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Historical Legends of the Volga-Ural Muslims concerning Alexander the Great, the City of Yelabuga, and Bāchmān Khān

Légendes historiques des musulmans de la région Volga-Ural concernant Alexandre le Grand, la ville de Yelabuga, et Bāchmān Khān.
Allen J. Frank
p. 89-107


Depuis le début du XIXe siècle, les traditions écrites des musulmans de la région Volga-Oural ont transmis un cycle de légendes historiques et généalogiques impliquant Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn (Alexandre le Grand) et la ville de Yelabuga, située sur la rivière Kama, dans le Tatarstan, actuelle république de la Fédération de Russie. L'auteur tente ici d'identifier et de retracer les variantes de ces légendes trouvées, pour la plupart, dans les collections locales de manuscrits islamiques, et de déterminer le rōle qu'elles ont joué dans le développement d'une identité commune chez les musulmans de la région Volga-Oural.
Le voyageur Abū Hamid al-Gharnātī (XIIe siècle) mentionne que les Bulgares de la Volga considèrent qu'ils descendent d'Alexandre. Ces légendes semblent tirer leurs origines complexes des traditions de certains nomades musulmans de la steppe et des Bulgares de la Volga, d'avant les Mongols. Certaines généalogies, en particulier celle des Tatars Chepets du nord de l'Oudmurtie, font remonter leurs origines ā un certain Sōqrāt Hakim (Socrate), que l'on dit ētre venu jusqu'en territoire Noghay ; ces traditions semblent, dans une certaine mesure, s'ētre mēlées.
Énigmatiques également sont les légendes concernant la ville de Yelabuga, dont il est dit qu'elle fut fondée par Alexandre et son compagnon Sōqrāt Hakim. Yelabuga est décrite ā la fois, comme le lieu sacré de nombreuses tombes de saints, et comme un centre de mécréants, dirigés par des souverains infidèles, en particulier, un certain Bāchmān Khān qui semble ētre lié ā un personnage historique du mēme nom, mentionné dans les traditions tatares comme étant le fils de Sōqrāt Hakim.

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1The Muslims of the Volga-Ural region, today known as Tatars and Bashkirs, have retained a rich body of historical legends that have yet to be studied systematically. These historical legends circulated both in oral and written form, and were an important element in maintaining communal cohesion at all levels of Volga-Ural Muslim society. The Russian conquest of the Volga-Ural region, that began in 1552 with the conquest of the Kazan khanate and ended in the 1730’s with the final subjugation of the Bashkirs, affected the development of local Islamic historiography, where in lieu of written sources, oral-circulating historical legends were recorded and included into historical works. As a result, the most important Islamic historical works produced in the Volga-Ural region in the 17th century, the Jāmi' al-Tawārikh by Qādir 'Ali Bēk Jālāyiri, composed in Kasimov in 1602, and the Daftar-i Chingiz Nāma by an anonymous author, composed at the end of the 17th century, consist essentially of historical legends of the steppe nomads, primarily of the Bashkirs.

2Of particular interest are the cycle of legends concerning Alexander the Great (Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn), along with his companion Socrates, and their connections with local cities and landmarks, as well as with other historical figures. This cycle of legends has remained unexamined as a whole, yet they offer an especially useful example of the interplay in the Volga-Ural region between Islamic historiography and oral historical legends. Such legends were already recorded in the 12th century by Muslim travelers, but appear to have reemerged in « Bulgharist » shrine-centered historiography that developed at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, apparently in conjunction with the creation by Catherine II in 1788 of the Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly. Similarly, other legends concerning Alexander the Great and Socrates have also been preserved in Tatar genealogies (shäjärälär).

3In addition to these legends, there are also other cycles of legends concerning the city of Yelabuga, today a small district center in the republic of Tatarstan, but formerly a fortified Bulghar frontier outpost. Some such cycles concern Bāchmān Khān, a figure apparently derived from a 13th century leader of the Qipchaqs. All three of these cycles are intertwined in both the « Bulgharist » historiography of the 19th century, as well as in the oral traditions of the Volga-Ural Muslims.

Legends concerning Alexander the Great and Socrates

Pre-Mongol traditions

4Legends depicting Alexander the Great as the founder of local cities and the ancestor of local figures in the Volga-Ural region began to circulate among the Volga Bulghars well before the Mongol conquest of the region in the first half of the 13th century. The conversion of the Volga Bulghars to Islam is commonly dated to the first decades of the 10th century, and by the middle of the 12th century, it is apparent that Islamic historical figures and Islamic forms of communal validation had become important factors for Bulghar communal and political cohesion. The Andalusian traveler AbūHamid al-Gharnāti who visited Bulghar in the 1150s, noted that Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn passed through « Bulghar », that is, the Volga-Kama region, on his way to build the iron walls that contained Yā'jūj and Mā'jūj within the « land of darkness » (Bol'shakov, 1971, p. 53) while Najib al-Hamadāni reports that the rulers of Bulghar claimed descent from Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn (Davletshin, 1991, p. 63).

5Al-Gharnāti and al-Hamadāni are not our only source for such legends among the medieval Bulghars. 'Alā' al-Din b. al-Nu'mān al-Khwārazmi, who visited Bulghar in the 13th century, related a Bulghar legend about how Iskandar had built a large fortified tower at the edge of the inhabited earth, as part of the wall to defend against Yā'jūj and Mā'jüj (Izmailov, 1996, p. 100). Medieval Bulghar traditions concerning Iskandar are even transmitted by Russian historical chronicles. For example, the Tver' chronicle tells us mat the city of Oshel', presumably on the banks of the Kama River, was founded by Alexander the Great (Fakhrutdinov, 1986, p. 90). The connection of Bulghar with Iskandar Dhü 1-Qarnayn was not limited to historical works, but also became a common association in pre-Mongol Persian poetic literature, such as in the Sikandar Nāma-yi Bārā, where we are likewise told that the rulers of Bulghar are descended from Iskandar Dhu 1-Qarnayn, who founded that city on his way to the diyār-i zulmat (Clarke, 1881, p. 789-790).

