Khan Asparoukh (681 - 700)
THEN CAME ACROSS THE DANUBE Ispenkli Khan. Came to last to this day... This is how the first Bulgarian chronicle, the Name List of Bulgarian 'mans, gives account of the founding of the Bulgarian state and its creator. History has not been generous in terms of written evidence about Asparoukh. Old chronicles simply mention the son of Khan Kubrat who acquired experience in politics and statesmanship in Great Bulgaria. When the state disintegrated under pressure from the Khazars, he and his bro2thers resumed their nomadic life, rocked by the waves of migration and military clashes.
It is not known for certain where Asparoukh's horsemen rode before crossing the Danubian delta and settling in the Ongul area (Southern Bessarabia). It is impossible to guess what made the leader head south to the lands of mighty Byzantium. Yet in 680, while alighting from his horse, he knew his tribe was to settle there at last.
We can only judge Asparukh by what we know of his deeds. In the 10th century the Khazar ruler Joseph left a written statement that the greatest part of the Bulgars had followed Asparukh. The Name List of Bulgarian Khans says clearly that the state Asparukh founded was the direct and the single successor to Khan Kubrat's Great Bulgaria.
The young chief and his horde sought to establish the permanent unified state that Great Bulgaria had failed to become. It was in union with the Slavic tribes south of the Danube that they would succeed.
For about a century the Slavic tribes had been roaming the Byzantine lands, their burning and destruction paving the way for the founding of the future state. Their closeness to the Byzantine strongholds posed a serious threat to the empire. They set up large tribal alliances, among which the seven Slavic tribes and the Severians, inhabiting the lands between the Danube and the Balkan range, were the most powerful. They were just a step away from statehood. They were to make that last historic step together with Asparukh's Bulgars.
At the end of the 670s Asparoukh made an alliance with the Slavic tribes to fight against Byzantium. In 680 he defeated the Byzantine army and swiftly moved from the Danubian delta down to the Balkan range. And thus Asparukh founded a state of Slavs and Bulgars, binding his tribe with the tribal alliance of the seven Slavic tribes and the Severians.
In 681 Khan Asparukh invaded Thrace, seizing fortresses and towns. As the Byzantines were unable to stop him, Emperor Constantine IV Pogonatus was compelled to sue for peace, thus recognizing the new state to which he was to pay annual tribute. Pliska, a city in today's Central Bulgaria, became the first capital of the new state.
Asparukh realized that as the new state was an alliance of tribes, it could not be established in one fell swoop but would have to be built over the course of several generations. The Slavs and the Bulgars retained their self-government and the territorial autonomy of their tribes. It is telling that in the historical sources from the end of the 7th to the beginning of the 10th century the new state is referred to as a Slav-Bulgar state.
The Khan was in charge of foreign political affairs and commander of the army in times of war. The Slavs defended the northwestern border to the Carpathians against frequent attacks by the Avars. To the east the Black Sea coast was the natural borderline.
The Bulgars undertook the defence of the northern borders against the Khazar invasions, far beyond the Danube. The southern border along the ridge of the Balkan range all the way to the Timok river was guarded against the Byzantine threat by the combined efforts of Bulgars and Slavs.
The Thracians who had inhabited these lands before the invasion of Slavs and Bulgars were also incorporated into the new state.
Asparukh was a daring leader who embodied the skills of politician and statesman, diplomat and warrior. Time taught him skills very few leaders of his rank possessed. In a century when rulers cut their way into the future with their swords, Asparukh held out his hand to the Slavs and offered them peace, a move which proved essential to the survival of the new state.
The swift victory of the new state is indicative of the fact that the combined efforts of Bulgars and Slavs made them much less vulnerable. Asparukh kept an ardent watch over the alliance and severely punished any violation of it. A tireless builder and a just arbitrator, he was the perfect leader of an emerging state in times when only God knows whether peaceful construction or military power would have better safeguarded its survival. This first ruler of Bulgaria died in 700 in one of the many battles in defense of the new state.