Historical Legends of the Volga-Ural Muslims concerning Alexander the Great, the City of Yelabuga, and Bāchmān Khān

Historical Legends of the Volga-Ural Muslims concerning Alexander the Great, the City of Yelabuga, and Bāchmān Khān

By Allen J. Frank

Remmm: Revue des Mondes Musulmans et de la Mediteranee, Vol.89-90 (2000)

Abstract: Since the beginning of the 19th century the written traditions of the Volga-Ural Muslims have recorded a cycle of historic and genealogical legends involving Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn (Alexander the Great) and the city of Yelabuga, located on the Kama River, today within the Russian Federation’s Republic of Tatarstan. This paper will attempt to identify and trace the variants of these legends, to a large degree found in the region’s Islamic manuscript collections, and to determine what role they played in the development of a communal identity among Volga-Ural Muslims.The traveler Abū Hamid al-Ghamāti (12th century) mentions that the Volga Bulgarians considered themselves descended from Alexander. These legends appear to have their complex origins in the traditions of certain Muslim steppe nomads and pre-Mongol Volga Bulgarians. A number of genealogies, especially those of the Chepets Tatars in northern Udmurtia, trace their origins to one Sōqrāt Hakim (Socrates), who reportedly came to the Noghay lands ; and to a degree these traditions appear to have become intertwined. Enigmatic too are the legends concerning the city of Yelabuga, which is said to have been founded by Alexander and his companion, Sōqrāt Hakim. Yelabuga is depicted both as the sacred location of numerous Muslim saints’ tombs, and as a center of unbelief, ruled by infidel rulers – particularly, a certain Bāchmān Khān who appears to be connected with a historical figure of the same name and who is mentioned in Tatar tradition as the son of Sōqrāt Hakim.

Introduction:The Muslims of the Volga-Ural region, today known as Tatars and Bashkirs, have retained a rich body of historical legends that have yet to be studied systematically. These historical legends circulated both in oral and written form, and were an important element in maintaining communal cohesion at all levels of Volga-Ural Muslim society. The Russian conquest of the Volga-Ural region, that began in 1552 with the conquest of the Kazan khanate and ended in the 1730′s with the final subjugation of the Bashkirs, affected the development of local Islamic historiography, where in lieu of written sources, oral-circulating historical legends were recorded and included into historical works. As a result, the most important Islamic historical works produced in the Volga-Ural region in the 17th century, the Jāmi’ al-Tawārikh by Qādir ‘Ali Bēk Jālāyiri, composed in Kasimov in 1602, and the Daftar-i Chingiz Nāma by an anonymous author, composed at the end of the 17th century, consist essentially of historical legends of the steppe nomads, primarily of the Bashkirs.

Of particular interest are the cycle of legends concerning Alexander the Great (Iskandar Dhū 1-Qarnayn), along with his companion Socrates, and their connections with local cities and landmarks, as well as with other historical figures. This cycle of legends has remained unexamined as a whole, yet they offer an especially useful example of the interplay in the Volga-Ural region between Islamic historiography and oral historical legends. Such legends were already recorded in the 12th century by Muslim travelers, but appear to have reemerged in « Bulgharist » shrine-centered historiography that developed at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, apparently in conjunction with the creation by Catherine II in 1788 of the Orenburg Muslim Spiritual Assembly. Similarly, other legends concerning Alexander the Great and Socrates have also been preserved in Tatar genealogies (shäjärälär).

In addition to these legends, there are also other cycles of legends concerning the city of Yelabuga, today a small district center in the republic of Tatarstan, but formerly a fortified Bulghar frontier outpost. Some such cycles concern Bāchmān Khān, a figure apparently derived from a 13th century leader of the Qipchaqs. All three of these cycles are intertwined in both the « Bulgharist » historiography of the 19th century, as well as in the oral traditions of the Volga-Ural Muslims.

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