Reviews

This collection of articles continues the publication of the results of ongoing excavations on the site of the city of Bulghar on the Middle-Volga, the capital of the kingdom of the same name. Two previous volumes had endeavoured to shed light on the history of the study of the city and kingdom of Bulghar, as well as on the main orientations and periods of their development in the course of history. Besides the reconstruction of the city’s role in continental trade and exchange of cultural and artistic influences on a large scale, the authors of the present volume have also endeavoured, in a rather conservative mood, to assess the contribution of the city’s history to the issue of the ‘ethno-genesis’ of the Volga Tatars ― a further illustration of the regionalisation, nationalisation, and ethnicisation of history as these phenomena can be observed everywhere in the former Soviet Union. The first article of the collection is a short lyrical and polemic essay by archaeologist R. G. Fakhrutdinov on Bulghar’s role in the ethno-genesis of the Tatars, with particular insistence on the history of the city during the Golden Horde period, and on the relevance of the ‘Tatar’ denomination as an ethnic one already in the fourteenth century. Interestingly, in the same constructivist mood the only illustrations of the present paper are the recently reconstructed religious buildings of Bulghar (“Gorod Bolgar v istorii i kul’ture tatarskogo naroda [The City of Bulghar in the History and Culture of the Tatar People],” 5-27, ill.). It is fortunately followed by one of the most substantial contributions of the volume, about the history of Bulghar’s trade as it appears in the city’s excavated equipments, as well as in the imported goods that have been discovered in the site by successive archaeological missions. The author notably details the different kinds of goods imported from varied sources, from Northern Europe to China via Syria, Egypt and Persia. She also shows how in the late eleventh and twelfth century the multiplication of Russian expeditions against Bulghar, situated at the major fluvial crossroads of inner Eurasia, promoted Biliyar as the whole polity’s centre for craft industry. The expansion of trade in the late thirteenth and fourteenth century, after the city’s reconstruction, is relocated in the framework of the Golden Horde and its khans’ support to the development of commerce, through the organisation of postal links and the providing of security of the main continental trade routes (Poluboiarinova M. D., “Torgovlia Bolgara [Bulghar’s Trade],” 27-207, fig., 327 endnotes). Another contribution to the formation of urban culture in Bulghar was made of an exceptional combination of natural and human assets. The author of this study particularly insists on the role of the development of construction skills, on the city’s high level of spatial organisation of production, on the development of metrology, on the city’s strong and sophisticated urban administration, on the permanent stimulation of external relations, and last on the local preservation of many pre-Mongol traditions well after the early thirteenth century ― notably in the field of construction techniques (Baranov V. S., “Rol’ blagoustroistva v formirovanii gorodskoi kul’tury srednevekovogo Bolgara [The Role of Conditions in the Formation of the Urban Culture of Mediaeval Bulghar],” 108-24, fig.). The level of continental exchanges ― notably with the central lands of the world of Islam ― and the sophistication of Bulghar’s urban culture at different moments of its history is also reflected in a richly illustrated study of artefacts coming from excavations and from museum collections. The ever growing influence of Islamic culture is reconstructed through a number of allusions and references to the parallel development of literature in Arabic language ― the arch-famous twelfth century Qissa Yusuf by Qul-‘Ali ― (Valeeva D. K., “Iskusstvo goroda Bolgara [The Art of the City of Bulghar],” 125-91, ill.). This same insistence on the impact of Islamic civilisation ― the explicit opposite view of everything written during the Soviet period ― can be found too in the volume most substantial chapter, which offers for the first time a tentative global reconstruction of the learned culture of the city of Bulghar, notably in sciences like astronomy (under strong Central Asian influence since the Samanids, expressed notably in the elaboration of calendars), chemistry, arithmetic and metrology, mathematics, medicine, geography, history, etc. Cosmogony and religion are evoked first through the categories of classical Russian and Soviet ethnography, viz. through survivals of ancient Turkic representations (traced through the rich bestiaries of the Bulghar and Golden Horde periods), and through “beliefs and myths” (for the most part examined as “survivals of polytheism”). Islam is dealt with first through theology and law, and the development of the Hanafi tradition in Bulghar and in the Golden Horde ― according to testimonies, till well into the twentieth century at the Khwaja Bulghar Madrasa, near the mosque and mausoleum of the same name in Bulghar itself. Sufism appears through the role played by prominent Sufi masters in the conversion of diverse khans of the Ulus of Jöchi, and in the course of the further Islamicisation of the Volga and Ural regions during the following centuries (this later period is evoked by the author through his study of holy graves and tombstones). Oral traditions are evoked through genealogical legends on the Bulghar people, through late Tatar and Bashkir historical epics related to the city of Bulghar, and through the celebration of seasonal festivals of jiyen and sabantuy, in which the author also sees mere relics of a remote, purely Turkic past. Written culture is evoked through epigraphy on varied supports and through the development of Islamic teaching on the banks of the Middle Volga River, especially in the wide geographical framework of the Golden Horde. Unfortunately, the rich Tatar-language historiography and biographical literature that have developed on this subject since the nineteenth century have not been utilised (Davletshin G. M., “Dukhovnaia kul’tura naseleniia goroda Bulgara [The Spiritual Culture of the Population of the City of Bulghar],” 192-263, ill., fig., tab., 277 endnotes). In all, despite the lack of familiarity of most of its authors with primary sources of different periods in Arabic, Persian or Turkic languages, this rich volume provides an exceptional and very well edited set of approaches to the present state of the art on the history of Bulghar between the tenth and fourteenth century.

Stéphane A. Dudoignon, National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris
CER: II-3.2.B-165