Sabirs, Barsils, Belendzheris, Khazars

Another associated with the Proto-Bulgarian ethnic group were the Sabirs. Initially they had lived in Western Siberia, which was named after them. According to Priscus, in the mid-fifth century the Sabirs conquered the lands of the Onogurs, Saragurs and Urogs in the steppes around the north-western Caspian coast. Especially active they became in 6-th century when they created a powerful federation of akin tribes, usually know as the "Kingdom of the Huns". They were quite populous and could organise an army of 20,000 well equipped cavalrymen. They were masters of the art of the war and could build siege machines unknown even to the Persians and the Byzantines.

Very early on the Sabirs were in close contact with the Khazars, and some eastern authors confuse them. After the defeat of their main forces by the Avars, the Khazars took the lead in the Sabir-Khazar federation. It is unknown when and what forced part of the Sabirs to move to the north, in the region of Middle Volga, among the settled there Proto-Bulgarians tribes. Their main city Suvar was later among the greatest centres of Volga Bulgaria.

Another tribe in close contacts with the Proto-Bulgarians were the Barsils. They are mentioned in the documents only in the second half of the 6-th century in connection with the crossing of the East-European steppes by the Avars (pseudo-Avars). According to Theophilactus Simocatta, [26] when the Avars appeared in their lands "the barsilt (the Barsilians), the unogurs and the sabirs were struck with horror ... and honoured the new-comers with brilliant gifts." The ethicon bagrasik, included in the list of the steppe peoples north of Derbend in the Syrian compilation of Zachariah the Rhetor, most probably represents their ethnic name. More accurate data about the Barsils contains the so called New List of the Armenian geography from the 7-th century. It narrates that in the Volga delta "there is an island, where the people of basli (the Barsils) take shelter from the bushki (bulhi - the Bulgars) and from the khazars... The island is called Black because of many basli living there together with their numerous livestock." The 'island' in question is probably the land between the river Eastern Manuch and the present Volga mouth. The region is called 'Black lands' since a long time and it is even nowadays an excellent winter grazing ground for the population of Northern Caucasus. Very important is the note of the Armenian geographer that the Barsils possessed numerous livestock, that is, they were a typical nomadic people.

M.I. Artamonov [27] locates the country Bersilia  in present Northern Dagestan, but his view is not supported by the available data. The archaeological material from that region points to the presence of a settled population that lived in permanent settlements and created impressive fortresses. At the same time the Armenian geography portraits the Barsils as a nomadic people even in the 7-th century. It was their remoteness from any cultural centres that they appeared so late in the documentary sources. Also, Theophanes tell us that the 'populous people of the Khazars came out from the innermost parts of Bersilia in Sarmatia Prima.' It is well known that the lower course of Volga was the eastern frontier of Asiatic Sarmatia. That is why the country Bersilia was probably located near the mouth of Volga. To the same region points the other informer about the coming of the Khazars - patriarch Nicephorus. According to him "the tribe of Khazars lived near the Sarmatians."  When the Barsils left these lands they settled in the Middle Volga region and merged with the Volga Bulgars. Ibn Ruste (the beginning of the 10-th century) [28] says that they represented one of the three branches of the Volga Bulgars: "the first branch was called Bersula, the second - Esegel, and the third - Bulgar." What drove the Barsils to run away to the Volga Bulgars is implicitly mentioned by the Khazar khagan Joseph in the description of his domain (main territory) in a letter to the Jewish dignitary Hasdaj Ibn Shaprut. The domain included also the territory which most probably was the land of the Barsils. This shows that in their expansion the Khazars  drove out their intermediate neighbours.

Proto-Bulgars, VI-VII c.AD

Main Proto-Bulgarian groups in Eastern Europe in VI-VII c. AD. The supposed boundary of Old Great Bulgaria is given by a dashed line.
(After D.Dimitrov, The Proto-Bulgarians north and west of the Black Sea, Varna, 1987; The map was produced using XEROX Map Viewer)

Another very important for the early medieval history of Northern Dagestan problem concerns the people, the country and the town whose name is given in the Arab sources as Belendzher or Balandzhar. The ethicon is mentioned for first time by the Arab historian at-Tabari in connection with events from the 60s of the 6-th century [29]. First, he informs that the vassal to Iran Armenia was invaded by four peoples - abkhaz, b-ndzh-r (bandzhar), b-l-ndzh-r (balandzhar) and alan. Later, between 566 and 571, the khagan of the Turks (Turcuts) Sindzhibu (Istemi) defeated the peoples b-ndzh-r, b-l-n-dzh-r and khazar, who agreed to serve him. A.V.Gadlo [30] concludes that the name "bandzhar" refers to the Ogurs, and 'balandzhar' is a Perso-Arabic form of the ethnicon of the Onogurs=Utigurs.

