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European Kingdoms

Eastern Europe

 

Volga Bulgaria (Indo-Iranian-Turks)

The Bulgars were one of many early Turkic groups which migrated westwards across the Pontic-Caspian steppe from Central Asia into Europe. 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.

The Proto-Bulgars of Eastern Europe may have a shared origin with Oguric-speaking tribes which later formed part of 'Patria Onoguria' and its immediate replacement, Great Bulgaria in the seventh century, and then the subsequent Volga Bulgar state by the tenth century.

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, this explanation is seen by experts as being derogatory and unsuitable. A consensus about the name's more suitable meaning seems not to have been reached.

By the early seventh century, with the collapse of the Hunnic empire and the early termination of the first Avar khaganate, the Bulgarians had set up a powerful tribal amalgamation known as Great Bulgaria. Its ruler, Qaghan Koubrat, established friendly relations with the Eastern Roman empire, but after his death the state quickly fragmented under pressure from the Khazars. Some Bulgarians migrated out of the region led by Kotrag, Koubrat's second-oldest son. They headed north up the Volga to a safer location at the mouth of the River Kam (Kama).

A capital was founded at Kazan from which to govern this new state which became known as Volga Bulgaria (Kazan was later superseded by the city of Bolghar or Bulgar). The state is known to have consisted of three main groups, according to Ibn Ruste (writing at the beginning of the tenth century): 'the first branch was called Bersula [the Barsils], the second - Esegel [the Esegels], and the third - Bulgar'.

What drove the Barsils to join the Volga Bulgars was implicitly mentioned by Khazar Khagan Joseph in the description of his main territory in a letter to the Jewish dignitary, Hasdaj Ibn Shaprut. Also included in the mix were Finno-Ugric tribes along the Middle Volga and Eastern Slavs who were on the easternmost limits of contemporary Slavic expansion. The presence of the Barsils shows that, in their expansion, the Khazars had driven out their intermediate neighbours.

Unfortunately, the Volga Bulgars lay largely outside of the reach of recorded history until the Rus started to impinge upon their territory. Even then, Rus annals are largely indifferent to details regarding them. Still, it has been shown that these Bulgars in their Volga home appear to have had an influence on the language of the Magyars who later created the medieval kingdom of Hungary. In fact, the Chuvash (Čuvaš) language, an extraordinary Oguric/Oğuric Turkic dialect which is now spoken in the Middle Volga region, is thought to be the continuation of the language of the Volga Bulgars.

Qaghan Kubrat, founder of the first Bulgar state

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information by Edward Dawson, 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 Rulers of Bulgaria, Professor Milcho Lalkov, from Volga Bulgaria Stories for Children, S Shamsi & I Izmailov (Kazan, 1995), from Viking-Rus Mercenaries in the Byzantine-Arab Wars of the 950s-960s: the Numismatic Evidence, Roman K Kovalev, from The Peoples of the Russian Forest Belt, Peter B Golden, 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, and Russia (Hubert Herald).)

668 - c.700?

Kotrag

Son of Koubrat of Great Bulgaria. Founded Volga Bulgaria.

668

Following the collapse of Great Bulgaria, Kotrag takes his Bulgar and Onogur 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). To an extent they remain vassals of the dominant Khazars to their south.

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

At first at least, they found 'cities' (or towns which gradually expand and become more sophisticated), in which they reside for the winter. During the summer they maintain their nomadic traditions by venturing out onto the steppe with their herds.

The fur trade is a good source of income, with the Volga Bulgars using their dominant position on the Middle Volga to control the Finno-Ugric fur trade with the south. Khorasan on the eastern coast of the Caspian Sea at least benefits from the trade. The formation of the Magyar identity may also be due to Volga Bulgar leadership, or at least influence.

fl c.680s?

Bat Bayan

Brother. Forced to migrate by the Khazars? Not a ruler?

c.680s?

With the claim being made by later Islamic authors that Bat Bayan is the ancestor of a line of rulers in Volga Bulgaria, there must exist the possibility that he and his group of Bulgars are forcibly relocated there by his new Khazar masters.

No contemporary record exists to back up this claim, and all of the descendants between Bat Boyan and Şilki are listed only in the History of Cäğfär (or Cäğfär Taríxı in Tartar Cyrillic, Djagfar Tarikhy in English, a partial Russian seventeenth century translation of Volga Tartar records which cover local history back to the Volga Bulgars. At worst the material may include at least partial invention, but at best it may be a preservation of other, lost documents and/or an oral tradition.

Map of Eastern Europe AD 632-665
In AD 632, Qaghan Koubrat had come 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)

Even so, other lists of ruling Volga Bulgars carry different names and at least approximate dates of rule. This forces the suggestion that the descendants of Bat Bayan are not ruling Bulgars, or at least not at the top of the tree while the three main elements of Volga Bulgars are not united. Possibly each line rules a separate element. For that reason they are shown with a shaded background while known, accepted rulers are shown with a clear background.

fl c.720s?

Irkhan

Succeeded Kotrag in Volga Bulgaria.

fl c.720?