« Bulgharist » traditions

  • 1  On this important figure, cf. Usmanov, 1986.
  • 2  A similar etymology also appears in the 13th century Persian Sikandar Nāma-yi Bārā, cf. Clarke, 18 (...)

6How these legends concerning Iskandar fared and evolved in the period when the Volga-Ural region was ruled by Chingisids, including Muslim Chingisids, is unclear but probably Chingisid dynasts were more likely to rely on their Chingisid credentials than on their connections with Qur'anic prophets. There is, in fact, no evidence that the Chingisid rulers of the Golden Horde and the Kazan khanate used Qur'anic figures to buttress their personal charisma. The annexation of the Volga-Ural region by Moscow in 1552 eliminated Muslim dynasts from the Volga-Kama region, with the exception of the Chingisid puppet khanate of Kasimov. It was only at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries that we begin to see historical legends concerning Iskandar Dhūü 1-Qarnayn reemerge among Volga-Kama Muslims, at least in written form, and it was not until the 19th century that such legends were recorded from local Muslim oral tradition. In one of his earliest historical works, entitled Ghilālat al-Zamān and written in 1877 the Tatar theologian, Shihāb al-Dīn Marjānī wrote that according to Arabic and other Muslim writings, as well as according to popular legends, the city of Bulghar was founded by Alexander the Great. He also cites the Qāmūs, presumably by Fīrūzābādi, in addition to a legend concerning IskandarDhū l-Qarnayn in an unspecified work of 'Abd al-Rahim b. 'Uthmān al-Ūtuz Īmāni, a prominent Volga-Ural 'ālim.1In this legend, when Iskandar was headed to fight in the east, he stopped at a cave and buried some supplies. On his return journey he stopped at this place and founded a city, calling it bunighār, « the bottom of the cave ». With time this word came to be pronounced as bulghār (Marjānī, 1884, p. 40-41,51).2

7Historical legends, in some cases displaying close parallels with the medieval Bulghar legends, emerged at the turn of the eighteenth and 19th century in locally produced Turkic historiography. The emergence of this body of historiography appears to be connected to the creation of the Orenburg Spiritual Assembly by Catherine the Great in 1788. The purpose evident in the works appears to have been to promote a communal identity among Volga-Ural Muslims centered on the city of Bulghar, the site of the conversion of the Bulghars to Islam (Frank, 1996b, p. 266-268 ; 1998, p. 213-217). The most popular historical works in this genre were the Tawārikh-i Bulghāriyya, attributed to a certain Husām al-Dīn b. Sharaf al-Din al-Bulghāri and the Tārikh Nāma-yi Bulghār by Tāj al-Dīn Yālchighul ōghli. Both of these works contained variants on a conversion narrative that bears numerous parallels with a Bulghar conversion narrative recorded by al-Gharnāti as well as with extensive catalogs of Muslim saints' tombs. In addition, both works include legends about Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn, that similarly paralleled the accounts of al-Gharnāti and al-Khwārazmī.

8The Tārikh Nāma-yi Bulghār was written in 1805 by Tāj al-Dīn Yālchīghul ōghli, a Bashkir 'ālim and Sufi from the Ayle tribe. The work exists in numerous manuscript copies and versions. But it is clear that it was written as the author's genealogy, beginning from the Prophet Adam, and including within it the « ancestors » of various Turkic peoples as well as the khans of Bulghar. There are numerous digressions dealing with the founding of the Bulghar conversion narrative, and legends concerning Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn and Socrates. According to the account, Socrates was born a Christian in Samarqand and went to Greece to serve Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn (Iskandar Rūmi). Together, they went to the Land of Darkness (diyār-i zulmat) to seek the Fountain of Youth (āb-i hayāt). In the northern lands they built a city and called it Bulghar ; Yālchīghul ōghli mentions that this word in the Greek language means « pleasant » and « having trees and water ». Furthermore, the river (i.e. the Volga) also took this name. While in Bulghar, Socrates married a local girl, and he and Iskandar spent nine months in Bulghar. Then, they went to the Land of Darkness, and Socrates died there. As for the girl, she bore a son named Ghūftār who became king in Bulghar, and from whom the Bulghar khans are descended (Yālchigul ōghliī, T 587, 5ab ; Galiautdinov, 1990, fol. 149-150).

9In the Tawārikh-i Bulghāriyya, Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn appears both as the founder of Bulghar and as the founder of the city of Ālābūghā, i.e. Yelabuga (the cycle of legends concerning this city will be discussed in detail below). The author also tells us that the Greek name for the city is Sōdōm which, we are told, corresponds to the Greek word for « perch fish », (Ālābūghāa is also the Tatar name for this sort of fish) (al-Bulghāri, fol. 20b).

10Legends about Alexander the Great, then, appear to have been important symbols of Islamic genealogical and political validation among the medieval Volga Bulghars, but they lost at least a degree of significance with the advent of Chingisid dynasties and Chingisid charisma. With the emergence of the Orenburg Spiritual Assembly in the late 18th century, the Volga-Ural 'ulamā' began promoting the idea of a « Bulghar » regional identity among Volga-Ural Muslims. It is in this « Bulgharist » historiography where we see legends about Alexander the Great and Socrates reemerge (Frank, 1996b). It is unclear whether these legends had remained current in Volga-Ural Muslim oral tradition from the period of the Mongol conquest to the end of the 18th century, or whether they reentered « Bulghar » tradition and derived their origin from Persian Alexander romances or other Islamic literary sources.

Legends concerning Yelabuga

Historical background

11The town of Yelabuga, located on the right bank of the Kama River, at the confluence with its tributary, the Toima, is featured in a cycle of, at times, contradictory Muslim legends. These legends identify the town, on the one hand, as a sacred place founded by Alexander and containing a number of Muslim saints' tombs, and, on the other hand, as a locus of unbelief, paganism and sedition.

