Issue 1-2/1998
Hidden Treasures of a Forgotten Bulgarian State
Milosh Siderov 

In London on the 14th of September 1981 Sotheby exhibited the Parke Bernet & Co. Collection of gold and silver objects referring to them as an "Avar Treasure" - a treasure, which shows amazing similarity with those found at Vrap, Albania in 1901 and currently kept at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

Until then specialists inadvertently faced the question: - Was the Vrap treasure stolen by some unknown ruler, removed and finally by chance buried at Vrap, amidst the hilly Shar region, 30 km southeast of Dures, present day Albania, or was it made in the same territory where the treasure was originally found and consequently belonged to some local ruler? 

The second hypothesis appeared less plausible. The study of the golden objects from Vrap points to what is known as "Royal Insignia", attributes which the ruler alone is entitled to wear and use. Judging from the style they were made and used by the Avar khaganate - the Union of the Obrai ("Pseudo-Avars"), Bulgarian Slavs, and Kotragoi of Panonia and Srem. For a certain period this state also included parts of the former Roman provinces of Dalmatia, Prevalitania, Dardania and Ilyria, in other words an association coming down from present-day Hungary, to the southwest of present day Albania.

Once Sotheby exhibited the new treasures, which could also could have belonged to some of the Khagans of the Avar-Koutrigur state, encompassing the Panonian plains , Srem, Banat, Baranya, Slavonia, together with present day Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dalmatia and some parts of Monte Negro, Albania and Macedonia the question is increasingly intriguing. What we have is a powerful state. The confines of this state are indicated by archeological finds from Brestivec (Slavonia), Chobe (on the Bosnia river) Pliskov, close to Knin (Northern Dalmatia), the Danubian plain (Western Herzegovina), Sudikovo on the Lim river (Monte Negro) and at last by the finds in Albania together with those documents where Episcopia Hunabia is mentioned in Albania and Episcopia Avarorum in Monte Negro. 

The new golden and silver objects, on show in London were examined by Ioachim Werner, the internationally known German archeologist. In order to establish their mysterious origins he visited Albania, Vrap, the original site, and confirmed beyond doubt the location of the discovery of the new sensational royal treasure. I. Werner carried out additional studies and made an exhaustive analysis both of the treasure and the site. Subsequently he published a study in Tirana on the Vrap treasure , which had already won international fame, and a separate monography in Vienna on the new treasure, shown for the first time in Sotheby. 

The town of Erseka (a small town near the Albanian-Greek border, 80 km from Ohrid, 120 km southeast of the golden Khan's treasure of Vrap) is the site where the sensational golden objects, exhibited in London in 1981, were found. Erseka is situated in a valley on the western slopes of Gramos mountain. The valley is in the upper stretches of Osumi river and a continuation of the Korca valley, which in line is a continuation of the Ohrid valley.

Specialists on the Vrap and Erseka treasures refer to them as as "archeological finds of a European standing". It is interesting to note that they are unique cast gold belt applications. On one of the sections of the belt of the this prince, found in the royal treasure of Vrap (Albania) we find engraved the sign of a clan, identical to the sign on a belt of a prince from Osora (a site between the Danube and Balaton lake in Hungary); this gave ground for J. Kovacevich, the Serbian archeologists, to suppose that the Khan's clan sign (from the treasures from Vrap and Erseka) is identical with sign from grave of Malaja Pereschepina, from Osora. Sufficient proof exists for identifying it as the sign of Bulgarian Royal clan of Doulo.

Werner notes that the treasuries of "Avar rulers" were always "in close proximity to the Khagan", hence Vrap and Erseka indicate a central region, a seat of a ruler. Historical evidence provides us with additional information (The Addenda to the Chronicle of Manasses, The Wonders of St. Dimitrius). We know for certain that the rulers here, Bulgarian Khans Dragon and Kuber from the Doulo clan, (respectively in the 5th and 7th c.) had settled in Bitola Region, Ohrid Region - Prespa and Korca, i.e. this was the Devol Region, where Erseka is also located. This is also confirmed by Khan Tervel's rock inscription at Madara, which speaks of "the uncles from Thessalonike", i.e. the Kuber clan, which controlled the regions north of Thessalonike. 

