Bolgar State Historical and Architectural Museum Reserve

Egor Aleev/TASS
To get from Bilyarsk to Bolgar requires a journey of 110 kilometres (69 miles) on Trassa R-240 (R-240 Highway), through the villages of Bazarnye Mataki and Nikolskoye. In 2014, the Bolgar State Historical and Architectural Museum Reserve was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List. Bolgar (Bolghar) is the centre of Volga-Kama Bulgaria, the first early feudal state of North-Eastern Europe. It was established in the 10th century by Bulgarians who left the Caucasus and moved to the middle reaches of the Volga River and beyond the Kama River (other group of migrants moved beyond the Danube River, while the Bulgarians who stayed behind are now known as the Balkar people). The Bulgarians were Turkic people who assimilated local Turkic and Finno-Ugric tribes. In 922 AD, the Bulgarians officially converted to Islam and a special embassy was dispatched from Baghdad in honour of this event. Prince Almish took the Muslim name of Ja'far ibn 'Abdullah. Following the Mongol conquest, Volga Bulgaria joined the Golden Horde, which – under the influence of its subjugated peoples – soon accepted Islam as its dominant religion.

From the 10th to the 15th century, Bolgar determined the fates of the peoples of the Volga and Urals regions: the most important trade routes went through this area. This is where Europe's first cast iron was made (the Russian word for cast iron, chugun, is Tatar in origin).

Large-scale reconstruction has been underway here since 2010. The site of the ancient city of Great Bulgar is believed to be the most complete collection of Golden Horde architecture. Here you can find the Museum of Bulgar Civilisation, which is based on the exploration of the ancient town site and has many archaeological finds on display. There is also a Memorial Sign in honour of the acceptance of Islam, along with the world's largest printed Koran (2 x 1.5 metres (6 x 5 feet), weighing 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds)) and numerous architectural monuments dating back to the 13th and 14th centuries. These include the Cathedral Mosque and the Large Minaret (24 metres (74 feet high)), Bulgarian aristocratic tombs and mausoleums built in the 14th century, and an archaeological dig which is open for viewing. There are also the remains of the Khan's Palace of the 12th and 13th century, the White Chamber – one of the 14th century bath houses – and the mysterious Black Chamber, which intended purpose is still unclear.

Entrance to the reserve is free of charge. The cost of visits and tours depends on which route you select. There are four to choose from, each lasting two to five hours. The Great Bulgar route, which includes the Museum of Bulgar Civilisation, the Memorial Sign and the architectural landmarks, takes three hours and costs 190-380 rubles. It is best to book the tour ahead of time.