The Bulgars (also Bolgars, Bulghars; Proto-Bulgarians) were a semi-nomadic warrior tribes of Turkic extraction who flourished in the Pontic-Caspian steppe and the Volga region in the 7th century AD. Emerging as nomadic equestrians in the Volga-Ural region, their roots can be traced according to some researchers to Central Asia. During their westwards migration across the Eurasian steppe they had enveloped also other ethnic groups and cultural influences.
They became sedentary during the 7th century in the Pontic-Caspian steppe, establishing the polity (khanate) of Old Great Bulgaria c. 632 AD. However it was absorbed by the Khazar Empire in 668 AD. In c. 679 AD Khan Asparukh conquered Scythia Minor, opening access to Moesia, and established the First Bulgarian Empire, which was however Slavicized, thus forming modern Bulgarians.
Another state called Volga Bulgaria was established on the middle Volga circa 670 AD. Volga Bulgars preserved their national identity well into the 13th century by repelling the first Mongol attacks in 1223. They were eventually subdued, and their capital Bolghar became one of the major cities of the Mongol Golden Horde.
Etymology and Origin
It is generally considered that it derives from the Turkic bulğha (to stir, mix, disturb, confuse). From the time of Wilhelm Tomaschek (1873), it was considered Common Turkic bulga- or bulya (to mix, to become mixed) and consonant suffix -r (mixed). Talat Tekin considred that bulgar means "mixing", and not "mixed". Gyula Németh and Peter Benjamin Golden initially both advocated the "mixed race" theory, but later like Paul Pelliot, they only considered "to incite", "rebel", "to produce a state of disorder", ie. the "disturbers", what would be a suitable name for nomads.
Among many other theories, D. Detschev considered it was Germanic in the meaning combative people, called so and attributed by the Gepids and Ostrogoths to the descendants of the European Huns; G. A. Keramopulos considered the burgi along the Roman limes; that the ethnonym is related with the city name of Balkh in Bactria, river Volga (yiylga, "moisture"), while Zeki Velidi Togan considered unattested form bel-gur or bil-gur from balağur (five Oğhur).
Németh etymologically associated through oğur the Kutrigurs (Kuturgur > Quturğur > *Toqur(o)ğur < toqur; "nine" in Proto-Bulgaric; toquz in Common Turkic) and Utigurs (Uturgur > Uturğur < utur/otur; "thirty" in Proto-Bulgaric; otuz in Comm. Turk.) as Oğuric tribes, while the ethnonym Bulgar as their spreading adjective. Karatay considered gur/gor meant "country", and noted the Tekin derivation of gur form the Altaic suffix -gir, which is related to the word yir meaning "earth, place". Generally by the modern scholars is considered that the tribal terms oğuz or oğur derive from Turkic *og/uq in meaning of "kinship, being akin to". The terms initially were not the same, as oq/ogsiz meant "arrow", while oğul "offspring, child, son", oğuš/uğuš "tribe, clan", and verb oğša-/oqša "to be like, resemble".
Karatay considered Kutrigurs and Utigurs two relative and ancestral people, later prominent tribes in the Bulgaric union, but different from the Bulgars. Golden considers the Kutrigurs and Utigurs origin obscure and their relationship to the Onoğurs and Bulgars who lived in the same region, or in its vicinity, as unclear. Golden noted the assumption of being related to the Šarağurs (Oğhur. šara, "White Oğhurs"), and that according Procopius were two Hunnic tribal unions of Cimmerians descent and common origin. The reason for the later Byzantine sources frequent linking of the names Onoğurs and Bulgars is also unclear.
According to Karatay, the "mixed" theory cannot prove the usual scholars explanation about the making of Bulgars. He considered that the coming of Oğurs tribes and withdrawing Huns, who met in the north of the Black Sea, faulty because the Oğurs came to Europe in 463, while Bulgars are first formally mentioned in 482, a too short time period for such an ethnical process.
According to Sanping Chen, the "mixed" and "disturbers" theories may not be mutually exclusive as can coexist with the 4th century Buluoji of China, a Barbarian group represented as both a "mixed race" and "troublemaker". This theory was considered by Peter A. Boodberg, who noted that the Buluoji (Middle Chinese b'uo-lak-kiei) in the Chinese sources were recored as remnants of the Xiongnu confederation, and had strong Caucasian elements.
