Bulgaria was the state that existed in the territory of modern Tatarstan during the Middle Ages. The Volga Bulgarians contributed very significantly to the ethnogenesis of the Tatars. Almush, the King of Bulgaria, converted to Hanafi Isla.m. in 922, and declared Isla.m. the national faith. Bulgaria’s Aga-Bazar oriental market was a major trade hub at the intersection of East-West trade routes. Bulgarian craftsmen were known far and wide for their exquisite gold jewellery, leather goods and metal artefacts. After Bulgaria was devastated by the Mongolian hordes in 1236, another state arose in its stead: the Kazan Khanate, which would later become part of the Russian state.
The first capital of Bulgaria and its best-known city, Bolgar was founded in the 10th century at the confluence of the Kama and the Volga. Bolgar had withstood the devastating invasion of Bulat-Timur, the prince of the Golden Horde, in 1361, survived the 1395 invasion of Tamerlan, but finally fell into oblivion after being captured by the Russian troops of Fyodor Pyostry in 1431. The thriving city of Bolgar turned into a graveyard.
Bolgar has been prioritized for restoration and new museum start progra.m.mes by the Tatarstan Foundation for the Revival of Historical and Cultural Landmarks since 2010. Bolgar was placed on the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2014.
Access to the landmarks is open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. Many tour operators in Kazan offer tours of Bolgar.
The dominant architectural feature of Bolgar, this mosque was built in the 1260s, but it owes its present look to a 14th-century remodelling, which gave it stronger walls, octagonal columns and, a little later, also corner turrets.
Time took its toll on the building, but most of the damage was done by treasure hunters, who dug tunnels underneath the structure.
The mosque was conserved and partially restored in 1964-1967. The current minaret, reconstructed on the original foundation in place of the older one, which collapsed in 1841, is the most substantial result of the most recent conservation effort, ongoing since 1995.
Izge Bolgar Jieny is the festival celebrating the acceptance of Isla.m. as the national faith in Volga Bulgaria, staged in Bolgar at the end of May. The culmination of the festival is the namaz prayer in the Cathedral Mosque.
This Muslim burial vault of limestone and tufa became the St. Nicholas Church in the 18th century. They began to restore it from old engravings in 1967. More recently it became a museum of the history of Bolgar from the 11th century to our time.
This was a Bulgarian bathhouse, most likely a private one, with a large man-made pool. A bathhouse was something like a men’s club in the Middle Ages. People came here to share the news and to listen to some musicians and poets. They ate honey and dried fruit and drank all kinds of beverages.
This minaret without a mosque was built in the south-eastern part of town in the late 14th century. Originally this was the neighbourhood where the wealthiest Bulgarians had their homes, but after Bulat-Timur wreaked havoc in the city in 1361, the residential houses were gone, and this part of town became the Khan’s cemetery, where people of noble birth were interred. The minaret was restored in 1972-1974. You can climb to the top after climbing the 40 stairs of the gallery, and observe the whole historical site below.
There are several explanations as to the utility of this gate with two stone towers. Some historians claim this was part of a mosque. Others believe this was part of a defense installation. According to one other explanation, this was a caravanserai for traders bringing their wares to Bolgar.
There is a legend about this lake not far from the historical site, associated with the Khan’s daughter Rabiga. Her girl friends went to the woods and turned into white swans. Rabiga found out and decided to flee the palace. The Khan went out hunting that day and he shot a swan. It was his daughter. He cried so long over her body that his tears formed a lake.
This is another memento from the time when Bolgar became one huge graveyard. This was when the Golden Horde prince Bulat-Timur was through with the city in 1361. Khan’s burial vault is a complex of four mausoleums. It is assumed that the north-western one was a memorial mosque, not a vault, since it has remnants of a stove and heating conduits.
It is believed that one of the associates (sakhab) of the Prophet Moha.m.med, Zubair bin Talqe, was buried here. The Prophet allegedly gave him a headscarf, a walking cane and an inkwell, and sent him and two other sakhabs to Bulgaria. Zubair married Khan’s daughter Tuibike and settled down in Bulgaria. The statue next to the vault is a reminder of this legend.
In the same legend, Khan’s daughter Tuibike once fell ill. Sakhab Gabdrahman rammed his walking cane into the ground, and a water spring appeared, while the walking cane became a birch. The sakhab made a switch from its twigs. Using water from the spring, he gave Tuibike a shvitz and cured her. The Khan thanked Gabdrahman by converting to Islam.
This well was first described in 1769 by members of a St. Petersburg scientific expedition. The well was then named in honour of Nikolai Rychkov, the son Piotr Rychkov, the historian. They found bog iron ore and saltpetre in the well. The well officially became a landmark in 1980. That was when the observation decks, picnic arbours, stairs and walkways were built.
This must have been a courthouse. The Khan and the three judges entered through the doors aligned with compass points. The cha.m.er owes its dark colour to the dark limestone used in construction, as well as to the smokehouse installed here later.
This building has a legend of its own. During the siege of Bolgar, Aqsaq-Timur (who is known in Europe by the name of Tamerlan) saw the daughter of Khan Abdullah, standing atop the burning building. He fell in love and demanded her hand in marriage. In return, he promised to free her two brothers. The woman agreed, but once her brothers were freed, she threw herself in the flames.
This vault, built in the 1330s, is especially valuable as it contains gravestones with specimens of Bulgarian script. The writings were decoded in the mid-1800s by Husain Faihzanov, a professor of St. Petersburg State University. When Bolgar became part of the Russian Kingdom, Orthodox monks started using the mausoleum as a food storage cellar. By the time the restoration of 1968-1969 began, only the foundation, some parts of the inner walls and finishing had remained. The artists restored the top dome and the window apertures. An iron and claydite protective shell was then built over the structure.
This bathhouse in the vicinity of Khan’s palace was where aristocrats and wealthy merchants went for a shvitz. In most likelihood, it was built in the early 13th century. People did not come here exclusively to wash themselves: this was a social club of sorts. People paid to use the baths. Inside, there was a cruciform common room with a fountain and a dome, and there were private booths, too.
This monastery was founded in 1722 by order of Peter I. When visiting Bolgar, the emperor ordered to take good care of the ancient town. He wanted all gravestones collected and all Arabic inscriptions translated. In 1764 the monks were moved to Cheboksary: Catherine II did not appreciate the mistreatment of Bolgar treasures (for example, some gravestones were used in construction). The empress must have found out about this second-hand, because she herself would only visit the Bolgar site three years later, making a stop on her Volga cruise.
The Church of the Assumption, built in 1732 with the money donated by Kazan merchant Ivan Mikhlyayev, is all that remains of the monastery. It became a parish church in the 19th century, and got a bell-tower. Now it houses some exhibits of the Bolgar museum and preserve of history and archaeology.
Khan's Palace is also known as the House with Towers and Batu Khan's Palace. Archaeologists believe it was built in the early 13th century, and originally was a two-story building. The palace was built either for Batu Khan or for its successor Berke.
The new symbol of Bolgar, the White Mosque was built in 2012 to the design of Sergey Shakurov, an architect from Kazan. This mosque, being rather reminiscent of the Taj Mahal, is a vast place of worship with innumerable oriental columns, an ethereal snow-white dome, some adjacent buildings for the use of the clergy, and a prayer space with a gigantic chandelier. The walls of the Aq-Mosque are covered in Quran quotes, tulips and ornaments.
This museum, housed inside the Riverboat Terminal, opened in May 2013. It is an introduction to Volga Bulgaria and its capital Bolgar, illuminating the genesis of the city, its status in different epochs, and the day-to-day life of its people.