The Bulgars were a Turkic tribe based south of the Don when they came under pressure from the Khazars and had to migrate. One branch headed west and occupied the eastern Balkans, but it was soon assimilated by local Slavs, leaving no trace but the name.
The eastern branch settled on the Volga and mixed with local Finno-Ugric tribes. Sunni Islam became the official religion in 921, following a visit of a Baghdadi embassy --
The first traveler to write a Volga diary was Ahmed Ibn-Fadlan, a secretary of the Baghdadi embassy who arrived in 922 in Great Bulgar to convert the local khan and his people to Islam. His travelogue is one of the very few preserved written documents describing the ancient people who populated the area and traveled up and down the Volga. One of his most striking stories describes an encounter with Scandinavian travelers, whom Ibn-Fadlan describes as "people with most perfect bodies", but also as , "the dirtiest of Allah's creatures".
The curious Arab arranged to be invited to a funeral of a Viking chief. The ceremony included the ritual killing of a slave girl who volunteered to accompany her master into the other world. Thrilled and disgusted at the same time, Ibn-Fadlan observes the ritual, which culminated with the girl taking poison. Both bodies were then loaded onto a ship and the ship was burned, the ashes carried away by the Volga.
Ibn-Fadlan believed these Vikings were members of the semi-legendary Rus tribe, which at about the same time was invited by Novgorod Slavs to rule their land. The Novgorodians are said to have uttered a famous complaint, which Russians still enjoy repeating: "Our land is rich, but there is no order."
Peter the Great passed the ruins on a visit to the region in 1722 and ordered the historical site be preserved. However in 1841, a local blacksmith looking for treasure unwittingly tore down the remaining 13th-century minaret. The new town was founded by Russians in 1781 under the name of Spassk. It ws briefly called Kuybyshev and then renamed Bolgar in 1991.
The Great Bulgar Museum is located 1km east of the town on the high bank of the Volga. The site, comprising several ruins scattered around a vast expanse of grassland on top of a high cliff above the Volga, looks a bit odd as it is dominted by the minareet, which was restored in 2005, and the the Russian 18th-cent Assumption Church, which stands right next to it and houses an interesting archaeological museum. Nearby are the ruins of Great Bulgar's main mosque with a stub of a pillar, which the Tatars believe brings fortune if you walk around it, which they do in droves. A mausoleum full of gravestones has inscriptions in the Arabic and Turkic Runic alphabets. From the gates of the museum, stairs lead to the tourist pier, where cruise ships and tourist hydrofoils from Kazan's river station dock.