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So, Who Were the Khazars?

Neither the genetic ancestors of Ashkenazi Jewry nor a myth. Introducing the new ‘History Detective’ column.

Dan Shapira
January 29, 2021
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Detail, Battle Scene, folio from a ‘Zafarnama’ (Book of Victories) of Sharaf al-Din 'Ali Yazdi, 1485–86The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Detail, Battle Scene, folio from a ‘Zafarnama’ (Book of Victories) of Sharaf al-Din 'Ali Yazdi, 1485–86The Metropolitan Museum of Art

“Khazaria” is our name for a polity in the Northern Caucasus and around the lower course of the Volga plus subject territories to the north and west that existed between the mid-seventh century until about 970 CE. As such, Khazaria was among the most long-lived of the steppe empires.

The term “Khazars” is misleading. Like the Mongol Empire, or Imperial Russia or USSR, and like Poland-Lithuania, the Khazar realm was a multiethnic entity. We don’t know the percentage of Eteo-Khazars (Khazars proper, members of the ruler’s own tribe) in the population of the realm, or who exactly they were. When we say “Khazars adopted Judaism,” we cannot be certain who we are talking about—the Khazars proper, or also the ethnic relatives of Alans, Volgan Tatars and Eastern Slavs. We simply don’t know and never will. Whoever tells you that he or she found “the Khazar gene” is a charlatan.

Early historians writing in Arabic anachronistically refer to the Khazars as enemies or allies of the late Sasanian kings; they simply projected the situation of their own days into the past and called the ancient western Turks by the contemporary name of “Khazars.” We know nothing about any actual Khazars till the second half of the seventh century when they first appear on the scene, destroying the polity of their neighbors and, possibly, blood relatives and linguistic brothers, the Bulgars.

The Khazar victory over the Bulgars prompted the dispersion of the Bulgars to places like Moesia (today’s Bulgaria); the territory of the present day Tatarstan; the gorges of the northern Caucasus, where Balqars, or Malqars, can be still found; and even to Hungary and to Rimini in Italy. The last case, anecdotally, is reminiscent of an episode of the end of WWII, when a pro-Nazi Cossack Stan was established in the vicinity of Rimini. Cossacks had a history of claiming to be Khazars’ descendants; the names of two peoples can be related and this author believes they definitely are—the names meant something like “freebooters” or “people who roam around.”

The Khazar Empire was established through the expulsion of the Bulgars from Bulgaria Magna, somewhere between the rivers Don and Kuban. As every empire, Khazaria was multiethnic, and this implies that the imperial tribe or nation was doomed as Milorad Pavić put it, thinking, of course, of his fellow Serbs in the former Titoist Yugoslavia, “there were many nations in Khazaria, but there was no Khazar nation.” Pavić’s great novel The Khazar Dictionary was inspired, as he hinted somewhere in his book, by the two-volume long doctoral thesis by Peter Benjamin Golden published in Budapest in 1980; Golden’s book is, basically, a dictionary of almost 200 Khazar or Khazar-related words.

This brilliant work notwithstanding, we don’t know what language the Khazars proper spoke. Some Arabic-writing authors claimed that the Khazar language was like that of the Turks, meaning Turkic peoples in general, not the Turks of Turkey who were not yet around. Others said that the Khazar language was not like Persian or Turkic, and was in fact different from all the languages. There are some reasons to believe that the Khazar language belonged to the same small “deviant group” among the Turkic languages as Turco-Bulgar, the dead language of those Bulgars who had fled to Bulgaria and to Tatarstan of today, or the living Chuvash language on the Volga Curb.

Some claimed that the Khazars spoke the language of the Slavs—and I incline to take this claim seriously, at least for the latest period of the Khazar history; this is what the oldest source on the early Polish history, from the time of Mieszko I (circa 930-992), written by a Jewish spy from Muslim Spain, claims. The author of this document had seen Khazar merchants in Prague and Krakow who spoke Slavic.

I can explain this briefly by referring to two telling parallels: After a couple of centuries on the Danube, the Turco-Bulgars who had fled the Khazars from the Voronezh Hills, adopted the Slavic speech of their subjects, and it was that Slavic type of speech that became the common literary language of all the Slavs. The one Slavic language that does not continue the Cyrilo-Methodian tradition is Polish.

