Bulgars, Unogundurs, Onogurs, Utigurs, Kutrigurs

It is commonly accepted that the documentary evidence contain only data about the European period of the history of Proto-Bulgarians. Recently, although, B.Simeonov advanced the hypothesis that their ethnicon had been known much earlier to the Chinese, but in a rather altered form because of the peculiarities of the transcription of foreign names in Chinese. In modern Chinese the Bulgarians are known as 'ba-go' or 'bao- guo', and B. Simeonov concludes that the ancient word 'bulgar' should occur as 'pu-ku' or 'bu-gu'. Exactly the same name of a tribe or a group of tribes is repeatedly mentioned in different Chinese sources from 103 BC up to the 8-th century AD. They speak about a people or tribe pu-ku/bu-gu inhabiting the western as well as the eastern parts of Central Asia, the lands to the north and north-west of Tien-Shan, the Semirech'e and west of the rivers  Sur Darya and Amu Darya [1].  Interestingly enough, one of the tribal lords of the people pu-ku - Sofu sulifa Kenan Bain, bears the title sulifa, attested later among the Dagestan Proto-Bulgarians.

While the evidence of the Asiatic period of the Proto-Bulgarian history is still hypothetical, there are, still short, but reliable sources about their live in Europe. Most numerous are the records in Latin and Greek. Few, but very important, are the data from some historical, geographical and other works by eastern authors - Armenians, Arabs, Syrians, Persians, etc. Their use, however, is accompanied by serious difficulties because of the rather free way they convey the events and facts and because of the peculiarities of the phonetic systems of their literature, in which the foreign names are sometimes changed beyond recognition.

The earliest European record about the Proto-Bulgarians is the so called Anonymous chronograph, a list of tribes and peoples written in Latin in 354 AD by an unknown chronicler. He mentiones among the offspring of Shem a certain 'Ziezi ex quo Vulgares'[2].

The Proto-Bulgarians as inhabitants of the lands north of the Caucasus are mentioned by the Armenian writer Moses Horenaci. In his History of Armenia, written in the 80's of the 5-th century AD, [3] he speaks about two migrations of Proto-Bulgarians from Caucasus to Armenia. The first of them is mentioned in connection with the campaign of the Armenian ruler Vaharshak 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, according to Moses Horenaci took place during the time of the Armenian ruler Arshak, 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.'  The migrations are dated to the second half of the 4-th century AD. It appears that the 'disturbances' which caused the Proto-Bulgarians to migrate to the south are linked to the expansion of the Huns in the East-European steppes. The authenticity of the settlement of groups  of Proto-Bulgarians in Armenia is confirmed by some toponymic data: a river flowing though the Mungan steppe in South Azerbaijan and emptying in the lake Mahmud-chala, is called Bolgaru-chaj (Bulgarian river), one of the tributaries of the river Arax near the town of Kars (the land Vanand) is even now called Vanand- chaj (river of Vanand).

Proto-Bulgars, IV-V c.AD

Proto-Bulgarians in Eastern Europe IV-V c. AD according to documentary evidence. Migrations of Proto-Bulgarians - Vh'ndur-Bulgar at the end of the IV c.AD, and Onogurs in around 463 AD.
(After D.Dimitrov, The Proto-Bulgarians north and west of the Black Sea, Varna, 1987; The map was produced using XEROX Map Viewer)

With the Hunnish invasions, the documentary evidence about Proto-Bulgarians cease for a while. They appear again in the beginning of the 5-th, this time from the north-western slopes of the Carpathians. According to the 8-th century Langobardian chronicler Paulus Diaconus [4] the Bulgars dwelling in those places attacked their neighbours the Langobards, killed their king Algemund and captured his daughter. After that they had two more battles, first of which they won and the second lost. Apparently, the Proto-Bulgarians reached Central Europe together with the Huns. It is well known that in their drive to the West the Huns carried away many of the subdued by them peoples. After the defeat of the Hunnish tribal union, the Proto-Bulgarians, as well as the remains of the Huns, returned back and settled near the borders of Byzantium, entering in active, both friendly and hostile, contacts with it. The first record of Proto-Bulgarians from the Balkans mentions the help they have rendered to the Byzantine emperor Zeno against the Goths of Theodoric, the son of Triarius [5].

