I am not a fan of group tours, but it is good to have somebody else take care of navigation and time management for a change. Places like the one I have visited today might need a professional tour guide to help you decipher, decode and generally make sense of what is in front of you. I could have gone to one of the neighboring republics (Mari El, for example), which might have been interesting for identity exploration as well, but I don’t think I would have loved to rush through the republic’s capital city without feeling its rhythm properly. So I decided to stay within the Republic of Tatarstan and go to Bolghar, the capital of Volga Bulgaria around 130km south of Kazan.
It is useless to set your expectations too high when you are travelling to an archaeological site. As we learn about the history of a place (which is definitely just scratching the surface in this case), each extra century doesn’t seem to matter any more. Is anything beyond our average lifespan even conceivable or us? That is a tricky thing about history — what is just a new section of a long narrative in a history textbook or a short section in a story told by a tour guide are lives of a few generations.
I knew that visiting the area would not be too spectacular as I have already experienced one of the greatest «ruins» of the world in Rome. But it doesn’t have to be something I like as it is not an amusement park after all. I realize how much is left to our imagination which might find it too hard to process the current site looking simply like a barren piece of soil. I felt that coming here and at least making a tiny effort to comprehend the ashes of lives lived in the area would be my way to honor the Republic of Tatarstan.
It is amazing what a great amount of work has been done into putting everything together (by archaeologists, historicarchitects, historians, etc.). I have always been wondering what moves these people to pursue those jobs. Is that about faith, sentimentalism, nostalgia? The mission must be somewhat spiritual. Of course there are revenues being generated from places like this, but I assume people putting in long hours to keep them somewhat alive want visitors to see them not as tourist products sold to them but something way bigger. I remembered a talk with a teacher of Italian in Florence where I did a project on language teaching in Europe. She said that she wasn’t paid much being an archaeologist andhad to go into teaching instead. Each job also has its rhythm, inner workings we can’t comprehend but today I have been applauding the professional effort I have witnessed.
Acrually only around 10% of the site has been explored. How can we even do a good job picturing what was happening in those grounds we were walking on this hot summer day along the banks of the Volga River? Books and films shape our ideas and fantasies of the past. Unfortunately, when it comes to Bolghar, too much is left for imagination as there are no written records left. Why do we even need to bother? To understand who we are, how far we have come as a humanity at least. Imagining that someone lived in this exact area in the 8th century is astounding (even though numbers stop mattering for sure).
Again the thorny issue of religion has been part of the trip. Conversion of Volga Bulgaria to Islam in 922 was a political move to save it from further invasions (there had already been way too many). What would have happened if it had been another religion? A whole range of third conditionals could be used here… It was mind-boggling to see the world’sbiggest printed version of Koran stored in a museum here in Bolgar. In the Soviet Union this place served in place of Mecca to Muslims. Honestly, I hadn’t heard about it before planning my trip to Tatarstan.
It is certainly hard to picture what the whole city looked like. Due to its stragetic position on the Volga River bank, this place once evolved into a wealthy city connecting what is now Russia and the East. Merchants were engaged in active trade of crafts (leather, jewellery, etc.). During the time of the Golden Horde it was burnt down and then rebuilt. What was later formed as a result of protection against multiple invaders (including the Russian troops) was called the Kazan Khanate. After the siege of Kazan in 1552, the city became part of Russia. It was only in 2010 that massive archaeological work got underway resulting in restoration of a few sites we can see these days (a few mosques, churches as well as museums).
We look for simple answers but the deeper we dig, the harder it gets to see more clearly. Is there any chance there is a piece of those people’s DNA in us? A question we ask more often as we age and thus get more interested in history. Displays of coins, weapons can’t sadly tell us much about individuals behind them (except their social standing and occupation).
The visual highlight of the trip was the White Mosque built in 2012 somewhat resembling Taj Mahal in India. Going inside this mosque felt different from visiting the Kul Sharif mosque. It seems that the Republic’s Government is trying really hard to preserve and highlight the Islamic part of the historic heritage.
After the pensive day trip and hours of watching the serene Tatar countryside gliding by, I returned to Kazan for a finaldinner of horse meat at a national restaurant in the Old Tatar Quarter. The central part of the city is getting even more familair but it is time to leave tomorrow. At this point I have already accepted the fact that there is so much more to the history of this place than the eye can see…
It is finally time to say goodbye and enjoy a series of my favorite views, particularly of the Kazan Kremlin. It has to dominate our impressions of the city. Now a usual routine will follow dominated by last-minute souvenir shopping.
I am not sure I will be returning (at least any time soon). Kazan is a place to go in Russia with a boost in technology and innovation. I have heard a lot of people being here on business. Food has been nice and my favorite one has to be the Tatar fast food restaurant (I have visited a few times).
The bottom line is that now I understand how much more of Russia as well and how much more needs to be learnt at least for the sake of respect of the common past. Visiting places like this one comes with a pressure of having to process tons of information you only think you might have heard when you were to young to care.
Of course, I am also now more aware of the country’s second largest ethnical group and multiple ethnicities we have in Russia. I guess we have the crazy global situation to thank for the opportunity to go on trips like this one.
The trip has certainly been worth it. To me, it felt like investing into learning about a place and educating oneself in the process. Now I have one Russian city off my list and probably there will be more. Thank you, Kazan!