Bulgarian tamboura is one of the fundamental Bulgarian folk instruments, an instrument – legend whose name deserved its immortality overcoming geographical barriers, outliving historical vicissitudes and preserving in itself the name of the nation which created it and inspired a spark of its soul. This instrument, which overcame the space and the time, is known throughout the world today under the name of BOULGARIA or TANBOUR BOULGHARY.
The tamboura-shaped instrument used by Bulgarians has been named by a lot in number various names in the last two centuries. The group of stringed instruments extracting the tone through pulling with fingers or a feather, is called drankovi (strum) instruments in our scientific literature. But there is an enormous diversity of names popular in this respect amongst the Bulgarian people. The first types of names are dranka, daznaka, dzanka and others originating from the words, with which people defined the sound of this instrument and the manner which it is reproduced in.

After the conquering of Bulgaria by the Ottoman Empire, Turkic, Arabic and Persian names were used for the varieties of the Bulgarian tamboura. According to the famous historian Konstantin Irechek this stringed instrument was called drankya in Chepino and in Dospat Plane they used the popular in Asia Minor Turkish words baylama (the name originates from the verb bağlamac which means join, attach), saz (literally instrument in Turkish), karaduzen, tambura (tramboura), carried over by Turkish shepherds to the Rhodopes. The French scientist François-Joseph Fétis wrote, that baylama/baglama means children’s tamboura because of its small dimensions. The names of the musical instrument related to the Bulgarian ethnonym, however, predominate. These are boulgarya, boulgaria, boulgarina, boulgariyka, bougare, bougaria, bougarina and so on. Bulgarian tamboura is known under these names from Algeria and Egypt, to Pamir and Afghanistan up to date as well.

During the conducted in the last 200 years investigations and expeditions by foreign and Bulgarian organologists amongst whom Rayna Katsarova, Rayko Sefterski, Dr. Valentin Spasov, Arch. Slavi Donchev, Prof. Hristo Panchev, Ivan Petkanov, Assoc. Prof. Aleksandar Iliev and others, a multitude of pieces of evidence for the names which the Bulgarian instruments is known under even up to date in various regions and countries throughout the world were collected, namely:

Bulgaria boulgarya, boulgaria, boulgarina, boulgariyka and so on.
Serbia bugaria
Macedonia bugaria
Bosnia and Herzegovina bugaria
Croatia bugaria
Greece and island of Crete boulgari
Turkey boulgari saz
Armenia boulgaria
Italy boularina, boulghourela
Spain boulgharina
Algeria tanbour boulghari
Egypt tanbour boulghari
Afghanistan tambour al boulghouri, balkharina
Pamir balakhara

The next map clearly illustrates the documented places of dissemination of the Bulgarian tamboura throughout the world. The Bulgarian musical instrument is present in the folklore of the enumerated countries, permanently integrated in their culture. The imprint of the ethnonym Bulgarian in the consciousness of so many nations demonstrates the influence and the distinct feature which the Bulgarian spirituality and culture left in the ancient world.
Tambura map

Both much and little is known about the use of the instrument boulgaria on our lands. Sufficient pieces of evidence were preserved for the time period from 1800 to 2000 but the data from antiquity are scanty. In his epic poem “Osman” by Gundulić I. (Giovanni di Francesco Gondola), he speaks about the fact that Orpheus first devised sladne I sladke bugarkinje.
The stringed and wind musical instruments were the most significant for the oldest population on the Balkans – the Thracians. They had a leading role in the religious cults and ceremonies. People on the Balkans treated, reached spiritual enlightenment and mystical contemplation through music and instruments in those times.
The most common Thracian cult musical instrument was of the sort of the lutes, with a long fingerboard and two to four strings. According to some authors it was called magadida, but in conformity with others this name was used only for instruments with double strings tuned at octave one with regard to the other to differ from those which have only single strings. Other stringed instruments indivisibly related to the religious and cult holidays were sambika and barbit, and for fun and entertainment of the society – nabla. According to Pliny the Elder the Thracians also used a special type of a guitar, whose structure is not known today. Linos played it but its creation was assigned to the incredibly gifted singer and musician Amphion, son of Zeus and Antiope.