Considering the relief there is substantial ground to suppose that the name " The lower Ohrid lands" ("Dolnaja zemja Ohridska"), occuring in the marginal notes to the Chronicle of Manasses, describing events during the reign of Emperor Anastasius (491-517), refers exactly to the Ersek, Dolna Prespa and Korcha valley (Devol). Why do we draw attention to these details? Because the Chronicle of Manasses namely speaks of Dolnaja zemja Ohridska, as a territory of the first lasting settlement of the Bulgarian Slavs and the Kotragoi, as well as their military and political stabilization during the 6th c. (after 495, 507 and in particular after 586). Here are the marginal notes in the Chronicle of Manasses:

In the reign of Tzar Anastasius 
the Bulgarians began to take these lands
and gradually began to build a home (country), 
as far as the Ohrid lands, and afterwards 
they conquered all the Ohrid lands

Werner's study, P. Lemerl's research and V. Popovic's studies lead to the conviction, that these objects, which make up the oldest and largest collection related with the state of the "Pseudo Obrai", i.e. the Panonian-Illyrian Bulgarian Kotragoi, were made in a Bulgarian state, so far overlooked by historians - the state of Berzitia. The supposition is that this country included the territory between the Vardar river and the Adriatic, to the west, with the exception of the Byzantine fortified towns of Thessalonike and Dures (the Medieval Dyrrachium). To the south this state reached the Pind mountains, and to the north up to the Lim river, a tributary of the Drina. The valuable treasure found at Vrap, which is, above all, evidence of the culture of this forgotten Bulgarian state are kept, as we already mentioned, at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in New York, while those from Erseka, and exhibited at the Sotheby Gallery are in an unknown private collection. 

Once historical sources, later supported by valuable archeological finds suggest the existence of an organized Bulgarian state in Western Macedonia, Epirus and Albania, the natural question arises: who created it, and who were its rulers? The answer may be found in Istorija slavjanobolgarskaja, of Paisii of Chilendar, and the Day Book of Yovcho Pop Nikolov. Both Paisii and Pop Nikolov refer to two names of rulers. In Paisii's Istorija slavjanobolgarskaja they are the "two brothers" King Vukic and King Dragic. Yovcho pop Nikolov renders the names as Prince Voleg and Prince Dragon. According to his "Chronicle" they reigned in 502 and 530. Paisii's History has the following about the Bulgarians from Srem and Banat Region (called the First Avar Khaganate): "The Bulgarians, who were along the Danube, had a King called Vukic. In 450 they attacked King Dogobarda, defeated him, and killed him in battle, captured his lands and returned to their own lands."

Bulgarian Slavs settled in the "Lower Ohrid lands" (Ilyrian Bulgaria) led by Dragic (according to Paissii) or Dragon (according to Y.pop Nikolov). Paissii's historical record runs as follows: 

"In 495 the Bulgarian Prince was called Dragic. They attacked Frangia and Ilyria, defeated the Greek army, led by its mightiest among them Tzar Anastasius, killed 400,000 men and took many lands and many people. Tzar Anastasius sent much gold to the Bulgarians and numerous gifts and bought peace. The said Dragic was the first to have received tribute from the Greek King Anastasius". 
The year of the Bulgarian invasion in Ilyria (495) which falls in the fourth year of the reign of Anastasius in Byzantium appears to be quite realistic. Hence we can say that Dragic, i.e. Dragon was the founder of the western Bulgarian state ("the Lower Ohrid Land","Ilyrian Bulgaria", Berzitia, Kotokion). Further waves of "pseudo-avars", i.e. Slav-Bulgarians, close to Dyrrachium (present day Dures), Ohrid, Devol (present day Korca) and the Epirus Region between 586 and 588 are evidenced in the so called Vita Sc. Pancratii, as well as in the Chronicle of Monevasius, which states that the "pseudo-avars" i.e. Bulgarian Slavs conquered the region of the Old Epirus, in their second campaign to Greece in 588. Thus, having ruled northern New Epirus in the course of some twenty years, they further conquered and settled the whole region of Epirus (Epirus vetus and Epirus novus), including the western part of Macedonia. 

