Volga Bulgaria: The History of the State that Paved the Way for Islam in Russia

25 January 2022


This year marks the 1100th anniversary of a landmark date that not only made a start on spreading Islam throughout modern Russia, but also became an important event in the life of the entire country. This is about the adoption of Islam as the state religion by Volga Bulgaria. It was this day (historians have confirmed the date as May 21, 922) that the peoples of Russia were introduced to Islam. And today Islam and Muslims are an integral part of Russian history and identity.

A lot of conferences, meetings, forums, round tables, exhibitions, reprints of pre-revolutionary works of Russian theologians and many other events to mark the anniversary are ahead.

In order to realize the importance of such a large-scale date, one should have an idea of the state of Volga Bulgaria itself, and know the religious subtleties and peculiarities of life and work of the local population. 

The emergence of the state of Volga Bulgaria

According to historical sources, the first steps towards consolidation of Bulgarian tribes were made in the middle of the IX century. However, only in 895, when Almysh Khan came to power, it was possible to establish a united and efficient state. Thus, already in the X century their own silver coins were minted, while the collection of tribute in favor of the Khazars was regulated. The first written mention of Volga Bulgaria as a unified state also refers to this century. 

Unfortunately, the information on clear territorial boundaries is rather vague. At the same time, there is much more information about the cities of Volga Bulgaria. Among the most famous cities are Bolgar (now it is restored), Bilyar (only a settlement site has been preserved), Suvar (there have been many excavations, which helped to find out that there was a large market place and a large residential area; unfortunately, the city was completely destroyed), Iske-Kazan (it is partially restored and transformed into an open air museum), Alabuga (it is a part of modern Elabuga), Oshel (only a settlement site has survived), Juketau (only the settlement in the Chistopolsky district of Tatarstan has been preserved), Kashan (it is ruined; only a few structures have remained in the Laishevsky district of Tatarstan), Kirmen (only a settlement has survived), Zolotorevsky settlement (it has survived, and it is located on the river Sura) and Murom town (it is completely destroyed, situated in the Samara oblast).

Construction and urban growth

Among all the cities mentioned above, Bolgar was the first to emerge. It was the capital of the state until the XI century, when Bilyar and Suvar emerged.


Based on archaeological research, we can conclude that Bulgar cities were divided into three types: large cities, castles inhabited by feudal lords and military fortresses. Scientists’ data shows that the Bulgars were able to construct reliable fortifications thanks to the skills of military engineers.

The medieval Bolgar was based on a fortress sheltered behind reliable walls with towers and moats. They were usually home to settlements of rulers, the nobility and the rich. 

The next settlement was also protected by ramparts and ditches, and this is where the middle class – small craftsmen and traders – settled. This part of the settlement was called the ‘outer city’.

Behind the latter fortifications there were peasants themselves, who lived in simple houses, and some in dugouts. Each peasant’s house had outbuildings to house livestock and store crops. 

It is noteworthy that for their time, the cities of Volga Bulgaria were much more comfortable and far more extensive than many European capitals.

The main crafts

Handicrafts played a special role in the life of the local population. Historical records make it possible to judge that in Volga Bulgaria there was an early separation of crafts from agriculture. Craftsmen predominantly lived in cities, which made them centres of metalwork, pottery and jewelry production as early as in the X century. Craftsmen generally specialized in making agricultural implements, weaponry, various decorations, ceramics, clothes and others. The products of Volga craftsmen became very popular abroad, especially leather and jewelry.

Religion in Volga Bulgaria

The formation of the state of Volga Bulgaria took place under rather complicated political and social conditions. There were many different ethnic groups living on the same territory. At the same time, there were rather difficult relations with the Khazar Khaganate, which led to the fact that Volga Bulgaria had to pay tribute.

All of this led to the realization that only the adoption of a new centralized religion, replacing existing pagan beliefs, would be able to sort out many problems and strengthen the state.

The Bulgar’s ruler Almysh Khan decided on Islam. In those years, Islam was a new religion that was just gaining strength. The Khan was particularly attracted by the fact that Islam was officially adopted in the Arab Caliphate, which had considerable influence (the Bulgars had close relations with Arab merchants – ed.).

In 922, Volga Bulgaria was visited by the embassy of the Caliphate, sent at the request of the ruler of the Bulgars for instruction in the adoption of Islam. The secretary of the Arab embassy, Ibn Fadlan, left a text after that trip, which is the main reliable and complete source of information about Volga Bulgaria of that time.

Islam first spread in major cities, and by the end of the X century it had spread throughout the state.

Why was the adoption of Islam so important?

By adopting Islam and thus becoming closer to the Baghdad Caliphate, Volga Bulgaria made a significant step forward in its development and gained a powerful ally – the Caliphate. This contributed to the formation of the centralized state and made it strong and influential. Islam also had a special influence on the growth of education: with the adoption of the religion, mosques were built everywhere, with maktabs and madrasahs, people were taught religion, law, medicine and geography, they were taught to read and write, and poetry began to develop.

Historians and ethnographers also note the consolidating role of Islam: under the patronage of this religion, previously divided tribes were brought together.

Now Volga Bulgaria has become a part of the Muslim world, a decisive factor in establishing close economic and cultural ties with the eastern countries.

Post Scriptum

There are a few more interesting facts about Volga Bulgaria that are not widely known.

1.During the first attack on the Bulgars, the Mongols suffered a crushing defeat. This was their second unsuccessful campaign in the entire history of the yoke. The first failure was the Battle of Parwan (the territory of modern Afghanistan) in 1221.

2.The Aga Bazaar market in Bulgar quickly became one of the largest European trading venues. It was popularly nicknamed ‘the gateway to trade between Europe and Asia’.

3.Modern Bolgar and the ancient settlement are among the most popular tourist attractions in Tatarstan.

4.The city of Suvar minted its own coins. This manifests that the city was quite powerful and stood apart from Bulgaria.

5.The most important literary monument of Volga Bulgar culture is the poem ‘Kysa Yusuf’ written in 1233 by Kul Gali.



Ilmira Gafiyatullina