A NOTE ON SPELLING
THE spelling in this book is consistently inconsistent. It is
consistent in so far as, where I have quoted other authors, I have
preserved their own spelling of proper names (what else can you
do?); this led to the apparent inconsistency that the same person,
town or tribe is often spelt differently in different passages.
Hence Kazar, Khazar, Chazar, Chozar, Chozr, etc.; but also Ibn
Fadlan and ibn-Fadlan; Al Masudi and al-Masudi. As for my own text,
I have adopted that particular spelling which seemed to me the least
bewildering to English-speaking readers who do not happen to be
T. E. Lawrence was a brilliant orientalist, but he was as ruthless in his spelling as he was in
raiding Turkish garrisons. His brother, A. W. Lawrence, explained in
his preface to Seven Pillars of Wisdom:
The spelling of Arabic names varies greatly in all editions, and I
have made no alterations. It should be explained that only three
vowels are recognized in Arabic, and that some of the consonants
have no equivalents in English. The general practice of orientalists
in recent years has been to adopt one of the various sets of
conventional signs for the letters and vowel marks of the Arabic
alphabet, transliterating Mohamed as Muhammad, muezzin as mu’edhdhin,
and Koran as Qur’an or Kur’an. This method is useful to those who
know what it means but this book follows the old fashion of writing
the best phonetic approximations according to ordinary English
He then prints a list of publisher’s queries re spelling, and T. F.
Lawrence’s answers; for instance: Query: “Slip [galley sheet] 20.
Nuri, Emir of the Ruwalla, belongs to the ‘chief family of the
Rualla’. On Slip 23 ‘Rualla horse’, and Slip 38, ‘killed one Rueli’.
In all later slips ‘Rualla’.” Answer: “should have also used Ruwala
and Ruala.” Query: “Slip 47. Jedha, the she-camel, was Jedhah on
Slip 40.” Answer: “she was a splendid beast.” Query: “Slip 78.
Sherif Abd el Mayin of Slip 68 becomes el Main, el Mayein, el Muein,
el Mayin, and el Muyein.” Answer: “Good egg. I call this really
If such are the difficulties of transcribing modern
Arabic, confusion becomes worse confounded when orientalists turn to
mediaeval texts, which pose additional problems owing to mutilations
by careless copyists. The first English translation of “Ebn Haukal”
(or ibn-Hawkal) was published AD 1800 by Sir William Ouseley, Knt.
LL.D. In his preface, Sir William, an eminent orientalist, uttered
this touching cri de cœur:
Of the difficulties arising from an irregular combination of
letters, the confusion of one word with another, and the total
omission, in some lines, of the diacritical points, I should not
complain, because habit and persevering attention have enabled me to
surmount them in passages of general description, or sentences of
common construction; but in the names of persons or of places never
before seen or heard of, and which the context could not assist in
deciphering, when the diacritical points were omitted, conjecture
alone could supply them, or collation with a more perfect
Notwithstanding what I have just said, and although
the most learned writers on Hebrew, Arabick, and Persian Literature,
have made observations on the same subject, it may perhaps, be
necessary to demonstrate, by a particular example, the extraordinary
influence of those diacritical points [frequently omitted by
copyists]. One example will suffice — Let us suppose the three
letters forming the name Tibbet to be divested of their diacritical
points. The first character may be rendered, by the application of
one point above, an N; of two points a T, of three points a TH or S;
if one point is placed under, it becomes a B — if two points, a Y
and if three points, a P. In like manner the second character may be
affected, and the third character may be, according to the addition
of points, rendered a B, P, T, and TH, or S.
A NOTE ON SOURCES
(A) ANCIENT SOURCES
OUR knowledge of Khazar history is mainly derived from Arab,
Byzantine, Russian and Hebrew sources, with corroborative evidence
of Persian, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian and Turkish origin. I shall
comment only on some of the major sources.
The early Arabic historians differ from all others in the unique
form of their compositions. Each event is related in the words of
eye-witnesses or contemporaries, transmitted to the final narrator
through a chain of intermediate reporters, each of whom passed on
the original report to his successor. Often the same account is
given in two or more slightly divergent forms, which have come down
through different chains of reporters. Often, too, one event or one
important detail is told in several ways on the basis of several
contemporary statements transmitted to the final narrator through
distinct lines of tradition.… The principle still is that what has
been well said once need not be told again in other words.
writer, therefore, keeps as close as he can to the letter of his
sources, so that quite a late writer often reproduces the very words
of the first narrator.…
Thus the two classic authorities in the field, H. A. R. Gibb and M.J.
de Goeje, in their joint article on Arab historiography in earlier
editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. It explains the
excruciating difficulties in tracing an original source which as
often as not is lost — through the successive versions of later
historians, compilers and plagiarists. It makes it frequently
impossible to put a date on an episode or a description of the state
of affairs in a given country; and the uncertainty of dating may
range over a whole century in passages where the author gives an
account in the present tense without a clear indication that he is
quoting some source in the distant past.