Similarly, Boris Simeonov identified the Tiele/Toquz Oguz tribe Pugu (僕骨; buk/buok kwət; Buqut) with Bulgars. The Pugu were mentioned in Chinese sources from 103 BC up to the 8-th century AD, and later were situated among the eastern Tiele tribes, as one of the highest-ranking tribe after the Uyghurs. According the Chronicle by Michael the Syrian, which comprises several historical events of different age into one story, three mythical Scythian brothers set out on a journey from the mountain Imaon (Tian Shan) in Asia and reached the river Tanais (Don), the country of the Alans called Barsalia, which would be later inhabited by the Bulgars and the Pugurs (Puguraje).
The origin of the early Bulgars (or "Proto-Bulgars") is still unclear. Their homeland is considered to be situated in Kazakhstan and the North Caucasian steppes. Interaction with the Hunnic tribes which caused the migration may have occurred there, but the Pontic–Caspian steppe is considered as a more likely location.
The first clear mention and evidence of the Bulgars, besides anachronistic notices in the 7th century geography work Ashkharatsuyts by Anania Shirakatsi, where are mentioned Kup'i Bulgar, Duč'i Bulkar, Olxontor Błkar and immigrant Č'dar Bulkar tribes in the North Caucasian-Kuban steppes, and an obscure reference Ziezi ex quo Vulgares, with Ziezi being an offspring of Biblical Shem, in the Chronography of 354, by the scholars is considered it was in the 480, when served as the allies of the Byzantine Emperor Zeno (474–491) against the Ostrogoths.
According D. Dimitrov, the 5th century History of Armenia by Movses Khorenatsi speaks about two migrations of the Bulgars, from Caucasus to Armenia. The first migration is mentioned in the association with the campaign of Armenian ruler Valarshak (probably Varazdat) to the lands "named Basen by the ancients... and which were afterwards populated by immigrants of the vh' ndur Bulgar Vund, after whose name they (the lands) were named Vanand". The second migration took place during the time of the ruler Arshak III, when "great disturbances occurred in the range of the great Caucasus mountain, in the land of the Bulgars, many of whom migrated and came to our lands and settled south of Kokh". Both migrations are dated to the second half of the 4-th century AD, and under the "disturbances" which caused them are considered to be the expansion of the Huns in the East-European steppes. Dimitrov recorded that the toponyms of the Bolha and Vorotan rivers, tributaries of the Aras river, are also called as Bolgaru-chaj and Vanand-chaj, and could confirm the Bulgars settlement of Armenia.
Around 463 AD, the Akatziroi and other tribes that had been part of the Hunnic union were attacked by the Šarağurs, one of the first Oğuric Turkic tribes that entered the Ponto-Caspian steppes as the result of migrations set off in Inner Asia. According to Priscus, in 463 the representatives of Šarağur, Oğur and Onoğur came to the Emperor in Constantinople, and explained they had been driven out of their homeland by the Sabirs, who had been attacked by the Avars. This tangle of events indicates that the Oğuric tribes are related with the Ting-ling and Tiele people. It seems that Kutrigurs and Unigurs arrived with the initial waves of Oğuric peoples entering the Pontic steppes. The Bulgars were not mentioned in 463.
The account by Paul the Deacon in his History of the Lombards (8th century) says that at the beginning of the 5th century in the North-Western slopes of the Carpathians the Vulgares killed Lombards king Agelmund. Scholars attribute this account to the Huns, Avars, or that some Bulgar groups were probably carried away by the Huns to the Central Europe. When the Ostrogoth chieftain Theodoric Strabo army grew to 30,000-men strong, it was felt as a menace for the Byzantine Emperor Zeno, who somehow managed to convince the Bulgars to attack the Thracian Goths. However, the Bulgars were defeated by Strabo in 480/481. In 486 and 488 they fought again against the Goths, first as allies of the Byzantium according Magnus Felix Ennodius, and later as allies of the Gepids according Paul the Deacon.
In 515, Bulgar mercenaries were listed along others from Goths, Scythians and Hunnic tribes as part of the Vitalian army. In 505, the alleged 10,000 Huns horsemen in the Sabinian's army which got defeated by the Ostrogoths are considered to be the Bulgars. In the sixth century existed a literary topos by which Ennodius from Jordanes, and he from Procopius, identified the Bulgars with the Huns. As such, Ennodius a captured Bulgar horse called "equum Huniscum".
