Prince of the Dawn

(The Fight of the young Asparuh against the Khazars)

Zahari Zlatev

Extended resume

The year was 669. Asparuh was a young Bulgarian prince studying in the high school of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (known also as Byzantium). During a private conversation at the end of a party for military men, the emperor Constantine proposed to resolve Asparuh’s recent problems. He suggested that the Bulgarian prince would marry his cousin Zoie and receive the high title strategus if he promised to be loyal to the empire in the coming fateful war against the Arabs. Asparuh was not sure that this would be possible, because Constantine’s aunt and Zoie’s mother Irina was strongly against this marriage. She sent her daughter to a hidden place when she was told that Asparuh was in love with Zoie and wanted to marry her. Constantine ensured Asparuh that he would find his cousin. Asparuh accepted to sign a contract and to stay in the empire if and when Zoie and he would be married.

On the way to his home after the party, Asparuh was dreaming about Zoie and the large estate in Asia Minor which Constantine promised him. His dreams were interrupted in a very crude manner. He was suddenly attacked by three men. They held him fast, while a fourth man took his cloak and his hat, put them on and walked in direction of the house where he lived. An attempt to kill this fourth person was soon made, but he survived because he wore a chain-mail under the cloak he took from Asparuh. It was clear that the real target of this assault was the Bulgarian prince. Asparuh was taken to a ship, where Organa, his cousin and the first adviser of the Bulgarian ruler and Asparuh’s father Kubrat, told him that Kubrat was very ill and most probably dying. Therefore, he was sent to bring Asparuh to Phanagoria, the capital of the Bulgarian state, where he must fight against the Bulgarian enemies, the Khazars. Asparuh rejected to follow Organa both because he promised Zoie to marry her and to stay in the empire and because he was sure that the situation in Bulgaria was hopeless. On the other hand, it was clear to him that it was dangerous to stay further in Constantinople. The next day Organa took Asparuh to Irina hoping that she would help him to convince the young prince to return to Bulgaria. Asparuh was however firm: he must stay in the empire because of his promise to Irina’s daughter. When Irina became completely sure that it was impossible to make the young man change his mind, she decided to tell him her secret. He would never be able to marry her daughter, because she was also a daughter of Kubrat and, thus, his half-sister. Asparuh was chocked. He understood that he had only one choice in the new situation. He must return to Bulgaria.

Irina, Organa and Asparuh started to plan the journey to Bulgaria. They first tried to find out who was the person behind the attempt to murder Asparuh. Asparuh suggested that there were three obvious possibilities (the emperor, the Khazarian khagan and Asparuh’s oldest brother Bayan). All these possibilities were rejected by Organa and Irina. Irina concluded the discussion by declaring that they must agree that there was an Unknown Player whom they did not know yet. Then they started to discuss how to travel to Phanagoria. It was impossible to sail directly to the North, because the Roman fleet would immediately stop their ship. They could not go by land to the North either, because people who knew Asparuh were sent to all gates of the fortress. The only chance was to sail first to the South, then to proceed to Abdera, a town on the coast of the Aegean Sea and to continue from there to the North joining, among other travelers, some military detachment going in this direction.