12The earliest mention of Yelabuga dates from the 17th century, when it is already described as a Russian town, although the site had been inhabited by numerous prehistoric archeological cultures when it became a Bulghar settlement at some point before the Mongol conquest. It is likely that Yelabuga was the Bulghars' main northeastern defensive outpost, since a massive stone tower dominates the site. In fact, this tower is the only large scale surviving example of pre-Mongol Bulghar architecture. It was probably this tower to which 'Alā' al-Din al-Khwārazmi referred when he described a tower in the form of a lighthouse located on the frontier of the Bulghar lands during a visit to Volga Bulgharia in the 14th century (Izmailov, 1996, p. 100). Since the city of Yelabuga was the site of such impressive fortifications, it is possible that later Muslim observers could have identified the great tower there with the great walls that Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn is said in the Qur'ān to have built to retain the hordes of Yā'jūj and Mā'jūj in the land of darkness. As seen, some later « Bulgharist » authors related the legend identifying Iskandar as the founder of Yelabuga.

Sacred history of Yelabuga

13Inasmuch as the « Bulgharist » historical tradition that emerged in the 18th century among Volga-Ural Muslims presented a « sacred » history of the region centered around the city of Bulghar, it is perhaps significant that Yelabuga was the only other city, besides Bulghar itself, to be attributed both a sacred origin and a sacred character as the site of Muslim shrines. As we have mentioned above, in the Tawārikh-i Bulghāriyya we are told how Yelabuga, also known as Sōdōm, was founded by Iskandar. The passage discussing the founding of Yelabuga is as follows :

« On the north side of the Kama River [Āq Īdel]is Sōdōm, that is, Ālābūghā. In the Greek tongue, Sōdōmmeans « perch fish » [i.e. ālābūghā bālighī in Tatar]. That Sōdōm was a big city. Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn reportedly built it as well as Bulghar. However, Hadrat Mir Timūr destroyed them. » (al-Bulghāri, fol. 20b).

14As seen above, Yālchigul ōghli's Tārikh Nāma-yi Bulghār identifies Iskandar as the founder of Bulghar, but he mentions another figure, from his genealogy, as the founder of Yelabuga. This account is as follows :

« Our ancestor is his younger son [i.e. of Qurnāqi], Daymas. In the northern region he built a city called Sōdōm. However, the place where Qurnāqi is buried is not known, and Daymas' place of burial is not known either. Nowadays, they call this Sōdōm Ālābūghā, it is a rather small city. » (Yālchigul ōghli, T 587, fol. 5).

15The Tawārikh-i Bulghāriyya continues this sacred history of Yelabuga by describing the tābi'in, i.e. the followers of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad who, according to the narrative, effected the conversion of the Bulghars to Islam. These include Āqbāsh Khwājā, described as a « the greatest tābi'īn'akbar tābi'in) as well as several other figures, namely Kirsān Emamat ōghli, Alimghul Mullāghul ōghli, Āydār Āyit ōghli and Yūldāsh Maskāw ōghli (al-Bulghāri, fol. 20b-21a).

16In a shrine catalogue appended to two copies of the Tārikh Nāma-yi Bulghār, there is also a discussion of Yelabuga that differs in several ways from the account in the Tawārikh-i Bulghāriyya. The account in these manuscripts is as follows :

« And in Sōdōm [one version has Salām] from among the tābi'in are Shilān Hājji, Yūchilān, Äbāq Nōghāyî, Chāqlān, Māchkārā and Äjkarā ; all of these were tābi'in. » (Yālchigul ōghli, T 1388, fol. 14b ; T 587, fol. 13a).

17The meaning which these names may have had for Muslim readers of these manuscripts is not immediately evident, although the name Māchkārā corresponds to an important Muslim village located near Yelabuga. Moreover, the name Ābāq Nōghāyi is similar to Ibāq, the 15th century Chingisid ruler of the Tiumen khanate in western Siberia, who is known in Russian sources as Ivak, tsar nagaiskii. It is not known, however, if the site of the old Bulghar tower at Yelabuga was a Muslim shrine ; the site is entioned by a 19th century Russian observer to have been a Muslim shrine and it continues to be remembered as such among local Muslims. In fact, the local Yelabuga Muslims still call the archeological ruins Aq Maschet [the White Mosque] and Izgelär Maschete [the Saints' Mosque] (Äminev, 1996, p. 5).

Yelabuga as a center of unbelief

18One group of legends, therefore, depicts Yelabuga/Sōdōm as having been founded by Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn and as a Muslim shrine and the resting place of a number of Muslim saints. However, another quite different cycle of legends depicted the city as the abode of demons, and as a center of unbelief.

19The equation of Yelabuga with demons first appears, naturally enough, in a Russian narrative from the late 16th century, Kazanskaia istoriia, which is a history of the Kazan khanat and its conquest by Ivan IV. The author remains anonymous, but some scholars believe that he was an eye-witness of many of the events and places he described. He may have been a captive of the Muslims in Kazan for some time before the Russian conquest. In any case, within his history is the earliest mention we have in a Russian source of the Bulghar tower in Yelabuga and, although it does not mention the site by name, there can be little doubt that the place under discussion is this tower. He relates that there was a small city (gradets) on the banks of the Kama that the Russians called besovskoe gradishche (devil's fort). The author tells us that it was a shrine of the old Bulghars (starykh bolgar molbishche zhertvennoe) which was visited in his time by Muslims (varvary, littéralement : Barbares) and Maris (cheremisa) who would offer sacrifices there (Moiseeva, 1954, p. 91). The account from the Kazanskaia istoriia reflects some of what we know from later Muslim legends, namely that this was a shrine and that Muslims would come and offer sacrifices there. In discussing this passage, V. Kudriavtsev, a 19th century Russian author on the popular traditions of the Kama Valley, has suggested that the site must have been a « pagan » shrine, since he interprets the « starye bolgary » as a reference to un-Islamized Bulghars. In addition, it was visited by « Cheremis », that is, local non-Islamic Finno-Ugrians (Kudriavtsev, 1897-98, p. 76-77). However, this cannot be accepted as conclusive, since we know from 19th century sources that it was not uncommon for local Finno-Ugrians to make offerings at Muslim saints' tombs (Äminev, 1996, p. 5). In any case, while the identification by 16th century Russians of a Muslim shrine with demons should not be surprising, it is not clear whether this tradition developed among Christians or whether it was inherited from local inhabitants either in part or in whole.

