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Victorious Bulgar soldiers standing before their East Roman (Byzantine) opponents, from the Menology of Basil II, 10th century.

The Bulgars (also Bolgars, Bulghars, or Proto-Bulgarians) were a Turkic people,[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9] who migrated into Europe from Central Asia and Mongolia. From the 4th century the Bulgars conquered the steppe north-west of the Caspian Sea. In the 7th century they established two states in the Pontic-Caspian steppe: Great Bulgaria, which spanned between the Caspian and Black Seas, and Volga Bulgaria built on the territory that is nowadays part of the Russian Republics of Tatarstan and Chuvashia. Likewise, they imposed themselves in the Balkans as the elite ruling class of the Danube Bulgar Khanate [10][11][12][13]. In each of these regions they were gradually assimilated over a period of centuries by the local ethnic groups, giving rise to several modern peoples claiming descent from them: Volga Tatars[14] (see Bulgarism) and Chuvash[15][16], Balkars and Bulgarians.


Ethnicity and language

Racial type and descendants

Victorious Bulgar warrior with captive, featured on a ewer from the Treasure of Nagyszentmiklos.[17]

Traditionally, historians have associated the Bulgars with the Huns, who migrated out of Central Asia. However, the evidence for this has not been definitive, and the debates have continued to this day. Genetic and anthropological researches have shown that the large steppe confederations of history were not ethnically homogeneous, but rather unions of multiple ethnicities such as Turkic, Ugric and Eastern Iranic among others. Skeletal remains from Central Asia, excavated from different sites dating between the 15th century BC to the 5th century AD, have been analyzed. The distribution of east and west Eurasian lineages through time in the region is concordant with the available archaeological information. Prior to the 13th - 7th century BC, all samples belong to European lineages; while later, an arrival of East Asian sequences that coexisted with the previous genetic substratum was detected.[18]

Both the present-day Bulgarians and the Chuvash far to the east in the Urals are believed to originate partly from the Bulgars (as for the Chuvash, there are at least two theories about their genetic origins). However, according to DNA data, the genetic backgrounds of the two populations are clearly different. The Chuvash have an Eastern European and some Mediterranean genetic background (probably coming from the Caucasus), while the Bulgarians have a classical Mediterranean (probably coming from the Balkans) composition. It is possible that only a cultural and low genetic Bulgar influence was brought into the two regions, without modifying the genetic background of the local populations.[19]

Ibn Fadlan who visited Volga Bulgaria in the 10th century describes the appearance of the Bulgars as "ailing" (pale) and "not ruddy" like the Vikings of Rus.[20]

Language and culture

Ascertaining the origin and the language of the Bulgars has been the subject of debate since the turn of the 20th century. The current leading theory[21] is that at least the Bulgar elite spoke a language that, alongside Khazar and Chuvash, was a member of the Oghuric branch of the Turkic language family.[22][23][24][25] This theory is supported, among other things, by the fact that some Bulgar words contained in the few surviving stone inscriptions[26] and in other documents (mainly military and hierarchical terms such as tarkan, bagatur, and probably khan and kanartikin - "prince", - appear to be of Turkic origin and written in Kuban alphabet of the Old Turkic script. Furthermore the Bulgar calendar had a 12 year cycle similar to the one adopted by Turkic and Mongolian peoples from the Chinese, with names and numbers that are deciphered as Turkic, and that the Bulgars' supreme god was apparently called Tangra, a deity widely known among the Turkic peoples under names such as Tengri, Tura etc.[27]

Some also point out the presence of a small number of Turkic loanwords in the Slavic Old Bulgarian language, and the fact that the Bulgars used an alphabet similar to the Turkic Orkhon script, although this alphabet has not been satisfactorily deciphered yet: fortunately, the Bulgar inscriptions were sometimes written in Greek or Cyrillic characters, most commonly in Greek, thus allowing the scholars to identify some of the Bulgar glosses. Contemporaneous sources like Procopius, Agathias and Menander called the Bulgars "Huns",[28] while others, like the Byzantine Patriarch Michael II of Antioch, called them "Scythians" or "Sarmatians", but this latter identification was probably due to the Byzantine tradition of naming peoples geographically. Due to the lack of definitive evidence, modern scholarship instead uses an ethnogenesis approach in explaining the Bulgars' origin.

