In 632 AD, according to the account of Byzantine chroniclers, Khan Kubrat availed himself of the failing power of the Turkut khagan, shook off the vassal age his tribe was in, and declared himself an independent ruler. Virtually all Bulgarian tribes living in the region of the Black Sea, the Sea of Azov and the Caspian Sea immediately united under him. The newly founded state-like formation was evidently not a military-tribal alliance as there had been no such legal category in the antiquity, but it was a state. As such, it had a strictly outlined territory, its own administration, uniform laws (probably based on the customary law observed by the Bulgarian tribes) and its own foreign policy. It is viewed as a state both in the Bulgarian historical records of that time and in the annals of Byzantium. The Byzantine statesmen and chroniclers referred to it as Bulgaria or even Great Bulgaria. It is no accident that about that time the individual names of all Bulgarian tribes were deleted from every page written by the ancient chroniclers. Bulgarians was the only name used thereafter.

No sources bear any evidence of the Turks counteracting Kubrat's undertaking. Obviously, the khanate did not have any military capacity to make the break-away Bulgarian tribes come back to their state. Apparently, the Khazars broke away in the same manner and at the same time.

The scanty information that has come down to us from Byzantine and Armenian chronicles makes it possible to determine, though with some doubt, the boundaries of Great Bulgaria: the lower course of the Danube in the west, the Black and the Azov seas in the south, theKuban river in the east, and the Donets river in the north. Based on some suppositions is the information about the capital of Old Great Bulgaria. It was at the town of Phanagoria on the coast of the Azov Sea.

It is clear that Khan Kubrat was a man who had acquired in Byzantium great knowledge about the structure and functioning of the state machinery and who, without doubt, tried to establish a perfectly workable administration in his new state after bringing it in conformity with the local conditions and tradition. Old Great Bulgaria was ruled by a khan who made the decisions after discussing them with the Council of the Great Boyls. His deputy, effectively the second man in the administrative hierarchy, was the kavkhan. The third man was the lchirguboyl. Both of them were high-ranking officers in the administration and in the chain of command. In time of war they were in charge of large army units. The practice of combining administrative and military responsibilities was applied to all ranks down the hierarchy ladder, too.

It is regrettable that the ancient records contain very little in- formation about the domestic and international policies of Bulgaria in the reign of Khan Kubrat. Raised and educated in Byzantium, baptized as a Christian and known as a personal friend of emperor Heraclius, the khan maintained peaceful neighborly relations with the empire up till the end of his rule. In 635 AD these relations were impressed with a signature and a seal affixed to an inter-state agreement - an indirect act of recognition of the new state. Khan Kubrat was honored with the title of a patrician. Judging by some events after Heraclius's death, we could say that Khan Kubrat's friendship with the emperor was of a purely human nature, too. Running the risk of worsening relations with Byzantium, upon the death of the emperor in 642 AD, Khan Kubrat supported his widow Martina and their children to whom he had been strongly attached, in their battle for the emperor's throne.

According to the Ethiopian chronicler Joan Niciusky, just the news of Khan Kubrat backing up Martina and her children had risen in arms in their support the people and the army of Constantinople under a certain Jutalius, the son of Constantine. The Ethiopian chronicle also sheds light on the fact that Khan Kubrat was already in conflict with some barbarian tribes along the border. However, his being baptized as a Christian helped his troops be victorious. This was most probably the beginning of the serious conflict with the Khazars who would later on, after Kubrat's death, tear away the eastern territories of the state and force Khan Asparoukh to seek territorial expansion and a city for a capital somewhere to the south of the Danube.

The war with the state of the Khazars was the second and last occasion on which the then chroniclers cared to record an event of the relations of the Bulgarian state with other states at the time of Khan Kubrat's rule. The rest of the neighboring peoples were rather loosely-knit to try their strength against the Bulgarians or to submit any claims to them. The Khazar state, established on the northern Caspian Sea coast, proclaimed itself a successor to the Turkic khanate and, on these grounds, claimed all its former lands and tribes in the east. However, it was they who formed the territory the population of Bulgaria.

The conflict looked imminent and inevitable but its vicissitudes had regrettably never become known to us. Some indirect sources of reference, as quoted above, indicate that the raids had been beaten off successfully, at least up till Kubrat's death.

A close study of the text of a medieval legend, cited as an example of political wisdom, has brought out some information about the Bulgarian public opinions after the long-lasting war with the Khazars. This is the legend which has come down to us from Byzantine chroniclers. It goes that at his death bed Khan Kubrat bid his sons to break a bundle of vine twigs. None of them succeeded. Then Kubrat, himself, took the vine shoots and broke them one by one with his old frail hands. The moral was clear - as long as the Bulgarians and their political leaders are united, Bulgaria will be invincible. If they allowed a split or dissension in their community and in their actions, they would be destroyed one by one, causing Bulgaria to be swept away, too.