In 486 and 488 they fought again against the Goths, first as allies of Byzantium [6], and later - as allies of the Gepids [7]. At those times the Proto-Bulgarians had been regarded as a brave and invincible in war people [8].

Later, since the 90's of the 5-th century, they, independently or accompanied by the Slavs, repeatedly invaded the territories of the Byzantine empire and were among its greatest enemies till the middle of the 6-th century.

Some indications about the territory, occupied by them during these centuries, are found in 'Getica' of the Gothic historian Jordanes[9]. According to Jordanes 'beyond the Akacires ... above the Pontus (Black Sea) coast are the dwellings of the Bulgars, who became famous because of the bad consequences of our sins.' Their neighbours were the Huns Alcnagiri and Saviri, and further the Hunugurs (Onogurs), who trade with sable pelts. Thus, the Proto-Bulgarians occupied the steppes to the north and north-west of the Black Sea.

In the time when north of the Black Sea, next to the Balkan territories of Byzantium, lived a significant and strong Proto-Bulgarian group (5-6 century AD), another group of the same people lived in the steppes to the east, in the north-eastern Caucasus. The 'Church history' of Zachariah the Rhetor, compiled in Syrian language soon after the middle of the 6-th century AD [10] contains reliable data about the Proto- Bulgarians. Utilising first-hand accounts the compiler  produced a list of the peoples, who had inhabited the lands north of the Derbend pass (the Caspian gates) during the first half of the 6-th century: "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) are people, who live in tents. Avgar, sabir, burgar, alan, kurtargar, avar, hasar, dirmar, sirurgur, bagrasir, kulas, abdel and hephtalit are thirteen peoples, who live in tents, earn their living on the meat of livestock and fish, of wild animals and by their weapons (plunder)."

The Bulgars and the Alans are mentioned twice - once as a settled populations with towns, and once more as nomads. Zachariah the Rhetor points out that the Proto- Bulgarians who have towns inhabited the lands immediately next to the Caspian gates, while the others - the steppes north of the Caucasus.

Besides the Proto-Bulgarians the sources speak about other ethnic groups who were more or less connected with the Proto-Bulgarians, and some of them later joined the Proto-Bulgarian people. Important among them are the Onogurs (Unogurs). They appear in the European chronicles in the middle of the 5-th century. According to Priscus in 463 Byzantium was visited by an embassy of Saragurs, Urogs and Onogurs, who, dislodged by the Avar's drive to the west, conquered the lands of the Akacirs and asked for a union with Byzantium [11].

Most probably the Onogurs lived in the lands east of the Proto-Bulgarians, along the northern coast of the Black Sea. According to the Syrian compilation of Zachariah the Rhetor, Avnagur-Aunagur inhabited the steppes north of Caucasus, living as nomads. However, Theophilactus Simocatta [12] informs us that they had towns - in earlier times they had built the town of Bakat. More precise about their dwellings is the 'Cosmographia' of Ravennatis Anonymi [13] who locates 'Patria Onogoria' above the Pontus near the lake of Meotida (the Sea of Azov).

Judging from some eparchial lists from the end of the 7-th or the beginning of the 8-th century, in the 7-th century there was an Onogurian episcopate in the Gothic eparchy. This attests the early spread of the Christianity among the Onogurs [14].

The Onogurs are also known to some eastern authors, but there their name is so altered that their identification is very difficult and sometimes even impossible. Most numerous are the records about the Onogurs in the Armenian sources. The earliest are in the work of Egishe, written between 458 and 464 [15]. Egishe mentions that to the north of the land Chora (the Derbend pass) lived the Huns Hajlandur (hajlandur'k). They already had a 'royal clan', that is, tribal aristocracy, and Christianity was beginning to spread among them. They maintained connections with the Kushans - in 454 a young  Hajlandur at the service of the Persian ruler Yazdgird II (438-457) ran away to the Kushans, warned them about the forthcoming Persian attack and thus contributed to the victory of the Kushans.  According to A.D. Gadlo the identification of the Hajlandurs with the Onogurs is confirmed by a fragment of the history of Egishe, preserved in the 10-th century Armenian author Moses Kagankatvaci, where the country of the Hajlandurs is called Aguandria (Aluandria), that is, country of the tribe Aguandur. This name resembles the ethicon auangur-avnagur by which the Syrian texts call the Onogurs.