The Khans of Yelabuga and Tīmūr

20Yelabuga is again mentioned in the Tawārikh-i Bulghāriyya in the khatima, in the section of the work describing Amir Tīmūr's campaigns, including his destruction of Bulghar. In this account we are told :

« Hadrat Mir Tîmūr went from Kazan to Sōdōm, that is, to the city of Ālābūghā. At that time, the khan of Sōdōm was īlbāqti Urāzbāqti khān ōghli. He was a khan who knew no religion or piety [hich bir din u diyānat bilmāgān]. He [Tīmūr] summoned [da 'wat] him to the faith, but they did not accept it. That Sōdōm was a smallish city. He reduced it to nothing. He ordered the city and the citadel destroyed and thrown into the [Kama] river. He made prisoners of them and scattered the rest in all directions. » (al-Bulghāri, fol. 38ab).

21Yet, we are told that after destroying the city, Tīmūr then performs pilgrimages to the tombs of the tābi'in buried in Yelabuga.

Yelabuga during the time the khans of Kazan

  • 3  For a discussion of this work, cf. Frank, 1996b.

22An even more elaborate narrative concerning the khans of Yelabuga, their lack of piety and their perfidiousness is found in a history and commentary on the Tawārikh-i Bulghāriyya. This work also bears the title Tawārikh-i Bulghāriyya ; it was written by Husayn Amirkhān ōghli (Amirkhanov, 1883), the imam of Kazan's Iske Tash Mosque, and was published posthumously by his son in 1883.3 The work is essentially critical of the older Tawārikh-i Bulghāriyya and its author but, at the same time, Amirkhanov subscribes to the validity of Bulghar identity for the Muslims of the Volga-Ural region. In doing so, he includes a semi-legendary history of the khans of Kazan based on a manuscript that he claims was compiled by Kazani scholars resident in Daghestan. The section on Yelabuga is included in a discussion of two khans of Kazan, Al-Muhammad (i.e. Ulugh Muhammad, d. 1438) and Mamat Girāy. Amirkhanov's account is as follows :

« When this 'Ālim Bēk went to Bulghar they put his son, al-Muhammad Bēk in his place. Al-Muhammad Bēk ruled in Īskī Kazan for ten years, and moved from there ; he founded Yāngi Qazān and lived there nine years. He ruled a total of twenty years, and [died] at the [age] of 64. In Yelabuga, Sūgin Bēk, the son of Īlbāqti was khan. Since [Sūgin] was without religion and cruel, and since he was sinful and iniquitous, mixing and spending time with infidels, al-Muhammad Bēk sent him a letter to a large degree exhorting him to be strong toward Islam. Sūgin Bēk was quite disrespectful and, because he was insulted, and with the need to strengthen religion we went [to Yelabuga], seized Sūgin Bēk, sent him to Kazan, and made Yelabuga strong in Islam. He died in Yelabuga and they buried him on a hill that is not far from the city. When al-Muhammad had gone to Yelabuga they came and put [in his place] Mamat Girāy, the son of his brother 'Ālim Bēk. Mamat Girāy Bēk was lust filled and frequented many women. Since his own wife was the daughter of îlbāqti and the sister of Sūgin Bēk he conspired with Sūgin Bēk and after exchanging letters, they came to an agreement that three notables of Kazan, along with Sūgin Bëk would give Kazan over to the Russians. When Mamat Girāy went hunting, they seized him and made Āltūn Bëk's son Khalil Bēk khan in Kazan. » (Amirkhanov, 1883, p. 57-58).

23In Amirkhanov's account, we see some of the characteristics attributed to Yelabuga more sharply defined than in previous ones ; and we see that his account is presented as a continuation of the account in the original Tawārikh-i Bulghāriyya. Specifically, the father of Sūgin Bëk, īlbāqti Khān, is presumably the îlbāqti Orāzbāqti Khān ōghli who defied Tīmūr. Furthermore, not only in both accounts is Yelabuga described as being deficient in Islam, but in Amirkhanov's account we even see Sūgin Bëk conspiring with the khan of Kazan, Mamat Girāy, to hand over Kazan to the Russians. The association of Yelabuga with unbelief was not limited to « Bulgharist » literary works, but also seems to have circulated orally among Muslims in and around Yelabuga itself, the old Bulghar fortifications being known as Jennār shāhare (the city of Jinns) and Shay tan Qalasī (the Devil's fortress) (Āminev, 1996, p. 5).

24How this association became established in the minds of Muslims and coexisted with the « sacred » history of Yelabuga described above is unclear, but there are two likely possibilities. Historically the Yelabuga region was a very mixed area both ethnically and in terms of religious affiliation. Not only were there Turkic Muslims and Russians in the area, but also Krāshen Tatars or starokriashchennye tatary as they were called in Russian, that is, Tatars who had been converted to Christianity in the 16th and 17th centuries as well as « unbaptized » Udmurts. Although there is insufficient evidence to determine whether or not the Muslim legends were derived or borrowed from the legends of non-Muslims, the overall religious and ethnic environment of the Yelabuga region may have had a broader influence on Muslim oral traditions, both locally and in terms of the Volga-Ural region as a whole.