This early settlement of Bulgarians was the reason Macedonia and Epirus, i.e. Ilyrian Bulgaria", to be called Old Bulgaria in the 11th century; compared to Moesian Bulgaria (Bulgaria with the capital of Pliska ), it is earlier. All this gives us good ground to look for the beginnings of the Western Bulgarian state Berzitia not in 680, when Kuber came from Srem in Western Macedonia, rather almost two centuries earlier, i.e. in 495 with the "taking on" of the "Lower Ohrid Land" by Dragon, the Bulgarian.

Vitelianus, the military commander (referred to in various sources as the Thracian, the Scythian, or the Getian), until then in the service of the Byzantine army), supported and assisted by Theodoric the Great and Pope Hormisdas turned against Byzantium in 506. Malala writes of his successful campaign to the East ("The Lower Ohrid Lands"): At the time of the same Emperor (Anastasius) the Thracian Vitelianus, because of the expulsed bishops, took power and took Thrace, Moesia and Scythia up to Odesos (present day Varna?) and Anhialos at the head of numerous Huns and Bulgarians. 

Namely this is mentioned by the cosmographer from Ravena (end of the 6th c.): 

"Inter vero Thracian vel Macedoniam et Mysiam interiorem modo Bulgari habitant qui ex supra scripta majore Scythia egresi sunt" (Only Bulgarians, who came from the above mentioned Scythia inhabit Thrace and Macedonia and Lower Moesia). 
However this is not a departure, rather a form of a return, for a Medieval Ohrid legend runs that the Bulgarians (known at that time as the Brygoi) lived around Olympus. The were driven to the north and the east by Alexander the Great. A thousand years later they returned to their compatriots and conquered Panonia, Dalmatia, Ilyria, Macedonia, Thessaly and Thrace. 

Theophilactus of Ohrid writes that Prince Boris-Michael "by Divine inspiration took Kutmichevitza from Kotokion and liberating it from the diocese, placed Dometa at its head". This is a reference of the breaking away of the Kutmichevitza region from the military and political district Kotokion, which is another name of the state Berzitia (cited by Theophanes). So far we lack further information on the political status of Berezitia/Kotokion. Did it retain any independent status under the rule of Dragon, Vitalianus, via Kuber and Akmir, even to the time when it became part of Bulgaria, with a capital the town of Pliska? 

Paul Lemerl, Ioachim Werner, Vladislav Popovic refer to the concept "the state of Kuber". According to some specialists it was in existence from 678 to 688, according to others between 647/675 and 705. Facts point to it having created much earlier than the arrival of Kuber, the Bulgarian from Srem, i.e. after the victory over the Byzantine Emperor by Dragon, the Bulgarian Prince at the Tzurta river. From Vidin Dragon passed through the Sofia plain and Kjustendil towards the Vardar wishing to capture Thessalonike. The Tzurta river, where the Bulgarian forces won a great victory, has been identified with the present day Kriva reka, a tributary to the Pchinja, near Kumanovo. 

The state of Berzitia (Kotokion) was situated between the two fortresses Thessalonike and Dyrrachion - two important military, administrative, and trade centres of Byzantium. Namely the establishment of this state (495) and its expansion (538) cut the road link between Thessalonike-Dyrrachion. Since then the road known as via Egnatia ceased to exist for Byzantium. In 584 a force of five thousand armed Blugariani (Pseudo-obroi, i.e. Kotragoi and Slavs) attempted to capture Thessalonike . Two years later (in September 686) Thessalonike saw a second continuous siege. 

The sieges of Thessalonike which followed (609,620, and 622) are proof that the Bulgarians (i.e. "the Barbarians of a Slav creed"), following the "Scythian delusion" settled for long in the southwestern part of the Balkans between the Adriatic and the Vardar river. Namely these peoples held Epirus, Ilyria, Dardania, and Macedonia. In their organized life as a state near the port and fortress of Thessalonike, these peoples were in a position to undertake attacks. This is why, 270 year later, in the decisions of the Constantinople Church Council of 869-870, these regions are called the "Bulgarian homeland in Ilyria".