Jordanes in his work Getica (551), describing the Pontic steppe, located beyond the Acatziri, above the Pontic Sea, the habitat of the Bulgari, "whom the evils of our sins have made famous", and in their vicinity the Hunni divided into two tribes Altziagiri (who trade and live next to Cherson) and Saviri, while the Hunuguri (considered Onoğurs) were notable because of the marten skin trade. In the Middle Ages marten skin was used as a substitute for minted money.
The Syriac translation of the Pseudo–Zacharias Rhetor's Ecclesiastical History (c. 555) in Western Eurasia records: "The land Bazgun... extends up to the Caspian Gates and to the sea, which are in the Hunnish lands. Beyond the gates live the Burgars (Bulgars), who have their language, and are people pagan and barbarian. They have towns. And the Alans - they have five towns... Avnagur (Aunagur, considered Onoğurs) are people, who live in tents". Then he records thirteen tribes, the wngwr (Onoğur), wgr (Oğur), sbr (Sabir), bwrgr (Burğar=Bulğar), kwrtrgr (Kutriğur), br (Abar/Avar), ksr (unknown, Kasar/Kasir/Akatzir), srwrgwr (Sarurgur=Šarağur), dyrmr (unknown, Dirmar=Ιτίγαροι), b'grsyq (Bagrasir=Barsils), kwls (unknown, Xwâlis), bdl (Abdel=Hephthalite), and ftlyt (Hephthalite, aka White Huns). They are described in typical phrases reserved for nomads in the ethnographis literature of the period, that "live in tents, earn their living on the meat of livestock and fish, of wild animals and by their weapons (plunder)".
Agathias (c. 579–582) wrote: "...all of them are called in general Scythians and Huns in particular according to their nation. Thus, some are Koutrigours or Outigours and yet others are Oultizurs and Bourougounds... the Oultizurs and Bourougounds were known up to the time of the Emperor Leo (457–474) and the Romans of that time and appeared to have been strong. We, however, in this day, neither know them, nor, I think, will we. Perhaps, they have perished or perhaps they have moved off to very far place."
According D. Dimitrov, scholars partially managed to identify and locate the Bulgar groups mentioned in the Armenian Ashkharatsuyts. The Olxontor Błkar is one of the variations used for the Onoğurs Bulgars, while others could be related with the ancient river names, as such the Kup'i Bulgar are related to Kuban (Kuphis), the Duč'i could read Kuchi Bulkar and as such be related to Dnieper (Kocho), while the Č'dar Bulkar location is unclear. Dimitrov considered that the difference of the Bulgar ethnonym could mean the dialect differenciation in their language.
By the middle of the 6th century, the Bulgars momentarily fade from the sources and the Kutrigurs and Utigurs came to the front. Between 548 and 576, mostly due to Justinian I (527–565) act, the Kutrigurs and Utigurs through diplomatic persuasion and bribery were drawn into mutual warfare, decimating one another. In the end, the Kutrigurs were overwhelmed by the Avars, while the Utigurs came under Western Turks rule.
The Oğurs and Onoğurs in the 6th and 7th century sources were mostly mentioned in the connection with the Avar and Turk conquest of the Western Eurasia. From the 8th century the Byzantine sources often mention the Onoğurs in close connection with the Bulgars. Agathon (early 8th century) noted nation of Onoğurs Bulğars; Nikephoros I (early 9th century) noted that Kubrat was the lord of the Onoğundurs; his contemporary Theophanes referred to them as Onoğundur–Bulğars; Constantine VII (mid-10th century) remarked that the Bulğars formerly called themselves Onoğundurs. This association was previously mirrored in Armenian sources, the Ashkharatsuyts which notes the Olxontor Błkar, and the 5th century History by Movses Khorenatsi which notes a 9th century additional comment the colony of the Vłĕndur Bułkar. Marquart and Golden connected this forms with the Iġndr (*Uluġundur) of Ibn al-Kalbi (c. 820), the Vnndur (*Wunundur) of Hudud al-'Alam (982), the Wlndr (*Wulundur) of Al-Masudi (10th century) and Hungarian name for Belgrad Nándor Fejérvár, the nndr (*Nandur) of Gardīzī (11th century) and *Wununtur in the letter by the Khazar King Joseph. All the forms show the phonetic changes typical of later Oğuric (prothetic v-).
