The Proto-Bulgarians east of the Sea of Azov in the VIII-IX cc.

During the expansion of the Khazars most of the Proto-Bulgarians remained in their lands and submitted to the Khazars. The Arab invasions of the 20's and the 30's of the VIII c. did not influence significantly the situation either. Most severely affected were the Alans of the central Fore-Caucasus. A part of the Proto-Bulgarian population of the eastern Fore-Caucasus, from the lands between the rivers Sulak and Terek, also had to migrate to the lands of their kinsmen along Don and the Sea of Azov. It is quite possible that the Barandzhars, who were mentioned in 922 AD by ibn-Fadlan as living among the Volga Proto-Bulgarians, had been immigrants from Northern Dagestan, where they have been known to the eastern chroniclers as Belendzheris. As it might be, up to now there are no sound archaeological proofs attesting the presence of Proto-Bulgarians from Dagestan in Volga Bulgaria. It makes us conclude that at that time the Unogundur-Bulgars of the khan Batbajan still occupied the lands to the east of the Sea of Azov.

The documentary sources do not reveal the exact location of the Unogundurs of khan Batbajan, they had probably occupied the lands along the eastern coast of Azov as well as the lower course of Don. The latter is confirmed by the northerly oriented graves in Sarkel, in the Semikarakarskoe gorodishte and especially in the Artjuganski necropolis. These graves, although, might also belong to remains of the retreated to the west Unogundurs of khan Asparuh. There cannot be a definitive answer to this problem, the Armenian geography, besides the Unogundurs, mentions other, less numerous Proto-Bulgarian groups in the lands of eastern Fore-Caucasus, but the area is still poorly studied and any further delineation of the various Proto-Bulgarian groups is not possible at present.

The principal data about the Proto-Bulgarians of Azov come from the early medieval horizons of the two towns of the Taman peninsula - Phanagoria and the Tamanskoe gorodishte. The end of the VII c. and the beginning of the VIII c. evidenced the revival of Phanagoria, there was a massive influx of a new population, the streets of the town were re-planned. New buildings with stone foundations and brick or clayey walls appeared. The foundations were constructed in the new 'pine-tree' technique [1], characteristic for Caucasus (and for the Chirjurt gorodishte on the river Sulak). The town flourished in the VIII-IX c., when it became an important centre of administration and crafts. During that period the Proto-Bulgarians were its major inhabitants, as it is evident by the brachyocranic skulls of type 'Zlivki', by the pottery type and by the widely practised 'pine-tree' building technique. Phanagoria existed up to the end of the IX c. when it was destroyed by fire and abandoned, most probably after a Pecheneg invasion.

Almost identical was the picture in Tamanskoe gorodishte [2], but contrary to Phanagoria, it was revived to life and continued to exist as an important centre in the next centuries under the name Matarkha - Tamatarkha - Tmutakaran.

In the scholarly literature the Kuban Bulgars are often identified with the Kupi-Bulgars of the Armenian geography [3] and are clearly distinguished from the Unogundurs-Bulgars (Oghondor = Olhontor-Blkar), the latter thought to be the Bulgars of Azov. Therefore, the Kupi-Bulgars had probably inhabited the lands south of the Unogundurs, along the lower and the middle course of Kuban up to the foothills of the central Fore-Caucasus. It seems that the Pashkovski and Jasenovopoljanski necropolises belong to the Kuban Bulgars, because of the western orientation of the graves.

To them are often attributed the frequently found in the central Fore-Caucasus ceramic cauldrons with inner lugs [4]. Kuznecov assumed that these cauldrons, found in many locations around Kislovodsk were left by Proto-Bulgarians, who settled in these abandoned by the Alans lands at the end of VII c. The idea of the penetration of proto-Bulgarians in the central Fore-Caucasus was further developed by J. Fjodorov and G. Fjodorov, who pointed that similar caudrons are also found in Karachaevo-Cherkessia and Kabardino-Balkaria [5]. Kovalevskaja, however, dated these cauldrons to the X-th c. and attributed them to later nomads - Pechenegs or Cumans [6]. Although Kovalevskaja may be right to a certain extent, her negation of the Proto-Bulgarian character of some of the cauldrons fails to explain the fact that similar cauldrons with inner lugs appeared no later than at the end of the IX c. in Danube Bulgaria - at the pottery production centre near the village of Topola, the district of Dobrich (Tolbuhin) [7]. There is no doubt that some of the fleeing from the Khazars Proto-Bulgarians from Azov settled in the suitable for cattle-breeding lands of central Caucasus, which were emptied by its previous inhabitants - the Alans. As Proto-Bulgarian are interpreted three pit necropolises on Kabardino-Balkaria - near the aul of Zilgi, at the right bank of the river Kardan and at the hill of Keshene aly near the village of Sovetskoe (Kashkatau) in the valley of the river Cherek [8]. The graves are of western and south-western orientation. In one grave at Keshene aly the legs of the deceased were apparently bound. The way of burial and the grave artefacts in these necropolises are quite distinct from the local culture of north Caucasus and have parallels with the 'Zlivka' type necropolises [9].