The French organologist and researcher of the 19th century Guillaume André Villoteau (1759-1839) first in the European historiographical science documented and provided detailed information about the name and the dissemination of the Bulgarian stringed instrument. As a member of the research team which accompanied the campaign of Napoleon in 1798, he visited the lands of the Ottoman Empire, Egypt included. During this expedition Villoteau comprehensively described with text and images the local instruments, their musical characteristics and manner of use. His descriptions were published for the first time in 1809 in Paris, in the voluminous work Description De L’Egipte. In it Villoteau classified five different kinds of tamboura:

  • 1.Tanbour Baghlamah;
  • 2.Tanbour Chargy;
  • 3.Tanbour Kebyr Tourky;
  • 4.Tanbour Bouzurk and
  • 5.Tanbour BOULGHARY, called by him – because of its small dimensions – Bulgarian mandolin.


During the 19th century another two French researchers – F. J. Fétis and М.A. Racinet – during their expeditions in Egypt and Algeria discovered an identical but bigger as compared to the six-stringed tamboura-shaped instrument described by Villoteau and documented it under the same name – Tanbur Bоulghary.
The historical facts categorically indicate that the name of the instrument boulgaria is inextricably linked to the ethnonym of the Bulgarians and is preserved in the consciousness of the people throughout the world as the Bulgarian instrument. During the past 19th and 20th centuries the etymology of the name was repeatedly investigated by a number of European scientists who unanimously confirmed the opinion of Prof. Đuro Daničić (1825—1882): „Bougaria … tamboura, which bears its name and origin from Bulgarian people”. Boulgarina from Bulgaria (1900) and bugaria from Bosnia (1912) are shown amongst the exhibits from the Balkans in the Museum of Musical Instruments in Brussels – Belgium.

At the end of the 19th century Croatian musical researcher Fr. Š. Kuhač described two main varieties of the tamboura-shaped instrument, giving them the definitions: sitna bugaria (small boulgaria) and krupna bugaria (big boulgaria), after the name of the people they originate from. Croatian historian Valtazar Bogišić as well as Dragomir Petrov in “The Incarnations of the Wolf – Guardian”, explain the name of the traditional epic songs from Croatia – known as „bugarshtitsa“ – with the musical instrument bugaria. The songs performed under its accompaniment also preserve the Bulgarian ethnonym.

The issued in 1976 in Athens Encyclopedia of Greek Musical Instruments“ by Phibos Anogenakis provides us with more information about the availability of the Bulgarian instrument. In it the oldest then master of stringed instruments, Manolis Vlahakis, born in 1894 in the city of Herakleon on the island of Crete says that the tamboura with length of 55 to 65 centimeters and with three double strings tuned on clean quints or quarts is called μπουλγκαρί (boulgari) or μπαγλαμάς (baglamas). The same instrument was called boulgari or baglamas in the city of Messina as well. An instrument bearing the same name is used on the island of Crete even nowadays.
Arabic traveler Ahmed ibn Fadlan wrote that they placed drinks, fruits and a tamboura in the graves of the deceased rulers of Volga Bulgaria. This information confirms the conviction that the Bulgarian tamboura was rendered homage to getting even to deification. In the past it was used mainly during prayer and religious ceremonies. The worship and the divine attitude of Bulgarian people to this instrument are mainly visible at its depiction in psalters and gospels, in churches and monasteries. We see it in frescos depicting people playing boulgaria. It is also present in images in Hrelyo’s tower of Rila Monastery, the Wheel of Life in Preobrazhen Monastery painted by Zahariy Zograf in 1849, on an icon of the 15th century in Slepchan Monastery, murals in the churches in Sveta Gora built up and painted by Bulgarian masters and a lot of others.

Returning again to the map of dissemination we should note down that the Bulgarian instrument is encountered in areas quite remote from each other. What are the reasons for that and where is its native land?

