By the end of the 7th c. the fate of the Byzantine Balkan provinces was permanently associated with a new people, the Bulgars, a tribe of Turkic Altai origin whose name had already been mentioned in ancient Chinese chronicles. Around the end of 1st and the beginning of 2nd c. AD the Bulgars set off west together with other peoples unified under the rule of the Huns. They reached Eastern Europe with the first migration wave in the middle of 4th century. It was there they were first noticed by Byzantine and western chroniclers.
At the end of the 5th c., after Attila's death and the disintegration of the Hun state, the Bulgars retreated into the east. They settled permanently in the Black Sea steppes, the lands north of the Caucasus, and from there conducted frequent raids into Byzantine Balkan provinces. They were to become particularly dangerous towards the end of Emperor Justinian's rule. In year 558, led by Zabergan, the Bulgars even attacked Constantinopole, penetrating its defenses and camping in its suburbs. Old general Belisarius was the only one to succeed in driving them out.
On their way west, the Bulgars joined several tribal alliances of peoples migrating from the east, and had thus scattered in Europe from Pannonia to the Caucasus. Their presence in that vast area has been identified by archeologists. Traces of their cultural legacy can be found in diverse places, and Bulgarian treasures are fascinating. Extravagant in the use of gold, silver, and precious stones, the treasures actually consist of only a few objects, mainly vessels, jewelry and armour ornaments: items easy to carry on a long journey. And the Bulgars were doomed to be on the road.
Bulgarian treasures have created disputes, the major one concerning which cultural tradition they belonged to since Bulgarian art blended components of Steppe, Persian and Byzantine plastic arts - which complement each other in natural and unique way. The Bulgars' ability to absorb cultural patterns and techniques from diverse traditions and arrange them according to their own preferences was extremely important. That ability provides clear evidence of the Bulgars' cultural dynamics which should be sought in the structure of the Bulgarian society.
The basic unit of the Bulgarian society was the clan, which consisted of several familial communities. Its members were closely bound by the cult of revering ancestors and the common ownership of property. The clan was administered by clan leaders called "boils" and the most talented soldiers, called "bagain". To the Bulgars the clan had been the basis of social life from the remote past. They believed one could not endure hardships and ordeals without the support of their families.
The Bulgars had been subjected to hardships and ordeals for a long time. In the course of several centuries the had migrated slowly from Central Asia to Italy. Their movement had been accompanied by endless wars with hostile peoples. The only ones to survive the long journey westward were those who had united in a tribe. Survival was the tribe's responsibility. Strong relations between individual clans were required. And so was unity. The Bulgars succeeded in establishing that unity around a common religious cult. All Bulgarian tribes worshipped one supreme deity: Tangra. The Bulgars believed Tangra was the protector of victories, the maker of the sky and the earth, the omniscient supreme sovereign of man. Contacts with Tangra were established by the shamans. Because of their important mission and special talent, those doctor-priests formed a separate class of the Bulgarian society.
On earth Tangra had one live incarnation: the Khan of the Bulgars. The Bulgars believed the Khan had super-natural power bestowed upon him by Tangra himself to rule his people. Only if the supreme god withdrew his support for the khan could a general assembly of all clans elect a new khan. But while the Khan possessed his extraordinary heavenly power, he enjoyed full authority over the Bulgars who regarded him as supreme priest, military commander and legislator.
The Bulgars followed their own calendar with a 12-year cycle. Its presence shows that they had clear notion of conceiving time in longer cycles. Such a notion was necessary when a society left the comparatively more restricted clan frames. Obviously, the Bulgars had to organize larger groups of people, tribes and tribal unions, which would have been impossible without a unified system of organized space and time.
When Europe heard about the Bulgars they already had their own ancient state tradition, which was recorded in a special text - "Register of Bulgarian Khans". The beginning of the Bulgarian state system is linked with Attila. It is from him that the legendary ruling clan, the Dulo, originated. Under the leadership of Kubrat /632-663?/ of the Dulo clan, the Bulgars in the northern Caucasian region were united in the beginning of the 630s. In 632 AD, a Bulgarian khanate was set up in the lands between the Dnestr and the Kuban rivers north of the Black Sea and this known as Ancient Great Bulgaria". The Bulgarian khanate was founded on the military tribal alliance of the Bulgars with related tribes. The khanate was divided into several regions, each ruled by one of the khan's sons. The khan controlled central power from capital Phanagoria, the center of the state where Khan Kubrat had established his camp.
Owing to its strong state organization Khan Kubrat's "Great Bulgaria" would last for three decades in land through which spread the Great migration of peoples. Kubrat also ruled over numerous Turkomans and Khazars who settled in those lands for different periods of time. Byzantium would never be able to control that region of constant movement and ever new Barbarians, and would find it harder than ever in the 7th c. when all the Empire's forces would be warring in the East. The Empire saw then in "Great Bulgaria" an opportunity to acquire some control over the influx of Barbarians. For that reason Bulgarian Khan Kubrat was often a much sought ally. In year 635 Emperor Heraclius even conferred the title "patrician" on the khan of the Bulgars.