There were two Arab-Khazar wars, both long and bloody, the First Arab–Khazar War (сirca 642/652) and the Second Arab–Khazar War (circa 722–737). Sometimes it is stated that the Khazars prevented Islam from being introduced into Eastern Europe, but this is far from being accurate. Two Byzantine emperors were married to Khazar princesses, Justinian II, “the Slit-nosed,” 685-695 and 705-711, and Constantine V “the Dung-named,” 741-775. One was called “the Khazar” (Leo IV “the Khazar,” 775-780) because of his mother.

Khazars had several cities. One of them was Semender, somewhere in the north Caucasus, possibly in the vicinity of Makhachqala, the capital of Dagestan. The name of this city was somehow connected to the name of the Serbian town Smederevo, famous for its Judeo-Avar relics. Another Khazar city—once their capital—was Balanjar, possibly between Derbent and Semender, or else near Buynaksk, in Dagestan.

The Khazars were in possession of a fortress, Sarkel; the name means the White House in Chuvash, an aberrant Turkic language which is probably a dialect of the dead Khazar language. This stronghold was possibly the same as Belaja Vezha, “the White Encampment/Tower,” of the Russian Primary Chronicle. This Khazar fortress, built of white bricks, was constructed by a Byzantine engineer, Petronas Kamateros, whom the then emperor, Theophilus, had sent to assist both his Khazar allies and the Byzantine interest against some common enemies—probably the Proto-Magyars.

Sarkel was built at a vital portage between the Don and the Volga, where these two rivers come close to each other, in the mid-840s. Archeologists have found at the site designs similar to Jewish symbols. Under Stalin’s rule, the site was submerged by the Tsimlyansk Reservoir, on the shores of which the Russians grow grapes for what they called Soviet Champagne. Possibly, this fortress was taken by the Kievan Vikings and their Slav subjects in the late 960s; later, the Russian Primary Chronicle made references to Belaja Vezha and to the people of Belaja Vezha as semi-independent from Kiev and as interfering in the internal affairs of Kievan Rus. Whether these people were descendants of the Khazar warriors or not remains an open question.

But the most important city of the Khazars, their last capital, lay on both shores of the lower course of the Volga; some believe this was the site of Samosdelka, where interesting archeological works have been under way during the last decade. This city was composed of three different cities: the western part, on the western shore of the Volga, the eastern part, on the eastern shore of the river, and an island, where the Khazar ruler had his residence built of bricks; no other was allowed to use bricks but him. The name of this triple city was generally given as Atil or Itil, Turkic for “a big river” (the Kazan-Tatar for Volga is still Idel). Some authors writing in Arabic and Persian give other names of the city: Khazarān, Khamlij, possibly also Khanbaliq, “the city of the sacral ruler,” and Sarighshin. Indeed, the city of Saqsin is mentioned in the area by the 12th-century traveler from Granada in Andalusia, Abu Hamid al-Gharnati, and may be a continuation of Sarighshin; the Old Russian form Sorochin possibly relates to the same place.

In the center of the river there was, as said, an island; one Byzantine source calls this island Atech, which is obviously, a copyist’s error; it should be of course “Atel”; however, this error is the source of the name of the Khazar princess Atech in Pavić’s Khazar Dictionary.

Between 733-746 a bishopric seat was established at Atil (ho Astēl), and a Muslim youth from Baghdad, Abo, who chose for himself a Georgian identity and the faith of Christ, was able to convert at Atil to Christianity around 780; later, he returned to Tiflis and was there executed for his apostasy from Islam. Abo is now the patron saint of Tbilisi.

What is important here is the fact that in 780 there was a bishop sent as a missionary messenger to the Khazars; the non-Christian Khazars were described in Abo’s Vita as the “Khazars, Sons of Magog.” They were Mongoloid (sašinel pirita, “with horrible faces”), pagan (“having no religious law”), blood-eating and savage (k’ac velur). However, there is no bias in this description, for they worshipped the Creator (šemokmedi), the Turkic God of Heavens Täŋri. Certainly, they were not Jewish or Muslim by 780, thus being at odds with a unique and somewhat blurred reference in Arabic that in 737, 40-some years earlier, the Khazar Qaghan had been forced to convert to Islam. The Khazar Qaghan is said by Judah Halevy to have converted in 740 to Judaism, but Halevy’s work, The Book of Khuzari, is a purely polemical and philosophical work and the date he sets for the Khazars’ conversion, 400 years before he composed his book, is meant simply to say “very long ago.”