Scholars consider unclear how this union came, and view it as a long process in which a number of different groups were merged, and in that time the Bulgars may have represented a large confederation which included the remnants of Onoğurs, Utigurs and Kutrigurs among others.
Old Great Bulgaria
The Turk rule weakened sometime after 600, and apparently the Avars reestablished the control over the region. As the Western Turkic Khaganate declined and finally collapsed in the middle of the 7th century, it was against Avar rule that the Bulgars, recorded as Onoğundur–Bulğars, reappear. They revolted under their leader Kubrat c. 630–635, who seems to have been prepared by the Heraclius (610–641) against the Sasanian–Avar alliance, as he and his uncle Organa were already baptized in the Constantinople in 619. Kubrat founded the Old Great Bulgaria, also called as Onoğundur–Bulğars state, or Patria Onoguria per Ravenna Cosmography.
Little is known about Kubrat's activities, his date of death is placed between 642 and the 660s, and according Nikephoros I he instructed his five sons to "never separate their place of dwelling from one another, so that by being in concordance with one another, their power might thrive".
However, subsequent events showed it was only a loose tribal union, as there emerged rivalty between the Khazars and Bulgars confederation for the dominance in the Pontic–Caspian steppe. Some historians consider that the war was an extension of the Western Turks struggle, between the Nushibi tribes and Ashina clan who led the Khazars, and the Duolu tribes, which some scholars associated with the Dulo clan, from which Kubrat and many Bulgar rulers originated.
The Khazars ultimately were victorious and parts of the Bulgar union broke up.
It is unclear whether the result of brothers parting away was casued by the strong Khazar pressure or internal conflicts. The Bulgars led by the first two brothers Batbayan and Kotrag remained in the Pontic steppe zone, where were also known as Black Bulgars by the Byzantine and Rus' sources, and became Khazars vassals. The Bulgars lead by Kotrag during the 7th and 9th centuries migrated to the middle Volga region, where founded the Volga Bulgaria, with the capital Bolghar. According the Ahmad ibn Rustah (10th century), they were divided in three branches, "the first branch was called Bersula (Barsils), the second Esegel, and the third Bulgar". In 922 they accepted Islam as the official religion.
The third and most famous son, Asparukh, according Nikephoros I "crossed the river Danapros and Danastros, lived in the locale around the Ister, having occupied a place suitable for settlement, called in their language ογγλον (ogglon; Slav. o(n)gl, "angle, corner"; Turk. agyl, "yard")... The people having been divided and scattered, the tribe of the Khazars, from within Berulia (Bessarabia), which neighbors with Sarmatia, attacked them with impunity. They overran all the lands lying behind the Pontos Euxeinos and penetrated to the sea. After this, having made Bayan a subject, they forced him to pay tribute". According the Pseudo–Zacharias Rhetor, Asparukh "fled from the Khazars out of the Bulgarian mountains. In the Khazar ruler Joseph's letter is recorded "in the country in which I live, there formerly lived the Vununtur (< Vunundur < Onoğundur). Our ancestors, the Khazars warred with them. The Vununtur were more numerous, as numerous as the sand by the sea, but they could not withstand the Khazars. They left their country and fled... until they reached the river called Duna (Danube)". This migration and the foundation of the Danube or Bulgaria (the First Bulgarian Empire) is usually dated c. 679. Scholars consider that the absence of any source recording the Slavic resistance to the invasion was because it was in their interest to be liberated from the Byzantine taxation.
According Nikephoros I and Theophanes, the fourth unnamed brother, identified with Kuber, "having crossed the river Ister, resides in Pannonia, which is now under the sway of the Avars, having made an alliance with the local peoples". Kuber later led a revolt against the Avars and with his people moved as far as the region of Thessaloniki in Greece Macedonia.
According Nikephoros I and Theophanes, the fifth brother "settling in the five Ravennate cities became a subject of the Romans". This brother is identified with Alcek, who after the stay in Avar territory, left and settled in Italy, in Sepino, Bojano and Isernia. Those Bulgars preserved their speech and identity until the late 8th century.
Bulgars had the typical culture of the nomadic equestrians of Central Asia, who migrated seasonally in pursuit of good pastures, as well was attracted by the economic and cultural interaction with sedentary societies. Being in contact with sedentary cultures they started to master the crafts of blacksmithing, pottery, and carpentry. The tribe or clan who was politically dominant usually gave the name to the tribal confederation.
