The Bulgars (also Bolgars, Bulghars, Huno-Bulgars) were a semi-nomadic people who flourished in the Pontic Steppe and the Volga basin in the 7th century. Ethnically, the Bulgars comprised Turkic and probably Scytho-Sarmatian elements. They had enveloped also other ethnic groups by their migration westwards across the Eurasian steppe.
The Bulgars emerged after the collapse of the Hunnic Empire in the 5th century. Initially, they conquered the Pontic-Caspian steppe and around the lower Volga basin, by the 7th century dispersing further towards Bessarabia. Originating as nomadic equestrians of Central Asia, they became sedentary during the 7th century, establishing the polities (khanates) of Old Great Bulgaria in the Pontic steppe and Volga Bulgaria on the middle Volga.
Old Great Bulgaria was absorbed by the Khazar Empire in the 8th century, but in the 680s, Khan Asparukh conquered Scythia Minor, opening access to Moesia, and established the First Bulgarian Empire, which was however Slavicized by the 10th century. Volga Bulgaria preserved their national identity well into the 13th century by repelling the first Mongol attacks in 1223. But they were eventually subdued, and their capital Bolghar city became one of major cities of the Mongol Golden Horde. Later, Volga Bulgars mixed with Tatars of Kazan.
The name Bulgar is derived from the Turkic verb bulğa ("to mix", "shake, "stir") and its derivative bulgak ("revolt", "disorder") by most authorities. A minority hypothesis derives it from bel gur ("five clans").
The early Bulgars (or "Proto-Bulgars") may have been present in the Pontic Steppe from the 2nd century, identified with the Bulensii in certain Latin versions of Ptolemy's Geography, shown as occupying the territory along the northwest coast of Black Sea east of Axiacus River (Southern Bug).
In the early 4th century, the Bulgars would have been caught up in the Hunnic migrations, moving to the fertile lands along the lower valleys of the rivers Donets and Don and the Azov seashore, and assimilating some remainders 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 Hunnic raids on Central and Western Europe between 377 and 453. After the death of Attila in 453, and the subsequent disintegration of the Hunnic 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. The Bulgars took the city of Corinth in the middle of the 7th century. United under Kubrat of the Dulo clan (identical to the ruler mentioned by Persian chronicler 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.
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, as well as in the legend of Oghuz Khan and his six sons.)
The Byzantine Patriarch Nikephoros I of Constantinople relates that Kubrat's sons, however, did not live up to this advice, 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.
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. He was followed by a small Bulgar horde. A twelfth-century source gives its number as 10,000. 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. This group, numbering around 70,000, included descendants of Roman captives of various ethnicities that had been resettled in Pannonia by the Avars. The majority of historians do not see any evidence for the existence of a Bulgar khanate in Macedonia before 850 AD; 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.
The legacy of Volga Bulgaria endured as part of the Muslim history of the Asian part of the Russian Empire; Russian historian S. M. Solov'ev reflected: "For a long time Asia, Muslim Asia built here a home; a home not for nomadic hordes but for its civilization; for a long time, a commercial and industrial people, the Bulgars had been established here. When the Bulgar was already listening to the Qur'an on the shores of the Volga and the Kama, the Russian Slav had not yet started to build Christian churches on the Oka and had not yet conquered these places in the name of European civilization".
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.
The Bulgars had a well-developed clan system and were governed by hereditary rulers. The members of the military aristocracy bore the title boyil (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 boyil and the kavkhan (vice khan), the two most powerful people after the khan. These positions were administrative and noninheritable. The boyars could also be internal and external, probably distinguished by their place of residence — inside or outside the capital. The heir of the throne was called kanartikin. Other subroyal titles used by the Bulgarian noble class include boyila tarkan (possibly the second son of the khan), kana boyila 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". 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, 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). This titulature presumably persisted until the Bulgars adopted Christianity. 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.
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, with 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. 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)." Beshevliev has also conjectured that the frequent Danube Bulgar runic sign ıYı (i.e. ) 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 Suvar branch of the Volga Bulgars. 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 Hun capital Varachan (i.e. Belenjer/Belendjer, "army head" [quarter])  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 use of sacred trees in worship.
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.
Officially Christianity was adopted in Danubian Bulgaria by Knyaz Boris I in 865 (as a state religion). Islam was officially adopted in Volga Bulgaria as a state religion in 922, but old religion revolts continued into the Mongol conquest in 1230's.
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 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. This theory is supported, among other things, by the fact that some Bulgar words contained in the few surviving stone inscriptions and in other documents (mainly military and hierarchical terms such as tarkan, bagatur, and probably khan) appear to be of Turkic origin and written in Kuban alphabet of the Old Turkic script. Also, 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. The Bulgars' supreme god was apparently called Tangra, a deity widely known among the Turkic peoples under names such as Tengri, Tura etc.
Some also point out the presence of Turkic loanwords in the Slavic Old Bulgarian language and Church Slavonic language, and the fact that the Bulgars used an alphabet similar to the Turkic Orkhon script, this alphabet was deciphered and analyzed by S.Baichorov: 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", 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. There are also a number of Iranic words in modern Bulgarian, inheritted from the Bulgars
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."
In Bulgarian academy, a hypothesis linking the Bulgar language to the Iranian language group has become popular in the 1990s. Most proponents still assume an intermediate stance, proposing certain signs of Iranian influence on a Turkic substrate. while other Bulgarian scholars actively oppose the "Iranian hypothesis".
Traditionally, historians have associated the Bulgars with the Huns, who migrated out of Central Asia. Anthropological data collected from medieval Bulgar necropolises from Dobrudja, Crimea and the Ukrainian steppe have shown that Bulgars were a Caucasoid people with a small Mongoloid admixture and practiced circular type artificial cranial deformation. This finding is consistent with a model in which the Turkic languages were gradually imposed in Central Asia and East European Plain on Caucasian (Scythian) peoples with relatively little genetic admixture, another possible example of a language shift through elite dominance. Ibn Fadlan, who visited Volga Bulgaria in the 10th century, describes the appearance of the Bulgars as "ailing" (pale) and "not ruddy" like the Rus' people.
Due to the lack of definitive evidence, a modern scholarship instead uses an ethnogenesis approach in explaining the Bulgars' origin. Contemporaneous sources like Procopius, Agathias and Menander called the Bulgars "Huns" 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. The Bulgar language spoken by the Bulgar elites was a member of the Oghuric branch of the Turkic language family, alongside with Hunnic, Khazar and Turkic Avar.
More recent theories view the nomadic confederacies, such as the Old Great Bulgaria, as the formation of several different cultural, political and linguistic entities that could dissolve as quickly as they formed, entailing a process of ethnogenesis.
Genetic and anthropological researches have shown that the Eurasian steppe's tribal unions of history were not ethnically homogeneous, but rather unions of multiple ethnicities such as Turkic, Ugric and 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 agrees with available archaeological information. Prior to the 13th - 7th century BC, all samples belong to European lineages; later, an arrival of East Asian sequences that coexisted with the previous genetic substratum was detected.
In modern ethnic nationalism, there is some "rivalry for the Bulgar legacy" (see Bulgarism). The Volga Tatars and Chuvash are said to be descended from the Bulgars, as well as (possibly) the Balkars.
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