Al-Mas’udi, one of the best Arabic sources, said that the Khazars converted to Judaism in the times of Harun al-Rashid (766-809) and promised to tell the circumstances; the promise was never fulfilled and we have no such description. Al-Dimashqi, quoting al-Mas’udi (he said it was Ibn al-Athir), said that the Jews, persecuted in Byzantium in the times of Harun al-Rashid, fled to Khazaria. He adds that these Jews found there a skillful but unsophisticated bunch of folks to whom they proposed their own religion; allegedly, the Khazars found this religion better than the one they had and accepted it. Jews are said to have come to Khazaria in numbers from Byzantium because of the politics of persecution during the reign of Romanus I Lecapenus (r. 920-944). They also came from Khwarazm and other places.

Khazar coin, the so-called Moses coin, from the Spillings Hoard at Gotland Museum, Visby, Sweden
Khazar coin, the so-called Moses coin, from the Spillings Hoard at Gotland Museum, Visby, SwedenW.carter/wikimedia

In the 830s, coins were minted in Khazaria bearing the Arabic text “There is no God but Allah, and Musa (Moses) is His messenger.” These coins can be seen as evidence that the Khazars—or some of them—had converted to Judaism. However, we should recall, that the first Polish coins, from the time of Mieszko I had Jewish references, too—they had Mieszko Krul Polski written in Hebrew characters. Still, these Polish coins tell nothing about the religious adherence of Mieszko or Polish peasantry or gentry. The same can be true for the Khazar coins with a Jewish-like text—in both cases, the coins were minted by Jews for their purposes, and that’s all we know.

In 860, the Byzantine Emperor Michael III and the fiercely anti-Roman Patriarch of Constantinople Photius sent two monk brothers, Constantine and Methodius, to convert the Khazars to Christianity. Their mission was a failure, but from the description we have we can see that the Khazar Qaghan took a conciliatory position toward Cyril, the Christian missionary. He tells “the Byzantine” (unclear who he talks to) that ultimately we all believe in the same things; nothing specifically Jewish is described. One year later, the brothers were sent on a much more successful mission, to the Slavs of Great Moravia, and invented the Glagolitic alphabet, which is not to be confused with the Cyrillic (called after the second name of Constantine-Cyril).

The Arabic texts from the first quarter of the 10th century state that the Khazars and their rulers were Jewish, but had become Jewish only recently. The Jews were the smallest religious community in Khazaria, where Muslims, Christians and Pagans constituted the majority. The sacral ruler, the Qaghan, lived in his brick-built palace on the Volga, but he possessed no real power and was subjected to a series of taboos—he was forbidden to do this or that, he could leave his island only four times a year, etc. If he trespassed the time limit, he was strangled; when he died, they built a giant complex for his burial with multiple false tombs. Then they let a river overflow the burial complex and killed all those who had taken part in building the graves and in the burial of the Qaghan.

It seems fair to say that nothing in the above practices is reminiscent of any forms of Judaism. However, when the news arrived in 922 that the Muslims destroyed a synagogue somewhere, the Qaghan gave orders to destroy the minaret in his own capital, killed the muazzins and added, that “if I did not fear that not a synagogue would be left in the lands of Islam, I would destroy the mosque.” About the same time a very similar utterance was made by the Buddhist Qaghan of the Uigurs (not to be confused with the modern nation in western China) who learned about the threats against his co-religionists in Muslim Khorasan.

The real power among the Khazars was in the hands of the Qaghan’s deputy, called ishad (a term of Iranian origin) or later, bek. This deputy had, in turn, his own deputies. This system of dual kingship is called diarchy, and was found, at about the same period more or less, among the Hungarians, Vikings, the Merovingian kings and the Carolingian majordomos, the Kieavan kniazs and their vojevodas, the Abbasid Khalifas and the Suljuk sultans, the Japanese Mikados and Shoguns, etc.

There was a Khazar High Court, with two judicial appointments reserved for the Jews, two for the Christians, two for the Muslims, and one for the pagans. Muslims had a kind of autonomy and were represented by a Khaz (from *Khwaja). This word would become the source of the Russian word khoziain (“owner, topman”), which is what Stalin was called by both his cronies and by the inmates of his gulags.

In the middle of the same 10th century, just one generation later, the picture is quite different: there is a nominal Qaghan and his deputy, the king. There is also a Muslim vizier, Ahmad ibn Kuweih, possibly a Khwarazmian, along with a standing army of Muslim mercenaries from the vicinity of Khwarazm who are allowed not to fight their fellow Muslims. A minaret overshadows the Qaghan’s palace.

