Altsek (also spelled as Alcek, Altzek, or Alzec) is believed to have been the fifth son of Khan Kubrat (r. 632 – ca. 650/665 AD) and brother of Khan Asparuh (r. 680-700), the founders of the First Bulgarian Empire (with Kubrat first establishing the so called Old Great Bulgaria north of the Black Sea, in today’s Ukraine and Southwest Russia, and Asparuh, Kubrat’s third son, shifting the focus of the Bulgarian state to the Lower Danube and the Balkans, including the lands of today’s Bulgaria (sometimes called “Danube Bulgaria" to differentiate it from the other Ancient Bulgar states in the (Early) Middle Ages).
According to the official Bulgarian history based, for example, on Byzantine sources such as the chronicles of 8th century historian Theophanes the Confessor, after Old Great Bulgaria came under attack from the east by the Khazars in the mid 7th century, Khan Kubrat’s five sons took charge of different groups of the Ancient Bulgars, some of them leading the respective tribes to settle far away from their homeland. Thus, (Khan) Altsek is believed to have led a horde of Bulgars via Pannonia (in today’s Hungary, occupied by the Avar Khaganate at the time) to settle in Italy.
While the evidence that Altesk, who is often referred to with title of “Khan" in Bulgarian history, was indeed a son of Kubrat’s and brother of Asparuh’s has been questioned, it is known that a man of this name led a horde of Ancient Bulgars to settle in Italy with the permission of Lombard (or Longobard) King Grimald I (r. 662-671).
The settlement of Ancient Bulgars on the Italian Peninsula in the 7th century is evidenced by the large number of Bulgarian toponyms surviving in modern-day Italy such as Celle di Bulgheria (“Bulgarian Cells") in the Salerno Province; Bulgarograsso, Bulgaro and Bulgarello, near Como; Bolgare, near Bergamo, Bulgaria (Forli-Cesena); Bolgheri – near Livorno; Monte Bulgheria (in the Cilento natural park (Salerno)), among others; and by archaeological discoveries of Ancient Bulgar graves.
Map showing the settlement of Ancient Bulgars led by Altsek on the Italian Peninsula in the second half of the 7th century AD. Map: Kandi, Wikipedia
The monument of Ancient Bulgar leader (Khan) Altsek in Italy’s Celle di Bulgheria has been opened by Bulgaria’s Ambassador in Rome Marin Raykov, Celle di Bulgheria Mayor Gino Marotta, and Alexander Gorchev, Mayor of the Bulgarian town of Veliki Preslav, which was the impressive capital of the First Bulgarian Empire between 893 and 970.
Their announcement has described the monument as “the first monument of a Bulgarian ruler outside [today’s] Bulgarian territories". (This claim has been disputed by online forum users who have pointed to several examples of monuments of/including Bulgarian rulers.)
“The history of Bulgaria and Italy is intertwined on the territory of this small town and the nearby municipalities at the foot of the Bulgaria Mountain (Mount Bulgheria) since the time of Khan Altsek, son of Kubrat and brother of Asparuh, who led the Ancient Bulgars from Pannonia during their settlement in the Lombard Kingdom," says the Bulgarian Embassy in Italy.
It reminds of the testimony of 8th century Lombard historian Paul the Deacon that Altsek was granted the title of gastald and the right to rule over the Ancient Bulgar settlements in the Duchy of Benevento by the Duke of Benevento Romuald I, son of King Grimoald.
The local authorities of the town of Celle di Bulgheria have had relations with Bulgaria since 1988, and the idea for the monument of Ancient Bulgar leader Altsek came from Bulgarian Ambassador Marin Raykov back in 2014.
It has been realized with funding from two Bulgarian NGOs, the Varna-based “Ascent” (“Vazdigane”) Foundation chaired by Ivelin Mihyalov, and the Bulgarian Center “Enlightenment” (“Prosvetlenie”). The 2.2-meter-tall statue of (Khan) Altsek has been authored by sculptors Dishko Dishkov and Assoc. Prof. Nikolay Ninov from the Varna Free University.
The opening of the monument was attended by foreign diplomats, and the mayors of eight municipalities in the region. As part of the event, the Mayors of Celle di Bulgheria and Veliki Preslav signed a sister city agreement.
In his speech at the opening, Bulgaria’s Ambassador to Italy Marin Raykov discussed the historical sources about the settlement of the Ancient Bulgars led by Altsek (also known as “Altsek’s Bulgars") in Italy, and expressed hopes that Bulgarian tourists who go to Italy would be interested in visiting Celle di Bulgheria.
(Raykov’s statement in Italian can be found here (scroll down).)
The opening of the Altsek Monument. (Left-right) Bulgaria’s Ambassador in Rome Marin Raykov, Celle di Bulgheria Mayor Gino Marotta, and Veliki Preslav Mayor Alexander Gorchev. Photo: Bulgarian Embassy in Rome
(The following is a very brief account of the main (groups of) theories about the origin of the Ancient Bulgars).
The question about the precise origin of the Ancient Bulgars, a powerful steppe people with a strong social and military organization and a highly sophisticated calendar, remains resolved and a matter of discussion among Bulgarian and international historians.
Unfortunately, in the past it has been marred and even perverted by political and ideological motives stemming from the fact that in the 20th century Bulgaria was under foreign (mostly Soviet) domination. There are numerous theories about the Ancient Bulgars’ origin, the main ones stipulating either a Turkic (Mongol), or an Iranian (Aryan) origin, or a combination of the two.
The theory about the Turkic origin of the Bulgarians was overwhelmingly promoted during the communist period by historians in the Soviet Union and its satellite, the People’s Republic of Bulgaria. Scientific arguments aside, its political motivation was to denigrate the role of the Bulgars and to promote the role of the Slavs in Bulgaria’s formation in order to prove the stronger ties of 20th century Bulgaria with Russia (the Soviet Union). This is contrasted with the trends in the 1930s when some Bulgarian historians and scholars sympathetic to Nazi Germany sought to deny altogether the role of the Slavs in the formation of the Bulgarian nation.
While still defended by a number of older generation historians, the theory about the Turkic (Mongol) origin of the Ancient Bulgars has been largely discredited since the fall of the communist regime. Taking advantage of the newly established academic freedom, a number of Bulgarian historians and archaeologists have formulated and explored the theory about the Iranian (Sarmatian, Scythian), i.e. Aryan origin of the Bulgars. This theory actually originated with a group of Russian historians in the mid 20th century but was not part of the “official history" during the communist period, and was only given greater publicity and developed further in the 25 years since the fall of communism in 1989.
There is also a third major theory uniting the first two which stipulates that the Ancient Bulgars originated from Iranian tribes in Central Asia in the 1st-4th century AD which were later involved in the tribal union of the Huns and exposed to Turkic influence as they moved into the steppes of Eastern Europe. This hypothesis explains the Turkic elements discovered in Ancient Bulgar archaeological remains which also exhibit features typical of the Iranian tribes (Sarmatian, Scythian).
There are also a number of other theories about the origin of the Ancient Bulgars such as the one stipulating that they were in fact Ancient Thracians; however, those theories appear to be largely pseudo-scientific.
Today’s Bulgarian society has adopted a more balanced approach to the issue, with the theories stipulating the Iranian (Aryan) origin of the Ancient Bulgars (with or without Turkic influences) appearing to dominate the public discourse.