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European Kingdoms

Barbarians

 

Volga Bulgaria

The Bulgars were one of many early Turkic groups which migrated westwards across the Pontic-Caspian steppe 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 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 that 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 was Qaghan Koubrat. He established friendly relations with the Eastern Roman empire, but after his death the state quickly fragmented under pressure from the Khazars. Some Bulgarians subsequently remained in the region and were subdued by the Khazars, but others travelled. One group, led by Kotrag, Koubrat's second-oldest son, reached the the confluence of the Volga and the Kam (Kama)where it set up a new state known as Volga Bulgaria, with a capital at Kazan.

The Volga Bulgar 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 run away to 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. The domain also included the territory which most probably was the traditional land of the Barsils at the mouth of the Volga. This shows that in their expansion the Khazars had driven out their intermediate neighbours.

These Bulgars appear to have had an influence on the language of the Magyars who later form the state of Hungary. In fact, the Chuvash (Čuva) 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.

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, 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.)

668 - ?

Kotrag

Son of Koubrat & Great Bulgaria. Founded Volga Bulgaria.

894 - 895

The Byzantines 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 Kyiv as they do so. At the end of 895 they invade the Carpathian basin, advancing towards the Danube. In doing so they sweep away Avar control of the region and lay the foundations of a state which maintains approximately the same territory thereafter.

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

922

The Arab missionary Ahmed ibn-Fadlan confirms the connection between proto-Bulgarians and the town of Bilkhar in the northern Caucuses. 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 Volga Bulgaria. He also encounters a group of people who may tentatively be identified with the Venedi.

c.965

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

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 that are imported from the east and also from the south are subsequently exchanged in commercial transactions and are re-exported further west or north-west by Rus merchants, and then even further west into the Baltic basin and beyond.

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.

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 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.

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 submits, they take the city of Riazan on the River Oka after a five-day catapult assault. Then they take Kolumna and Moscow, and defeat the grand duke of Suzdal 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 Kazan khanate eventually forms on Volga Bulgaria's territory.