"Further evidence culturally linking the Danubian Bulgar state to Turkic steppe traditions was the layout of the Bulgars' new capital of Pliska, founded just north of the Balkan Mountains shortly after 681. The large area enclosed by ramparts, with the rulers' habitations and assorted utility structures concentrated in the center, resembled more a steppe winter encampment turned into a permanent settlement than it did a typical Roman Balkan city."[29]

Culture and society

The Madara Rider (c. 710), a famous example of Bulgar art

Archaeological finds from the Ukrainian steppe suggest that the early Bulgars had the typical culture of the nomadic equestrians of Central Asia, who migrated seasonally in pursuit of pastures. From the 7th century, however they became a settled culture, planting crops, and mastering the crafts of blacksmithing, masonry, and carpentry.

Social structure

The Bulgars had a well-developed clan system and were governed by hereditary rulers. The members of the military aristocracy bore the title boil (boyar). There also were bagains - lesser military commanders. The nobility were further divided onto Small and Great Boyars. The latter formed the Council of the Great Boyars and gathered to take decisions on important state matters presided by the khan (king). Their numbers varied between six and twelve. These probably included the ichirgu boil and the kavkhan (vice khan), the two most powerful people after the khan. These titles were administrative and noninheritable. The boyars could also be internal and external, probably distinguished by their place of residence — inside or outside the capital.[26] The heir of the throne was called kanartikin. Other subroyal titles used by the Bulgarian noble class include boila tarkan (possibly the second son of the khan), kana boila kolobur (chief priest), boritarkan (city mayor).

That the early Bulgar rulers used the title khan is only an assumption, since the evidence for it is scanty and only suggestive. There is the event of the Bulgarian ruler, Pagan being called "Καμπαγάνος" (Kampaganos) by Patriarch Nicephorus (Nikephoros) in the Patriarch's so called Breviarium, at the end of section 16. The editors of a Bulgarian edition of this source have claimed (via an annotation) that "Kampaganos" is a corruption of "Kan Pagan".[30][31] There is a word kanasubigi in stone inscriptions, which some historians presume is a compound of kana, the archaic form of 'khan'. Among the proposed translations for the phrase kanasubigi are 'lord of the army', from the reconstructed Turkic phrase *sü begi, paralleling the attested Old Turkic sü baši,[26] and, more recently, '(ruler) from God', from the Indo-European *su- and baga-, i.e. *su-baga (a counterpart of the Greek phrase ὁ ἐκ Θεοῦ ἄρχων, ho ek Theou archon, which is common in Bulgar inscriptions).[32] This titulature presumably persisted until the Bulgars adopted Christianity.[33] Some Bulgar inscriptions written in Greek and later in Slavonic refer to the Bulgarian ruler respectively with the Greek title archon or the Slavic title knyaz.[34]


Very little is known about the religion of the Bulgars. It is supposed to have been monotheistic on the evidence of Greek language inscriptions from pagan Danube Bulgaria, wherein Bulgar monarchs describe themselves as "ruler from God" and appeal to the deity's omniscience and justice. (The various monarchs are not identified by their personal name.) Presian's inscription from Filipi (837) states:

When someone seeks the truth, God sees [it]. And when someone lies, God sees [it]. The Bulgars have done much good to the Christians [meaning the Byzantines] and the Christians have forgotten [that], yet God sees [it all]".

It is traditionally assumed that the God in question was the Turkic sky god Tengri, although there are few occurrences of that name in documents related to Bulgaria. One such occurrence is in a late Turkish manuscript listing the names of the supreme god in different languages, which has "Tangra" for Bulgarian.[35] Another, from a severely damaged Greek language inscription found on a presumed altar stone near Madara, tentatively deciphered by Beshevliev as "(Kanasubig)i Omu(rtag), ruler (from God), was ... and sacri(ficed to go)d Tangra ...(some Bulgar titles follow)."[36] Beshevliev has also conjectured that the frequent Danube Bulgar runic sign ıYı stands for "Tangra", as it seems to disappear after the conversion to Christianity.