The texts also locate north of the Caucasus the Unogundurs, a name that is very similar to that of the Onogurs. Almost all chroniclers connect the Unogundurs with the Proto-Bulgarians. For example the Byzantine patriarch Nicephorus calls the ruler of Great Bulgaria khan Kubrat "the ruler of the Unogundurs", [16] and both Theophanes the Confessor and Constantinus Porphyrogeneus explicitly state that the Bulgarians, settled in the Balkans, had been called earlier Unogundurs [17], [18].

The Armenian geography, written at the end of the 7-th century and attributed to Ananij Shirakaci, also attests the Bulgarian affiliation of the Unogundurs. It says that north of the Caucasus "live the peoples Turk and Bulgar (Bulgark), who are named after the local rivers: Kupi-bulgar, Duchi-bulkar, Oghondor(Olhontor)-blkar - the immigrants and Chdar-bolkar." [19]

The name Onghondor-blkar in the Armenian geography is a variant of the older Vh'ndur-bulgar in the History of Moses Horenaci and the both works give the Armenian form of the ethnicon transcribed in Greek as Unogundur or Unogur. Because of the similarity of the two names as well as the location of the two tribes, it is generally accepted that Unogundurs and Unogurs are two written forms of one tribe. This is confirmed by the deacon Agathius - hartophilacs of the Constantinople patriarchy and compiler of the acts of the VI-th ecumenical council in 680-681 AD, who in a rider to the council's acts from 713 AD names the Bulgars of khan Tervel "Unogurs-bulgars".

The localisation of the other three tribes in the Armenian geography is not so clear. Using the remark in the Geography that the Bulgarian tribes were named after names of rivers, the historians try to find these rivers. They are almost unanimous that Kupi-bulgar are the Proto-Bulgarians of the river Kuban, the old Kuphis. Many of them accept that Duchi-bulkar should be read as Kuchi-bulkar, pointning to the ancient name of Dniepr (Kocho) also attested in the Armenian geography. Most unclear is the location of the Chdar-bolkars - they are put in the basins of Big Rombit (Eja) or Don, in the eastern part of the Crimea or in Northern Dagestan. It is remarkable, that in all four cases the tribal name of the Bulgars is slightly different. This is an indisputable evidence of dialect differenciation in the language in the various Proto-Bulgarian tribes which had affected even their common ethnicon.

Thus, sources speak that not later than the 4-th century AD in the steppes north of Caucasus there was a considerable Proto-Bulgarian mass, in which the tribe of Unogundurs (vh'ndur) played the leading role. During the Hunnish invasions ('the great disturbances') part of the Unogundurs-bulgars were forced to cross the Caucasus and take refuge in Armenia; another group moved westwards to the shores of the Sea of Azov. After the departure of the Huns for Central Europe, a group of Unogundurs occupied the plains of maritime Dagestan and became known to Egishe under the name Hajlandurs. At the beginning of the second half of the 5-th century part of the Onogurs from the Eastern Fore-Caucasus was pushed out by the Sabirs to the west and settled at the plain at the north-eastern corner of the Black Sea. Agathius (second half of the 6-th century) informs that these Onogurs long time ago had attacked the Colkhis at the Black Sea coast, but were defeated. On this occasion the place of the battle and a fortress nearby were named Onoguris [20].

Another tribe, akin to the Proto-Bulgarians, were the Utigurs. They are mentioned only by the Byzantine historian Procopius Caesariensis and his continuators Agathias and Menander in connection with events that took place during the middle and the second half of the 6-th century. Most detailed is the record of Procopius: "Beyond the Sagins dwell many Hunnish tribes. The land is called Evlisia and barbarians populate the sea-coast and the inland up to the so called lake of Meotida and the river Tanais (Don). The people living there were called Cimmerians, and now they are called Utigurs. North of them are the populous tribes of the Antes." [21]

Thus the Utigurs have occupied the lowlands of the river Kuban. Probably it is their lord (prince) who is mentioned in the story narrated by Ioanis Malalae, Theophanes and John of Ephesus. In 528 AD (534 according to John of Ephesus) this lord, called Gord (Grod), with a large suite arrived in Constantinople. In the Byzantine capital he was baptised by emperor Justinian himself, who endowed Gord with rich presents and sent him back home with the task to protect the city of Bosporus from the neighbouring barbarians. After his return Gord, as a zealous Christian, ordered  the venerated by his people golden and silver idols to be melted down. Outraged by this action, the priests together with his brother and the army revolted and killed him [22].

