Journey to Bulgar and Beyond

by Kagan Arik

The old woman faced South, immobile save for slight movements of the head. She was kneeling in the grass, hands open and outstretched to the East and the West. We stood some twenty steps behind her, surprised by this incongruous sight on a calm, dazzlingly sunny afternoon in early summer. The sound of her voice faded in and out with the changing breeze, punctuated by the soft sound of mourning doves, the distant chime of bells, and the occasional cawing of crows overhead.

She did not turn around, but adjusted her flowing white headscarf as she sensed us gazing at her, and continued her quiet dialogue with the wind, the ancient stones, and perhaps something else, invisible to us. The remnants of four walls and four towers surrounded us, defining a large, square field overgrown with grass and wildflowers. Here and there, large, flat stones were embedded in the earth, imprinted with the outlines of footsteps, suggesting walkways between the aisles of this sleeping temple. A lone column of stone stood head-high to her left, its intricate friezes still visible under the red and green lichens adorning it.

Just a few days earlier, I had stood on the walls of the Coliseum in Old Rome, observing ersatz Praetorian Guards having their pictures taken with throngs of "barbarian" tourists from the four corners of the world. Where Goths, Gauls, Gepids, Celts, Huns, Seresians and others once gathered to pay homage to Caesar, huge tour buses now disgorged camera-toting Germans, French, English, Japanese and Chinese in shorts and floppy sun hats. Were their polyglot guides not the grandchildren of that cosmopolitan assembly of two thousand years ago? Thin Bosnian and Albanian children sold postcards to ruddy, tanktop-clad Russians, who marveled at the sun, the clear blue sky, and the beauty of this jewel of a city, which no barbarian invasion, and no amount of twentieth century commercialism could ever mar.

Here, in Bolgar, Russia, the picture was quite different. Who had built this once-imposing structure, now in ruins, in the middle of the cow pastures and green farmlands of this sleepy hamlet by the Volga? Where had they gone now, and who was this old woman kneeling among the even older stones, talking to the wind? There were no tour guides to answer our questions, not even any passers-by. We stood alone, piecing together the story from the sparse clues left after untold cataclysms in time, and from what we had read in history books.

I had not even expected to find myself here. A short plane ride from Rome to Petersburg had brought me to the door of Russia, and I was on my way to Kazakstan. Powered by delicious Georgian food and potent Baltika beer, I had left the cafes by the Neva and ridden overnight to Moscow to register my visa for the Russian Republic. A short taxi ride from the train station afforded me the acquaintance of a blond, blue-eyed cab driver with a miniature sura from the Quran dangling from the rear-view mirror of his Lada. My travel companion, whose Russian is excellent, questioned the driver on my behalf as to the reason for this decoration. He turned out to be Tatar, gave me a discount on the fare, and bade me welcome in his own language, as soon as he understood that I would understand.

Later, we survived the incredible din of the eastbound train station, elbowing our way through throngs of Russians, Central Asians and Siberians to finally alight in our spotless, serene compartment in the green "Tatarstan" Express to Kazan. Tired as we were, we just had to stay up to enjoy the generously packaged picnics of kolbasa, bread, butter and cheese, biscuits, excellent tea and potent beer offered by the railway service. As we chatted in Russian and Tatar with fellow passengers and personnel, we stopped at a number of small towns where locals were selling dried fish, batteries, razors, fruit and vegetables in the wee hours of the night. Somewhere, late, I fell asleep to the surreal vision of locals carrying huge crystal chandeliers and other cumbersome glassware for sale on the platform. Later, I was told that some factories paid their workers with shares of what they produced. It was apparently up to them to sell or barter these goods for cash or other items.

The dawn glowed on the misty woodlands by the Volga. Farmlands and factories, then dachas and garden plots rolled by. Passengers exchanged morning greetings as they stood in line to shave, wash and change. All had donned sweatsuits and slippers shortly after boarding the train in Moscow, and now went back, in unison once again, to suits, ties, pressed shirts and well-polished shoes. We descended onto a weather-beaten platform where crowds of friends and relatives whisked off their well-loaded kith and kin with smiles and hugs. Was something subtly different here? The flagpost above the station flew the red and green flag of the Volga Tatars, and the bilingual sign on the platform read "Kazan-Qazan". We were still in the Russian Federation, but also in the capital of the Republic of Tatarstan.

Another cab ride, without discount this time, brought us to the high-rise complex where our friends were waiting. As we drove through tree-lined, windy cobblestone streets, I noticed the low, antique, pastel-colored buildings with red tile roofs. Something here was incredibly familiar, more reminiscent of Bishkek, Almaty or perhaps a small city in Turkey, than of the Baltic elegance of Petersburg or the busy urban hubbub of bustling Moscow. Bilingual signs were everywhere on storefronts, administrative buildings, street corners and the like. During the next few days, I was able to shop and sightsee without the help of my Russophone travel companion, as I found out that my approximation of Tatar was often better understood than my broken Russian, at least by the bilingual Tatars who made up half of the city's population.