Wanting to give this lesson to his closest kin, Khan Kubrat must have had serious doubts and worries about some trends in the Bulgarian political statecraft engendered by the Khazar invasion. And these doubts were well justified. The successful repulsion of the Khazar raids was at the cost of numerous victims and heavy losses for the economy. The Bulgarian lands were all plains offering no natural shelters, and thus being an easy pillaging target for the attacking Khazar cavalry. Perhaps hundreds of villages, crops and herds had been plundered or set on fire before the Bulgarian troops could locate, overpower and eventually destroy the Khazar invaders. Most Bulgarians were aware that their lands occupied a strategic position at the major junction of routes called the Great Road of the peoples migrating from Asia and Europe, and that even if the Khazar raids against Bulgaria were stopped and the Khazars completely destroyed, other peoples would soon rush to take their place at lightning speed. The developments that followed Khan Kubrat's death indicate that part of the Bulgarians, or rather their political leaders, had insisted on the state being defended only within its existing territories (Khan Kubrat had evidently belonged to that group, and his supreme power and prestige had those who disagreed with his policy refrain from action). Now, having long realized that the prospects to keep these territories intact were very slim, they also began to insist on conquering new lands blessed with natural defence lay, natural resources and better climate. How- ever, within that group there were also conflicting opinions: some of them insisted on looking for these new lands far enough from the Road of the peoples and from strong neighboring state formations; the others were concerned only about the quality of the new lands and had no fears regarding any potential contenders of their possessions. As proof of the existence of such diversity comes the fact that upon khan Kubrat's death some Bulgarians set out to the north and founded a new state near the upper course of the Volga, while others extended Bulgaria into territories south of the Danube and moved the capital city there.

Kubrat died in 651 AD. It was once believed that this had happened in Phanagoria, the capital city of his realms. However, the new reading of a sumptuous burial, advanced by the German academic Joachim Werner, shows that Kubrat had died hundreds of kilometers further up to the north, in the present-day steppes of Ukraine. The German scholar's interpretation has also allowed to take a better look at the khan's last efforts as a statesman. It is worth devoting some space to the end of this great Bulgarian leader and to his last resting place.

In 1912 an exceptionally rich burial was discovered in the sand dunes of the Vorskla river near the Ukrainian village of Malaya Pereshchepina, 13 km away from the town of Poltava. The deceased was buried in a wooden coffin, set with 250 rectangular gold plates, 6.5x5.5 cm each. A considerable number of utensils made of precious metals (20 silver and 17 gold), arms inlaid with precious metal, a gold horn and a gold spoon - symbols of authority, 69 gold coins, a gold buckle weighing almost half a kilogram, gold rings, etc. were arranged around the body. The find obviously made its first researchers specify the burial as the last abode of not only a rich or high-born chieftain, but also the head of state of any one of the barbarian formations which had possessed those lands for any length of time.

The utensils were of no great importance for determining the precise 'age' of the treasure since they had obviously been collected over a 200-year period. However, the 'youngest' coins of emperor Constantine II of Byzantium were dated 647 AD. This gave clear proof that the burial had taken place after that date. Some of the pots, an integral part of the Christian cults, indicated that the man buried was a Christian.

The above facts alone lead to the conclusion that of all possible potentates who had ruled tribes or states in those times, Khan Kubrat was the one corresponding to the archeological findings concerning the burial near Malaya Pereshchepina. In 1983 Dr W. Seibt of the Byzantine Studies Institute in Vienna managed to puzzle out the monograms on the two gold signet rings as Kkubratu, and Khubratu Patrichiu. There was no further doubt that in 1912 the Russian archeologists had discovered the tomb of Khan Kubrat, the founder of Great Bulgaria.

The place of the burial which was in the furthest northern point of the state, hundreds of kilometers away from its capital, puts in a totally different light the last days in the life of the great Bulgarian. It now appears that he did not meet his death as a decrepit and sick man. As a matter of fact, if in 610 AD he was still a child, then in 651 AD the khan must have been a 55 or 60-year-old man in the prime of his life. It is only logical to assume that he was leading his troops to beat off another consecutive raid of the Khazars but, this time the latter were taken unawares and defeated at the very borderline. The burial itself attests the khazars' defeat and banishment. The specially made expensive coffin, the lavish burial gifts and the strict observance of the rites showed that the funeral had taken place in a peaceful atmosphere. If this were a defeat, the khan would not have been buried at all.

Then how did the Bulgarian ruler pass away? Was he taken to bed with a treacherous illness at the time of the combat march, or did he fall during the fight with a sword in his hand, or did he die of his wounds after the victorious battle? This, unfortunately, we do not know exactly, but in fact, it makes no difference whatsoever. Khan Kubrat died in a defensive battle, safeguarding Bulgaria. There is something else that has also been causing bewilderment: why was not the khan's body taken back to the capital and buried there with the same honors? And why was his vault erected on the border itself It seems that Khan Kubrat has had time before he died to oblige his commanders bury him there, right on the borderline. In this way, he had turned his last resting place into a defender of Bulgaria, too. The enemy could not afford treading unpunished a Bulgarian grave because they cherished high the cult to their ancestors. Thus, even with his tomb Khan Kubrat put his successors under the obligation to defend the borders of Bulgaria into death.

- Translated from the book "Bulgaria Illustrated History" by Maria Nikolotva
- Bulgarian text by Bojidar Dimitrov, PhD.
- Published by BORIANA Publishing House, Sofia, Bulgaria

text used here with permission from translator, save modifications for noding

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