25Among Muslims, the identification of Yelabuga with unbelief may be connected to the very presence of the Krāshen Tatars in the region. Krāshen communities were, and are, located throughout the Volga-Ural region, but the largest concentrations are located on the right bank of the Kama River, especially in the Mamadysh and Yelabuga regions. The ancestors of these Krashens were converted to Christianity soon after the Russian conquest of the region in the middle of the 16th century. In oral traditions, they attribute their conversion to tsar Ivan IV. Kräshens have been divided into a number of ethnographic groups, but most ethnographers distinguish the Yelabuga Kräshens as a distinct sub-grouping within the Krashen community as a whole (Mukhametshin, 1977, p. 22 ; Iskhakov, 1993, p. 133-134). In their own oral traditions, Krāshens claim to be the region's original inhabitants and, while they are ethnically Turkic, it is evident that the ancestors of many Yelabuga Krāshens were assimilated Udmurts. In his study of oral traditions of the Yelabuga region, V. Kudnavtsev has argued that the Yelabuga Krāshens are descended from the « starye holgary » mentioned in the 16th century Kazanskaia Istoriia. He interprets these « old Bulghars » to have been Bulghars who never converted to Islam and who maintained a shrine at Chertovo Gorodishche (the Devil's City) (Kudriavtsev, 1897-98, p. 76-77). However, Kudriavtsev fails to take into account that, for ideological reasons, Russian authors of the 16th century did not always distinguish between Islam and « paganism ». And in any case, as seen before, since the late 18th century, the Chertovo Gorodishche at Yelabuga was venerated by local Muslims as the resting place of Muslim saints. Moreover, in the few Russian written accounts and oral Krāshen traditions concerning their conversion to Christianity, we are told that the ancestors of these Krāshens had been Muslims. Unfortunately the sources (available to me) for the Yelabuga Krāshens are silent on this question, but it is likely that at least some of their ancestors, especially their Turkic ancestors, had been Muslims. The Muslim Tatar traditions concerning unbelief in Yelabuga may be an echo of the mass apostasty in the Yelabuga region of Muslims to Christianity in the 16fh century.

  • 4  The assimilation of Fino-Ugrians by Muslims in the Volga-Ural region is especially well documented (...)

26Besides Christian communities, such as the Krāshens and Russians, there also existed Udmurt communities in the Yelabuga area that remained « unbaptized » or « pagan » (iazycheskii) as the Russian sources refer to them. The Yelabuga Udmurts were, and are, strongly influenced by local Muslims and, even today, many if not most Udmurts in this area speak Tatar, as well as Russian and their native language, showing that contacts between local Muslims and Udmurts were extensive. These contacts were so extensive that many Udmurt communities were Islamized, and eventually became culturally and linguistically assimilated by their Turkic Muslim neighbors.4 The conversion of Finno-Ugrian ancestors to Islam is readily noted in many Tatar and Bashkir genealogies and village histories, and in the Yelabuga region, this is even integrated into a version of the conversion narrative featured in the Tawārīkh-i Bulghāriyya. This manuscript does not seem to have come down to us, but its contents are summarized in an article by the Russian archeologist Nevostruev. In this account we can see that, in its outlines, this conversion narrative is identical with that of the Tawārikh-i Bulghāriyya, except that Āydār Khan is not a Bulghar, but a Cheremis, andthat the missionaries are not Companions of the Prophet Muhammad but envoys of the Ottoman sultan Mehmet the Conqueror (Nevostruev, 1871, p. 578-579).

27The local Russian communities also circulated a number of myths concerning Yelabuga and the Chertovo Gorodishche in which the site of the Bulghar tower was associated with malevolent spirits. As we have seen, the tower was already known to Russians in the 16th century, who referred to it as besovskoe gradishche. Today, it is still known as chertovo gorodishche. During the second half of the 19th century, a number of legends were recorded among the Yelabuga Russians in which the building of the tower was attributed to demons. One such legend was recorded by V. F. Kudriavtsev, published by him in 1877, and republished twenty years later in his study of the oral traditions of the Kama Valley. In this legend, we are told that the hill at the site of the tower was originally inhabited by a pious hermit (pustynnik). His holy way of life was an irritant to demons (besy) in the area. The demons would torment the hermit day and night, trying to frighten him and trying to break his concentration during his prayers. This struggle, the story continues, began to bear its weight upon the hermit who resolved to use the demons' strength to glorify the name of God. He then challenged the demons to show their power by building a large stone church in one night. The demons accepted the challenge. During the night, the demons brought rocks from the center of the hill and quickly built the foundations, the walls and the roof. In the middle of the night, just as they were about to place a large metal cross on the roof, a rooster crowed. At the sound of the crow, the demons became frightened and disappeared back into the earth (Kudriavtsev, 1897-98 p. 71-72).

28In this legend, we can clearly see the Russian interpretation of these ruins where the ruined tower is described as having been a church built by demons who were tricked by a hermit into building it. As shown, since the 16th century, the site was consistently identified by Russians as being inhabited or built by demons. It is quite possible that local Muslims, who still call the site Jennār shāhāre and Shaytan Qalasī, may have taken these names from the Russian legends. Similarly, the identification of the site with unbelief and wickedness, evident in the « Bulgharist » historiography of the early 19th century in which Yelabuga is actually referred to as Sōdōm, may also have been taken from legends circulating among Christians, both Russian and non-Russian.

29In any case, during the 19th century, it is evident that among Muslims, two layers of traditions concerning Yelabuga coexisted. One layer described Yelabuga as a city built by Alexander the Great and as the site of numerous Muslim saints' tombs ; it is clear from Russian sources that, during the period of the Kazan Khanate, the site was already an important Muslim shrine. The second layer of legends, which is on the whole better documented than the first, associates Yelabuga with unbelief, wickedness and malevolent spirits. How such associations came to coexist with the first layer is unclear, but the presence of large communities of Krashens whose ancestors were apostates from Islam, as well as the presence of « unbaptized » Udmurts, and the existence of Russian legends associating the site with demons are all possible explanations. In any case, since both layers of legends revolve around the massive ruins of the Bulghar fortifications, it is clear that the presence of such an impressive landmark demanded explanations that would fit the historical self-perceptions of the local communities, both Muslim and Russian.