The Bulgars, at least the Danubian Bulgars, had a well-developed clan and military-administrative system of "inner" and "outer" tribes, governed by the ruling clan. They had many titles, and according Steven Runciman there's a vague difference between which represented offices and which mere ornamental dignities. Maenchen-Helfen considered that the titles of the steppe peoples do not reflect the ethnicity of their bearers, and according Magnus Felix Ennodius, the Bulgars did not have nobility yet their leaders and common men became noblemen on the battle field, indicating they had social mobility. The tribute-paying sedentary vassals like Slavs and Greek-speaking population formed a substantial and important part of the khanate's maintenance.
The ruler title in the inscriptions is khan/kana. A counterpart of the Greek phrase ὁ ἐκ Θεοῦ ἄρχων (ho ek Theou archon) was also common in Bulgar inscriptions. The kavhan was the second most important title in the realm, seemingly chief official. Some Bulgar inscriptions written in Greek and later in Slavonic refer to the Bulgarian rulers respectively with the Greek title archon, or the Slavic titles knyaz and tsar.
The ruler title kana sybigi mentioned in six inscriptions by the Khan Omurtag and two by Malamir, has several proposed translations. Among the proposed translations for the title sybigi or subigi are "lord of the army", from the reconstructed Turkic phrase syu-beg (army master) paralleling the attested Orkhon Turkic syubashi; Runciman and J. B. Bury considered ubige or uvege to be related with the Cuman-Turkic öweghü (high, glorious); "bright, luminous, heavenly"; and more recently "(ruler) from God", from the Indo-European *su- and baga-, i.e. *su-baga. Florin Curta noted the resemblance in the use of the kana sybigi with the Byzantine name and title basileus.
The members of the upper social class bore the title boila (later boyar). The nobility was divided onto small and great boilas. In the tenth century there were three classes of boyars, the six great boilas, the outer boilas, and the inner boilas, while in the mid-ninth century there were twelve great boyars. The great boilas occupied military and administrative offices in the state, as well the council where gathered to take decisions on important state matters.
The lesser class of the nobility were bagaïns, probably a military class who also also participated in the council. The title bagatur, once as bogotor, is in several occasions found in the inscriptions. It derives from Turkish bagadur (hero). It was a high military rank. The Bulgarian military commander who was defeated by the Croats in the Battle of the Bosnian Highlands (926) was called Alogobotur, which is actually a title comprised by alo (considered Turkic alp, alyp; chief) and bagatur.
There several title associations with uncertain meaning like boila kavkhan, ičirgu boila, kana boila qolovur, bagatur bagain, biri bagain, setit bagain, ik bagain.
The title rank kolober (or qolovur) occurs only in inscriptions, and Runciman derived from the Turkish golaghuz (a guide). The title zhupan, also once as kopan, in the inscriptions was often mentioned together with the bearers name. They are traditionally seen as Slavic chiefs. It seems it had a meaning "head of a clan-district", as among the South Slavs (Croats, Serbs) where it was in more wide use it meant "head of a tribe" with district and court function.
The title tarkhan probably represented a high military rank, similar to the Byzantine strategos, of the military governor of a province. The variations kalutarkan and buliastarkan are considered to be officers at the head of the tarkans. The title zhupan tarqan Curta interpreted as "tarqan of (all the) zhupans".
The title sampses is not recorded on inscriptions, and is considered to be related to the royal court. The title tabare or iltabare, which derives from the old Turkish ältäbär, like sampses is not mentioned on inscriptions, and is also related to the legates and ambassadors.
The Anastasius Bibliothecarius listed Bulgarian legates at the Council at Constantinople in 869–870. They were mentioned as Stasis, Cerbula, Sundica (vagantur=bagatur), Vestranna (iltabare), Praestizisunas (campsis), and Alexius Hunno (sampsi).
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", a divine origin, and appeal to the deity's omniscience. The Presian's inscription from Philippi (837) states:
When someone seeks the truth, God sees. And when someone lies, God sees that too. The Bulgars did many favors to the Christians (Byzantines), but the Christians forgot them. But God sees.
It is traditionally assumed that the God in question was the Turkic supreme sky deity Tengri. In the Chinese transcription as zhenli, and Turkic as Tangara, Tengeri, it represents the oldest known Turco-Mongolian word. It is considered that is first attested in the Xiongnu confederacy that settled on the frontiers of China in the 2nd century BC. The confederacy probably had both pre-Turkic and pre-Mongolian ethnic elements. The modern Turkish word for god Tanri derives from the same root.
