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Great Bulgaria - 150 BC - 678 AD

To the Ugrian branch, rudest and most savage of all the Finnish peoples, belong various now moribund Volga groups, as well as the fierce Bulgar and Magyar hordes, if not also their precursors, the Jazyges and Rhoxolani, whom Pliny calls Sarmates or Sarmatians. From the same South Russian steppe - the plains watered by the Lower Don and Dnieper - came the Bulgars, first in association with the Huns, from whom they are scarcely distinguished by the early Byzantine writers, and then as a separate people, who, after throwing off the yoke of the Avars (635 AD), withdrew before the pressure of the Khazars westwards to the Lower Danube (678).

But their records go much farther back than these dates, and while philologists and archaeologists are able to trace their wanderings step by step north to the Middle Volga and the Ural Mountains, authentic documents carry their history back to the 2nd century BC. Under the Arsacides numerous bands of Bulgars, driven from their homes about the Kama confluence by civil strife, settled on the banks of the Aras, and since that time (150-114 BC) the Bulgars were known to the Armenians as a great nation dwelling away to the north far beyond the Caucasus.

In the same region, but farther north', lay also a "Great Hungary," the original seat of those other Ugrian Finns known as Hungarians and Magyars, who Magyar*" followed later in the track of the Bulgars, and like them formed permanent settlements in the Danube basin, but higher up in Pannonia, the present kingdom of Hungary. Here, however, the Magyars had been preceded by the kindred (or at least distantly connected) Avars, the dominant people in the Middle Danube lands for a great part of the period between the departure of the Huns and the arrival of the Magyars.

Originally the name, which afterwards acquired such an odious notoriety amongst the European peoples, may have been more geographical than ethnical, implying not so much a particular nation as all the inhabitants of the Bulga (Volga) between the Kama and the Caspian. But at that time this section of the great river seems to have been mainly held by more or less homogeneous branches of the Finno-Ugrian family, and paleo-ethnologists have shown that to this connection beyond all question belonged in physical appearance, speech, and usages those bands known as Bulgars.

Nor did this name disappear from the Volga lands after the great migration of Bulgar hordes to the Don basin during the 3rd and 4th centuries AD. On the contrary, here arose another and a greater Bulgar empire, which was known to the Byzantines of the 10th century as "Black Bulgaria," and later to the Arabs and Western peoples as "Great Bulgaria," in contradistinction to the "Little Bulgaria" south of the Danube.

There were for a time three Bulgarias, Volga Bulgaria, Great Bulgaria, and Bulgaria south of the Danube. Great Bulgaria, between the Volga and Dneiper, is a well-known name in mediaeval geography. The author, translated by Ouseley as Ibn Haukal, says, "the river Itil traverses the country of the Kussians, then that of the Bulgarians, then that of the Burtasses, and falls at length into the sea of the Khazars." Ibn Fozlan also says, " the Itil comes from Russia and Bulgaria, and flows towards Khasaria." Nestor, the prime chronicler of Russia, says, " From Russia you can go by the Volga to the kingdoms of the Bolgari and Chwalises." Snorro, the Norse chronicler, also names this district Bulgaria, The Minrite traveller Carpino says, " this country of Kumania has immediately north of it, after Russia, the Mordvins and Bileres, that is Great Bulgaria." William of Ruysbroch, who traversed the Nogay steppes in 1253, says the Etilia comes from Great Bulgaria, which is in the North. . . . Those of Pascatir (i. e., Bashkirland) have Great Bulgaria immediately on their west.

Volga Bulgaria was, in fact, the large province governed from the city of Bolghar, not far from Kazan, and including the Khanate of Kazan, and a large stretch of country to the north. It is very clear that the Great Bulgaria of earlier times was much further to the south than the later Volga Bulgaria. Theophanes relates that the Oungundurs, the Bulgars, and the Kotrages occupied the country situated to the north of the Euxine and the borders of the Maeotis between the Tanais and the Atal (i. e., the Don and the Volga), and that their principal dwellings were between the Maeotis and the Kuphis (i. e., the Kuban), in which the Bulgarian fish called xystus was caught. This, he says, is the Great Bulgaria (Theophanes, ed. Paris, 296, also Klaproth's " Tableaux Historiques," 260). . . . Again, in another place at present I must speak of the primitive dwellingplace of the Huns, who are also called Bulgars. On the banks of the Maeotis and of the Kophines (i. e., Kuban) is situated Great Bulgaria. The Great Bulgaria of the earlier Byzantines, then, was the isthmus between the Maeotis and the Caspian, and the country to the north the home-land of the Huns.

Theophanes identifies the Bulgars with the Huns, and the evidence collected by Zeuss and others is overwhelmingly in favour of this identification being right. In another place Theophanes says the Kotragi and the Bulgarians were of the same race. We know that the Kotragi were Huns. The panegyrist, Cassiodorus, in bepraising one victory uses Bulgarian as a synonym for Hun (Zeuss, " Die Deutsche und die Nachbarstamme," 710). Procopius, who does not use the term Bulgarian, speaks of them under that of Hun, using Hun in describing what others assign to Bulgarians.