Legends coecermimg Bāchmān Khām

30Legends concerning Iskandar Dhu 1-Qarnayn and Socrates did not only enter the Volga-Ural region through the medium of the medieval Volga Bulgharians, but also through the 19th century Muslim historians who sought to resurrect their legacy. Such legends also came to the Volga-Ural region through the medium of the steppe nomads, specifically the Noghays, whose own historical legends, as Devin DeWeese has recently shown, featured their ruler's Bakrid descent line both to bolster the Islamic charisma rulers and challenge the Chingisid charisma of their political opponents (DeWeese, 1994, p. 420-423). One cycle of legends of Noghay origin concerns a figure named Bachman Khān, who is identified as a descendant of Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn or, more commonly, of Socrates and the ancestor of a number of Muslim communities in what is today northern Udmurtia. Not only were these Noghay legends concerning Bachman Khān widely circulated in the Volga-Ural region, but they became intertwined with the legends concerning Yelabuga discussed above.

  • 5  Cf. Bashqort, 1980, p. 157-158 ; in this account his name is given as Boshman-Qïipsaq Batïr.
  • 6  For an extensive discussion and publications of the manuscript versions of this epic cf. Gosmanov, (...)

31As with Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn and Socrates, Bachman Khān was a historical figure who is discussed in Rashid al-Din's 13th century history of the Mongols. According to Rashid al-Din's account, Bāchmān Khān was a Qipchaq ruler who carried out a determined resistance against the Mongol conquerors in the 1230s, and who died fighting the Mongols along the lower reaches of the Volga River. Bāchmān remained in the historical memory of the Qipchaqs, and his heroism is the subject of oral traditions among the Bashkirs of the Qipchaq tribe.5Bāchmān Khān also appears in the Turkic romantic epic poem, Tiilak and Susilu, as the father of the heroine Susilu.6

32Bāchmān Khān is also mentioned in the 17th century Turkic historical work, Daftar-i Chingiz Nāma (largely based on oral traditions of the steppe nomads), in a chapter listing numerous « khans » of western Inner Asia and their homelands (yūrt). In this section, we are told that the Bāchmān Khān's yūrt was located at Āq Tūba, (Edinburg University MS Turk. 7a, 65b-66a).

  • 7  Interestingly, the account also identifies the semi-legendary Tiuria Khān as Bāchmān's brother. Th (...)

33The Noghay tradition concerning Bāchmān Khān was first recorded in the first half of the 18th century by P. I. Rychkov, who heard it from a Bashkir elder named Kadrias Mulakaev. In this account we are told that Bāchmān (here rendered as Basman) was a Noghay khan from the Crimea who migrated with 17,000 tents to the mouth of the Saqmar River, a tributary of the Ural River. He called this place Āq Tuba, which was near the site of the city of Orenburg. He was later killed by one of his biys, named Altakar', who lived along the Emba River, and was buried at Āq Tuba (Äkhmätjänov, 1995, p. 18-20).7

  • 8  This genealogy is also discussed in Usmanov, 1972, p. 181-183.

34This Noghay tradition did not only circulate among Bashkirs, but also among Tatars, especially among the so-called Chepets Tatars, who live along the Chepets River, a tributary of the Viatka River, in what is today northern Udmurtia. In the 19th century, this was one of the most northern settlements of the Muslim world. These groups wrote a number of genealogies that include the ancestor Qara Bēk who brought them north to the Chepets valley, as well as Qara Bēk's ancestors which include Bāchmān Khān, Socrates or Alexander the Great. One of these genealogies is located in the St. Petersburg Branch of the Oriental Institute of the Russian Academy of Science, and was published in Cyrillic transcription in 1995 by Marsel' Äkhmätjänov. In this account we are told that Soqrat Khākim (according to the Cyrillic transcription) came together with Alexander the Great (Iskandar Shah) to find the fountain of youth (mangu suwi). From Socrates the genealogy is as follows : Soqrat Khākim > Ghīyffat Soltan > Gabdalaziz > Alwar > Birde > Ghabdarakhman > Bajtan Soltan > Balīm. Bajtan Soltan (i.e. Bāchmān), we are told, came from the province of Rum (Rum wilayātennan kilep) and settled on the Ural (Yayi'q) River at the mouth of the Sakmar River. Later, Qara Bëk, one of Bajtan's descendants, submitted to Ivan I of Moscow and was granted the lands along the Chepets River (Äkhmätjänov, 1995, p. 12).8

35Another version of the genealogy of Qara Bēk, dating to 1851 is found in a larger genealogy that was discovered by Sāyet Vakhidi. This genealogy begins from the Prophet Nūh and traces the descent of numerous Islamic dynasts of Inner Asian origin, including the Chingisids and the Seljuks. We are told that Pāchmān (i.e. Bāchmān) Khān is descended from Seljukid rulers from the Erzerum region of Anatolia. Pāchmān Khān, the account continues, was a descendant of Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn, and he left Erzerum and settled at the mouth of the Sakmar River where he built a city. Pāchmān's son was Balim Soltan, who went to the īq river where he settled ; Qara Bēk kenāz is descended from Balīm (Äkhmätjänov, 1995, p. 20-22).

36These geneologies did not only circulate among the Chepets Tatars, but also among groups who live in what is today Tatarstan. One variant of this genealogy was found in the village of Tūbān On (Nizhniaia Ura), in Arsk kanton. According to Äkhmätjänov, in the 17th century, some murzas from the Chepets region received land grants in this area. In this account, we are told that Senqorat came from Turkey (Torek) and settled in Russia (urīs yortīnda watan tortip qalghan). His son was Pāchmān Soltān (i.e. Bāchmān), and Pāchmān's son was Balīm Bēk (Äkhmätjänov, 1995, p. 16-18). Thus, while this genealogy appears to be a simplified version of the latter version, it nonetheless quite clearly establishes the community as being descended from Bāchmān Khān and Socrates.

37An even more simplified version of this genealogy only mentions that Bāchmān was located in the village of Ismaghiyl, near the city of Tuimazy, located in modern day Bashkortostan. In all likelihood this version is not derived from the versions recorded among the Chepet Tatars, but may have originated among the Bashkir legends first recorded by Rychkov. This genealogy is as follows : Khoja Seyyid > Qutlīyar > Ilmāmat > Dawatyär > Ishmāmāt > Qodash > Bāchmān > Mūsā (Äkhmätjänov, 1995, p. 18).