It appears that Tengrism engaged various shamanic practices. According Mercia MacDermott, Tangra was the male deity connected with sky, light and the Sun. The cult incorporates his female equivalent and principle, goddess Umay, the deity of fertility. The most sacred creatures to him were horse and the eagle, and particularly white horses. On the Bulgars archeological sites were found amulets with representations of the Sun, horses and other animals. This could explain the variety of Bulgars tabus, like about the animals, and war horses, except during wartime. The paganism was in close connection with the old clan system, and the remains of totemism and shamanism were even preserved after the crossing of Danube.
In the 9th century was recorded that the Bulgars before a battle "used to practice enchantments and jests and charms and certain auguries". Liutprand of Cremona reported that Baian, son of Simeon I (893–927), could through magicam didicisse transform into a wolf, Clement of Ohrid their worship of fire and water, while in the 11th century Theophylact of Ohrid remembered that the Bulgars before the Christianization respected the Sun, Moon and the stars, and sacrificed dogs to them.
Allegedly, the Dulo clan had the dog as its sacred animal, and to this today was preserved the Bulgarian expression "he kills the dog", in the meaning "he gives the orders", a relic of the time when the Dulo Khan sacrified a dog to the deity Tangra. Remains of dog and deer have been found in Bulgars graves, and it seems the wolf also had special significance. The Bulgars were bi-ritual, either done cremation or burying of the dead, and often interred them with personal objects, food, and sacred animals.
Because of the cult of the Sun, the Bulgars had preference for the south, and their main buildings like shrines faced south, as well their yurts were usually entered from the south, or less often from the east. Excavations showed that Bulgars buried their dead on a north-south axis, with their heads to the north so that the deceased "faced" south.
Ravil Bukharaev considered that such an autocratic and monotheistic religion - henotheism, as seen in the report by Ahmad ibn Fadlan (10th century) about the Oghuz Turks kindred to the Bulgars, made more natural and easier the acceptance of Islam in Volga Bulgaria:
If someone trouble befalls any of them or there happens any unlucky incident, they look out into the sky and summon: "Ber Tengre!". In the Turkish language, that means, "by the One and Only God!".
Another mention of Tengri is on the severely damaged Greek inscription found on a presumed altar stone near Madara, tentatively deciphered as "Khan sybigi Omurtag, ruler from god...was...and made sacrifice to god Tangra...itchurgu boila...gold". An Ottoman manuscript recorded that the name of god in Bulgarian was "Tängri".
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 people, who are traditionally regarded as descendants Volga Bulgars. Nevertheless, the Chuvash religion today is markedly different from Tengrism and can be described as a local form of polytheism, due to pagan beliefs of the forest dwellers of Finno-Ugric origin who lived in their vicinity, with some elements borrowed from Islam.
D. Dimitrov has argued that the Kuban Bulgars also adopted elements of Iranian religious beliefs. He considered Iranian influences on the cult of the former Caucasian Huns capital Varachan (Balanjar), making a religious syncretism between the principal Turkic deity Tengri and the Iranian sun god Hvare. Dimitrov noted the work by V.A. Kuznecov who considered the resemblance between the layout of the Zoroastrian temples of fire and the Kuban Bulgars centre, Humarin citadel, situated 11 km to the north of the town Karachayevsk, where the pottery belonged to the Saltovo-Mayaki culture. Kuznecov also considered such a connection for the plan of the Danube Bulgars sanctuaries at Pliska, Veliki 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.
The view of the Parthian and Sasanian influence which also Franz Altheim argued, is considered debatable and rather shows the cultural impact of the Iranian world on the communities in the Pontic–Caspian steppe. Many scholars consider that the square shape with the North-South and East-West axis of the Bulgar sacral monuments is very similar to those of Turkic khagans in Mongolia.
Officially Christianity had begun to penetrate probably via their Slavic subjects, and was adopted in the First Bulgarian Empire by Knyaz Boris I in 865 as a state religion. There was interest for Islam as well, seen by the book Answers to the Questions of the King of the Burgar addresed to him about Islam and Unity by the Abbasid caliph Al-Ma'mun (813–833) for the Pontic/Bosporan Bulgars, while it was officially adopted in Volga Bulgaria as a state religion in 922.
