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  Ethnological traits of the ancient Iranian culture in modern-day Bulgarian culture


The ethnography of a nation is a complex mixture of cultural elements with different origins which are formed by historical events. For the purpose of this assignment I chose to study the common elements between Bulgarian and Persian cultures as this issue has not been studied extensively yet. In the Bulgarian ethnography we can easily find and point out Turkish, Greek and Russian element in language, customs, name system etc. What is relatively unknown to the wide public is the Iranian influence on this national ethnography. That is so, not only by political reasons which disallowed scientists to study this field, but also because of the fact most of the Iranic elements in our culture are so typically Bulgarian, that they had became an integral part of what is known to be Bulgarian culture. The paper will describe in details where it is possible the similarities in the language, name system, customs, religion and cultural heritage.

Origin of Bulgarians

In brief the origin of Bulgarians is highly disputed over the last decades but two theories are predominant in the Bulgarian history. The one claims that Bulgarians have mixed Turkic and Slavic origin, respectively, they ancient Bulgars were speaking Turkish language and the other, the newest one, supports the Iranian origin of Bulgarians, which is based on the new evidences found in the recent years. As Bulgarians’ first motherland is considered to be the Bactrian state also known as Balhara. This state is considered as the western region of the ancient Iranian state. The majority of them will be presented below. In the ancient Vedic books Mahabharata, Ramayana and the Puranas in general, are mentioned the kingdom of Bahlika, with its famous rulers Kardama, Isa and Sasa-Bindu from the kin of the The Karddameyas. The name Kardama coincides with the Bulgarian ruler Kardam (777-802AD) As a starting point in our research I will refer to Arnaiz-Villena et al who clearly state by using genetic analysis the common origin or Iranians and Bulgarians. The absence of genes(both Hg and mtDNA) encountered in other Balkan nations violates the currently accepted theory of the Slavic origin of Bulgarians. 
In archeological studies of necropolis in Bactria and nowadays Bulgaria is found that the majority of the buried are from the same anthropological type: brachiocranic europoids (Dimitrov, 1987). Interesting fact is also the artificial deformation of the skulls. The region where these graves were found clearly shows the scientists the place of origin of Bulgarians: the area between the rivers Amu Darya and Sur Darya. Skull deformation is also found in other regions where the Bulgar tribes lived like Volga River (Dimitrov, 1987). Apart from this, the identical graves and burial rituals found it these places are much more eloquent and strong evidence for common past. We may also conclude that the man’s head shape in the ancient Bulgarian society had some kind of spiritual significance. In the Nominalia of the Bulgarian rulers it is specifically pointed out that the Bulgarian rulers were shaving their heads.


Except from the genealogical analysis, which is scientifically the most accurate, we may judge for the origin of a nation from its language and how it has changes during the years. The modern Bulgarian language supposingly belongs to the Slavic language group which is explained by the very strong influence of the Russian culture and the tight connections between Bulgarians and Russians mainly based on the religious and political reasons. Its also important to take into consideration the close linguistic relation between the languages of the Scythians, Sarmatians, Bulgarians and Alans, on the one side, and the Antes tribes, as scientits like Danail Iliev claim that the whole Slavic group of languages is direct inheritor of the Avestan, and is greatly influenced by the ancient Bulgar language.. Recent research made by Dobrev (1995) provides a list of Old Bulgarian words that have been preserved during the years and the possible roots of these words. In general, similarities to words with the same meaning in the Indo-Iranian languages are proven. Nenchev (2007) conducted a complete study in which compared the Bulgarian and Pushtu language which is spoken in Eastern Iran and is official in Afganistan today (Bactria). He found some common words in Pushtu and many European languages but also specific words which are encountered only in the modern Bulgarian languages. We should pay specific attention to the prepositions, articles and all suffixes and prefixes which has the same meaning in both languages. We assume that such words are more reluctant to other languages’ influence and remained the same during the centuries. May be the strongest evidence that ever exists for the common root of Bulgarian and the Iranian languages is the definite article. Unlike Greek, all Slavic, Roman and German languages, in Bulgarian this article is put in the end of the words.


