An ancient civilization on the Volga. Why you should visit the Great Bolgar

Travel just 200 kilometres south of Kazan, and you will end up in the world’s most northern 13th-15th century monument of Muslim architecture. The Great Bolgar with its snow-white mosque resembling India’s Taj Mahal, picturesque ruins and majestic ancient buildings attract people from all over the world. Here, archaeologists find rapture — in the excavations, while travelers — in the acquaintance with the fascinating history of the Volga Bolgar and the Golden Horde. Here we will share why you should visit Bolgar and what to do in the city, which attracted past visits from the likes of Catherine the Great and Peter I

Author — Visit Tatarstan

The Beginning

Catherine II

described the spiritual significance of Bolgar in her letters to Voltaire

The history of Bolgar as a city began in the 9th-10th centuries, even though the first Bolgar tribes appeared here two centuries earlier. It was once the centre of the Volga Bolgar - politically, economically and culturally. Bolgar craftsmen and their goods were infamous in many countries, and Bolgar merchants traded with countries of Europe and Asia. Many traders would also travel from all around the world to the city fairs – traveling from as far as China, Spain, Damascus, Baghdad and many others. After the Baghdad embassy visit to the city in 922, local residents adopted Islam as their state religion, which aided in establishing close ties with the Arab world. The city grew and developed until the Mongols burned it in 1236. Later, Bolgar was restored in the 13th-14th centuries, when some of the most monumental structures were built here, which have been partially preserved to this day - the Cathedral Mosque, the Khan Palace, the Eastern and Northern Mausoleums, the small Minaret and others. The city experienced its heyday during the period of the Golden Horde when Bolgar became one of the most important cities in Eastern Europe, and its territory expanded by almost 10 times

Peter I

after a visit to Bolgar in 1722, Peter I signed one of the first decrees on the preservation of monuments in the Russian Empire

Throughout its history, Bolgar has been repeatedly destroyed and rebuilt. However, after the destruction in the 15th century by the voivode Fyodor Pestry, the ancient settlement was never restored. A large-scale reconstruction of the historical monument only began very recently in 2010. The reconstruction included the erection of the White Mosque, a river station, an information centre, several museums and other facilities. Four years later, the Bolgar Historical and Archaeological Complex was included in the UNESCO World Heritage List. Today this place is visited by thousands of travelers.

Walk around the city

The main attractions of Bolgar are concentrated in its two adjacent areas: the majority - in the ancient settlement, while the famous White Mosque and a few others – can be found beyond the settlement.

If you are traveling to Bolgar by car or with a bus tour group, your trip to one of the largest cities of the Golden Horde will begin with a trip to the visit-centre. Here you will find an information stand where you can buy tickets to the Bolgar museums, a few vending machines, toilet facilities and a free parking lot. You can also reach the ancient city by water – from 2016, Bolgar has become a destination for cruise ships and ‘meteor’ motorboats. If you plan on traveling by boat, your visit to the city should begin with the Museum of Bolgar Civilization, located inside the building of the river station where you will disembark your vessel.

Not far from the Museum of Bolgar Civilization is the ‘Commemorative Sign’ in honour of the adoption of Islam by the Volga Bolgars in 922. Inside the building, you’ll find the world's largest printed Quran. The cover of the book weighing 500 kg is decorated with silver, gold leaf, malachite, turquoise, amethyst, topaz and other precious stones. Here you will also find a museum dedicated to the holy Muslim book. Its exhibition consists of four sections and includes a variety of religious publications: from the miniature Turkish Quran of the late 19th century to the interpretation of the Quran from the collection of the family of Tatar poet-hero Abdulla Alish.

Continue exploring, as you’ll find more Bolgar monuments scattered further along the road. Behind the ruins of the Cathedral Mosque - the partially preserved structure of the Golden Horde period, stands the Great Minaret, from the top of which you’ll find an inspiring view of the Volga. In the Assumption Church, which was built in the middle of the 18th century financed by Kazan merchant Ivan Mihlyaev, there is a museum of the history of Orthodoxy in the Volga region. The large stone-wooden tent you’ll see is the Khan's Palace, erected in the middle of the 13th century. And the low stone doctor’s house, is the place where medical writings, ancient medical instruments and objects relating to medicine and pharmaceuticals are kept. Opposite the museum you’ll find the Eastern Chamber - a local public bath of the 13th century. Furthest away is the hidden well of Gabdrakhman which supplies healing spring water.