The origin and the language of the Bulgars has been the subject of debate since around the start of the 20th century. It is generally considered that at least the Bulgar elite spoke a language that, alongside extinct Khazar and the only preserved Chuvash, was a member of the Oghur branch of the Turkic language family.
According P. Golden this association is apparent from the fragments of texts and isolated words and phrases preserved in inscriptions. In addition to language, their culture and state structure retain many Central Asian features. The military and hierarchical terms such as khan/qan, kanasubigi, qapağan, tarkan, bagatur, boila appear to be of Turkic origin. The Bulgar calendar within the Nominalia of the Bulgarian khans had a twelve-year animal cycle, similar to the one adopted by Turkic and Mongolian peoples from the Chinese, with animal names and numbers deciphered as Turkic. The Bulgars supreme god called Tengri (in Bulgar Tangra/Tengre).
Bulgar inscriptions were mostly written in Greek or Cyrillic characters, most commonly in Greek or Graeco-Bulgar, sometimes with Slavic terms, thus allowing the scholars to identify some of the Bulgar glosses. There were found several Bulgar inscriptions written in runes in Northeastern Bulgaria and parts of Romania, similar to the Old Turkic alphabet. It is conisdered they have a sacral meaning. Altheim polemicized that this runs were brought into Europe from Central Asia by the Huns and were an adapted version of the old Sogdian alphabet to the Hunnic/Oghur Turkic language. The custom of stone engravings are considered to have Sasanian, Turkic and Roman parallels, while Madara Rider the Sasanian rock relief tradition.
The Danubian Bulgars did not manage to alter the predominantly Slavic character of Bulgaria, seen in the toponymy and names of the capitals Pliska and Preslav. The Bulgars were able to preserve their native language and customs for about 200 years, but since the 9th century is recorded a period of bilingualism, and when the ruling class abandoned its native language and adopted Slavic, according Jean W. Sedlar, it was so completely that there's no trace of Turkic speech patterns in Old Slavic texts.
In Bulgarian academy, mainly by Petar Dobrev, a hypothesis linking the Bulgar language to the Iranian languages (Pamir) has become popular since the 1990s. Most proponents still assume an intermediate stance, proposing certain signs of Iranian influence on a Turkic substrate, for example the names Asparukh and Bezmer from Nominalia list were established to be of Iranian origin, while other Bulgarian scholars actively oppose the "Iranian hypothesis". According Raymond Detrez, the Iranian theory is rooted in the periods of anti-Turkish sentiment in Bulgaria and is ideologically motivated.
Due to the lack of definitive evidence, modern scholarship instead uses an ethnogenesis approach in explaining the Bulgars origin. More recent theories view the nomadic confederacies, such as the Bulgars, as the formation of several different cultural, political and linguistic entities that could dissolve as quickly as they formed, entailing a process of ethnogenesis.
According Walter Pohl, the existential fate of the tribes and their confederations depended on their ability to adapt to an environment going through rapid changes, and to give this adaptation a credible meaning rooted in tradition and ritual. Slavs and Bulgars succeeded because their form of organization proved as stable and as flexible as necessary, while the Pannonian Avars failed in the end because their model could not respond to new conditions. Pohl consideres that lower strata of society did not felt part of any large-scale ethnic group, yet only the classes included in the armies, and especially the ruling elite.
When the Turkic tribes began to enter into the Pontic–Caspian steppe in the Post-Hunnic era, or as early as the 2nd century AD, in their confederations were incorporated an array of ethnic groups of newly joined Turkic, Altaic-Turkic, Caucasian, Iranian, and Finno-Ugric peoples. During their Western Eurasian migrations to the Balkan they also came into contact with Armenian, Semitic, Slavic, Thracian and Anatolian Greek among other populations.
Since the 6th-8th century can be recorded distinctive Bulgars Sivashovka group of monuments which are build upon the Late Sarmatian (2–4 century AD) culture, the Penkovka culture of Antes and Slavs, and since 8th century the Saltovo-Mayaki medieval culture, which had an Alanic base, and besides Bulgars included Khazars, Magyars and Slavs. The Saltovo-Mayaki type settlements in Crimea were destroyed by the Pechengs.