The way of life and culture of the Bulgars amaze present day historians. Their achievements in all spheres of human knowledge made them different from the other peoples taking part in the great migrations. Unlike the barbarians of the steppes - Huns, Avars, Khazars - and also unlike the Slavs, Goths and Vandals who led a settled life but who had a very primitive rural culture, the Bulgars whenever they settled anywhere, built enormous cities of stone, which had all the characteristics of a highly developed urban culture: orderly systems of roads and streets, water supply systems, drainage, baths and even heating installations /the so-called hypocausts/. Their calendar - a proof of their very exact astronomical and mathematical knowledge - was, and still is today, the most accurate. Twenty years ago the question was raised in the UNESCO by non-Bulgarian scientists whether this calendar should be proclaimed the current one for the whole world. That was because it is really the most accurate one.
Analyses of seeds of cereals, found in archeological excavations, have shown that they were high yielding sorts, such as are obtained after a hundred years' selection work. From bone material unearthed in digs, it has become clear that the Bulgarian medicos performed difficult operations, ones which would be intricate and hard even for a present day medical surgeon: for instance, trepanation of the skull. The achievements of the Bulgars in the ore output, metallurgy and metal working impress us as being amazing for that time. The great amount of iron extracted made it possible for them to think up and make instruments and tools they needed for maintaining a fighting force of 30 000 warriors and horses, clad from head to foot in iron. In battles against all the armies of the epoch - against those of the Barbarian peoples and against those of the civilized Romans - this "iron wall" had the same effect, for instance, as could be achieved today by and army of tanks attaching infantry companies armed only with light rifles. That is why the Bulgars were practically invincible - a miracle would have to happen in order that their army should lose a big battle. That permitted them to save themselves from the ups-and-downs of fortune in this stormy epoch and to be sought for as allies by all the ambitious persons in the period. Very few people know that the striking power of the armies of Attila was, in fact, the Bulgars. With such a powerful military force concentrated in their hands, the temptation would be really great to make decisions to become, for instance, masters of the world, as Attila, Tamurlaine, Chingis Khan and many others made up their minds to do.
Bulgarian society at this time was built up according to a simplified and efficacious pattern. Every member of the society was personally free and choose his profession and occupation himself. The religious tolerance of the Bulgars was incredible for that epoch - among them there were Animists, Christians, Buddhists, Judaists and Moslems. The state authorities were not interested in the faith of their subjects but required strict observance of the civil laws. Nothing definite can be said about the type of race to which the Bulgars belonged and this is not by chance in that time and part of the world. An incredibly tolerant system of organization of society, open to the individual, attracted people to the Bulgarian camps, wherever these camps happened to be in different chronological periods and this attracted people who felt inhibited and restricted in their native communities because of religious, ethnical or class intolerance. It is interesting to note that the name "Bulgar" itself means "mixture" and probably was given to them by their contemporaries, to show that the Bulgarian people were a mixture of different peoples.
In fact, in excavations of Bulgarian necropolis in which there were burials of people with the same manner of life and culture, proofs have come to light that they were all subjects of the same state, although they were of different races - burials of individuals of all the races living at that time, from the Pacific to the Atlantic - from Mongoloids to Aryans. One thing is sure, the Bulgars were tall and strong. When the average height of the European in the Middle Ages was 1.60 m., the average height of the Bulgarian was 1.75 m. An Arabian geographer of that time complained: Ten of our men can not overcome one Bulgarian". The explanation given by scientists for their extraordinary height and strength is that they ate very much meat and had very much physical exercise. The Bulgars had numerous highly productive herds which provided them with food and they did strenuous physical exercises in their spell of military service that was obligatory for every healthy man who was of full age.
To make up for all this, in the middle of the 7th c. the "Great Bulgaria" was attacked from the south and the east by the powerful tribal union of the Khazars, including the multitudinous Turkic steppe tribes. The victims at the price of whom the Bulgars repelled the blow, were numerous and grievous. Perhaps that was why the leaders of the "Great Bulgaria" decided to look for another place in which to settle. Probably they had reached this conclusion in weighing up and analyzing the situation and had become convinced that the plains , which are today the South Russian Plains, were too open and that there were no natural lines of defense. That was why the people of that former Bulgaria left their cities and villages and under the protection of the army moved to the lands round the River Oka, in the upper reaches of the River Volga, far away from the routes followed by other people and undisturbed by any serious enemy. Three regional rulers of the "Great Bulgaria" did not submit to the decision to move with the state. One of them, Asparuh, settled with his several tens of thousands of people in the plain around the delta of the Danube. The Bulgars continued proudly to call this rather small territory of several thousand square kilometers Bulgaria.
There are many excellent reference books on the early Bulgars history. I prefer a book from the 1930s, which is: Runciman, S. History of the First Bulgarian Empire. New York: AMS Press, 1980.