Research article
Issue: № 3 (7), 2016


This article attempts to analyse the etymology of the Volga medieval city name of Ukek, one of the largest trade and craft centers of the Jochi Ulus, from the ethnohistorical perspective. Based on a number of ethnohistorical prerequisites the author considers it possible to refer the time of the city founding to the Bulgar period in the history of the Middle Volga and in the context of this hypothesis claims that the placename itself originates from the Bulgarian language. At the same time, the article considers also the alternative points of view, both on origin and ethnolanguage accessory of placename "Ukek" and on questions of emergence of the city and its early history.

The main research base for the researcher of medieval toponymy of Middle Volga consists of settlement placenames, due to their frequent usage in different sources and because they are relatively better preserved in toponymic nomenclature of the region. In this paper, we consider the etymology of the name of the Ukek city, which took the form of «Uvek» in the Russian-language variation.

According to the majority of written sources and numismatic materials, the original name of the city sounded like «Ukek». In some sources the spelling of the city name is different from the generally accepted one. In Marco Polo's records, for example, the word «Ukok» is used while Abu-l-Fedy’s notes contain the word “Ukak”.

River Uvekovka flows in close vicinity of the settlement. The name of the river was, apparently, given by the Russian population because of the ruins of the ancient city, which in those days could still be clearly seen. The following pattern – “ancient nameplace plus hydronym” was common for the Horde, especially, in the Volga Bulgar toponymy; what is more, the majority of the hydronyms were given by the later sedentary population [2]. In this case, however, it is possible that the placename sounded likewise among the Russian population of Ukek during the Horde period, the presence of which in the city was confirmed by the archaeological excavations.

It is traditionally believed that the city of Ukek was founded in the Golden Horde period – primarily because no pre-Mongolian layers were found on the territory of these landmarks during archaeological excavations. However, it should be noted that the excavations dealt with a relatively small area of the town and it is now impossible to conduct full archaeological investigation because of the modern buildings.

Some researchers (among them, such authoritative ones as Bartold V.) have expressed doubts that Ukek was founded by the Mongols on a new, uninhabited site [1]. According to them, the city already existed in the times of Volga Bulgaria. For one's part, we will add that there is certain historical background to this statement. By the end of the tenth century Volga Bulgars had extended their influence on the lower lands of Volga, up to the Caspian Sea, after the fall of the Khazar Khanate and during the ensuing ethno-political turmoil. Until the Mongol conquest they preserved control of this land despite repeated changes of ethnic environment in the region. The stronghold of the Bulgars in the Caspian region was the city of Saxin, which is well known from the records of Abu Hamid al-Garnati [3]. However, in order to control Volga effectively the Bulgars needed some kind of fortresses across the river, that would remind their north-eastern towns, which bought fur from the northern peoples in the upper reaches of the Kama. Ukek could be one of these fortified settlements. There is every reason to believe that if the city appeared during the Bulgar epoch it retained its Bulgarian name, which could be partially adapted to the Mongolian language or to the later prevailing Kipchak Koine in the Jochi Ulus. The names of numerous Bulgarian towns were preserved after the Mongol conquest. A fortified point in this place was necessary due to frequent robbery of merchant ships. It is known that the name of the modern city, situated on the spot of Ukek – Saratov, existed long before the emergence of the Russian settlement. As a rule, the origin of this placename is connected with the Turkic phrase – «сары тау» – i.e., the “yellow mountain” (if we take into account some phonetic variation, it is possible to read it as «шурэ ту» – “white mountain”). In our opinion, another explanation of the toponym is quite possible – the word might have derived from the Bulgarian «çарат/çарату» – “to rob, plunder, loot”. In the Bulgar period the passing caravans in this area of the Volga route were often attacked by robbers. Later documents suggest that the foundation place of the Russian fortress Saratov had a bad record among trade people, because Cossacks and Nogais often arranged ambush here. Perhaps, this way they adopted the experience of ancient Volga robbers. Given these facts, it seems logical that the Bulgarian fortress appeared in this area – three centuries later the Russian fortress appeared here for the same reason.