Proto-Bulgarians finds on middle and low Don river.Key
A map of the Proto-Bulgarian necropolises in Eastern Europe in the VII-IX cc.
1. Verhnij Chirjurt; 2. Novo-Labinskaja; 3. Borisovo; 4. Pashkovskaja; 5. Djurso; 6. Jasenovaja poljana; 7. Artuganovo; 8. Sarkel; 9. Semikarakori; 10. Phanagorija; 11. Bagaevskaja; 12. Zilgi; 13. River Kardan; 14. Sovetskoe (Kashkatau); 15. Zlivki; 16. Zalimanie; 17. Shejkovka; 18. Pokrovskoe; 19. Krimskij; 20. Krivjanskij; 21. Nedvigovskij; 22. Volokonovka; 23. Jutanovka; 24. Netajlovska; 25. Dmitrievka; 26. Zholtoe; 27. Novolimarevka; 28. Dronovka; 29. Kamensk; 30. Majaki; 31. Right-bank Cimljanskoe; 32. Gukovo
(The map was produced using XEROX Map Viewer)

Up to now the finds from the mountain valleys of Kabardino-Balkaria are scarce and insufficient to confirm the Proto-Bulgarian presence. But there is remarkable centre of the Kuban Bulgars in the upper course of Kuban - the Humarin gorodishte. It is situated at the high right bank of Kuban near the aul Humara and at 11 km to the north of the town Karakachaevsk. The fortress guarded the approaches to the Kluhor pass, connecting the Kuban valley with Sukhumi at the Black Sea coast [10]. The gorodishte occupies a narrow and long hill surrounded by deep ravines and is linked with the high plateau by a narrow neck. The enclosed by the walls area was up to 840 m long and 480 m wide, or nearly 250 decares. Kuznecov published several runic inscriptions and symbols from Humarin in 1963 [11] and since 1974 there began systematic archaeological excavations [12]. The excavations revealed a 5-6 m thick fortified wall running at the edge of the hill, built of ashlar blocks with dimensions 0.9 x 0.4 x 0.3 m and 0.5 x 0.35 x 0.2 m, sometimes up to 1.4 x 0.3 x 0.2 m. The blocks were larger near the towers and at the lower part of the walls. These were no foundations - the walls were laid directly on the levelled ground. The facing was always of carefully cut rock blocks, the inner volume of the wall being filled with not so regular blocks. Usually the first row of ashlars was laid breadthwise, the next row - lengthwise, and so on. Clay was the main soldering agent, mortar being used only for the outer lower facing wall. There were 20 equidistant towers along the wall and the high point in the eastern end of the fortress was modelled as a citadel.

Next to a rectangular tower in the south-western end of the fortress, at the foot of the citadel there was unearthed a small, but intriguing building, built later than the fortress. It represents a rectangular single chamber, 7 m long and 6.2 m wide. Its 0.75-1.0 m thick walls consist of very elaborately cut ashlar blocks.  In the centre of the room there was a levelled square platform (2.5 x 2.4 m), shouldered by a double line of ashlar blocks. The clayey platform bears the signs of fire and the whole building is oriented towards the summer sunrise. All points it had religious functions, it can be compared with the Zoroastrian shrines in which the altar with a burning fire occupied the central place. The described previously pagan beliefs of the population of the town of Varachan, the capital of the 'Kingdom of the Huns' illustrated the religious syncretism between the principal Turkic deity Tengri-Tangrikhan and the Iranian god of the sun Kuara. We may suppose that the worshipers of Tangrikhan had adopted the plan of the religious building as well as some elements of the fire cult of the Zoroastrians. It is confirmed by a number of archaeological finds from the political and religious centres of Danube Bulgaria. In its first capital Pliska, the residence of the Bulgarian rulers, there is a similar building - two entered one into another squares of ashlars [13]. A second, much larger building, oriented towards the sunrise, was excavated near the Throne palace in Pliska. Its religious utilization is confirmed by the fact that after the adoption of Christianity the building was transformed into a Christian church (the so called Palace church) [14] Similar buildings are also found in Preslav [15]. Similar in plan is the pagan sanctuary at the Proto-Bulgarian religious complex of Madara, near the location Daul tash [16].