Hun and Bulgarian were synonyms for the same people, neither Turks nor Ugrians. The Bulgarians proper were, like the Mongols of later days, only the leaders of the armies, the bulk of which was Slavic or Ugrian. The Bulgarians appear for the first time in the second half of the fifth century on the west of Mount Oural. They were then divided into two hordes, the Black Bulgars and the Wolochs or White Bulgars, both of Tartar origin ; but later much mingled with Sclavonians, whose language they adopted. From the eastern frontiers of Europe, the black Bulgarians followed in the trace of the Huns, on their march toward the Danube. In the end of the fifth century they crossed the Bulga (Volga), from which some historians suppose them to have taken their name, and they advanced upon the Danube, whence they carry devastation and misery into the Justinian Empire.

In 487 they made their first venture on the Danube and were severely defeated, their chief Buzas being killed. (Klaproth op. cit. 261). In 493 the invasion was repeated, and this again in 498-9. The coalition of tribes that formed the invaders on the latter occasion is specified by the Byzantine writers as the Hunno-vendo-bulgars. It was winter, when the frozen Danube offered no barrier and the Roman fleets were powerless. Aristns the governor of Illyria marched against them with only 15,000 men ; a battle ensued near a river named Zurta. The Romans were badly beaten, 4000 of them were put hors de combat. Their defeat was assigned to the incantations of the Bulgarian Shamans or sorcerers, and it was further remarked that their army was followed by a troop of carrion birds as if they had made a pact with death.

In 502 the Bulgars repeated their invasion of the empire. In 505 a body of Bulgars was engaged as mercenaries by the Romans in their struggle with the Ostrogoths in Pannonia, and when Vitalian, governor of Thrace, rebelled in 514 against Anastasius, he had among his troops both Huns and Bulgarians.

In 558 the Avars invaded eastern Europe, and among their first conquests were the Bulgars, and the latter remained their vassals until their chief Kubrat (634-641), called also Prince of the Hunugundurs, freed them from the yoke and made a treaty with the emperor Heraclius. Kobrat, the stem-father of the Bulgarian kings, is sometimes called King of the Bulgarians. He is also styled King of the Hunugundurs, who, as is well known, formed one moiety of the Eastern Huns. The names of the early Bulgarian Chiefs are Hunnic in form, and they in fact continue the Hunnic history under a new name. As is the rule among nomade tribes, a more vigorous clan heads the new confederacy, and gives it its name, or the name of some noted chief becomes the new title of his people.

On the death of Kobrat his heritage was divided among his five sons. Batbai, the eldest, remained with his people in their old country, where he shortly after had to submit to the Khazars. Kotrag, the second son, crossed the Don and settled on its western bank. The fourth settled in Pannonia, where he joined the Avares. The fifth invaded the west and advanced as far as Ravenna in Italy, the third, named Asparuk, having crossed the Dniester and the Dnieper, settled in a place called Ouklos Nicephorus (Klaproth op. cit. 261-2). Schafarik suggests that this name may be the old Slav word A'gl or Ougl=Latin angulus, and representing the entra rios between the Pruth, the Danube, and the Pontus, now called Budzuk or Bessarabia.

It would be difficult to find an area of equal extent on the earth's surface whose ethnography during the historic period is so perplexing as that of Great Bulgaria. Its name, the relations of its present and ancient inhabitants, and its race-changes, have all been subjects of contention. The easiest way of solving the difficulty and the one that has been most generally followed, is to say : Its present inhabitants are Ugrians (that is Finns), or Turks, and Finns or Turks they have probably been in all time, and thus there has come to be a general agreement among ethnologists that the race which is historically so interesting, inasmuch as it drove or led the army of Slaves who occupied ancient Thrace in the seventh century and gave it the name of Bulgaria, is either Turkish or Finnic.

At present, the most notable population of Great Bulgaria are the so-called Kazan Tatars. Their history is well known. The city of Kazan, from which they take their name, was founded by Ulu Mohammed at the break-up of the Golden Horde, and it was then that these Tatars, who were merely one fraction of the Golden Horde, first permanently occupied Great Bulgaria. They had often overrun it before from early times, but it is probable that previous to the foundation of Kazan, they had no permanent settlements there. The Tatars of the Golden Horde were mainly descended from the Comans or Kiptchaks, called Uzes and Ghoz by the Arabs. The Kazaks or Kirghiz Kazaks, the Hakas of the Chinese, belong to precisely the same stock, and represent pretty faithfully the condition of the Comans before they were sophisticated by contact with civilisation. At the invasion of Batu Khan, these Comans were the masters of the steppe country round the head of the Caspian.

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Page last modified: 09-07-2011 13:34:06 ZULU