What else to see

  • The ruins in the central part of the settlement are the White Chamber - the ruins of a bathhouse of the 14th century with a complex system of underfloor heating, chimneys and ceramic pipes. Many artists loved to draw it - Shishkin, Durand, and the Chernetsov brothers among others.
  • The most well-preserved monument of Bolgar architecture is the Black Chamber of the 14th century – it was most likely a mosque, a madrasah, a khanaka or a court. In the 19th century a smokehouse was located here, which is the reason behind the building’s black colour inside and out.
  • Built in the 1530s, the Northern Mausoleum once was a family burial crypt of a noble Bolgar clan, and even a cellar. Today it houses an exhibition of epigraphy of the 13th-14th centuries.
  • The Eastern Mausoleum with a 700-year history is the burial crypt of Bolgar nobility. In the 18th century, the building was used as a Christian church, and today it is used to display a conserved archaeological excavation.
  • The Small minaret was built in the 14th century. A 40-step spiral stone staircase leads to the very top. Near the minaret you’ll find ruins of the Khans’ Tomb.

After leaving the site of the ancient settlement through the southern gate, you will find yourself at the most photographed place of Bolgar - the White Mosque. The symbol of religious revival on the territory of Bolgar, built in 2012 is crowned with three domes and two minarets. To the side of the mosque, you’ll find the Museum of Bread. The large ethnographic complex with a mill, workshop and the miller's estate is a real attraction for those who are not familiar with rural life. Two exhibit halls will teach you about the process of bread production: from the selection of the grade of rye to the necessary equipment to process it. By the way, freshly baked rye and wheat bread can also be bought right here in the museum. The estate of the miller has been recreated to show the interior of a typical Tatar house of the late 19th - early 20th centuries, and right next to it you’ll find a sauna, and stables.

Where to stop for lunch

It is impossible to remain hungry in Bolgar. For a filling lunch, head over to ‘Zuleika’ cafe located inside the Museum of Bolgar Civilization building. The menu features typical Russian food such as solyanka soup, beet salad, pelmeni dumplings, mince in cabbage leaf rolls and various baked goods. The simplicity of the dishes is compensated by the chic oriental interior, tables with snow-white tablecloths and a view out to the arriving boats. Another great option for a filing meal is the ‘Genghis Khan’ restaurant in the Museum of Bread. The employees say that the first president of Tatarstan Mintimer Shaimiev has been known to dine here. The menu here is more diverse: they serve dishes such as salad with grilled salmon, spring rolls, veal with vegetables and buckwheat spaghetti.

Local residents praise the cafe ‘Blinnaya’ on Muhamedyar Street. Classic thin pancakes, made with homemade milk, spelt pikelets and pancakes filled with chicken are cooked in a wood burning stove. They also prepare dishes according to old recipes such as pelmeni dumplings with duck and river fish wrapped in burdock and baked in clay.

If you’re feeling peckish during the day, ‘Tubetey’ will come to the rescue: in a kiosk near the Doctor’s House, where you’ll find delicious echpochmak, kystyby and gubadia. As an alternative, there are also numerous souvenir shops nearby that serve tea and pastries. 

In 2010-2013, employees of the Institute of History of the Academy of Sciences of Tatarstan, the Kazan Federal University and the Institute of Archeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences conducted large-scale excavations at the site of the ancient settlement, exploring the cultural layer of the Bolgar civilization. The discovered artifacts uncovered a lot about the history of the city and became a foundation for the main exhibition of the Museum of Bolgar Civilization. In the museum you will find a lot of information about the different aspects of the life of the Bolgar people: from construction to livestock farming. Fragments of water pipes and gravestones of the 14th century are presented here alongside exhibits of women's jewelry and pieces of clothing dating back to the 10th century. You’ll find agricultural tools and fishing hooks, alongside coins of the cities of the Golden Horde and chess pieces made from elk horns. Be sure tp use the accompanying touch screen panels to find out more about the historical findings.

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