Timer / Juraš

Son of Bat Bayan? Only named in History of Cäğfär.

fl c.740?

Sulabi

Son? Only named in History of Cäğfär.

fl c.760?

Ayyar

Son? Only named in History of Cäğfär.

fl c.780s?

Tuqyi

Succeeded Irkhan in Volga Bulgaria.

fl c.790?

Tat Utyak

Son of Ayyar? Only named in History of Cäğfär.

fl c.810?

Kan Qarajar

Son? Only named in History of Cäğfär.

fl c.830s?

Aidar

Succeeded Tuqyi in Volga Bulgaria.

fl c.830?

Ugïr Aydar

Son of Qarajar? Only named in History of Cäğfär.

c.865 - 882?

Şilki / Šilki / Shilki / Jilki

Son? Claimed as a descendant of Bat Bayan of Great Bulgaria.

c.860s - 880s?

Şilki's main claim to fame is that he unites the previously fractured elements of the Volga Bulgars into a single state. His ancestry, however, links him directly to Bat Bayan, eldest son of Qaghan Koubrat of Great Bulgaria. That seems to fly in the face of the tradition that the Volga Bulgars are led to their homeland by Kotrag, a younger son. The claim is not impossible though, as both groups are vassals of the Khazars, and later movement - unchronicled by Eastern Romans - is entirely possible.

Qaghan Koubrat of Great Bulgaria and his warrior sons
This modern illustration of Qaghan Koubrat and his warrior sons show them at the height of their power, probably around the AD 650 point in time

c.882 - 895?

Bat Ugïr / Batyr Mö'min

Son.

c.895 - 925

Almış / Almuš / Almish / Jaʿfar

Brother. Converted to Islam (922). Died about 925?

894 - 895

The Eastern Romans have arranged for the Magyars to attack the Volga Bulgars in an increasingly active struggle for control and influence on the steppe. In return the Bulgars arrange to have the Pechenegs lead another attack against the Magyars.

With no room for manoeuvre, the Magyars are forced to take flight and again they migrate westwards, passing close to the recently-established Kyiv as they do so. At the end of 895 they invade the Carpathian basin, advancing towards the Danube.

922

The Arab missionary Ahmed ibn-Fadlan confirms the connection between proto-Bulgarians and the town of Bilkhar in the northern Caucasus. His confirmation comes as he mentions the fact that, during his trip to the Volga Bulgars in this year, he sees a group of five thousand Barandzhars (balandzhars) who had migrated a long time ago to this location. He also encounters a group of people who may tentatively be identified with the Venedi. It is in this year that the Volga Bulgars adopt Islam as their faith.

Lower Volga
Possibly as much of a third of Volga Bulgaria's original populace had originated in Barsilia, which had been located on the west bank of the Lower Volga, approximately between modern Volgagrad and Astrakhan

c.925 - 930

Ḥasan

Son. Only named in History of Cäğfär.

c.930 - 943

Mīkāˀīl / Mikail

Brother. Only named in History of Cäğfär.

943 - 950

Äxmäd

Relationship unknown. Only named in History of Cäğfär?

950 - 970

Abdulla bine Mikail

Son of Mikail.

c.965

The Rus of Kyiv conquer the Khazar khanate, taking control in the lower Volga to the detriment of the Volga Bulgars. The Rus also inherit the Khazar monopoly on trade into the region from Central Asia, in particular from the dominant Samanids.

970 - 976

Talib bine Äxmäd

Son of Äxmäd.

976 - 980

Mö'min bine Äxmäd

Brother.

c.980

The Volga Bulgars force out the Rus from the lower Volga. Now they are able to dominate trade into the region from Central Asia, and the Samanids. From Volga Bulgaria, most of the coins which are imported from the east and also from the south are subsequently exchanged in commercial transactions and are re-exported farther west or north-west by Rus merchants, and then even further west into the Baltic basin and beyond.

Samarkand coin
Shown here are two sides of a typical Abbasid-era coin, with this one being nineteen millimetres in diameter, issued in Samarkand, which was soon taken by the very Samanids who would establish such beneficial trading links with the Volga Bulgars

980 - 1006

Abd ar-Rahman bine Mö'min

Son.

1005

Ismail II, the last Samanid ruler, is assassinated after a five year struggle against the Qarakhanids (Karakhanids) from the north. They, in turn, are immediately ousted by the Ghaznavids but hold on in Bukhara.

The termination of the Samanids is almost immediately expressed in archaeological terms by the end of Samanid coin circulation to Eastern Europe via the Volga Bulgars. The disruption in trading links may also explain the end of records regarding Bulgar rulers on the Volga, with Islamic writers no longer able to access information from the region.

1006 - 1026

Abu Ishak Ibrahim bine Mohammad

Son of Mohammad? Relationship to Abd ar-Rahman unknown.

1088

With Volga Bulgar merchants being attacked by Rus (whether bandits or lords), and the Rus hierarchy seeming to be indifferent to it, the Bulgars launch an expedition to attack Murom. This is the first historical record of combat in this region, with the Rus having gained ascendancy here by at least the previous century over the native Finno-Ugric Murom people. Murom is sacked and burned, along with surrounding villages.

