The present day city of Bolgar is located immediately next to the ancient city of Bulgar (also known as Bolghar or Great Bulgar) which was first mentioned in 920 by the Persian geographer Abu Zayd al-Balkhi. The city was the centre of Volga Bulgaria which itself was formed around the end of the 9th and beginning of the 10th century by the semi-nomadic Bulgar tribe.
The Bulgars originally established Old Great Bulgaria in the Pontic Steppe in the 7th century, but this state disintegrated as Khazar pressure forced the Bulgars to migrate to safer locations. Part of the Bulgars went west with Khan Asparuh who founded the First Bulgarian Empire with local Slavic tribes. Another group of Bulgars though, led by Asparuh's brother Kotrag, headed north along the Volga and this group eventually settled in what is now modern-day Tatarstan and established Volga Bulgaria. In 922 Khan Almış of Volga Bulgaria invited the Baghdad caliph to send an ambassador to Bulgar. The ambassador and traveller Ahmad ibn Fadlan came to Bulgar and as a result Khan Almış adopted Islam as the official religion of Volga Bulgaria.
In 1120 Yuri Dolgoruky launched a successful campaign against Volga Bulgaria, which was then repeated by Yuri's son Andrey Bologlyubsky in 1164. Sometime in the 12th century the increasing Russian raids on Volga Bulgaria lead to the capital being moved from Bulgar to the more remote city of Bilyar.
In 1223 or possibly 1224, after defeating the Russians at the Battle of Kalka, the Mongol forces lead by Jebe and Subutai attacked Volga Bulgaria. The Bulgars however were more successful than the Russians and were able to defeat the Mongols in battle. Nevertheless just over a decade later Volga Bulgaria shared the same fate as Russia when it was conquered by the Mongol-Tatars in 1236 and incorporated into the Golden Horde as the Bulgar Ulus. Bulgar was completely destroyed and the majority of the surviving citizens fled to Kazan and the surrounding area. During the reign of Khan Berke of the Golden Horde (1257-1266), Bulgar was rebuilt and was the centre of the Bulgar Ulus. Several ruins of buildings from this period can still be seen.
In 1361 Khan Bulat-Timur of the Golden Horde sacked the city. In 1395 the city was once again sacked, this time by the troops of Tamerlane as part of the Tokhtamysh-Timur War.
Bulgar's final destruction came in 1431 at the hands of Fyodor Pyostry, a commander of Prince Vasili II of Moscow, who was sent on campaign against the Tatars living around the Volga and the Kama. The ancient city never recovered from this campaign.
18th + 19th Centuries
Ruins of Bulgar
In 1712 the Uspensky Monastery was founded on the very site of the ruins of the city of Bolgar in what some of the local Muslim popular saw as a blatant attempt at Russifying the region. The monastery was dissolved in 1763, although its church remained. In 1722 Peter the Great visited the ruins of Bulgar and issued a decree to preserve them.
In 1781 the village (selo) of Spasskoe, which had arisen near to the site of the historical city of Bulgar, was renamed Spassk and granted city status as the administrative centre of the Spassky District of the Kazan Viceroyalty (from 1796 the Kazan Governorate). In 1791 a coat of arms was created for the city which featured the Kazan coat of arms plus a wooden tower on a golden background to symbolise Spassk's proximity to the ancient capital of Volga Bulgaria.
In 1920 Spassk became the centre of the Spassky Canton (from 1930 the Spassky District) of the newly created Tatar Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic. In 1926 Spassk was renamed Spassk-Tatarsky to distinguish it from other cities named Spassk in Russia. In 1935 the city was renamed again and it became known as Kuibyshev in honour of the revolutionary Valerian Kuibyshev, who died in the same year. In the 1950s the city was moved to its present site immediately next to the site of Bulgar as the original location was flooded during the creation of the Kuibyshevskoe Reservoir.
In 1969 the Bolgar Historical and Architectural Museum-Reserve was established to preserve and study the ruins of the ancient city of Bulgar. The city remained Kuibyshev until 1991 when it gained its present day name of Bolgar in honour of the ancient city and became part of the newly formed Republic of Tatarstan.
In 2010 Bolgar, along with Sviyazhsk, was selected by the Tatar Government for development as a tourist and cultural centre. Restoration work was carried out and new complexes were constructed including the White Mosque and the Bread Museum. In 2014 the Bolgar Historical and Archaeological Complex was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list. The complex was awarded UNESCO-protected status as it "represents the historical cultural exchanges and transformations of Eurasia over several centuries that played a pivotal role in the formation of civilizations, customs and cultural traditions" and "is a symbolic reminder of the acceptance of Islam by the Volga-Bolgars in 922 and remains a sacred pilgrimage destination to the Tatar Muslims".