Later the Byzantines at the expense of many gifts were able again to win the friendship of the Utigurs. In 551 Justinian turned the Utigurs against their relatives the Kutrigurs, whose army of 12,000 in that moment devastated the Balkan provinces of the empire. Using the absence of the main enemy's forces, the Utigur khan Sandilkh crossed the river Don and invaded the lands of the Kutrigurs, who were badly defeated and many of their women and children - enslaved. In this war thousands of captured by the Kutrigurs Byzantines were able to return to their homes. In 558-559 again the Utigurs and Kutrigurs were at war. As a result the two tribes were weakened so much that they lost even their tribal names, according to Agathius. Still, the Utigurs continued to play some role. For example, their army, subjected to the Turcuts, took part in the taking of the Byzantine city of Bosporus.

The Kutrigurs were an akin to the Utrigurs tribe. This is evident from the genealogical legend, preserved by Procopius: "In the old days many Huns, called then Cimmerians, inhabited the lands I mentioned already. They all had a single king. Once one of their kings had two sons: one called Utigur and another called Kutrigur. After their father's death they shared the power and gave their names to the subjected peoples, so that even nowadays some of them are called Utigurs and the others - Kutrigurs." This is also confirmed by the words of the Utigur khan Sandilh [23] when he was asked by Justinian to attack the Kutrigurs: "It is neither fair nor decent to exterminate our tribesmen (the Kutrigurs), who not only speak a language, identical to ours, who are our neighbours and have the same dressing and manners of life, but who are also our relatives, even  though subjected to other lords." The Kutrigurs occupied the lands west of the Sea of Azov and the river Don. In the middle of the 6-th century they had the leading role in a powerful tribal union which was able undertake massive attacks against the Balkan provinces of Byzantium, returning home with great spoils and tens of thousands of enslaved Byzantines.

The bloody internecine war between the Utigurs and Kutrigurs during the whole fifth decade of the 6-th century sapped their strength. They were relatively easy subjugated by the Avars who crossed Volga in 558. After a short stay in the East-European steppes the Avars, carrying away with them a considerable number of Kutrigurs, were forced by the Turcuts (tu-cu) to leave for Central Europe and to settle in Pannonia.  An evidence for the Kutrigur's presence in Central Europe is the information of Menander that in 568 a 10,000 strong army of Kutrigurs, following orders of the Avar khan Bajan, attacked and sacked Dalmatia.

There is a great variety of opinions among the historians regarding the origin of the Utigurs and the Kutrigurs. Some of them (V. Zlatarski, V. Gjuzelev, Iv. Bozhilov) think the Utigurs and Kutrigurs represented correspondingly the eastern and the western branches of the Proto-Bulgarians, another (D. Angelov) think the Utigurs and Kutrigurs were akin but different from the Proto-Bulgarian tribes. Particularly close were the contacts between the Proto-Bulgarians and the Kutrigurs, who inhabited adjacent territories. During their combined attacks on Byzantium and their joining, first in a Prot-Bulgarian, and later - in a Kutrigurian military-tribal union, the Kutrigurs were gradually incorporated in the Proto-Bulgarian group. Since the 7-th century the tribal name of the Kutrigurs was generally substituted by the name of the Proto-Bulgarians, although they are still mentioned in few cases as 'Kotrags'. In fact, Kutrigurs and Utigurs are mentioned by very few authors and only during three decades (50s to70s) of the 6-th century. And since the end of the 6-th century the name of the  Kutrigurs in Central Europe was replaced by that of the Proto-Bulgarians. For example, Theophilactus Simocatta [24] when speaking about the campaign of the Byzantine general Peter against the Slavs in 596, informs us that in the environs of the town Asimunt near the mouth of the river Osum, there was a 1,000 strong  detachment of Proto-Bulgarians, subjects of the khan of the Avars. The replacement of the name of the Kutrigurs is shown even clearer in Fredegarius [25] who narrates about the contest for power over the Avar khaganate, kindled between the candidates of the Avars and the Proto-Bulgarians in 631-632. This also evidences about the great number of the Proto-Bulgarians. The victory of the Avar pretender forced 9,000 Proto-Bulgarians to leave Pannonia and to find refuge in Bavaria of king Dagobert.