Our stay in Kazan coincided with Sabantuy, the traditional Tatar celebration that marks the beginning of summer. In the central park of the city, we witnessed Tatar music and dances, bought Tatar books and feasted on Tatar specialties. These included balish (a baked meat and potato pie), manti (steamed meat dumplings), palaw (a rice dish), shashlik (shish kebabs), kumis (fermented mares milk), and an equine dry sausage closer to Turkish sujuk than to Central Asian qazy. At Lenin's alma mater, the State University of Kazan, we delved into a rich library and read Tatar newspapers from the teens and twenties of this century. We explored the monuments of the old Kazan Khanate and witnessed the restoration activities taking place on the Qul Sharif and Suyumbike mosques, fortifications, and other buildings which had borne the traces of time and the conquest by Tsar Ivan the Terrible. At the municipal banya (spa), we shared the relief of a classic Roman-Turkish-Russian bath with Russians and Tatars alike. The banya served tea, piroshki, and of course, the strongest beer on earth.

Elsewhere in the world, national holidays may sometimes become occasions for displays of ethnic separatism, to the joy of some observers from abroad. Sabantuy in Qazan, however, appeared to be a quietly festive, positive event, in which Tatars, ethnic Russians and others participated with apparently equal enthusiasm. Whether we asked for khleb or for ikmek, we still got bread, and a smile.

It was during the week of Sabantuy that we decided to set out for an excursion to the town of Bolgar, where lay the ruins of the ancient city that had once been the capital of the Bulgar Khanate. The Turkic Bulgars had been an important presence in the Volga region, roughly from the 10th to the 14th centuries AD. The Bulgars had converted to Islam early on and ruled a sedentary agrarian state active in international trade, notably with Byzantium and the Muslim lands to the South and East, but also with Scandinavia, the Baltic area, and the fledgling Slavic principalities to the West and North. The Bulgars were eventually to become a part of the predominantly Turkic confederated state known to Western historians as the Empire of the Golden Horde, and the city of Bulgar ceded its primacy to Saray (and later, Kazan). However, Bulgar remained a commercial and political center until the demise of Golden Horde in the 16th Century.

After a four-hour riverboat ride from Kazan, we landed on a quiet, provincial dock at the edge of a pine forest on the banks of the mighty Idel (ee-dell), better known elsewhere as the Volga. The great city was nowhere in sight, and as we stood around searching for a clue, a bright red Lada and its burly blond driver pulled alongside our group of four conspicuously disoriented tourists and helpfully offered a ride to "the site". A few kilometers of windy forest roads brought us to a small town amid fields and green pastures, and finally we stopped at an iron fence with a turnstile entrance. "It is here," announced our driver above the roar of his apocalyptic car stereo, and sped off after collecting an almost reasonable fee.

At first, we saw nothing but tall green grass, a few trees, and a spotless blue sky. Then, someone exclaimed "Aha!" and pointed. There, not too far away, was a tri-level stone building, with a square first and second levels and an octagonal third level, topped with a domed roof. It reminded me of an early Ottoman mausoleum. A plate on the wall indicated in Tatar, Russian, Arabic and English, that this was the Black Mausoleum (Qara Kumbat), fourteenth century. Inside, ogive-style windows opened to the eight directions. Some of the geometric wall engravings were still clearly visible. A crescent moon, a symmetrical cross, a six-pointed star made of two interlaced triangles, and a perfect circle were illuminated by the sunlight streaming in.

There was no one else in sight, at all, anywhere. No tourists, no cameras, no concession stands, no postcards, nothing. We followed some crows, and practically stumbled upon another building, which seemed older. An interestingly asymmetrical but geometric floor plan, some walls, some very short turrets, no roof. This one had perhaps not been fully excavated yet, and its purpose was not clear to us at the time. A basement-level network of stone masonry channels possibly suggested underground heating, plumbing, storage, or perhaps a sewer system, but none of us were archeologically competent enough to interpret what we saw. As I stooped in the erstwhile entrance to a chamber, I felt that its original occupants were probably not much taller than I, unless they enjoyed bowing in like bushi entering a tea room in medieval Japan. There was another feeling too, which I had not experienced since Chichen Itza, years ago. The invisible occupants were here, observing, somewhat amused at my antics perhaps, but letting me know that this was still their home in subtle, mysterious ways.

Time flowed differently now. We found ourselves facing another building, labeled as the Mausoleum of the Khan (Xan Torbesi), also from the 14th Century. This one was closed, except for its minaret, which again reminded me of early Ottoman architecture. A short but steep spiral staircase climb led us to a splendid view of the surroundings, and that is when we saw our next destination: ruins of what appeared to be a large mosque, in the shadow of a graceful, white Orthodox church, not far from the banks of the Volga.