All the slaves coming into the lands of Islam from Khazaria are from among the pagans, “for the Jews, Christians, and Muslims do not enslave those of their own faiths.”

There are a few references to the Khazars on the first pages of the Russian Primary Chronicle: The Khazars taxed several eastern Slavic tribes, most importantly Kiev; in 965, according to the Russian Chronicle, Sviatoslav of Kiev, the pagan son of Princess Olga (who became Christian), made war on the Khazars who came forth against him with their own kniaz, the Qaghan; Sviatoslav won and took their city Belaja Vezha, which was most likely Sarkel. Sviatoslav then waged war on the Danubian Bulgaria, in 967, according to the Chronicle, and perished in 972 on his way back, defeated. Meanwhile, in 968, when Sviatoslav was out in Bulgaria, the nomadic Turkic Pechenegs attacked the Russian lands for the first time, a feature which would become recurrent in the next two centuries.

We know that the chronology of the pre-11th century events in the Russian Primary Chronicle is absolutely arbitrary. However, there are some three or four correct dates derived from foreign sources used by the compiler of the Chronicle. 972, the date of Sviatoslav’s death, is one of them. 968, the date of the first Pecheneg attack, could have been the other. But the dates of Sviatoslav’s Bulgarian campaigns and the descriptions of these campaigns as they appear in the Chronicle are all inaccurate.

Two excellent Arabic sources relate that the Russians destroyed the Khazar capital of Itil and the cities of Khazarān and Semender in 358h/968-9 CE, and also Bulghar on the Volga, a Muslim entity with a troubled relationship with Khazaria. One of the sources said (the incongruences of the English reflect those in Arabic): “there were in Semender many gardens, and it is said that it used to contain 4,000 (or 40,000) vineyards. I asked a man who had recently been there, while in Jurjan in the year 358. He said: ‘There is not an alms for the poor in any vineyard or garden, if there remains a leaf on the bough. For the Russians descended upon it, and neither a grape nor a raisin remained. The Muslims used to live there, as well as other groups of people of different faiths, including idolaters, but they all flee. Because the land there is rich and fertile, one need to wait three years before it becomes again what it had been.’” This description and the date are at odds with the Russian Chronicle.

There are two old theories that attempt to reconcile these contradictory narratives: first, there were two Sviatoslav raids against the Khazars, one, the minor, recorded by the Chronicle, whereas the major one, that of 968, the Chronicle omitted. However, the chronology of Sviatoslav’s campaigns in Bulgaria, which is known well from reliable Byzantine sources, does not allow any window for such a campaign.

The second theory says that the campaign of 968 was carried out not by Sviatoslav, but rather by unspecified Russians other than Sviatoslav. However, another excellent source in Arabic, Ibn Miskaweih, says that in 354h/965 a body of Turks attacked Khazaria; the Khazars called the Khwarazmians, their main trade partners, for military help. The Khwarazmians answered that “you are Jews and if you like our help, you should submit yourselves to Islam.” The Khazars agreed, with the exception of their king—apparently, their sacred Qaghan who a couple of years earlier had exchanged letters with the leader of Andalusian Jewry and the Spanish Omayyad vizier Hasdai Ibn Shaprut. In the end, the Qaghan converted to Islam as well. In 985, al-Muqaddasi, another excellent source, wrote that the people of Khazarān were no longer Jews but Muslims.

This is, basically, all we know for sure about the Khazars, though I have spared you some additional details, such as how many wives the Qaghan had in 922 and how many in 956. Anything else bombastic you might read about the Khazars would be partisan speculation.

The first modern historian of Russia, Karamzin, stated that the Russian State has been born from Khazaria and the Khazar “yoke” was good for the eastern Slavs; he needed the good Khazar yoke in order to oppose it to the bad Mongol yoke—because of which, Karamzin argued, Russia needed autocracy. Stalin, aka P. Ivanov, wrote in a Pravda article in 1952 that Khazaria was a parasitical cancerous growth of Judeo plutocracy on the body of the peoples of the USSR. In our own days, claims are made that Ashkenazic Jews are descendants of the Khazars; needless to say, we have no Khazar genetic material to substantiate such claims. In short, Khazar studies are an excellent game for armchair scholars with a bent for occasional excursions in the field with a bunch of Russian and Daghestani archeologists who enjoy “one cold tent, three warm vodkas.”

Dan Shapira is an interdisciplinary historian and philologist at Bar-Ilan University. He is working currently on medieval and early modern Jewish minority communities, the Crimea, and the Khazars.