Besides the information about the people balandzhar-belendzher at-Tabari informs also that "beyond Derbend there is an entire kingdom with many towns, which are called Belendzher" [31]. According to the same author the Arab general Abdurahmen ibn Rabi'a "penetrated 200 miles into the country (Belendzher), converted many towns to the law of Mohamed and returned to Derbend". Obviously, that country extended over a large territory.

Most disputed, however, is the location of the town of the same name. Later documentary sources [32] tell us that during his campaign of 652-653 the Arab general Abdu-ar-Rahman ibn Rabi'a reached the town Belendzher which had a considerable garrison and a watch-tower. The other great Arab campaign of 721-722 under Dhzarrah also "reached the Khazar town of Belendzher. The inhabitants had tied together and positioned around the town more that 3,000 wagons." Belendzher was taken after several brave Arabs cut the ropes holding the wagons, thus eliminating the defence line. The invaders found great spoils which they shared among them. After its taking by the Arabs Belehdzher is not mentioned anymore.

The story of at-Tabari shows that Belendzher was rather a military camp, not a real town. The Arabs of Dzharrah captured many Belendzheris, among them the family of the ruler of the town, called sahib (mihtar). He had been subordinate to the Khazars but still independent enough: Dzharrah bribed him and he switched his allegiance to the Arabs. Other documentary sources contain indications about the ethnicity of the ruler and the population of Belendzher. For example in the Turkic copy of the history of at-Tabari, used by Kasem Beg, the name of the town is given as Bulkhar- Balkh, which could be also read as Bulkar-Balk [33]. That makes Kasem  Beg to believe that there was not any town with the name Belendzher and that because of transcribers' negligence and misunderstanding that name was transferred to another town, called Bulkar-Balk [34]. The same name for the town is preserved in a local history of Derbend, compiled from  older documents and local traditions [35].

The description of the campaign of the Arab general Salman in 652-653 (based on a manuscript of Ahmed-bin-Azami) mentions: "After leaving Derbend, Salman reached the Khazar town of Burgur... He continued and finally reached Bilkhar, which was not a Khazar's possetion, and camped with his army near that town, on rich meadows intersected by a large river." [36]

That is why several historians connect that town with the Proto-Bulgarians. The Arab missionary Ahmed ibn-Fadlan also confirms that connection, as he mentions that during his trip to the Volga Bulgars in 922 he saw a group of 5,000 Barandzhars (balandzhars) who had migrated long time ago to Volga Bulgaria [37].

According to Ibn al-Nasira, after capturing Belendzher-Bulker, Salman reached another big town, called Vabandar, which had with 40,000 houses (families?). M.I. Artamonov links the name of that town with the ethnicon of the Bulgars Unogundurs, which is given as v-n-nt-r by the Khazars (in the letter of their Khagan Joseph), as venender or nender by the Arabs, and as Unogundur-Onogur by the Byzantines. Interpreting the documentary evidence Artamonov concludes that the early medieval population of Northern Dagestan consisted of Proto-Bulgarian tribes, so that the mentioned by several authors Kingdom of the Huns and their country should have been rather called Kingdom of the Bulgars [38].  He regards as Proto-Bulgarian also "the magnificent town of Varachan", the main centre of the Huns, located by Moses Kagantvaci north of Derbend [39].

We know details about Varachan thanks to a member of the embassy of the Albanian missionary bishop Israel, who visited the Kingdom of the Huns in a proselytising mission in 682. According to the description, preserved in the work of Moses Kagantvaci (10-th century), Varachan was different from the typical nomadic strongholds in its architectural setting. There was a central square which accommodated important assemblies, streets at whose crossings were executed some of the pagan priests. There was also a 'Royal court'. Especially interesting is the information about the religion of the inhabitants of Varachan. Next to the town there were wooden barracks and rich presents were offered to the magicians serving in these heathen shrines.  Especially venerated were the sacred trees, notably a giant oak tree. Horses were sacrificed to that oak, their blood poured on its roots, while their heads and skins were hanged on its branches. Horse races and wrestling contests, fought under the beating of drums and timbales, accompanied the sacrifices. The people wore golden and silver amulets, depicting dragons. Besides the priests there were plenty of shamans - soothsayers and medicine-men healing wounds and making charms. The thunder god Kuara was especially held in reverence. Tangrikhan, called Aspandiat by the Persians, was the main deity, who helped in need and cured the ill. Animals, mainly horses were sacrificed to him. There are both Persian and Turkic characteristics in this cult of Tangrikhan-Aspandiat.