Although the older Slavic-Iranian tribes were enveloped by the widespread Turkic Empires of the Pontic–Caspian steppe, in the following centuries followed the complete disappearance of the both Iranian and Turkic languages, which indicates that the Slavic language had dominated among the common people.
Anthropology and Genetics
Genetic and anthropological researches have shown that the Eurasian steppe's tribal unions were not ethnically homogeneous, but rather unions of multiple ethnicities. Skeletal remains from Kazakhstan (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 agrees with 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. This finding relates with hundreds of excavated mummies in the Tarim Basin (West China), which reveal Caucasoid features and the presence of ancient Caucasoid substratum in the East Asia. This findings are associated with ancient Tocharians and Tocharian languages.
The recent blood and DNA studies of present-day populations of Central Asia confirmed the extreme genetical heterogeneity. The latest DNA studies on Turkic people in Central Asia and Eastern Europe also confirmed the genetical heterogeneity, which indicates that the Turkic tribal confederations included various haplogroups at their time.
According P. Golden, the Central Asian Turkic peoples have multiple points of origin and are a mixture of steppes ethnic groups. Eric Hobsbawm considered that the languages are "almost always semi-artificial constructs". Thus, rather than linguistical, tribal or ethnic elements, the political process created new communities. Golden noted that whatever of the theories regarding Turkic initial homeland (Urheimat) is supported, tribes that were in the Western Eurasia since the 1st millennium BC had contacts with Proto-Indo-Europeans. Those tribes Golden considers as the ancestors of the Oğuric Turks.
According to a comparative genetic study, besides a variety of small high peakes of specific subclades in specific provinces, the Bulgarians are primarily represented by Western Eurasian Y haplogroups with 40% belonging to haplogroups E-V13 and I-M423, and 20% to R-M17 (R-M198 and R-M458). Haplogroups common in the Middle East (J-M172, J-M267, and G-M201) and in South Western Asia (R-L23*) occur at frequencies of 19% and 5%, respectively. Haplogroups C, ie. its subclade C-M217 which is found at lower frequencies among Turkic peoples of Central Asia except Kazakhs, N-M231 typical of northern Eurasia, and Q-M242 in Central Asia and Siberia, all distinctive for Altaic and some Central Asian Turkic-speaking populations, occur at the negligible frequency of only 1.5%.
The DNA studies on Chuvash people, who speak a Turkic language (Chuvash), showed that are genetically related to Caucasians, Mediterraneans, and Middle Easterners, partially Central or Northern Europeans (Finno-Ugric), but with little Central Asian-Altaic gene flow. The DNA studies on Tatars, Bashkirs and Russians in Chelyabinsk Oblast showed European and Finno-Ugric impact on Tatars, while Caucasoid and Mongoloid impact on Baskhirs. They also showed some asppects of genetic relation between Tatars and Chuvashes, as well Bulgarians, concluding they could support the view that the Tatars may be descendents of ancient Bulgars. As for now it is not known with which haplogropus should be Bulgars associated, some scholars consider the possibility that only a cultural and low genetic influence was brought into the region.
The anthropological data can be interpreted as pointing to assimilation processes between the local population and the newcomers. The Zlivka necropolis near the village of Ilichevki, the district of Donetsk, attributed to the Bulgars, indicate a single anthropological type, brachiocranic Caucasoid with small Mongoloid admixtures. The examined graves in Norther Bulgaria and Sourthern Romania showed different somatic types, including Caucasoid/Mediterranean and less often Mongoloid.
Specific to the Danube Bulgars is also the artificial deformation of the skulls, in some necropolises found in 80% of the material. The Bulgars had a special type of shamanic "medicine-men" who performed trepanations of the skull, usually near sagittal suture, not just symbolically, but also medically as in the two cases the patient had brain problems. According Maenchen-Helfen and Rashev, the practice of the artificial deformation of the skulls, and some types of burial artefacts, in Bulgars graves are similar to those of the Sarmatians, and Sarmatized Turks or Turkicized Sarmatians of the post-Hunnic graves in the Ukrainian steppe. The pre-Christian burial customs in Bulgaria indicate diverse social, ie. nomadic and sedentary, and cultural influences.
In modern ethnic nationalism there is some "rivalry for the Bulgar legacy" (see Bulgarism), as besides the Bulgarians, the Volga Tatars and Chuvash people are said to be descended from the Volga Bulgars, as well is considered the ethnogenesis influence for the Bashkirs, Karachays and Balkars.
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