From the 9th century the official religion in the Bulgarian Empire is the orthodox Christianity. Before that the religion of the Bulgarians was monotheistic and very similar to the Zoroastrianism. As a matter of fact, the prophet Zoroaster was born and died in the capital city of Bactria: Balh. D-r Dorian Alexandrov believes the so-called Eagle of Asparukh, which depicts a stuggle between an eagle and a snake is also connected with the proto-Bulgarian dualistic view of the world. The eagle is part of the Voznesenka Golden Treasure. Academic Jordan Ivanov finds similarities between the pre-islamic persian religion, and Bogomilism. The medieval Bulgarian writer Prezviter Kozma, in his “lecture against the Bogomils”, describes in details their dualistic practites, and their blend with the new Christian religion. The historian Plamen Pavlov accepts the riot of a leader called Traval (1084-1086), chief of the Bulgarian Paulician community was a result of the pre-Christian Bulgar believes. The name of the God in the Bulgarian religion is called Tangra, according to Veselin Beshevliev. In his view Tangra means “sky”, and he connects the word with the term Tien(sky). In central Asia there is mountain peak with the similar name: Khan Tengri, in the mountain TianShan. Peter Dobrev derives the word from the Pamirian “Tandra” which is the god of thunder in certain Pamiri tribes

till today. Nowadays we may see some barbarian traditions incorporated in the Christian rituals which has no reasonable explanation if we do not link them to the previous religious believes of the Bulgarians. Typical ritual for the Zoroastrians is to pray in the presence of fire. In some remote villages in Bulgaria still there are people dancing over smouldering embers which was common practice in Persia. This ritual is incorporated as a part of the St Constantine & Elena Day but has no analogue in the rest of the Christian World. Just like this, on the first day of the New Year according to an ancient Bulgarian tradition, people wear scary masks and dance around a big fire believing that in this way they will expel the evil spirits from their town (Iliev, 2007). The name of the holiday is Surva. Bulgarian linguists like Iliev link this tradition to one branch of Zoroastrianism – Zurvanism. It is known for being more strictly monotheistic than traditional Zoroastrianism (Abadi, 2005). May be this sound coincidentally but in Bactria there was a god of the eternity, destiny and universe whose name was Zurvan. Another major tradition which has no connection to the Christianity is the wearing of “martenitza”. This is a piece of adornment which is made by the use of white and red yarn. Similar tradition exists in Northern Greece and Romania but to a much smaller extent while in Bulgaria it is nation-wide. According to the famous Miladinovi Brothers, in 19th century the same tradition was widely common in Struga (In today FYROM), under the name Martinki. Surprisingly in central Asia exactly the same custom is encountered, especially in the tribes of Kalashas and Hunzas. Scientists try to explain that tradition as an implementation of the dualistic concept of the Zoroastrianism (Ivanov, 2008). Its important to note that the Bulgarian word for “god” – bog, is a derivative from the old Persian form “baga” meaning the same. Last but not least, Mithraism, has also certain roots here, as the very name Mithra was widely common in Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia, until the second half of the 20th century. Furthermore, the cult of the Sun is widely popular among the Bulgarian rural common folk. As the ethnologist I.Venedicov states in his book “the golden pillar of the proto-bulgarians” In the folklore, the sun is also called Raiko, which derives from the Avestan word Rai which has the meaning of “ray of light”

Name system

The name system of the present Bulgaria is mainly determined by the Christian religion, as the great majority of the names has Greek and Jewish roots or are derived from the Bible. Another big group of names is the Slavic one. However, significant part of the Bulgarian names, especially those names encountered in the history is less influenced by the Christian religion. Some of those names are preserved over the years and even less distributed are still used. Names like Krum, Asparukh, Kardam, Eltimir, Sabin, Kubrat are typical for the pre-Christian period of the Bulgarian Empire. Such names are also encountered in the Central Asia with minor differences. Asparukh, Omurtagh, Presian(or Persian), Zabergan, Vanand, and others have direct analogies in other Iranian-speaking nations and tribes such as Alans, Persians, Kurds and others. Given the fact that the human names are temporary and last only generation long, we have to admit that the huge part of the ancient Bulgarian names were substituted by foreign ones due to the religion. However, what is more difficult to change is the names of the cities. Absolutely obligatory is to mention that the names of the cities around the first Bulgarian capital (today NE Bulgaria) have the same names as cities in Balchara. Examples are Shumen, Varna, Madara, Pliska. A lot of other Bulgarian settlements also have possible iranic ethymology, and such examples are Gabrovo, Borui, Rastnik, Mezda, the rivers Arda and Vardar(called by the local people Vardarya) and etc.