Besides towns like Varachan, the story about the bishop Israel's mission speaks of "numerous royal camps", that is - typical nomad settlements. On the order of the ruler of the "Huns" Alp-Ilitver churches were built both in the towns and in the villages.

A direct relation to the history of the Eastern Fore-Caucasus in those centuries has the late (12-th century) chronicle of the Jacobite patriarch of Antioch Michael of Syria, based on earlier sources. [40] Particularly important is the excerpt narrating about the three brothers 'Scythians', set out on a journey from the mountain Imaon (Tien-Shan) in Asia and reached the river Tanais (Don). Here one of the brothers, called Bulgarios, took 10,000 people with him, parted from his brothers and with the permission of emperor Maurice (582-602) settled in Upper and Lower Moesia and Dacia. "The other two brothers came to the country of the Alans, which is called Barsalia (Bersilia) and whose towns were build by the Romeans, as Caspij, called Torajan Gates (Derbend). The Bulgars and the Pugurs (puguraje), who had inhabited those places, were Christians in the old days. And when a foreign people started to reign over that country, they were named Khazars after the name of the older brother, who was called Khazarig (Kazarig). And that people became strong and expanded." The story comprises facts pertaining to several events of different age, all of them united around the story of the expansion of the Khazarian political power in the second half of the 7-th century. The earliest event, described in the chronicle, is the coming of the three brothers to the lowlands between the Caspian Sea and the river Tanais (Don). Here Bulgarios occupied the lands next to Tanais, and Khazarig and the unknown brother - the Alan country of Barzalia. Also, there were pre-Khazarian towns in the outlying southern parts of Barzilia. Only one of them is mentioned in the chronicle - Caspij and it is identified by most historians as Derbend, which other name is Caspian Gates. This town, built by Persia with a Byzantine assistance as a stronghold against the pressing from north steppe peoples, was well known to the Byzantines. That is why its name appeared in the chronicle. The author had only vague ideas about other towns, but still he informs us that their inhabitants were Bulgars and Pugurs. It is difficult to decipher which etnical group is lurking under the ethnicon Pugurs. Perhaps the key to the problem is the above mentioned hypothesis of B.Simeonov, according to which the Chinese documentary sources have written down the ethnicon of the Bulgars in the form pu-ku/bu-gu [41].

A ruler of a big group of the tribe pu-gu was called Sofu sulifa Kenan Bain [42]. The same title - salifan (sulifan) - bore also the king of the town Semender, which according to Al-Masoudi in the 10-th century was the main town of the vassal to the Khazars Kingdom Dzhidzhan (the Kingdom of the Huns) [43].

The second historical event in that Syrian chronicle is the 'parting' of Bulgarios from his 'brothers'. Important here is the clear indication that on his way to the Balkans Bulgarios had to cross the river Tanais. The third event is the increasing power of the Khazars, leading to the 'departure' of Bulgarios and to the imposing of a foreign rule over the older inhabitants of the country. Only then "they (the Bulgars and the Pugurs) were named Khazars after the name of the older brother". The text unambiguously States that not the Khazars, but the Bulgars and the Pugurs were the main population of the East Fore-Caucasus, especially of the towns. The became Khazarian only when the Khazars established their political power over that region.

As the history of the Khazars closely interweaves with that of the Bulgars, it is worth to provide more info about the Khazars' past.

In Northern Caucasus they appear no earlier than the 6-th century [44]. The first unequivocal information about them is found in At-Tabari, who wrote that between 566 and 571 the Turcut ruler Sindzhibu (Istemi) subjugated the peoples bandzhar, balandzhar (belendzher) and khazar. To that time refers also the Church history of Zachariah Rhetor, where the Khazars are mentioned as a nomadic people north of Derbend. Their influence apparently increased after the Turcs (Turcuts) conquered Northern Caucasus, as the Khazars became their closest allies and assistants. The close ties between the Turcs and the Khazars are confirmed by the fact that after the collapse of the Turcic khaganate the ancient Turcic clan of the Ashinas headed the newly formed Khazarian state.


Thus the available documentary sources provides evidence about the social and economical structure and about some peculiarities of the spiritual life of the various Proto-Bulgarian groups and tribes. They clearly show that up to the 7-th century AD, when the Unogundurs-Bulgars led by Asparuh, were forced by the Khazar expansion to  leave Eastern Europe  and to settle in the Lower Danube, most of the Proto-Bulgarian tribes were nomads with mobile husbandry who "dwell in tents and live on the meat of domestic animals, fish and game, and on their weapons" [45].

The social differentiation was in progress - above the average stock-breeders there was a tribal aristocracy, appropriating the costly goods,  slaves, and other spoils of the numerous military campaigns. The social and political developments of the Proto-Bulgarian society as well as some external factors contributed to the creation of military-tribal alliances, the most important of which was the military-tribal union Great Bulgaria of khan Kubrat.

