Bolgar. Historical Background

In the 10th and 11th centuries, the town of Bolgar was the capital of the Volga Boulgaria, one of the largest early feudal states in Eastern Europe. Later, in the 13th and 14th centuries, it was the first capital of the Golden Horde, the centre of the Boulgar Ulus (Ulus Juchi) within the Golden Horde. Situated in one of the most important, from strategic and trade points of view, places in Eastern Europe, at the juncture of the Kama and Volga, Bolgar had played, from the very beginning, a great role in the history of the peoples that lived in the Volga Region and a significant role in the history of the entire Eastern Europe. 

In 922, the Boulgars, the ancestors of the present-day Kazan Tatars, had officially adopted Islam. In the 10th century, Bolgar minted coins, a symbol of the new state. Even at that time, the town was interesting for foreigners: Arabic and Persian chroniclers and geographers wrote about it. The town was mentioned in written sources, mostly the Oriental ones, as early as before the arrival of Ibn Fadlan to Bolgar. This information is supported by the analysis of the numismatic materials. Bolgar held the key positions in trade between Eastern Europe and Middle Asia. The most important commodities, i.e. the products of crafts of the Northern peoples and their hunting products were transported through this town further to the east. Russian commodities were also transported through it. 

With time, various crafts began developing in Bolgar. In the 12th century, Bolgar ceased to be the capital, which moved to Bilyar, but retained its significance as an international marketplace. A certain role in this was played by numerous destructions of the town at the pre-Mongol period as a result of struggle for the Volga waterway. That period was characterised by the growth of the economy, crafts, and trade ties of the town. Its area became larger; a new fortification line was created around it. By 1236, the fortified part of the town covered the area of 24 hectares. The relations between Bolgar and Rus grew stronger at that time. In 1236, the town of Bolgar was seized and burnt down by the Mongols. The town’s fortifications were dismantled. The town, together with the entire country, was included into the system of the uluses subordinated to the Juchids, i.e. became a part of the Golden Horde. Batu Khan chose Bolgar as its first capital in 1242. 

Bolgar revived in the middle of the 13th century and became a most important town of the new state established by the Mongols on the western outskirts of their empire. In the 13th century, Bolgar played the leading role in the Golden Horde. Russian, Armenian, and Bolgar princes had to come to the town in the 50s of the 13th century to ask for yarliks for reigning from Batu Khan. Later, at the time of Mengu-Timur, Berke Khan and, especially, at the time of Uzbeq, Bolgar remained to be one of the main economic, trade, cultural, and cult centres of the Golden Horde. It was here, where, in the 60s of the 13th century, at the time of Berke Khan, there began the building of the Cathedral Mosque, the first construction of such type in Ulus Juchi. Bolgar was the first town in the Golden Horde to start minting coins in the 1250s on behalf of the Great Khans: Mengu and Ari-Bugi.

Bolgar became a huge and powerful town in the 14th century, despite the fact that the political centres of the Golden Horde shifted to the south, to Sarai. At that period, the town expanded significantly to the north, south, and west, and was encircled by fortification lines that included ramparts, moats, wooden walls and towers. The fortified part covered the area of 415 hectares. Also expanding were the trade links between the town and the Lower Volga Region, Iran, Khorezm, the Caucasus, the Crimea, and Russian principalities. Developing was the specialised multi-branch domestic craft industry. It was in this town where, as early as in the 14th century, i.e. 2 centuries earlier than in Western Europe, they began producing cast iron. There appeared the monumental architectural constructions: palace buildings, mansion houses of the feudal nobility, caravan-serais, cathedral and quarter mosques, mektebe and madrasahs, public baths, mausoleums, and other buildings: the Northern and the Eastern Mausoleums, the Black, White, Red, and Eastern Chambers, the Smaller Minaret, the Khans’ shrines.

The main Cathedral Mosque was reconstructed. The provision of amenities in the town was highly developed. The town had paved roads and waterworks, drainage and crib systems. The endless feudal strife in the Horde, which included, among the rest, such episodes as the campaign of Bulat-Timur against Bolgar in 1361, campaigns of the ushkuiniks and Russian princes at the late 14th and early 15th centuries and, finally, the campaign of the Moscow troops headed by Prince Fyodor Pestry that were sent by the Great Prince Vasily II against Bolgar in 1431, lead to the final destruction of the town: from that time on, the town left the historical arena for ever and became just a place of pilgrimage of the Muslims to their sanctuaries. It became the place where the respectable Muslims were buried and the place where the spiritual people and dervishes lived. It is known that the Tatar poets of the 16th and 17th centuries Muhamedyar and Mevla-Koly wrote their works in Bolgar. In the 16th century, the land of the former Boulgar State became part of the Russian State.

Last updated: Apr, 05, 2013, 8:29
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