Journal Epohi

Ancient and Medieval Bulgarians in Syriac and Syriac-Armenian Sources

Petar Goliyski St. Kliment Ohridski University of Sofia, Bulgaria

Pages: 415-472


Syriac and Syriac-Armenian Sources are much more than ‘just another source’ about the ancient and medieval history of Bulgarians. In their nature, they sometimes constitute the only extant source and in other cases they provide an alternative point of view, far beyond clichés, not subject to the ideology or the censorship of the Byzantine written records. Syriac and Syriac-Armenian sources in this study shall mean the Chronicle of Michael the Syrian by the Patriarch of the Syriac Orthodox Church, Michael the Syrian (1126–1159), Chronography of Gregory Bar Hebraeus (1226–1286) and the translation to Middle Armenian of the Chronicle of Michael the Syrian made in 1248 by the Armenian Vardan Areveltsi and the Syriac monk Iskhok (Isaac). The Middle Armenian translation was preserved in 8 manuscripts, only 2 of which had been published. The first one dating back to the 1273 was published in Jerusalem in 1871, and the second one, dating back to the 1480, was published in 1870 in Jerusalem again. The extracts from the Chronicle of Michael the Syrian were translated to Bulgarian from French from Chronique de Michel le Syrien Patriarche Jacobite d’Antioche. Éditée pour la première fois et traduite en français par Jean-Baptiste Chabot. Tome II, Paris 1901 & Tome II², Paris 1905. The extracts from Gregory Bar Hebraeus were translated to Bulgarian from English from Bar Hebraeus’ Chronography. Translated from Syriac by Ernest A. Wallis Budge. Oxford University Press. London, 1932. The extracts from the Middle Armenian translation of the Chronicle of Michael the Syrian were translated from Middle Armenian by me from Reports about Bulgarians in Syriac sources were first found in the story from Michael the Syrian and from Gregory Bar Hebraeus about the migration of 30,000 ‘Scythians’ in the winter of 586/587 from ‘this side of the gorge of the Imæon mountain’. Michael and Bar Hebraeus narrate that reaching the lands of present-day South Russia, 10,000 of these ‘Scythians’ separated from and were accepted as military colonists or foederati by the Byzantine emperor Maurice, who settled them in present-day North Bulgaria. These colonists were called by the Byzantines with the name ‘Bulgarians’. Michael the Syrian and Bar Hebraeus reported that in 590–591 part of the Bulgarian foederati were included in the Byzantine armies sent to Mesopotamia in support of the dethroned Persian šahanšah Khosrow II; and in 602 (according to data by Michael the Syrian and his Middle Armenian translation) those Bulgarian military colonists rebelled in Moesia and attacked the Byzantine province of Thrace. However, what is even more valuable in the story of Michael and Bar Herbaeus was the localisation of the point wherefrom Bulgarian migration started in the winter of 586/587, namely the triangle between the city of Khujand in the Tajik Sughd Region, the city of Tashkent and the city of Jizzakh in the Jizzakh Region of Uzbekistan. The same departure point was also confirmed by two reports in the ‘Ashkharatsuyts’ Geography (1267) of Vardan Areveltsi, the Տեառն Միխայէլի Պատրիարք Ասորւոց Ժամանակագրութիւն . Յերուսաղէմ, 1870 and from Ժամանակագրութիւն Տեառն Միխայէլի Ասորւոց Պատրիարքի. Յերուսաղէմ, 1871. ութիւն. Պատրիարքի., 1871.Յերուսաղէմ, man of letters who made the Middle Armenian translation of the chronicle of Michael the Syrian. Those reports about the region wherefrom migration or migrations of Bulgarians towards East Europe and Caucasus had started, are so far the only particular sources about the lands inhabited by Bulgarians in Asia. The Khujand–Tashkent–Jizzakh triangle is located 2500 km southwestward from the Altai Mountains and Minusinsk, which has been persistently told to be the ancestral homeland of Bulgarians, as they were presumed (based on 20–30 uncertain lexical parallelisms) to be a Turkic people, and the Altai Mountains and Minusinsk were assumed to be the ancestral homeland of Turkic tribes. It was Michael the Syrian again, and his Middle Armenian translation and Bar Hebraeus, to whom historical science owes the most detailed and full description of the participation of Bulgarians as allies of the Byzantines in the repulse of the Arab attack during the siege of Constantinople in 717–718. Systematically and as a rule, Byzantine authors almost completely belittle Bulgarian contribution for saving Eastern Europe from the Islamic invasion, as important as Charles Martel’s victory in 732. Syriac sources, however, name Bulgarians as the third force defending Europe from the Islam, alongside Byzantines and Franks. Furthermore, Michael the Syrian (and his Middle Armenian translation) and Bar Hebraeus offer us an alternative story about the death of the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus I in 811 in his war against Bulgaria. According to Michael, the emperor had been killed by a person of his suite, and this inference was referred to in the 12th century by Joannes Zonaras only, as one of the several accounts about Nicephorus’s death.The notice of the participation of Macedonian Bulgarians as part of the Byzantine armies, who seized the Arab frontier fortress Zapetra or Zibatra in 837 was amongst the most interesting reports by Michael the Syrian and Bar Hebraeus. This information was independently confirmed two centuries earlier by the Muslim author Al-Masudi (896 – 956) as well. Another piece of information having no parallel in other sources was both Michael the Syrian’s and Bar Hebraeus’s merit again. It had also been repeated in the Middle Armenian translation of Michael’s work, stating that ‘during the war against Bulgarians’ the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (1143 – 1180) would have been nearly killed by a Bulgarian warrior who, becoming aware of the fact that the Emperor himself had been asking for mercy, took pity on the Emperor. Manuel, in return, took the warrior with himself to Constantinople. The analysis of Michael the Syrian’s notice indicates that this incident took place not in the Balkans, but in Asia Minor in a region between South Cappadocia and Cilicia, where the Bulgar Dagh Mountain (Bulgar Dagh – ‘Bulgarian Mountain’) and a number of other toponyms related to Bulgarians were found. In May–June 1159, on his way back from Antioch, the Emperor would have been nearly killed. These and some other reports of Michael the Syrian and Bar Hebraeus are exemplary that speaking of foreign sources about the Bulgarian history, it is high time Syriac and Syriac-Armenian sources took their rightful and significant place in the array of mediaevalists.


Ancient Bulgarians, Medieval chronicles, Syriac Sources, Syriac-Armenian Sources, Michael the Syrian, Gregory Bar Hebraeus


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