The social and economical development of the various Proto-Bulgarian groups went on different pace. The Proto-Bulgarians who migrated to the near- Caspian low-lands of Dagestan started to settle down since early times. They had a permanent settlements, some of them called "towns", even in the first half of the 6-th century. The notes of mission of bishop Israel (682 AD) give us an idea about "the magnificent town of Varachan" - it had streets and squares, there worked "skilful carpenters" who made a huge cross and decorated it with images of animals; goldsmiths manufactured golden and silver idols.

As the bishop Israel's mission showed, not later than the second half of the 7-th century the Christianity was intensely preached among the Dagestan Bulgars. After Israel's insistence "Christian churches were built in the Kingdom of the Huns". Referring to the data about the missions of the clergymen Kardost and Makar among the "Huns", Pigulevskaja thinks that the activity of Christian missionaries in Northern Dagestan started as early as in the first half of the 6-th century [46].

Besides the new religion, the missionaries taught to the local population the techniques of massive brick building and how to grow cultivated plants. Artanomov is rather inclined to think that the activity of Kardost and Makar took place in the Western Fore-Caucasus - the lands of Gord. No matter who is right, the Proto-Bulgarian tribal societies in both Eastern and Western Fore-Caucasus were developed high enough to adopt not only the Christianity but also a number of characteristics of the cultures of the neighbouring Byzantium, Persia and Armenia.

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[26]  Theophilactus. Op. cit., p.258

[27] M.I. Artamonov, Istorija khazar, Leningrad, 1962, s. 229

[28]D.A.Hvol'son. Izvestija o sarmatah, burtasah, bolgarah, mad'jarah, slavjanah I russkih Abu-Ali-Ahmeda ben Omara ibn Dasta. Cpb, 1869, s.22

[29] At-Tabari, Istorija prorokov i carej. - Cit. po A.E.Schmidt. Materialy po istorii Srednej Azii I Irana. - Uchen. zap. Instituta vostokovedenija. XIV, 1958

[30] A.V. Gadlo, Etnicheskaja istorija Severnogo Kavkaza, s.124

[31] Dorn. Izvestija o khazarah vostochnogo istorika Tabari, s otryvkami iz Gafis-Abru, Ibn-Aazem El'-Kufi I dr. Per. P. Tjazhelova. - Zhurnal Ministerstva Narodnogo Prosveshtenija, 1884, Chast' XLIII, otd. II, No 7 i 8, s.13

[32] B.N. Zahoder, Kaspijskij svod svedenij, I, s.176

[33] M. I. Artamonov, Op.cit., p.120.

[34]  Mirza A. Kasem-Beg. Derbend-Nameh. Translated from a select turkish versions with the Texts and with the Notes. - Memoires de l'Academie imperiale des Sciences. t. VI. St. Petersbourg, 1861, p.161-162.

[35] Tarihi Derbend-Name (s 9-ju prilozhenijami). Perevod s jazykov tjurskogo, arabskogo, persidskogo i francuzkogo. Pod red. M. Alihanova-Avarskogo. Tiglis, 1898, s. 7-22.

[36] Tarihi Derbend-Name,  s. 131-132.

[37] A. P. Kovalevskij, Kniga Ahmeda ibn-Fadlana o ego puteshestvii na Volgu v 921-922
gg. Har'kov, 1956, s. 138.

[38] M. I. Artamonov, Op.cit., p.184

[39] Istorija agvan ..., s. 190-191. The Armenian geography from the 7-th century also puts Varachan/Varadzhan north of Derbend. However, its exact location is unknown at present. According to S.T.Eremjan. Moisej Kalantukijskij o posol'stve albanskogo knjaza Varaz-Trdata k hazarskomu hakanu Alp-Ilitveru. - Zap. I-ta vostokovedenija SSSR, VII, M., 1939, s.134, Varachan corresponds to the modern town of Bujnaks.

[40] V. Zlatarski, Izvestieto na Mihail Sirijski za preselenieto na bylgarite. - V: Izbrani proizvedenija, I., S., 1972, s.52

[41] B. Simeonov,  Proizhod, struktura i znachenie na imeto bylgari, s.71-73; Istochni izvori za istorijata i imeto na Asparuhovite bylgari, s.54

[42] B. Simeonov, Iztochni izvori..., s.55

[43] M.I. Artomonov. Istorija Khazar, s.229 and 339 and the references therein.

[44] M.I Artamonov, op.cit. s.116. s.128

[45] N.V. Pigulevskaja. Sirijskie istochniki..., s.83-85, 165.

[46] M.N. Pigulevskaja, Sirijskia istochniki..., s.85-86