The trip to Abdera was successful. Irina and her son Anastasios decided to follow Asparuh and Organa at least to Abdera (in fact they followed them during the whole expedition). Anastasios was a friend of Asparuh. They studied together in the high school and Asparuh saved Anastasios, with a great risk for his own life, when the young Roman prince was wounded during one of the campaigns in Asia Minors in which the two friends participated during their summer vacations. While the companions waited for a suitable military detachment traveling to the North, Zoie arrived quite unexpectedly in Abdera. A servant of Irina had told Zoie that her mother and Asparuh started a trip to Abdera. She asked her cousin, the emperor, to help her to go to Abdera. Constantine did this very willingly hoping that in this way he would succeed to catch Asparuh and to keep him in the empire. Asparuh and his companions were in great danger, but they succeeded to escape. Zoie still insisted to marry Asparuh. Therefore, Irina had to tell her that she was Asparuh’s half sister. Zoie understood that she would not be able to follow Asparuh to Bulgaria as his wife, but she decided that she would surely do it as his sister. They sailed to the West, Anastasios hired some mercenaries in Tessaloniki and they continued by land to Serdica (the present name of this town is Sofia). There were no problems during the first three days. Then the scouts reported that an armed group was marching behind them. Organa and Anastasios tried, without success, to obtain some information about this group. The followers took another road and the companions relaxed. Only Anastasios was afraid that they would still be able to arrive to Serdica before them. The companions stopped in a village near Serdica and tried to investigate the possibility of hiring guards there, because according to the agreement the mercenaries hired in Tessaloniki had to return to their homes. It was impossible to hire mercenaries in Serdica. The administrators were informed about Asparuh’s coming and the guards were carefully interrogating all people who tried to enter the fortress. While the companions discussed how to continue of the trip, they were attacked and captured. Only Anastasios succeeded to escape. It turned out that the leader of the captors was the man called by Irina “the Unknown Player”. He served as a commander of detachments accompanying traders along the Silky Roads. The community of these traders was afraid that the war in the North would continue if Asparuh returned to Bulgaria and this would lead to great losses. Therefore, they were firmly determined not to allow him to continue his trip to Bulgaria.

Anastasios hired some Serdies (Thracian tribe living around Serdica) and freed the captives. All captors were killed, while their leader Rean, the Unknown Player, was taken prisoner. After a long discussion, Asparuh convinced his companions to let him go free, because he understood that Rean was an honest and reliable man who always tried to fulfill what he promised.

The companions decided to take the risk and to continue to the North without mercenaries. However, the entrance of the pass through the Haemous Mountain was guarded by a Roman detachment. The situation was desperate, but then a magnificent deer appeared and most of the Romans followed it in the forest trying to kill it. Asparuh and his companions succeeded to defeat the remaining soldiers and to pass through the mountain. The two Bulgarians, Organa and Asparuh, were sure that this particular deer was Avi, the protectress of their clan Dulo (the life of the first ruler of the dynasty Dulo was saved by a deer and he was called Avitohol, the son of the deer). Irina was not very sure that this was the case. She told them that it could also be an ordinary deer.

Three days the companions traveled close to the Haemous Mountains. The local people, Moesians, were very poor, but friendly. However, when Asparuh and his friends turned to the North, they were assaulted and robbed by warriors from the Federation of the Seven Slavic Tribes. The robbers took also their horses. Nevertheless, the companions continued on foot to the North. However, now the weather was against them. A terrible snow storm took place and the companions were nearly dead when a group of Severs found them. The Severs were federates of the Roman Empire. Their chieftain, Tolouin, who knew that Irina was a member of the imperial family, invited the companions to be his honored guests during the winter. Here Asparuh fell in love with Rodelinde, the daughter of the chieftain. This caused great difficulties, because Asparuh had to continue his trip to Bulgaria and Rodelinde decided firmly, against her parents’ will, to follow him there. After long negotiations, in which Irina played a key role, the problems were resolved. Asparuh married Rodelinde, while Zoie married her brother Totila.

Totila and Rodelinde were supposed to join the companions when they would continue their trip to Bulgaria. However, the group had to cross the turbulent province of Dacia which was plagued by large bands of Avars and Slavs. The companions needed several hundred guards, but they had no money to hire them. Tolouin could not help them although his daughter and his son as well as his son in law and his daughter in law would be in great danger in Dacia. According to the tradition of the Severs, one half of the price for hiring guards had to be paid in advance, mainly to support their families, and the council of the elders would make no exception of this rule. Once again Irina saved the situation. She sent Anastasios to Marcianopol to borrow money. He succeeded to bring the needed amount of money, but in the mean time the Roman administrator received an order from Constantinople to arrest Asparuh and to send him to the capital. The administrator obeyed the order, which made Tolouin furious. He threatened the Roman administrator with revolt if he would not release his son in law. At last Irina solved, in a very clever way, all the problems and the companions started the trip to the province of Dacia together with a detachment of five hundred guards.