The sanctuary of Humarin
Scheme of the sanctuary of Humarin.

A feature of the Humarin gorodishte are the many runic symbols, letters and words found on the walls and other buildings. They have been written not only after but also during the process of construction of the fortress - graffiti were found embedded into the wall ashlar blocks [17], some symbols were found even under the mortar coat. Most frequent are bipods and tridents, swastikas, the letter X and H as well as the very characteristic for the Proto-Bulgarian finds along the Danube letter Y.

Humarin gorodishte at the upper course of Kuban river
The Humarin gorodishte. The tower next to the gate with ashlar blocks. At the far end - the citadel of the fortress.

Even the first investigator Kuznecov pointed out that the finds of Humarin are close to those of the Saltovo-Majack culture, which belong to the Proto-Bulgarians. The pottery does not differ from the Saltovo-Majack examples from the Azov lands. The numerous runic letters and even words, as well as the specific graffiti also point to the Proto-Bulgarians. The Humarin gorodishte was dated by its pottery to the VIII-X c. [18]. The insufficient excavations and the absence of a studied necropolis do not allow to determine exactly to which Proto-Bulgarian group Humarin belonged, but the traces of an earlier Alanian settlement (IV-VII cc.) beneath the fortress show that this Proto-Bulgarian group reached the upper course of Kuban after the Khazar expansion of the VII c. and as a result of that expansion.

Humarin gorodishte and the pagan sanctuary
Part of the fortified wall of Humarin and the pagan sanctuary next to it.

The Humarin gorodishte is a very important example of the Proto-Bulgarian culture. It represents the earliest occurrence of the monumental Proto-Bulgarian constructions of the quadra type technique. That technique differs sharply from the coeval and the earlier local, mainly Alanian, fortresses of the central Fore-Caucasus. The building technique was apparently borrowed from the countries to the south of the Caucasus and from the Near East, where the quadra technique was quite common. Similar to Humarin is also the fortress of Derbend, where some Proto-Bulgarian presence, even if episodical, is attested by the pottery and the characteristic graffiti of horses and riders. Indeed, there are differences between Derbend and Humarin - the quadras of Derbend are much more uniform in size and form perfectly horizontal rows, tied by mortar and with good foundations. In Humarin the size of the quadras varies, the rows are uneven, mortar is rarely used. The constructors could not even lay foundations, they had just levelled the ground without even removing the soft soil layer. That made them build the walls very thick - 5-6 m. The barbarian way of building points that the construction was a work of former nomads with no previous experience. Only the Proto-Bulgarians could be these nomads.

As early as at the end of the last century F. Miller advanced the hypothesis that the name of one of the Turkic peoples of the region - the Balkarians, has preserved the ethnicon of the ancient Bulgars [19]. His argumentation was accepted almost unanimously by the scholars, who admitted the Proto-Bulgarian contribution to the ethnogenesis of the Balkarians [20] and the akin to them Karachais, inhabiting the upper course of Kuban [21], where Humarin is situated. The archaeological and documentary data unambiguously confirm the presence of Kuban Bulgars in the valley of Kuban and in Balkaria, where they mixed with and assimilated the remains of the earlier Alanian population [22] There are, however, disagreements between the scholars who give prominence to the Proto-Bulgarian contribution [23] and those scholars, who think that the later Cumans (Kipchaks) have played the predominant role in the ethnic make up of the Balkarians and the Karachais and their language [24].

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[1] S.A. Pletjnova. Drevnie bolgarii, s. 13, 15.

[2] S.A. Pletnjova. Srednevekovaja keramika Tamanskogo gorodishta, s. 5, 66-68.

