Urbanization of Volga Bulgaria

25 March


Islam brought Sharia and Arabic script to Volga Bulgaria. The ancient runic sunk into oblivion along with Tengrism - the old pagan religion of the Bulgarian society. The new religion marked the development of writing and literature, education and science. The appearance of cities also changed. Brick and stone buildings of the eastern type appeared: mosques, residences, public baths, caravanserais, mausoleums-turbes. In those days, cities arose as the focus of closely interconnected sectors of the economy - crafts and trade. There is reason to believe that the adoption of Islam gave impetus to the urbanization of Volga Bulgaria.

Arab-Persian authors already in the 9th century noted this state as an important center of international trade between the East and the West. The writer Amr bin Bahr al- Jahiz, whose works are assessed by experts as “the first experience in economic geography”, mentions Bulgaria on the Volga among the countries importing products into the Caliphate region. Trade between the countries of the East and the North was carried out mainly along the Great Volga Route and its branches. Along the banks of the Volga and Lower Kama, arose the earliest urban-type settlements - trading posts, both in Russia and in Volga Bulgaria.

The famous Arab ambassador Ahmad ibn Fadlan, who visited Eastern Europe, reported in his “Records” about a letter to the Abbasid caliph al- Muqtadir, transmitted by the Bulgarian ambassador from Almush. The ruler of Bulgaria asked to send someone who would teach him the laws of Islam, build a mosque and construct a minbar to proclaim Friday prayers on behalf of the caliph in Volga Bulgaria. Also Almush, who took the name Jagfar ibn Abdallah with the adoption of Islam, asked to build a fortress by which he could strengthen himself against the neighboring kings competing with him. All requests of the Bulgarian ruler were agreed to.

Bulgaria at this time was in vassal dependence on the Khazar Khaganate and paid it toll with furs, grain and jewelry. The son of the Bulgarian emir lived in Itil as a hostage. Having learned about the beauty of the daughters of the Bulgar ruler, the Kagan demanded them into his harem. Jagfar ibn Abdallah's desire to free himself from humiliating dependence can be understood. After the celebrations regarding the adoption of Islam, Jagfar, together with his subordinates, went to the Dzhavshir River (probably modern Gausherma upstream of the Kama) and remained near it for two months. But Ibn Fadlan’s “Records” don’t reveal the essence of what was happening on the shore, because some of the manuscripts were lost.

Researchers thinks that a “fortress” was founded on the Javshir River - a real city with a Cathedral Mosque in its center - the city of Bilyar. The embassy from Baghdad initially numbered about five thousand people. Among the embassy members who arrived in Volga Bulgaria, there were undoubtedly “skilled builders for the construction of the fortress”, as Shigabutdin Marjani  wrote about in “Treasury of information about the affairs of Kazan and Bulgar” (1885). The layout of the city of Bilyar is traditional for nomadic settlements. Perhaps Arab city planners intuitively held the capital of the Caliphate, medieval Baghdad, as a model.

Bilyar is two-part and includes a concentrically located inner and outer city with fortifications in the form of high earthen ramparts with wooden walls and deep ditches. Baghdad was also round in plan and consisted of two fortified parts: the residence of the caliph in the center and the trading and craft quarters encircling it. In the center of Bilyar stood the Cathedral Mosque with a wooden part and a white stone part added later. On the southwestern side of the mosque there was a necropolis of the nobility, where burials were discovered in brick crypt-mausoleums built before the start of stone construction.

Next to the mosque there are the ruins of a brick building with an underground heating system and architectural details characteristic of the building tradition of the Middle East and Central Asia of the 9th-10th centuries. Most likely, it served as a public bath or "taharathana" (room for ablution before namaz). In the area of the mosque there were frame and adobe dwellings with tandoor stoves. Such dwellings are not at all typical for this region. Arab master builders undoubtedly lived in them. It turns out that the emergence of Bilyar was connected with the events that took place during the stay of the embassy from Baghdad on the Bulgarian land.

In Ibn Fadlan’s “Records” the city of Bolgar is never mentioned. Bolgar and Suvar appear in the works of eastern geographers starting from the second quarter of the 10th century. For example, in the records of Abu Ali Ahmed ben Omar Ibn Dast : “Bulgar is the name of the country whose inhabitants profess Islam, and the name of the city in which the main mosque is located. Not far from this city lies another city, Sivar ( Suvar ), where the main mosque is also located. The Muslim preacher said that the number of inhabitants of both cities extends to ten thousand people”. The most active period of urban development seems to be the end of the 10th and beginning of the 11th centuries, when Emir Ibrahim ruled in Volga Bulgaria.

At this time, Bulgaria was an established state with a powerful economy and a united people, united by the ideology of Islam. In addition to archaeological sources, this is evidenced by the message of the 12th century Persian historian Abul Fadl Baykhaki: “The ruler of the Bulgar and that region, which is entirely called Bulgar, was Emir Abu Ishak Ibrahim ibn Muhammad; in 1024-1025 he had a dream in his domain that money should be sent to Beyhak, the region of Nishapur, so that they would spend it on the cathedral mosque in Sebzevar and Khosrowjerd. He sent amazing gifts for the sovereign of Khorasan, the likes of which no one had ever seen. At that time, that money was spent on building these two mosques”.

The emergence of cities with a thousand-year history - Kazan and Yelabuga - dates back to the reign of Ibrahim. The lower layers of the Dzhuketau settlement on the Kama near modern Chistopol date back to the second half or the end of the 10th century. Probably, a significant part of the Bulgar settlements of pre-Mongol times appeared in the 10th-11th centuries. The above-mentioned cities are located on the banks of the Volga and Kama - on the great trade routes of the Middle Ages. In the cities of Bolgar and Suvar there were cathedral mosques mentioned in written documents, and in Bilyar and Elabuga the ruins of mosques were discovered during archaeological research. The adoption of Islam could not but influence the development of the ancient cities of modern Russia.



GSV "Russia - Islamic World"