Interpreting the documentary evidence, Artamonov concludes that the early medieval population of northern Dagestan consists of proto-Bulgar tribes, so that mentions by several authors of a kingdom of the Huns and their country of the same name in this period should rather be called a kingdom of the Bulgars. He also regards as proto-Bulgarian 'the magnificent town of Varachan', the main centre of these 'Huns', which is located by Moses Kagantvaci to the north of Derbend.

fl 662

Alcioka

A Bulgar 'prince' and leader of 9,000 Bulgars.

662

The Fredegarii Chronicon records that in Pannonia (part of which now forms Khorushka's territory), a dispute arises between the now-independent Avars and a large, migrant population of around nine thousand Bulgars. Under the leadership of a Prince Alcioka, the Bulgars seek help from the Bavarii but are almost entirely slaughtered on the orders of the Frankish King Dagobert of Austrasia. Something like seven hundred survivors enter the marca Vinedorum, the land of the Slavs, and meet its ruler, one Duke Valuk ('Wallucum ducem Vinedorum', possibly linked to the Slav Kingdom).

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, 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.

668 - ?

Bat Bayan

Eldest son of Koubrat. Accepted Khazar vassalage.

The second son, Kotrag, founds 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. These Bulgars appear to have an influence on the language of the Magyars who later form the state of Hungary. In fact, the Chuvash (Čuvaš) language, an extraordinary Oguric/Oğuric Turkic dialect that is now spoken in the Middle Volga region, is thought to be the continuation of the language of the Volga Bulgars.

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

668 - ?

Kotrag

Second son of Koubrat. Migrated to found Volga Bulgaria.

Another son, Kuber, leads a group of Bulgars to Pannonia and settles in Macedonia (they are later integrated into the kingdom formed by Asparukh's group). Altsek and his group of Bulgars reach Italy. The third of Koubrat's five sons is Asparukh (Asparouh). He leads between 30,000 to 50,000 people westwards from the Ergeni Hills (the Hippian Mountains) in northern present-day Kalmykia (in Russia, on the north-western coast of the Caspian Sea), towards the northern coast of the Black Sea. They soon reach the Danube and settle there, founding a new kingdom of Bulgaria.

668 - 701

Asparukh / Asparouh

Third son of Koubrat. Migrated to Danube to found Bulgaria.

668 - ?

Kuber

Fourth son of Koubrat. Migrated to Avar-dominated Pannonia.

668 - ?

Altsek

Fifth son of Koubrat. Migrated to Italy.

A number of other tribal names have been associated with that of the Bulgars. Some medieval documents mention that Asparukh also leads a people named 'v.n.n.tr' (in Khazar sources) or 'Unogundur' (in Eastern Roman sources). This ethnonym has been related by historians to the names 'Venender', 'Vhndur', and 'Onogur' that appear in other texts. The latter at least can be connected to the Utigurs. This name in its Khazar form is very similar to references to the same people in 982 and 1094 - strongly suggesting that they are remnants of the Venedi, Eastern Celts who may, if they are migrating with Asparukh, have ventured far further east than has previously been suspected. By this stage though, and with the possible confusion with Onogurs and Utigurs, they can hardly be carrying much of their Celtic culture and language with them.

Also, the tribes of the Utigurs and Kutrigurs which appear in some narrative sources referring to the sixth century are associated by many historians with the Bulgars, probably thanks to their merger with proto-Bulgars during the ascendancy of Great Bulgaria.

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 them called 'towns'.

Now the notes of a mission conducted by Bishop Israel provides 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, and goldsmiths have manufactured golden and silver idols. The bishop's mission shows that Christianity is intensely preached among 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

700s

Having been mentioned as a tribe in their own right in the sixth century - by the likes of Pseudo-Zacharias Rhetor and Menander Protector, and in the early seventh century by Theophylaktos Simokattes in connection with the brief Avar conquest of the steppe and then the Göktürk conquest of the region - in this century the Onogurs are increasingly connected with the Bulgars.

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. Aside from the linking of names, however, there is no direct evidence to show when or how the Onogurs (or elements of them) have joined the Bulgars.