[3] K.P. Patkanov. Iz novogo spiska ..., s. 29.

[4] V.A. Kuznecov. Glinjaniie kotlii Severnogo Kavkaza. - Kratkie soobshtenijaInstituta arheologii AN SSSR, 99, 1964, s. 34, 38-39.

[5] Ja. A. Fjodorov, G.S. Fjodorov. Rannie tjurki na Severnom Kavkaze, s. 71-73.

[6] V.B. Kovalevskaja. Arheologcheskie sledii prebiivanija drevnih bolgar..., s. 50.

[7] L. Bobcheva. Glineni kotli ot rannosrednovekovnoto selishte pri s. Topola, Tolbuhinski okryg. - Izvestija na Narodnija muzej - Varna, XVI (XXXI), 1980, s. 126-130.

[8] V.A. Kuznecov. Alanskie plemena Severnogo Kavkaza, s. 80-81.

[9] E.I. Krupnov. Otchet o rabote arheologicheskoj ekspedicii 1947 g. v Kabardinskoj ASSR. - Uchen. zap. Kabardinskogo NII, IV, Nal'chik, 1948, s. 317-318.

[10] H.H. Bidzjiev, A.V. Gadlo. Raskopki Humarinskogo gorodishta v 1947 godu. - V: Arheologija i etnografija Karachaevo-Cherkessii, Cherkesk,  1979, s. 27.

[11] V.A. Kuznecov. Nadpisi Humarnskogo gorodishta. - Sovetskaja Arheologija, 1963, No 1, s. 298-305.

[12] N.H. Tatorkulov. Raskopki gorodishta Humara. - Arheologicheskie otkriitija 1977 g., M., 1978, s. 107-108.

[13] Peter Karasimeonov. Neue Ausgrabungen in der Residenz von Pliska. - Izvestija na Bylgarskija arheologicheski institut, XIV, 1940-1942, S. 162, Abb. 229, 236.

[14] St. Mihajlov. Dvorcovata cyrkva v Pliska. - Izvestija na Arheologicheskija institut, XX, s. 229-264.

[15] J. Gospodinov. Razkopki v okolnostta na Preslav. - Izvestija na Varnenskoto arheologichesko druzhestvo, VI, 1916-1918, s. 158-159;
N. Mavrodinov. Prouchvane na cyrkvata vyv "Vynkashnija grad" na Preslav. - Godishnik na Narodnija muzej - Sofija, V, 1933, s. 223-228.

[16]  D. Ovcharov. Prabylgarskite kapishta - proizhod i prednaznachenie. - Vekove, XII, 1983, kn. 2, s. 56-62.

[17] H.H. Bidzhiev, A.V. Gadlo. Opt. cit., s. 46.

[18] H.H. Bidzhiev. Humarinskoe gorodishte (VIII-X vv.). - V: Sbronik v pamet na St. Vaklinov, S., 1984, s. 122-123.

[19] V.F. Miller. Osetinskie etjydii, t. III, M., 1887, s. 60.

[20] The modern Balkarians inhabit several mountain valleys in the central Fore-Caucasus, at the territory of Kabardnino-Balkarian ASSR. They number around 50,000 people.

[21] Karachais inhabit the upper cource of Kuban, the hightermost part of Caucasus next to Elbrus. According to the cencus of 1970, they number 112,711 people.

[22] E.P. Alekseeva. Nekotoriie zamechanija po voprosu proishozhdenija balkarcev i karachaevcev, s. 103-106. - V: Sb. materialii nauchnoj sessii po probleme proishozhdenija balkarskogo i karachaevskogo narodov (22-26 ijunja 1959 g.). Nal'chik, 1960.

[23] A.H. Sottaev. Proishozhdenie balkarcev i karachaevcev po danniim jaziika, s. 83, 94 - V: Cb. materialii nauchnoj sessii po probleme ..., Nal'chik, 1960.

[24] L.I. Lavrov. O nekotoriih etnograficheskih danniih po voprosu proishovdenija balkarcev i karachaevcev. s. 66-67;
T.H. Kumiikov. Etnogenezis balkarskogo i karachaevskogo narodov v istoricheskoj literature, s. 22-24. - V: Sb. Materialii nauchmoj sessii po probleme ..., Nal'chik, 1960.