According to Aeschylus, Plato, Strabon, Aristoxenus, Plutarch and a lot of other ancient Greek authors the native land and the progenitors of the musical art and poetry are the lands and the nation of Thracians. They indicate the 12th century before Christ as the beginning of these arts.
The most ancient Arabic authors of musical tractates testify that tamboura was widely used in the Orient. Arabic historian Ibn-Rustah wrote that Bulgarian people had „various kinds of lutes” with eight strings. The opinion of the French scientists Villoteau and Fetis that the sound lines of the Bulgarian tamboura – determined by the arrangement of the positions on the fingerboard of the instrument and documented by them in the 18th and the 19th centuries – categorically testify that the instrument is not of Arabic or Asian origin, is unanimous. Although it is disseminated in Asia and the Arabic world, all the intervals along its fingerboard are distributed in conformity with the diatonic sound lines. This means that the distances are semitones and there are no quarters and thirds characteristic of the Arabic, the Persian and the Asian tone system. F. J. Fetis wrote in his research based on the name of the instrument that the native land of the Bulgarian tamboura is Vlach Bulgaria – Wallachia.

The multiple migrations of people from the Balkans carried over the instrument boulgaria to the lands of today’s Italy. Consequently it was disseminated in Spain and Algeria. The prototype of modern violin – “lira da braccio” – known from the 15th – 16th centuries was created on the basis of the Bulgarian tamboura – boularina.
Pannorian and Kuber Bulgarians disseminated boulgaria in the lands of today’s Slovenia and Croatia. In Western Balkans, tamboura is encountered exceptionally in the regions of Slavonia, Voyvodina, South Hungary, Herzegovina and Zagreb.
In South Anadol, in Taurus Mountains, between Eregli and Adana there is a mountain which has borne the name of Bulgardag (the Bulgarian mountain) for at least nine centuries. The information of Rayna Katsarova about the name of the disseminated tamboura-shaped instrument under the name of boulgaria comes exactly from there as well.
In the 11th and the 12th centuries a lot of Bulgarians – Bogomils came to Western Europe. The conceptual proximity with the troubadours and their Minnesangs provided them with great popularity and access to the rulers of the free cities in Northern Italy, to the royal courts in South France and Aragon. Their influence in the region of Languedoc, Occitania was the strongest. It comprises the region of the towns of Toulouse, Carcassonne, Bessieres, Monsegur where the Bogomils were called catarrhs. They preached Bogomil “heresy” with the help of their books and musical instruments. Renewed copies of some of these Bogomil instruments may be seen in the museum of the catarrhs in the town of Puivert.
The Greek Patriarchate was the main culprit for not encountering the name of boulgaria on the lands of the Russian Empire. Under the pressure of many years of the Russian Orthodox Church managed at that time by Greek Bishops, in 1648 Tsar Aleksey Mihaylovich Romanov issued in Belgorod Decree: “For straightening of manners and eradication of superstition” („Об исправлении нравов и уничтожении суеверий“), by which he announced all folk instruments as devilish and pagan. By order of Patriarch Nikon folk instruments were collected in wagons and incinerated. The punishment for their concealment was death or galleys. Destroying the Bulgarian traditional instruments in this Barbarian manner, more than 100 years later the balalaika and the domra appeared in the place of the boulgaria.
The text of the song from the Crimean Peninsula “Stoyan Was Leading a Horse” was a piece of evidence that the Bulgarian instrument was present in the everyday life and the culture of the people residing in these lands:

Kalinka was sitting under an umbrella,
Kalinka, young Malinka (Raspberry),
Playing clear boulgare,
Boulgare playing and talking:

In 331 before Christ – Alexander of Macedon conquered Egypt and founded the city of Alexandria. Thus significant Thracian presence was imposed in Egypt during the time of Ptolemies. Some of the pharaohs who ruled there during this time period came from the Bulgarian lands, as, for instance, Ptolemy I Soter – one of the closest friends of Alexander of Macedon and his companion. The information printed out in the work of Villoteau “Description De L’Egipte” that only Turks, Jews, Greeks and sometimes Armenian people played tamboura in Egypt, but never Egyptians, testified in support of this.
One of the reasons for the presence of the Bulgarian instrument within the region of today’s Central Asia is perhaps contained in the testimony of the Roman senator, consul and philosopher Lucius Flavius Arrianus – 95-175, who resided during the second century and was considered as the most reliable chronicler of Alexander the Great. In his book Αλεξάνδρου Ανάβασις („The Campaigns of Alexander“), describing the campaign in Middle Asia, Flavius Arrianus indicated information of significance for the Bulgarian history related to the conquering of India by God Dionysus. In Book 6 Flavius Arrianus wrote that God Dionysus along with his companions taught Indians how to play horos (round dances).
Megasphen (Μεγασθένης), an ancient Greek ethnographer and geographer born in Arahosia, who lived from 350 to 290 before Christ, provided us with the same information as well. He wrote that Dionysus taught Indians to bow down to him and the other Gods playing tapans and guslas and to play the Thracian dance of Satyrs. The instrument gusla, which existed in two varieties: in one of them it was played with finders and in the other one – with a fiddlestick, was frequently spoken about in old Bulgarian sources.
All this is of significance because of the fact that the native land of Dionysus and his ancient cult was namely the land which Bulgarian people live today on. The area around the town of Kazanlak in Bulgaria, full of ritual and ceremonial mounds is known amongst the people as the Valley of Thracian Tsars. Thrace, according to Fabre d’Olivier, originates from a Phoenician word which means etheric space or vault of heaven. The Greeks considered Thrace as the dwelling place of the Gods and center of divine cults.
The information and facts preserved during the centuries build up the conviction that the native land of the Bulgarian tamboura are the lands populated by today’s and ancient Bulgarian/Thracians. Bulgarian folklore is imbued with elements of the Thracian and not of the Pamir or Tibetan culture. In his book “Ancient Thracian Heritage in Bulgarian Folklore” Evgeni Teodorov described in detail the Thracian roots of our customs and rituals. Mihail Arnaudov and Nikolay Kolev provided a lot of facts about the connection of the Bulgarian customs and agricultural implements with those of Thracians as well. This is confirmed by the map of the dissemination of the Bulgarian instrument. Bulgarian tamboura demonstrates active presence on the Balkan Peninsula, Asia Minor and a part of the Mediterranean region – lands populated by Thracians or territories which they developed active commercial activities on. Its dissemination in the remaining more remote regions is perhaps the result of multiple migrations of people from the Balkans to various parts of the world. Prussians called the Balkans the Heart of the Earth. The people from these lands carried spiritual knowledge throughout the world as the heart ejects blood to various parts of the human body.
The application of the instrument boulgaria on our lands has a history of many years. Similar to the millennial Bulgarian plane trees, boulgaria resisted time and outlived any social, political and religious doctrines. During all these years the instrument was called by various names – as its “parents” were also called – Thracians, Getae, Scythians, Moesians and so on but they remained Bulgarians up to date. The instrument was an inseparable part both of the weekday and holiday experiences and of the spiritual and religious rituals of the Bulgarian people. It may be said with certainty that the musical instrument boulgaria is the ritual and ceremonial instrument of the Bulgarian people.
Bulgarian tamboura – boulgaria is the only musical instrument in human history which bears the ethnonym of a nation. It is the material, three-dimensional image of the spiritual Bulgarian symbol – „epsilon”, placed between two parallel lines: IYI – interchangeable with the three-consonant Egyptian hieroglyph NFR, synthesizing the significance and the attitude to the instrument. It is the personification of the traditional Bulgarian music with its numerous merits and in combination with other vested signs builds up the foundation of the symbolic tetrachord determining the Bulgarian spiritual tonality. Talented singers, pipers, bagpipers, fiddlers built up their melodies upon its sounds and chords. It set up the time and kept the rhythm, the harmony and the tonality of the song or instrumental melody performed. The musical instrument performed a social, religious and spiritual function in the hands of the Bulgarian people. Its preservation and development were of primary significance for the survival of our society.