The semi-nomadic riders arrived in the territory of today’s Bulgaria from the North, led by their Khan Asparuh, and determined to settle permanently. And settle they did. The state they founded at the end of the 7th century AD continues to exist today.
The question of the origin of the Proto-Bulgarians remains an open one. Traditionally, they are thought to be Turkic nomadic people, related to the Avars and the Khazars, and originating somewhere in the steppes of Central Asia. Indeed, the Proto-Bulgarians are known to have lived and fought along Turkic tribes.
Recently, however, certain historians have started to question the Turkic origin of the Proto-Bulgarians, and the theory that they were in fact an Indo-European (read: Arian) tribe originating somewhere in modern day Iran is gaining popularity. While the theory is yet to be backed by serious historical evidence, it was quickly embraced in Bulgarian ultra-nationalistic circles.
A third hypothesis is based on the idea that Proto-Bulgarians were a mix of ethnicities and cite as evidence the supposed origin of the name Bulgars from the Turkic word bulgha, meaning “to mix.”
OLD GREAT BULGARIA
The Proto-Bulgarians formed their first state in the steppes of today’s Ukraine around 632 AD. The state was headed by the Byzantine-educated Khan Kubrat.
After Kubrat’s death, his eldest son inherited the already disintegrating Great Bulgaria, soon to be conquered by the Khazars. The other three sons took some of the people and headed in three different directions. One went north and founded Volga Bulgaria, a state that remained independent until the 13th century when it was incorporated into Russia. The second headed to Italy, where the Bulgarian connection vanished. The third one, Asparuh, came to the Balkans, crossed the Danube River, and settled in the territory of today’s Bulgaria, thus becoming the founder of the Bulgarian state.
The Proto-Bulgarians were pagans, however, the type of paganism they practiced would depend on their origin, which remains an open question.
It is officially assumed that the religion of the Proto-Bulgarians was monotheistic with the supreme god Tangra or Tengri, who controlled the skies. Tengrism was the religion of Turkic peoples in Central Asia and is reportedly still practiced there today. Presumably, as in Central Asia, the dog, rabbit, and horse had a nearly holy status for the Bulgars.