1107

The Volga Bulgar launch an unsuccessful attack on Suzdal. This north-eastern outlying principality is one of the Bulgars' most determined and frequent attackers. Again it may be the issue of harrying Bulgar merchants which could be the root cause.

Map of Eastern Europe AD 1054-1132
The death of Yaroslav 'the Wise' in 1054 saw the end of the descent of Rurikid power via agnatic seniority. His division of the succession weakened Kyiv by creating what soon turned out to be rival principalities for each of his sons (click or tap on map to view full sized)

1117

A new opponent enters the ring. The Cuman khan, Ayepa, is the father-in-law of Prince Yuri Dolgorukiy, soon to be ruling prince of Rostov-Suzdal. Ayepa launches an attack against the Volga Bulgars, possibly at the instigation of Yuri himself. The response is subtle but effective. Ayepa and 'the other princes' are fatally poisoned by the Bulgars. Further raids and reprisals continue to be carried out between Bulgars and Rus.

1174

Andrey Bogolyubski of Vladimir-Suzdal is murdered in his bed by a gang of twenty unhappy boyars (nobles) at his suburban residence of Bogolyubovo. Having been a staunch opponent of Volga Bulgaria, his removal permits the Bulgars nearly a decade of general peace.

c.1200 - 1225

Näzir äd-Din

Connection to previous rulers unknown.

1216 - 1218

During his short reign, Konstantin of Vladimir-Suzdal undertakes several campaigns against the Volga Bulgars. The fortress of Nizhny Novgorod is founded by him along the Volga as a defensive structure in case of reprisal attacks by the Bulgars, while he attempts to install a brother, Yaroslav (III), in Novgorod to secure control there (Yaroslav finally secures this seat in 1222, and succeeds Konstantin and Yuri in Vladimir-Suzdal in 1238).

1221

After the defeat and integration of Khwarazm, a large Mongol force under Subedei continues north into territory around the Caspian Sea and into the land of the Rus. Rus and Cuman forces assemble which greatly outnumber Subedei's men, but they are defeated at the River Khalka. Subedei extends his expedition farther to attack the Volga Bulgars before he returns to Mongolia in one of the greatest exploratory campaigns of the era.

The Battle of the River Kalka
The Battle of the River Kalka in 1221 or 1223 (both dates are reported) was a valiant Rus effort to stem the westwards tide of Mongol advance, but due largely to the refusal of Mstislav 'the Bold' to wait for all of his allied forces to assemble before leaping into battle, it opened the gates to full invasion

1225 - 1242

Mustansir

Son?

1236 - 1237

Batu Khan of the Golden Horde begins the invasion and conquest of the lands of the Rus, with Subedei agreeing to accompany him. They cross the Volga and, within a year, have conquered the Volga Bulgars, Alani, and Kipchaks.

Then, having been refused in their demand that Yuri II of Vladimir-Suzdal submits, they take the city of Riazan on the River Oka after a five-day catapult assault. Kolumna and Moscow are next to fall, and the grand duke of Suzdal is defeated when leading the most powerful force in the northern half of the Rus lands.

During the invasion, Kyiv is conquered by Danylo Romanovych of Halych-Volynia, creating another target for a Mongol attack. The surviving inhabitants of Volga Bulgaria remain largely in place to provide their own cultural influence to later dominant states, but perhaps gradually switching to the Kipchak-based Tartar language.

The culture of Volga Bulgaria becomes an important component in the formation of the Golden Horde's culture of the Lower Volga region. In the second half of the thirteenth century the cities of Volga Bulgaria again become great trade and artisan centres, with Bolghar as the leading city. The city even mints its own coinage.

Chingiz Khan
This portrait shown Chingiz Khan in his later years, by which time he had built up an empire which covered much of eastern and Central Asia, as well as stretching into Eastern Europe

fl c.1400

Altynbek

Vassal. Connection to previous rulers unknown.

1427 - 1430

Directly descended from Urus Khan of the White Horde (1374-1376), Ulugh Muhammad is intent on carving out his own domain from the disintegration of the Golden Horde. A further attempt at gaining power sees him successfully reclaim control over the Golden Horde in 1427, but again he is continually challenged by rivals. In 1430 he attacks Crimea but is defeated.

fl c.1430

Galimbek

Son? Vassal. Last Volga Bulgarian ruler.

c.1430 - 1437

Ghiasetdin of Kazan

Hordian Tartar governor. Usurped power. Removed.

1437

Ulugh Muhammad loses control of the Golden Horde for the final time and heads east to capture Kazan. The Hordian Tartar governor there, Ghiasetdin, has already usurped control from the last of the Volga Bulgar vassal rulers, but he in turn is swiftly removed.

Ulugh Muhammad then forms his own independent khanate out of this former Golden Horde territory. He establishes a capital at Kazan, the original Volga Bulgarian capital, one hundred-and-seventy kilometres from the destroyed later capital of Bolghar. His Kazan khanate is essentially a revised and reduced version of Volga Bulgaria itself.

 
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