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Unique Muslim city in ancient Russia

ONE of the earliest Muslim areas on the territory of Russia was Volzhskaya Bulgaria, or "Bulgaria on the banks of the Volga river" — not referring or related to Bulgaria in Eastern Europe.

Volzhskaya Bulgaria is now a part of autonomous Republic of Tatarstan. It was an independent state before.

The country emerged at the end of the ninth or early 10th century, and quite for a long time was the only developed nation on the eastern tip of Europe. The population originally came from around the Azov Sea and conquered the local Finno-Uigur and Turkic tribes.

Among the biggest cities were Bulgar and Bilyar. The population even outnumbered those in London, Paris, Kiev (then the capital of ancient Russia) and Novgorod (a prosperous city in Russia).

Volzhskaya Bulgaria had trade relations with Central Asia, China, Byzantium and Russia, mainly involving wheat, fur, timber, leather, footwear, weapons, etc.

Each year, there were trade fairs in which merchants from Baghdad, Damascus, Scandinavia and even Spain took part. Many foreign trade missions had its own premises in the capital of Volzhskaya Bulgaria.

Buildings in the capital city of Bulgar in the 10th to 14th century were of stone and brick. Windows were covered with glass. The floor of the buildings was heated from below using a special heating system.

There was a water pipe system in the city. Until now, we can see the ruins of the "Black House" consisting of a minaret, mausoleum, the tomb of Khan the invader and a mosque. In the year 922, a delegation from Baghdad visited Volzhskaya Bulgaria.

During a meeting, all local tribes decided to accept Islam as the official religion. The ruler, Almaz, has chosen the Muslim name of Jafar ibn Abdallah. This was noted by Ibn Fadlan, the secretary of the mission from Baghdad sent by Caliph Al-Muktadir.

The name of Jafar ibn Abdallah can be seen on the silver coins of that country. According to a local tale, there are tombs of two Sahab—Muslims who lived during Prophet Muhammad's time, in Bulgar.

With the acceptance of Islam, Volzhskaya Bulgaria became stronger as it could rely on the support of other Muslim countries. It helps that it signed peace and trade agreements, too, with powerful neighbour Russia.

The acceptance of Islam also led to cultural development. The old Turkic writing was replaced by Jawi. In 1928, with the creation of autonomous Tatar Republic, Jawi was replaced by Roman script, and later by Cyrilic in 1938.

Since the beginning of the 10th century, in many places in Volzhskaya Bulgaria, there were already schools apart from scientists and writers (poets).

In the first half of the 12th century, the scholar Yakob ibn Nogman wrote a book about history of Volzhskaya Bulgaria.

Another scholar, Burhan ibn Bulgari, wrote a book about rhetoric art and medicine. Syair Yusof, written by Kul Gali (13th century), became popular far beyond Volzhskaya Bulgaria at that time, and had greatly influenced the development of local Tartar literature.

The people of Volzhskaya Bulgaria were skilful jewellers and craftsmen, who made gold, silver, bronze, copper and porcelain plates with intricate carvings, jewellery from metal, copper locks in the form of animals, leather goods, and clothes sewn with beads and silver thread. Some heritage objects had been preserved thanks to the interest in culture of Peter the Great.

In 1722, during his trip near the Volga, Peter stopped at the ruins ofBulgar and ordered the inscriptions on more than 50 gravestones to be copied. Two experts were assigned for that. They also recorded the local folklore. In 1223, Volzhskaya Bulgaria was invaded by Tatar-Mongol troops led by Subudai Khan, who is believed to have never lost a battle.

He quickly crossed the whole of Asia while destroying the Russian army on the river Kalka. But, for the first time, he was defeated at the hands of Volzhskaya Bulgarian soldiers. He lost many of his soldiers and much of his loot in previous battles. With great difficulty, he managed to escape with a small group of soldiers and return home, before coming back 13 years later and finally conquering Volzhskaya Bulgaria.

For some reason, the Tatar Mongol forces couldn't stay long, and Volzhskaya Bulgaria managed to restore its power. The situation lasted until 1236, when Batu Khan invaded and destroyed Bulgar and its surrounding towns.

Many fled to Russian territory. Nevertheless, Volzhskaya Bulgaria continued the struggle for freedom. In subsequent years, the residents rebuilt palaces, mosques, churches and tombs.

Trade was again restored. But in 1361, Bulgar was again invaded, this time by Khan Bulat T imur, who burnt it to the ground.

After it was rebuilt, the next military invasion of Tamerlane saw Bulgar completely destroyed again. In the early 15th century, the Kazan Khanate emerged from the former Volzhskaya Bulgaria.

Later in 1552, Russian Tsar Ivan IV (the Terrible) conquered Kazan city and included this region into Russia. Since then, Volzhskaya Bulgaria has remained a part of Russia known as Tatarstan.

***The author, who is writing from Russia, is a former lecturer of Universiti Malaya


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