Administrative center: Bolgar
Area: 2028.00 sq.km
The most amazing of all rayons on Tatarstan, Spassky, whose history is veiled in tales and legends, is located at the confluence of the Kama and Volga. Here, on the steep bank of the Volga, Bolgars (ancestors of the Kazan Tatars) in 922 CE converted to Islam. In the 10th century CE the city of Bolgar (capital of the Volga Bolgaria) begins minting its own coins which bore the names of the ruling emirs.
According to an old legend, in 1361 Bolak Timur Khan besieged the city of Bolgar to suppress its disobedient population. The city was captured and raised, and most of its defenders perished.
The last Khan of Bolgar, Abdullah and his family took refuge inside the Court of Justice (Chamber of the Court, Sudnaya Palata). Mongolian warriors surrounded the building, but were unable to directly assault it. The Mongol Khan then commanded to have the Chamber set around by timber and then set it on fire, but the fire could not damage the Chamber’s thick walls. The warriors saw a beautiful girl in a white dress appear on the roof of the Court — she was the Bolgar Khan’s youngest daughter. Bolak Timur was surprised by her courage and beauty and immediately proposed to her. The girl replied, “I will marry you if you set my brothers free”. Her wish was granted: her brothers were given horses and left the burning city. When they had gone too far to be overtaken by pursuers, the Khan repeated his request. The girl made no reply, but threw herself off the roof and fell on the still-smoldering embers ... Then, the white-stone Chamber changed the color of its walls, which turned black. It has been known since then as the Black Chamber.
Archaeological research confirms what the legends and chronicles say of the razing and burning of the city: the layers dating back to the second half of 14th century show remains of a huge fire throughout all neighborhoods of Bolgar. Some hastily buried corpses have been found, obviously committed to earth without any special rites. In this period (around 1361 and later), craftsmen’s workshops ceased to operate, and many public buildings were apparently ruined. Nevertheless, the city experienced a later rebirth, although the economy never again reached its mid-14th century pinnacle.
In 1431, the city was once again destroyed, this time by the troops of Grand Prince Vasily II of Moscow (later known as the Blind), as the Volga Bolgars used to play a certain role in the inter-principality feuds of Muscovy.
Since mid-16th century, Bolgar has been part of the Russian state. The city by then was in obvious decline, remaining rather a religious center and the focus of national memory than a seat of political or economic power.
The present-day town of Bolgar is the administrative center of Spassky rayon, located 140 kilometers south of Kazan.
This world-famous tourist destination receives thousands of visitors each year, mainly those interested in one of the oldest states in Eastern Europe — Volga Bolgaria — and its history.
The town is also a center of Moslem pilgrimage. Hundreds of thousands of believers from around the world came to Bolgar to celebrate the 1120th anniversary of the area’s conversion to Islam.
Reaching the top of the steep Volga bank, you get a stunning view of the ancient capital of Volga Bolgaria and its remaining architectural landmarks of the 13th — 14th centuries. They are now administered by the Bolgar State Historical and Architectural Museum-Reserve.
Bolgars were the name of the nomadic Turkic tribes, some of whom, in the aftermath of the Khazar wars, moved west and settled in Europe. Other tribes (Barandzhars, Barsils, Bilers, Savirs, etc.) moved north into the Middle Volga and formed the state of Volga Bolgaria here. The ancient capital of this state is more than a thousand years old.
The city of Bolgar was first mentioned in written sources under 10th century CE. At that time, the local ruler Almush began to unite the Turkic-speaking Bolgar tribes under his power.
The state expanded fast and many new cities were founded: Oshel, Kazan, Alabuga, Juketau... Since early 10th century Bolgar had been building relations with the Moslem world.
In 922 the city received an embassy from the Baghdad Caliphate. One of those travelling in the entourage was the famous traveler Ibn Fadlan. After negotiations, Volga Bolgars voluntarily converted to Islam, and the city of Bolgar has strengthened its role as the capital of the Volga-Kama Bolgaria.
Because of its vulnerable location and numerous conflicts with the Russian principalities lying up the Volga, Bolgar lost the status of the capital for a while. Relations with Russian lands were volatile, and active trade could be replaced by fierce raiding, followed by reconciliation. However, when the then capital, Bilyar, had been completely destroyed by the advancing Mongols in 1236, Bolgar resumed its leading role until 1431.
The city was frequently mentioned in medieval Arabic texts, starting with the writings of the Secretary to the Baghdad Embassy, and later by Arab traveler al-Gharnati and historian al-Marvazi.
Chronicles of old describe the traditions and customs of Bolgar people. Bolgar the great still remains one of the few surviving historical and archaeological monuments of Volga Tatars. Among the surviving buildings which stand witnesses to the city’s history are the Small minaret, Black, White and Red Chambers, the Mausoleum of the Khans, the Cathedral Mosque and a number of stone tombs and mausoleums erected in 13th and 14th centuries.