Symbols and folklore

The Bulgarian flag follows the same pattern as the flags of the most Iranian countries. The first modern Bulgarian flag was created by the Bulgarian revolutionary Rakovski, who created Green-White-Red flag (the same colors and order is applies in the Persian flag) for his so-called First-Bulgarian League, which was summoned in Belgrade to train and later fight for Bulgarian liberation from ottoman yoke. Not surprisingly, Rakovski was also the first to notice the similarities between 19th century Bulgarian and Avestan. Other countries with Iranian origin that possess the same colors in their flags are Tajikistan and Kurdistan. The Coat of Arms of Bulgaria (three lions) also has Central Asian origin. The first recorded coat of arms of Bulgaria was from the late 14th century, shortly before Bulgarians fell under Turkish domination. In one of the proto-Bulgarian inscriptions Khan Omurtagh, is said to have build an Palace with two columns on top of which there were two lions The lion is presented in the Persian coat of arms as well, as Iran, is often called “the land of the lion and the sun”. The Byzantine Chronist Theophanes the Confesor, narrates of the Bulgar ruler Krum, who made a golden cup, from the scull of the Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus. The same practice was described by Herodotus about the Scythians. One the Bulgarian ethnographers Todor Mollov issued an research on the topic of the significance of the lion in the Bulgarian epics and fairytales, so as in their wood carvings, stating that lions are a part of the pre-Christian Bulgar symbols. Bulgarian ethnographer Angel Karaliichev (lived in the beginning of the 20th century), collected various Bulgarian fairytales in his researches, among which “the three brothers and the golden apple”. She is specifically important for that it’s being present in all descendants of the Iranian tribes. The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies published Persian version of the tale. It was translated in English last year, by Homa A. Ghahremani. Krasimir Zeliaskov points out the Iranian origin of the Bulgarian music instrument – Tambura, practically identical with the Persian Tanbur. Another Bulgarian folk music instrument with Persian origin is the Gadulka (Kemene in Stara Zagora region), known as Kemancha in Persia. Both instruments are unknown for the Ottomans and therefore it is impossible to link their appearance in Bulgaria, as late ottoman influence. Bela Bartok, links the irregular Bulgarian tact in the folk songs to have a central Asian origin.


The Bulgarians have several golden treasures as an inheritance from the proto-Bulgarians. The inscriptions from the golden cup of the Nagy-Szent Miklos threasure were successfully read by Dobrev (1995), using the eastern Iranian group of languages. On one of the golden jugs, is depicted Simorgh (sen-murv), which is a mythological creature in the Iranian pantheon. The same creature was found on golden tablets in the Preslav golden treasure. Archeologist Nikolai Ovcharoff, found in 2006 in the Rhodope Mountain fortress of Perperikon, medieval alembics (a.k.a. still) for production of alcohols. Similar alembics were found in Pliska (the capital of the proto-Bulgarians near Shumen) dated as early as 9th century. According to Ivan Petrinski, this makes the Bulgarians the first people who used this technology in Europe. The inventors of the Alembics and founders of the distillations were Persians. Abu Musa Jābir ibn Hayyān(born c. 721 in Tus, Iran), a Persian, known as the “father of chemistry”, was the first to write down the process of distillation on paper. Today Kazanluk is a small Bulgarian town having less than 50 000 inhabitants, famous for its rose festival and cultivation. Roses were cultivated for first time in the region of today Afganistan, in the western part of the Iran Plateau. An article from the New York Times (1896), points out the etymology of the word Rose, has Bactrian origin. The Bulgarian historian Tanev (1941) proves the similarity between the Bulgarian carpets (a.k.a Chiprovci/Pirot Carpets) and the Persian ones. A group of Bulgarian astrologists, historians and physics have printed a study on the unique ancient Bulgarian calendar, pointing out its connections with the Sumerians and Persians. Another very important part of the popular customs was the wine productions. Euripides writes that the greek God of wine Dionisus was born in Bactria – the far east, and the last known to ancient greeks kingdom. As we know, the earliest preserved until today wine was found in the Zagros mountain range of today Iran. Therefore, we couldn’t be surprised that Bulgaria is the truly famous for its wine production.


From all of the above facts, we may conclude that there is a strong linkage between the two cultures which is a direct result of the common historical experience. The paper above explains very well some facts that have not been studied or have been taken for granted by historians and ethnographers. Interesting conclusion can be drawn from the fact that some cultural elements have been preserved to a much greater extent than others. We see extremely strong influence of foreign cultures on the language and almost no influence over the national symbols. From an social anthropological point of view, we tried to explain different phenomena of the Bulgarian culture through the prism of the Persian one.


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