[Back to Proto-Bulgar Page]


[1] B.Simeonov, Iztochni izvori za istorijata i nazvanieto na Asparuhovite b'lgari, Vekove, VIII, 1979, v. 1, pp.49-54

[2] Th. Momsen. Ueber den Chronographen von Jahre 354. - Abhandlungen der phil. - hist. Classe der kais. saechsischen Geselshaft der Wissenschaften. I, Leipzig, 1850, S. 547 flg.

[3] Istorija Armenii Mojseja Horenskogo, II izd. Per. N. O. Emina, M., 1893, s.55-56.

[4] Paulus Diaconus. Historia Langobardoum. - Monumenta Germaniae historica. Scriptores rerum Langobardicum et Italicarum, saec. VI-IX, p.55-56

[5] Ioanes Antiochenus. Excerpta de insidiis. Ed. Carl de Boor. Berolini, 1905, frgm.96, p.136

[6] Magnus Felicius Ennodius. Opera. - Monumenta Germaniae historica. Auctores antiquissimi, VII, Berolini, 1885, p.205

[7]   Paulus Diaconous. Historia Romana. - Monumenta Germaniae historica. Auctores antiquissimi, II, Berolini, 1879, p. 213-214

[8] M.F.Enodius. Opera, p.205-206

[9] Jordanes, Getica. - Monumenta Germaniae historica. Auctores antiquissimi, V, 1. Berolini, 1882, p.63

[10]  N.V. Pigulevskaja, Sirijskie istochniki po istorii narodov SSSR, Moscow-Leningrad, 1941, pp.3-9

[11] Priscus. Excerpta de legationibus. Ed. S. de Boor. Berolini, 1903, p. 586

[12] Theophilactus Simocatta. Historae. Ed. C. de Boor. Lipsiae, 1887, p.259

[13] Ravennatis Anonymi, Cosmographia. Ed. M. Pinder et G. Parthey. Berolini, 1890, p.170-171

[14] G. Moravcsik. Zur Geschichte der Onoguren. - Ungarusche Jahrbuecher, X, 1930, S. 64

[15] Egishe. O Vardane i vojne armjanskoj. Per. s armjanskogo akad. I.A. Orbeli. Erevan, 1971, s. 31.

[16] Nisephorus Patriarcha. Breviarium. Ed. C. de Boor, p. 24

[17]  Theophanes Confessor. Chronographia. Ed. C. de Boor, I-II, Lispiae, 1883, p.357; Constantinus Porphyrogenitus. De thematibus et de administrando imperii. Bonnae, 1840, p.46

[18] Istorija agvan Mojseja Kagankatvaci, pisatelja X veka. Per. s armjanskogo K. Patkanjan. Sankt-Peterburg, 1861, s. 11. Compare A.V. Gadlo, Etnicheskaja istorija Severnogo Kavkaza, s.55-56

[19]  K. Patkanov. Iz novogo spiska "Geografii", pripisajvaemoj Mojseju Horenskomu. - Zhurnal Ministerstva Narodnogo Prosveshtenija, 1883, ch. CCXXVI, s.21-32

[20]  Agathiae Historiarum libri V. - Ed. L. Dindorf. HGM, 1871, p.217. 243

[21]  Procopii Caesariensis. Libri de bellis VIII. - Opera omnia. Ed. J. Haury, I-III, Lispiae, 1905-1913, p.501-502

[22]  Ioannis Malalae Chronographia. - Rec. L. Dindorf. Bonnae, 1831, p. 431;  Theophanes. Op. cit., p. 176

[23]  Menandri Fragmenta. Excerpta de legationibus. - Ed. C. de Boor. Berolini, 1903, p. 170

[24] Theophilactus Simocatta, Historiae, - Ed. C. de Boor. Lipsiae, 1887, p.251-251

[25] Fredegarius Scholasticus, Chronica. Ed. B. Krusch, Hannoverae, 1886, p.157