The old Bolgar crafts spread wide throughout the Volga and Kama areas, imitated and developed by craftsmen of many towns and cities. Modern archaeological findings have undeniably proved the high level of cultural development in Volga Bolgaria. Gold and silver jewelry and fine ornamental stonework testify to the general well-being and aesthetic culture of the city’s residents. A high percentage of people were literate, which has been proved by numerous inscriptions found on pottery and jewelry. Volga Bolgar language is largely known from epitaphs.
The basics of the old Bolgar alphabet survived and were later used by the rulers of the Golden Horde while creating the “imperial language”.
Old Bolgar was known not only for its rich bazaars and caravanserais, but also for its love of arts and comfortable atmosphere for lovers of the Muses: musicians, scientists, philosophers and poets. History has preserved the names and works of the great poet Qol Ghali, author of the famous Qissai Yosif ("The Tale of Yusuf and Zulaiha"), historian Ibn Yaqub Nugman.
Bolgar medical scientists, such as the al-Bulgari brothers Tajetdin and Hassan ibn Yunus, were widely known not only in their homeland, but elsewhere throughout the Orient. Tajetdin al-Bolgari was the author of the treatise "On the best cure for poisons". In 1220-21, Hassan rewrote and expanded his brother’s work at the request of the famous physician Badr-ad-din Mahmud ibn Usman. Burhan-ad-din Ibrahim ibn Yusuf Bolgari is remembered in the history of Moslem science as the author of a pharmacological treatise "On simple medicines". The name of physician Hojja Bolgari was known everywhere in the East.
He had been adopted by poet Hakim Sanai, but did not live long and died at the early age of 39. The poet erected his tombstone and praised the physician’s talent in verse.
For many centuries, the old city has been an inspiration for artists and poets. Ivan Shishkin and Aleksei Savrasov chose it as subject for their paintings. The great Tatar poet Mussa Jalil made the ancient legends into a poem, used by composer Najib Jihanov for his equally famous opera "Altynchech" ("Golden-haired girl").
For centuries, Bolgar had been developing trade relations with Russia and playing a significant role in Russian diplomacy.
As one of the old-time travelers put it, "Bolgar is a huge city ... with many peoples around it, with no end." The culture of Bolgar does indeed have the image of the city as the "crossroads of the worlds", merging the best traditions of the East with the Western influence.
Bolgar was the trade gateway from Eastern Europe to Central.
To the West, it supplied the products of Asian craftsmen and hunters of the North. Over time, its own unique crafts took root. At all markets of the Caliphate, high quality leather and leather boots were known as the Bolgar. Even in the modern Arabic, highest-grade leather is called al-Bolgari.
In the Middle Ages, the city of Bolgar lost its key role in the Volga region, but remained the center of religious culture and Moslem pilgrimage. The capital of the Volga state was moved to Kazan. Even after the physical destruction of most of the city, Bolgar managed to preserve its spiritual function and essence. It was used as a place of burial for the revered Moslems. Devout people and dervishes chose Bolgar as their dwelling.
In 1722 the town was visited by Emperor Peter the Great, who ordered to have the ancient buildings and tombs preserved.
This order was one of the reasons for setting up a monastery on the ruins of the old city (1732). Its monks both preached Christianity as the state religion and left a description of the surviving monuments and sites of old Bolgar. In the second half of the 18th century, the Russian village Uspenskoye-Bolgary was founded in the vicinity.
A few years later, merchant Mikhlyaev from the famous Kazan trading family donated money to build a stone church of the Assumption of the Theotokos in the village. Stones from the ruins of Bolgar were used in its construction. In this way, histories of the two religions, Islam and Christianity, got intertwined in the area. Empress Catherine II was greatly impressed by the ruins of Bolgar during her voyage down the Volga. As she wrote to Voltaire, "I left the barge and disembarked to see the ruins of the ancient city of Bolgar ...
I found there a lot of stone buildings, including nine very well-preserved minarets. I approached one of them and saw forty Tatars standing by, some of them in the prayer position. The head of the gubernia told me that Tatars consider this place sacred and come in large numbers to offer their prayers here."
The town of Spassk, which later became the center of the uezd of the same name, dates back to the 1640s, when it was founded as the village of Nikolsky-Chertykovo, originally owned by the Pokrovsky monastery of Tetyushi. In 1781, Catherine II’s reform of provincial administration upgraded the village into an uezd town and gave it the name of Spassk.
In 1935, Spassk was renamed Kuibyshev, and Spassky rayon became Kuibyshevsky. Spassk was originally located quite far from the Bolgar ruins, but in mid-1950s it was part of the area slated for flooding due to the construction of the Kuibyshev hydroelectric power station. The town had to be moved to a higher place, just next to the Bolgar of old. The village of Bolgary in 1991 became part of the town, so the town of Kuibyshev was renamed back to Bolgar, and Kuibyshevsky rayon, to Spassky. Thus both historic names — Bolgar and Spassk — were reintroduced to this ancient land.
For many centuries, Bolgar has been a guiding star for travelers and historians, writers and scholars. The ancient land of the Bolgars still keeps many of its mysteries secret...