The church turned out to be a museum now, containing artifacts from various periods of settlement of the city of Bulgar: an array of delicate porcelains and ceramics, beautifully crafted polished iron tools (including an excellent pair of scissors), austere but elegant jewelry, textile fragments, and many other items of daily life, some over one thousand years old. A huge painting dominated one wall, depicting Peter the Great as he stood majestically facing West, surrounded by a crowd of colorfully dressed "easterners" who looked upon him in admiration and awe... On the ground was a room-sized model of what Bulgar once looked like, while its buildings still stood. Next to it was a glass case, about six feet long, out of which a skeleton lay quietly staring, perhaps at the painting.

We chatted with the few museum employees in Tatar, and bought books, postcards, a Tatar felt hat, and some lapel pins that would benefit the "Bolgar Fund" for the restoration of the monuments. Someone asked us if we had yet figured out the provenance of the stones with which the church had been built. Next to the museum, another old mausoleum-like building housed several dozen gravestones, all decorated with a solar symbol and each inscribed in two styles of Arabic script. A sign in Russian informed us that the Kufic-style inscriptions were in the language of the Bulgars, while the cursive inscriptions were in Turkic. A much longer Tatar version of the same sign at the other end of the room informed us, however, that the Kufic inscriptions were in Bulgar Turkic, while the cursive ones were in Kipchak Turkic, both written by "our ancestors".

It was now late in the afternoon. The old woman, whom we had seen earlier that day in the ruins of the great mosque, was still there, kneeling and praying. We went to a tea garden by the river and had our picnic lunch, and she came and sat down a few tables away. The bravest among us volunteered to go offer her a cup of tea, and perhaps ask her a few questions. We watched the old Tatar woman talk to our friend as she drank the tea. She was from Ulyanovsk, and had come here to pray for the souls of the deceased. The dead spoke to her, asking her to pray for them. They were apparently those who had been killed and thrown into the Volga by their conquerors. She mentioned the name of Ivan the Terrible, who had attacked Kazan in 1552. She gave directions to a spot in the pine forest where a princess had been killed, as if she had been there herself when it happened. She had the clear eyes (they were blue) and serene dignity of someone who spends a great deal of time in solitary devotion. Her clothes were spotless, and her hair was braided under her white headscarf.

After our picnic, we proceeded back on foot to the dock, exhausted and ready to return to Kazan. Our return boat was at six, as was marked on our tickets. No boat came for a long time. Finally, around eight, a boat appeared, and we boarded it. Curiously, there were only two other passengers. Why so few going to Kazan? Our morning boat had been packed. The boat stopped a few minutes later at an even smaller dock, marked "Tetyush". The two others got off, and the captain urged us out. "But we're going to Kazan!," we protested. "No boats to Kazan!" he barked back. "But see here, our tickets are round-trip, Kazan to Bolgar, and the return boat is at six!" He stared at us as if we were demented. "What were you doing in Bolgar, collecting mushrooms in the woods or something? Six o'clock is TOMORROW MORNING, you idiots!" he growled in gutter Russian and then laughed derisively as we stood there blanching in horror.

He was rude, but he was right. We had been thinking like Americans, and had booked a return for six, imagining that this meant six PM. This was not America: here, a six PM ticket would have read "18:00", rather than "6:00", on the face of the tickets. He was nice enough to return us to Bolgar, where we spent a rather interesting night and most of the following bleary day. The next morning, we found out with sinking hearts that the six AM boat, as luck would have it, had been reserved for young men going to the military. Someone in our group, violently ill from drinking water from the wrong fountain (I told him that that one was for the cows!), moaned: "We will be stuck in Bolgar forever! We are cursed! Do you have any newspaper?" and bolted into the bushes. Bolgar was not done with us yet, and we had to go back and suffer a little in order to gain a better appreciation for the place and its inhabitants, living and dead. What happened that night and the next morning is quite a tale. Ask me about it sometime!

*"Bulgar" is the spelling one encounters in "Western" history books, when referring to the historical Khanate of Bulgar and to its people, the Bulgars. The Russian spelling also uses the Cyrillic "y" (=Latin "u"), even when referring to the modern city. By contrast, the modern Tatar spelling, in Tatar Cyrillic as well as Tatar Latin, uses "o". This conforms with the sound change of Common Turkic "u" into Tatar-Bashkir "o". The older Arabic-script spelling in Tatar uses the Arabic letter "waw", which can be transliterated as "o" OR "u" equally (when used as a vowel). I used both spellings in order to differentiate the historical Bulgar from the modern town of Bolgar.

Kagan Arik is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Interdisciplinary Doctoral Program in Near and Middle Eastern Studies, specializing in Central Asian Turkic & Turkish Studies. He has spent time in Kazakstan, Kirghizstan and Xinjiang doing research on Turkic Oral Literature and shamanist practices for his dissertation. The travel narrative featured in this issue pertains to his experiences in the Russian Federation on the way to his last field trip to Kazakstan.