It was easy to cross Dacia with so many guards. However, a Bulgarian nobleman, Beruk, met the companions on the border and told them that the Bulgarians were surprised by the Khazars who attacked them quite unexpectedly late in the last autumn. The Bulgarian army was defeated twice and all the regions in Caucasus, including the capital Phanagoria, were occupied. Only the Western part of the country was still held by the Bulgarian army. The companions, led by Beruk, arrived in Ongal where Asparuh’s father Kubrat welcomed them. He was especially glad to see Irina again. Kubrat officially declared Asparuh to be his heir.

Asparuh’s father together with the three ladies, Irina, Zoie and Rodelinde, went to the North where Kubrat had an estate. Asparuh, Anastasios and Totila joined the army which marched to the East to fight against the Khazars. Organa remained in the new Bulgarian capital Ongal as a civil administrator of the state.

The emperor decided that Asparuh must be murdered in a last attempt to cause turmoil in the Bulgarian state and, thus, to help the Khazars in the war. Both Kubrat and Irina deduced in a logical way that such an action should be expected. Kubrat asked one of the commanders of the army, Sabin, to appoint some soldiers to guard Asparuh in a discrete way and to help him when necessary. Traitors did make two attempts to assassinate the Bulgarian prince. They nearly succeeded, but first Anastasios and then Sabin’s soldiers saved the life of the young prince.

Now the Bulgarian army led by Asparuh and Beruk had to defeat a much stronger Khazarian corps which succeeded to cross the Borysthenes River, the new border between the two states. Thirty thousand Bulgarians had to meet a fifty thousand Khazarian corps and to destroy it as quickly as possible, because the Khazarian khagan was coming with the remaining part of his army consisting of more than one hundred thousand soldiers. The night before the major battle, Asparuh dreamed about a huge eagle, called by him the King of the Eagles, who told him that he was sent by the protectress of Asparuh’s clan, the deer Avi, to tell Asparuh that the battle would take place on the next day and Asparuh should listen what his heart would tell him when the situation became totally desperate. Asparuh could not understand very well the last part of the message, but he thanked anyway the King of the Eagles and promised to follow the advice as well as he could. On the next day the battle did indeed take place. When the situation was very difficult after a very long fight, Asparuh heard a voice telling him to lead the auxiliaries into the battle. The young prince hesitated, because the auxiliaries were not trained to fight. The voice insisted, explaining that the Khazars were very tired and therefore the untrained auxiliaries would have a chance. Asparuh obeyed and led the auxiliaries into the battle. They had success in the beginning, but soon the situation of the Bulgarian army became again desperate. However, in the very last moment, when everything seemed to be completely lost, help arrived and Asparuh won a great victory.

Asparuh won two more victories against the Khazars. In the mean time, an Egyptian physician, Nefertari, summoned by Irina from Constantinople, arrived to Kubrat’s estate and tried to heal the Bulgarian ruler by using a very old and extremely controversial treatment. Both Kubrat and the physician were nearly dead at the end of the procedure, but the final result was nevertheless a success. Kubrat was healed.

During one of his visits to Kubrat’s estate, Organa was very surprised when Irina invited him to spend the night with her. He was pleased to accept the invitation, but had great problems after the night. He tried again and again to solve his dilemma, being between the woman whom he loved and the ruler whom his family always served faithfully. Organa never succeeded to deal satisfactorily with this problem.

Asparuh won one more victory and the emperor decided that the war must be stopped, because the further continuation of the fighting would result in two very weak states which would not be able to keep the nomadic tribes, coming uninterruptedly from the East, far away from the border of the empire. After long negotiations, the peace treaty was signed by the rulers of the two countries and the Roman mediator. The Bulgarian fight for survival in the seventh century was successful. After several years also the emperor won a splendid victory against the Arabs which was crucial for the survival of his empire and also of the whole of Europe.

Everybody seemed to be in high spirits. Only Organa was definitely not happy, because he could not marry Irina. He waited patiently seven year until Kubrat died and told Irina that now they should marry. Irina was in great doubt, but finally she rejected Organa’s proposal. She decided to go back to Constantinople where her family members (her son and his wife, her daughter and Totila as well as her four grand-children) were waiting for her.



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Department of Atmospheric Environment, National Environmental Research Institute (Denmark)