38In both an article relating to this group of genealogies and a monograph devoted to Tatar genealogies, in general, Marsel' Äkhmätjänov has argued for a Noghay origin for this genealogy ; the appearance of Anatolian ancestors descended from figures such as Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn and Socrates is fully in keeping with the consciously Islamic orientation for Noghay oral traditions and historical legends as discussed by Devin DeWeese (Äkhmätjänov, 1992 and 1995).

39Bāchmān Khān, however, also appears in a rather confused account in two manuscript versions of Tāj al-Din Yālchighul oghli's Tārikh Nāma-yi Bulghār, where Bāchmān Khān is identified both as the founder of Yelabuga, and as an opponent to Islamization in his city Āq Tuba (Frank, 1996a, p. 278-282). This account begins by connecting Bāchmān Khān with Āydār Khān, the Bulghar ruler featured in the Tawārikh-i Bulghāriyya and Tārikh Nāma-yi Bulghār, who accepts Islam at the hands of the Companions (sahābā) of the Prophet Muhammad. This account is as follows :

  • 9  This is presumably a reference to the Kama River.

« In the ninth year of the hijra, Āydār Khān became a Muslim at the hands of the Companions. So, Āydār Khān's father-in-law [qōdā] was Pāchmān Khān. He was a fire-worshipper [mājūsi]. In the vicinity of Āq Tuba, he [Pāchmān] built a chūrghāt. In accordance with his religion, he would perform his fire-worshipping at a spring. He would burn great fires and carry out his deeds. He did not accept the summons of the Companions. On the opposite bank of the river,9 he built a city and called it Sōdōm. This Sōdōm was supposedly destroyed by Mir Timūr Hadratlari. Pāchmān Khān's first homeland [yurt] was in the east at Āq Tuba. » (Yālchigul ōghli, T 587, fol. 13a ; T 1388, fol. 12a).

40Thus, we can see in this account that Yelabuga [Sōdōm] is again associated with unbelief since it is founded by Bāchmān, identified as a relative of Āydār Khān and a ruler who was a fire-worshipper who refused the summons of the Companions. Curiously, this account appears in two manuscripts of the Tārikh Nāma-yi Bulghār where, as seen, we are told that Yelabuga was founded by Daymās Qurnāqî ōghli. Presumably, the author was trying to reconcile conflicting or confusing traditions concerning Bāchmān and Yelabuga. In fact, in the discussion of the saints buried around Yelabuga that appears further along in these manuscripts we are told that the father of one of the saints is Bāchmān Khān. However, the account continues, the Bāchmān Khān who refused the summons of the Companions and who was killed by Timūr was a different Bachman Khān from the father of this saint (Yālchīgul ōghli, T 587, fol. 14b ; T 1388, fol. 13a).


41From the materials examined, we can conclude that, already at the earliest periods of the Islamic history of the Volga-Ural region, a cycle of legends concerning Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn was in circulation among local Muslims. Despite scanty knowledge of the Volga Bulghars' political structure, there can be little doubt that these legends were utilized by the Bulghar rulers to bolster their Islamic credentials. In fact, the Volga-Ural region, under the name of « Bulghar » became associated in medieval Persian poetry with Bulghar. At the same time, specific landmarks came to be associated with these legends, specifically the city of Yelabuga whose huge stone fortifications continued to be associated with Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn by local Muslims well into the 19th century.

42Another cycle of legends concerning the « Anatolians » Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn and Socrates, seems to have reached the Volga-Ural region through the Noghays. These legends center around a figure named Bāchmān Khān, usually identified as a descendant of Socrates, but at other times as a descendant of Iskandar himself. The appearance of Noghay rulers claiming descent from important Muslim figures is evident, as Devin DeWeese has demonstrated in the emergence of Idigu's Bakrid lineage. The emergence of « Anatolian » and Qur'anic lineages for local Noghay rulers seems to fit into the same pattern of appealing to the Islamic allegiances of Muslim nomads. Such lineages were preserved in the genealogies of the Noghays who migrated to the northern reaches of the Volga-Ural region, where genealogical numerous versions have been uncovered.

43With the emergence of « Bulgharist » historiography at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, we see the authors of such works reinterpret these old legends in such a way as to reconcile the numerous versions that must have been orally circulating or in manuscript form at the end of the 18th century. Thus, in the Tawārikh-i Bulghariyya we are told that the shrine centers of Bulghar and Yelabuga were founded by Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn. Nevertheless, Yelabuga is simultaneously portrayed as a locus of unbelief and sedition, apparently reflecting other legends concerning Yelabuga that were current among Volga-Ural Muslims that may have originated from Russian traditions, or that may have emerged independently as a result of local developments. In the Tārikh Nāma-yi Bulghār the situation is even more confused, where Bulghar's founding continues to be attributed to Iskandar while Yelabuga's is attributted to otherwise unknown ancient ancestors. In certain versions of the Tārikh Nāma-yi Bulghār, Yelabuga is further identified with the tombs of local Muslim saints, while Bāchmān Khān is identified both as the founder of Yelabuga, and as the fire-worshipping ruler of Āq Tuba who rejected the summons of the sahāba to become Muslims.

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1. Unpublished manuscripts

Daftar-i Chingīz Nāma,Edinburgh University Library, Turk, 7.

AL-BULGHĀRĪ, Husām al-Din, Tawārîkh-i Bulghāriyya,St. Petersburg, IVRAN, B 749.

YĀLCHĪGUL OGHLĪ, Tāj al-Dīn b., Tārikh Nāma-yi Bulgār, T 1388.

YĀLCHĪGUL OGHLĪ, Tāj al-Din b., Tārikh Nāma-yi Bulghār,Kazan University, ORRK, T 587.

2. Studies

ÄKHMÄTJÄNOV, M., 1992, « Tatar khalqī oyeshuda nughaylarnīng qatnashī », Idel, 3-4, p. 58-65.

1995, Tatar shäjärāläre,Kazan, Tatarstan Kitap Näshriyatï.