A piece of ethnographic evidence which has been invoked to support the belief that the Bulgars worshipped Tengri/Tangra is the relatively similarity of the name "Tengri" to "Tură", the name of the supreme deity of the traditional religion of the Chuvash, who are traditionally regarded as descendants of the Volga branch of the Bulgars.[37] Nevertheless, the Chuvash religion today is markedly different from Tengriism and can be described as a local form of polytheism with some elements borrowed from Islam. In addition, there was the cult of the worship of Tangri-khan (called Aspandiat by the Persians) by the population of the town of Varachan in Northern Dagestan, which is mostly known as "Kingdom of the Huns" but which Russian historian M. I. Artamonov considered to be ethnically Bulgar. The cult involved sacrifice of horses and veneration of sacred trees.[38]

D. Dimitrov has argued that the Bulgars also adopted elements of Iranian religious beliefs. He sees Iranian influences on the cult at Varachan and notes resemblances between the layout of the Zoroastrian temples of fire and what seem to be pagan Bulgar sanctuaries at Pliska, Preslav, and Madara. The architectural similarities include two squares of ashlars inserted one into another, oriented towards the summer sunrise. One of these sites was transformed into a Christian church, which is taken as evidence that they served a religious function.[39]

Christianity was adopted in Danubian Bulgaria by Knyaz Boris I in 865. Islam was adopted in Volga Bulgaria in the 10th century.


Migration to Europe

Map showing the location of Bulgars, c. 650.

In the early 2nd century, some groups of Bulgars migrated from Central Asia to the European continent and settled on the plains between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea. The Bulgars appear (under the ethnonym of ‘Bulensii’) in certain Latin versions of Ptolemy’s second century AD mapping, shown as occupying the territory along the northwest coast of Black Sea east of Axiacus River (Southern Bug).[40][41][42]

Between 351 and 389, some of the Bulgars crossed the Caucasus to settle in Armenia. Toponymic data testify to the fact that they remained there and were eventually assimilated by the Armenians.

Swept by the Hunnish wave at the beginning of the 4th century, other Bulgar tribes broke loose from their settlements in Central Asia to migrate to the fertile lands along the lower valleys of the rivers Donets and Don and the Azov seashore, assimilating what was left of the Sarmatians. Some of these remained for centuries in their new settlements, whereas others moved on with the Huns towards Central Europe, settling in Pannonia.

Those Bulgars took part in the Hun raids on Central and Western Europe between 377 and 453. After the death of Attila in 453, and the subsequent disintegration of the Hunnish empire, the Bulgar tribes dispersed mostly to the eastern and southeastern parts of Europe.

At the end of the 5th century (probably in the years 480, 486, and 488) they fought against the Ostrogoths as allies of the Byzantine emperor Zeno. From 493 they carried out frequent attacks on the western territories of the Byzantine Empire. Later raids were carried out at the end of the 5th century and the beginning of the 6th century.

In the middle of the 6th century, war broke out between the two main Bulgar tribes, the Kutrigur and Utigur. To the west, the Kutrigurs fell under Avar dominion and became influential within the Khaganate. The eastern Utigurs fell under the western Göktürk empire in 568.

Establishment of Great Bulgaria

First Bulgarian Empire in 800AD, highlighting the Bulgarian Empire and showing its neighbors.

United under Kubrat or Kurt of the Dulo clan (supposedly identical to the ruler mentioned by Arabic chronicler At-Tabari under the name of Shahriar), the joined forces of the Utigur and Kutrigur Bulgars, and probably the Bulgar Onogurs, broke loose from the Turkic khanate in the 630s. They formed an independent state, the Onogundur-Bulgar (Oghondor-blkar or Olhontor-blkar) Empire, often called by Byzantine sources "the Old Great Bulgaria". The empire was situated between the lower course of the Danube to the west, the Black Sea and the Azov Sea to the south, the Kuban River to the east, and the Donets River to the north. It is assumed that the state capital was Phanagoria, an ancient city on the Taman peninsula (see Tmutarakan). However, the archaeological evidence shows that the city became predominantly Bulgar only after Kubrat's death and the consequent disintegration of his state.