Regarding the origin of the placename “Ukek” itself, the number of papers mark its connection with the ancient Turkic name of the tower, but no original Turkic word is provided. In addition, this version has weak semantic argumentation. If we assume that the city was founded in Bulgarian time, when it probably had noticeable fortifications, then the Bulgarian name would, probably, take the word “fortified tower” as the basis –»маш», which has no evidence. The traditional version claims that the city was founded by the Mongols. But the first Horde cities were poorly fortified or had no fortifications at all. Moreover, in some Bulgarian towns, which continued to exist under the rule of the Mongols, fortifications were destroyed. Therefore, we see no point in relating the origin of the city to the concept of the “tower”.

In our view, the basis of the name “Ukek” is Bulgarian “ӳк” meaning “beginning, a new settlement”. A less probable alternative is a variation of the Bulgarian name translation which derived from the same word, but with a different meaning – “to fall.” The right bank of the Volga River in Saratov region is an area of constant landslides, which still occur nowadays, though there are constant attempts to strengthen the coast. Thus, it can be assumed that in the Bulgar era landslides occurred much more frequently in these areas. The Mongols who came here after the conquest could have adapted the Bulgarian name to their language. The word Ukek can be associated with the Mongolian geographical term “ухэг” meaning “plateau” or “mountain with a flat top”. This term is widely represented in the toponymy of the territories which at different stages were under the influence of the Mongolian ethnic groups. It is enough to provide an example of the name of the alpine Ukok Plateau in the Altai region, famous for its archaeological sites. Our assumption is indirectly confirmed by the fact that, contrary to the common hypothesis about rapid displacement of the Mongolian language at the territory of the Jochi Ulus Kipchak, there is evidence that, at least on the territory of Ukek, Mongolian language functioned until the middle of the fourteenth century. We are talking about one of the most striking records at the Uvek settlement – manuscripts on birch bark, which is a sample of the medieval Mongolian poetry. [4] It is also necessary to note that the name had undergone Mongolian adaptation, while other Bulgarian names – for example, the placename Bulgar – remained unchanged. In our opinion, the reason for this phenomenon is that the Bulgarian population of the central part of the Volga Bulgaria partially survived during the Mongolian conquest and the population of its southern regions was almost completely wiped out or moved to the sites of upstream Volga. Here it is appropriate to recall the quote of Tatishchev V. from the Russian Chronicles “..lower reach Bulgars have come”; it is related to the military actions of Mongolian troops at the outposts of Volga Bulgaria in the early 30's of the XIII century. [5] By lower reach Bulgars here, apparently, he means not only Saxin Bulgars, but also all Bulgarian population living in areas located downstream of the Volga as opposed to the central regions of the Volga Bulgaria. In this regard, we believe that these areas (which comprise the vicinity of Ukek) had preserved the memory of the former placenames, but with the overwhelming superiority of foreign language population, they were quickly adapted to the norms of the foreign language; as a result the meaning had changed, becoming a phonetic calque. However, in this case Mongolian calque from the Bulgarian language has adequate meaning, which corresponds to geographical realia, which, in general, is not typical for phonetic calques.

Summing up, I would like to once again highlight the main stages of settlement names formation. The name of the city, which was originally called “a new settlement” by the Bulgars – similar to the Russian “Novgorod, Novinki” was later adapted by the Mongol conquerors as “a mountain with a flat top”; soon there appeared a Horde city. The Russian population, the presence of which is recorded since the Horde times, had changed the name of the city to “Uvek”. At the moment it impossible to determine if the Russian population co-existed with the Mongolian or if it had arisen in the course of the secondary development of city neighborhoods. Thus, we see the following chain of transformations of the placename: Ӳк – Укек – Увек.


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