ÄMINEV, R., 1996, « Boringhidan iskan tang jile », Vatanim Tatarstan,October 4th, p. 5.

AMIRKHĀNOV, Husayn, 1883, Tawārikh-i Bulghāriyya,Kazan, Chirkov.

Bashqort khalïq izhadï : riüäyattar, legendalar, 1980, Ufa, Bashqort Kitap Näshriyatï.

BOL'SHAKOV, O. G. et al., 1971, Puteshestvie Abu Khamida al-Garnati v Vostochnuiu i Tsentral'nuiu Evropu(1131-1153 gg.),Moscow, GRVL.

CLARKE, H. W., 1881, (ed.), The Sikandar Nāma-e Bārā or Book of Alexander the Great, London, W. H. Allen & Co.

DAVLETSHIN, G. M., 1991, « Biliar-Bulgar v ustnom narodnom tvorchestve », in Biliar -stolitsa domongol'skoi Bulgarii, Kazan, KNTs AN SSSR, p. 60-69.

DEWEESE, D., 1994, Islamization and Native Religion in the Golden Horde : Baba Tiikles and the Conversion to Islam in Historical and Epic Tradition, University Park, Pennsylvania State University Press.

FAKHRUTDINOV, R. G., 1986, Ocherki po istorii Volzhskoi Bulgarii, Moscow, Nauka.

FRANK, A. J., 1996a, « The Development of Regional Islamic Identity in Imperial Russia : Two Commentaries on the Tavārīx-i Bulgāriyā of Husamaddin al-Muslimi », in M. Kemper, A. von Kugelgen and D. Yermakov (dir.), Muslim Culture in Russia and Central Asia from the 18th to the Early 20th Centuries, Berlin, Klaus Schwarz Verlag, p. 113-127.

1996b, « Islamic Shrine Catalogues and Communal Geography in the Volga-Ural Region : 1788-1917 », Journal of Islamic Studies,7/2, p. 265-286.

1998, Islamic Regional Identity in Imperial Russia : Tatar and Bashkir Historiography in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries, Leiden, Brill.

GALIAUTDINOV, I. G., 1990, « Tarikh nama-i bulgar » Tadzhetdina Ialsygulova, Ufa, UJaL BNTs UrO, AN SSSR.

GOSMANOV, M. A., 1994, Qaurïy qaläm ezennän,Kazan, Tatarstan Kitap Näshriyatï.

ISKHAKOV, D., 1990, « Noqrat tatarlari », Qazan utlari,3, p. 175-179.

1993, Ètnograficheskie gruppy tatar Volga-Ural'skogo regiona, Kazan, IIaLI AN Tatarstana.

IZMAILOV, I., 1996, « Ètnosotsiologicheskie aspekty samosoznaniia bulgar X-XIII vv. », Panorama-Forum,1, Kazan, p. 97-113.

KHALIKOV, A. Kh., 1981, (dir.), Arkheologicheskaia karta Tatarskoi ASSR : Predkam'e, Moscow, Nauka.

KUDRIAVTSEV, V. F., 1897-98, Starina, pamiatniki, predaniia i legendy Prikamskago kraia, I-II, Viatka, Gubernskaia tipografiia.

MARJĀNĪ, Shihāb al-Din, 1884, « Ocherk istorii Bolgarskago i Kazanskago tsarstv », in Trudy chetvertago arkheologicheskago s'ezda v Rossii, Kazan, Universitetskaia tipografiia, I, p. 40-58.

MOISEEVA, G. N. (dir.), 1954, Kazanskaia istoriia, Moscow-Leningrad, Izdatel'stvo Akademii nauk SSSR.

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NEVOSTRUEV, K. I., 1871, « O gorodishchakh Volzhsko-Bolgarskago i Kazanskago tsarstv v nyneshnikh guberniiakh Kazanskoi, Simbirskoi, Samarskoi i Viatskoi », in Trudy pervago arkheologicheskago s'ezda, Moscow, Sinodal'naia tipografiia, p. 521-594

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USMANOV [Gosmanov], M.A., 1972, Tatarskie istoricheskie istochnikiXVII-XVIII vv., Kazan, Izdatel'stvo Kazanskogo Universiteta.

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1  On this important figure, cf. Usmanov, 1986.

2  A similar etymology also appears in the 13th century Persian Sikandar Nāma-yi Bārā, cf. Clarke, 1881, p. 790.

3  For a discussion of this work, cf. Frank, 1996b.

4  The assimilation of Fino-Ugrians by Muslims in the Volga-Ural region is especially well documented in Muslim genealogies and village histories.

5  Cf. Bashqort, 1980, p. 157-158 ; in this account his name is given as Boshman-Qïipsaq Batïr.

6  For an extensive discussion and publications of the manuscript versions of this epic cf. Gosmanov, 1994, p. 225-300 ; see also Urmancheev, 1980, p. 92-93.

7  Interestingly, the account also identifies the semi-legendary Tiuria Khān as Bāchmān's brother. This Tiuria Khān, whose mausoleum is near the village of Nizhnee Tirmia along the Dëma River in Bashkortostan, is identified elsewhere as a descendant of the Muslim saint Baba Tukles ; cf. DeWeese, 1994, p. 470-471.

8  This genealogy is also discussed in Usmanov, 1972, p. 181-183.

9  This is presumably a reference to the Kama River.

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Référence papier

Allen J. Frank, « Historical Legends of the Volga-Ural Muslims concerning Alexander the Great, the City of Yelabuga, and Bāchmān Khān »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée, 89-90 | 2000, 89-107.

Référence électronique

Allen J. Frank, « Historical Legends of the Volga-Ural Muslims concerning Alexander the Great, the City of Yelabuga, and Bāchmān Khān »Revue des mondes musulmans et de la Méditerranée [En ligne], 89-90 | 2000, mis en ligne le 12 mai 2009, consulté le 07 décembre 2022. URL : ; DOI :

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Allen J. Frank

Takoma Park, Maryland.

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