Subsequent migrations

According to legend, on his deathbed Khan Kubrat commanded his sons to gather sticks and bring them to him, which he then bundled together. He commanded his eldest son Batbayan (also Bayan or Boyan) to break the bundle. Bayan failed against the strength of the combined sticks, and so did the other sons in turn. Kubrat undid the bundle and broke each stick separately. He then proclaimed to his sons, "unity makes strength", which has become a commonplace Bulgarian folk slogan and now appears on the modern Bulgarian coat of arms. (Similar versions of this story occur also in Chinese and Japanese historic legends.)

The Byzantine Patriarch Nicephorus I relates that Kubrat's sons, however, did not live up to this advice,[citation needed] and thus soon after the death of Kubrat around 665, the Khazar expansion eventually led to the dissolution of Great Bulgaria. Batbayan at first remained the ruler of the lands north of the Black and the Azov Seas, but the Khazars soon subdued him. Those Bulgars, along with their Khazar masters, converted to Judaism in the 9th century. Furthermore, the Balkars in Kabardino-Balkaria may be also the descendants of this Bulgar branch.[citation needed]

The Eastern Bulgars, led by Kubrat’s second son Kotrag, migrated to the confluence of the Volga and Kama Rivers in what is now Russia (see Volga Bulgaria). The present-day republics of Tatarstan and Chuvashia are traditionally considered to be the descendants of Volga Bulgaria in terms of territory and people, but recent DNA research casts doubt on this tradition in regard to the Chuvash. Linguistically, only the Chuvash language is similar to the old Bulgar language; the Tatar language belongs to a different branch of the Turkic languages.

The Bulgars led by Khubrat's youngest son, Asparukh, moved westward and occupied what is today the southern part of Bessarabia. After a successful war with Byzantium in 680, Asparukh's khanate settled in Dobrudja. Asparukh and Byzantine Constantine IV Pogonatus signed a treaty in 681. Asparukh's khanate went on to conquer Moesia Superior. The year 681 is usually regarded as the year of the establishment of modern Bulgaria.

The smallest successor group to Great Bulgaria, the Alcek (also transliterated as 'Altsek' and 'Altcek' or 'Ducca Alzeco'), after many wanderings settled mainly near Naples in the Benevento and Salerno provinces, under the leadership of Emnetzur.

A group of Bulgars ruled by Kuber inhabited Pannonia. After breaking free of Avar overlordship, they migrated to Macedonia.[43] This group, numbering around 70,000,[44] included descendants of Roman captives of various ethnicities that had been resettled in Pannonia by the Avars.[45][46] The majority of historians do not see any evidence for the existence of a Bulgar khanate in Macedonia before 850 AD;[citation needed] but Zlatarski posits that Kuber was also a son of Kubrat, that Kuber's Bulgars formed a khanate in Macedonia, and that Kuber's khanate joined Slavs to attack the Byzantine Empire.

List of Bulgar tribes

Tribes thought to have been Bulgar in origin include:

After the dissolution of Great Bulgaria these tribes formed:

See also


  1. ^ Encyclopaedia Britannica Online, Bulgars
  2. ^
  3. ^
  4. ^
  5. ^
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^
  9. ^
  10. ^ Andreev, J. The Bulgarian Khans and Tsars (Balgarskite hanove i tsare, Българските ханове и царе), Veliko Tarnovo, 1996, pp. 57-58, ISBN 954-427-216-X
  11. ^ П. Хр. Петров, Към въпроса за образуването на първата българска държава, Славянска филология, V, София, 1963, стр. 89—112
  12. ^ Dennis Sinor, The Cambridge history of early Inner Asia, Volume 1, Cambridge University Press, 1990, ISBN 0521243041, 9780521243049, p.62
  13. ^ Christopher I. Beckwith, Empires of the Silk Road: a history of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age, Princeton University Press, 2009, ISBN 0691135894, 9780691135892, p.117
  14. ^ Viktor Aleksandrovich Shnirelʹman, Who gets the past?: competition for ancestors among non-Russian intellectuals in Russia, Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1996, ISBN 0801852218, 9780801852213. Cf. chapters: The Rivalry for the Bulgar Legacy, The Neo-Bulgarists, etc.
  15. ^ James Stuart Olson, Lee Brigance Pappas, Nicholas Charles, An Ethnohistorical dictionary of the Russian and Soviet empires, Greenwood Publishing Group, 1994, ISBN 0313274975, 9780313274978, p.114
  16. ^ Viktor Aleksandrovich Shnirelʹman, Who gets the past?: competition for ancestors among non-Russian intellectuals in Russia, Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1996, ISBN 0801852218, 9780801852213. Cf. chapters: The Rivalry for the Bulgar Legacy, The Neo-Bulgarists, etc.
  17. ^ Dobrev, Ivan
  18. ^ Lalueza-Fox, et al. 2004
  19. ^ Arnaiz-Villena et al. 2003
  20. ^ R.Frye, Ibn Fadlan's journey to Russia, 2005
  21. ^
  22. ^ Petrov 1981: §A.II.1
  23. ^ Angelov 1971: §II.2
  24. ^ Runciman 1930: §I.1
  25. ^ Siegert 1985: 46
  26. ^ a b c Beshevliev 1981 (online)
  27. ^ Sedlar 1994: 141 (Google Books preview)
  28. ^ Maenchen-Helfen 1973: ch. IX
  29. ^ Hupchick 2001: 10
  30. ^ Breviarium of Patriarch Nicephorus, Included in (Bulgarian) Fontes graeci historiae bulgaricae, VI: 305
  31. ^ Mango 1990: English translation of the Breviarium of Patriarch Nicephorus
  32. ^ Stepanov 2003
  33. ^ Sedlar 1994: 46
  34. ^ Manasses Chronicle, Vatican copy of the Bulgarian translation, p. 145
  35. ^ Beshevliev 1981: ch. 7
  36. ^ Beshevliev 1979 Photograph and transcription of the "Tangra" inscription near Madara (Bulgarian)
  37. ^ Tokarev, A. et al. 1987-1988
  38. ^ Dimitrov 1987
  39. ^ Dimitrov 1987
  40. ^ Dobrev, Petar 2001
  41. ^ Fries, Lorenz and Claudius Ptolemy. Tabula IX. Europae. In: Servetus, Michael. Opus Geographiae. Lyon, 1535.
  42. ^ Germanus, Nikolaus and Claudius Ptolemy. Geographia. Ulm: Lienhart Holle, 1482. (fragment)
  43. ^ Zlatarski 1970 [1918]: 514
  44. ^ Mikulchik 1996: 71 (§VI.1.Б)
  45. ^ Hupchick 2001
  46. ^ Curta 2006


Spelling note: the Bulgarian letter ъ is usually transliterated 'ǎ'. However, variation in the transliteration is found in academic literature and library catalogs in the West, as well as in official Bulgarian transliterations: the alternatives are 'ŭ' and 'y'. The diacritic is often missing. The alternatives 'ŭ' and 'y' can be observed below in the spellings of the common first name, Dimitǎr which have become bibliographically established for particular authors.

The journal FGHB is an occasional journal. BAS publishes other occasional journals each devoted to a different language (e.g., Latin) among the languages in which sources of Bulgarian history were composed.

Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria.

Further reading

  • Chance, Jane. 2005. Women medievalists and the academy. Univ. of Wisconsin Press.
  • Curta, Florin, ed., with the assistance of Roman Kovalev. 2008. The other Europe in the Middle Ages: Avars, Bulgars, Khazars, and Cumans. BRILL.
  • Fine, John V. A. 1991. The Early Medieval Balkans: A Critical Survey from the Sixth to the Late Twelfth Century. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0472081497.
  • Mango, Cyril A. 2002. The Oxford history of Byzantium.
  • Miller, Mikhail. 1956. Archaeology in the U.S.S.R. Frederick A. Praeger.
  • Obolensky, Dimitri. 1994. Byzantium and the Slavs. Yonkers, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press.
  • Viktor Aleksandrovich Shnirelʹman, Who gets the past?: competition for ancestors among non-Russian intellectuals in Russia, Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1996, ISBN 0801852218, 9780801852213. (Chapter The Rivalry for the Bulgar Legacy at Google Books).

External links

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