Add to this the
difficulties of identifying persons, tribes and places, owing to the
confusion over spelling, plus the vagaries of copyists, and the
result is a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing, others of
extraneous origin thrown in, and only the bare outlines of the
picture discernible. The principal Arabic accounts of Khazaria,
most frequently quoted in these pages, are by Ibn Fadlan, al-Istakhri,
Ibn Hawkal and al-Masudi. But only a few of them can be called
“primary” sources, such as Ibn Fadlan who speaks from first-hand
experience. Ibn Hawkal’s account, for instance, written circa 977,
is based almost entirely on Istakhri’s, written around 932; which in
turn is supposed to be based on a lost work by the geographer el-Balkhi,
who wrote around 921. About the lives of these scholars, and the
quality of their scholarship we know very little. Ibn Fadlan, the
diplomat and astute observer, is the one who stands out most
Nevertheless, as we move along the chain through the tenth
century, we can observe successive stages in the evolution of the
young science of historiography. El-Balkhi, the first in the chain,
marks the beginning of the classical school of Arab Geography, in
which the main emphasis is on maps, while the descriptive text is of
secondary importance. Istakhri shows a marked improvement with a
shift of emphasis from maps to text. (About his life nothing is
known; and what survives of his writings is apparently only a
synopsis of a larger work.) With Ibn Hawkal (about whom we only know
that he was a travelling merchant and missionary) a decisive advance
is reached: the text is no longer a commentary on the maps (as in
Balkhi, and still partly in Istakhri), but becomes a narrative in
its own right. Lastly with Yakut (1179-1229) we reach, two
centuries later, the age of the compilers and encyclopaedists. About
him we know at least that he was born in Greece, and sold as a boy
on the slave market in Baghdad to a merchant who treated him kindly
and used him as a kind of commercial traveller.
manumission he became an itinerant bookseller and eventually settled
in Mossul, where he wrote his great encyclopaedia of geography and
history. This important work includes both Istakhri’s and Ibn
Fadlan’s account of the Khazars. But, alas, Yakut mistakenly
attributes Istakhri’s narrative also to Ibn Fadlan. As the two
narratives differ on important points, their attribution to the same
author produced various absurdities, with the result that Ibn Fadlan
became somewhat discredited in the eyes of modern historians. But
events took a different turn with the discovery of the full text of
Ibn Fadlan’s report on an ancient manuscript in Meshhed, Persia.
discovery, which created a sensation among orientalists, was made in
1923 by Dr Zeki Validi Togan (about whom more below). It not only
confirmed the authenticity of the sections of Ibn Fadlan’s report on
the Khazars quoted by Yakut, but also contained passages omitted by
Yakut which were thus previously unknown. Moreover, after the
confusion created by Yakut, Ibn Fadlan and Istakhri/Ibn Hawkal were
now recognized as independent sources which mutually corroborated
each other. The same corroborative value attaches to the reports of
Ibn Rusta, al-Bekri or Gardezi, which I had little occasion to quote
precisely because their contents are essentially similar to the main
Another, apparently independent source was al-Masudi (died
circa 956), known as “the Arab Herodotus”. He was a restless
traveller, of insatiable curiosity, but modern Arab historians seem
to take a rather jaundiced view of him. Thus the Encyclopaedia of
Islam says that his travels were motivated “by a strong desire for
knowledge. But this was superficial and not deep. He never went into
original sources but contented himself with superficial enquiries
and accepted tales and legends without criticism.” But this could
just as well be said of other mediaeval historiographers, Christian
Among Byzantine sources, by far the most valuable is Constantine VII
Porphyrogenitus’s De Adnimistrando Imperio, written about 950. It is
important not only because of the information it contains about the
Khazars themselves (and particularly about their relationship with
the Magyars), but because of the data it provides on the Rus and the
people of the northern steppes.
Constantine (904-59) the scholar-emperor was a fascinating character
— no wonder Arnold Toynbee confessed to have “lost his heart” to him
— a love-affair with the past that started in his undergraduate
days. The eventual result was Toynbee’s monumental Constantine
Porphyrogenitus and his World, published in 1973, when the author
was eighty-four. As the title indicates, the emphasis is as much on
Constantine’s personality and work as on the conditions of the world
in which he — and the Khazars — lived. Yet Toynbee’s admiration for
Constantine did not make him overlook the Emperor’s limitations as a
“The information assembled in the De Administrando Imperio
has been gathered at different dates from different sources, and the
product is not a book in which the materials have been digested and
co-ordinated by an author; it is a collection of files which have
been edited only perfunctorily.” And later on: “De Administrando
Imperio and De Caeromoniis, in the state in which Constantine
bequeathed them to posterity, will strike most readers as being in
lamentable confusion.” (Constantine himself was touchingly convinced
that De Caeromoniis was a “technical masterpiece” besides being “a
monument of exact scholarship and a labour of love” .)
criticisms had been voiced earlier by Bury, and by Macartney, trying
to sort out Constantine’s contradictory statements about the Magyar
migrations: “…We shall do well to remember the composition of the
De Administrando Imperio — a series of notes from the most various
sources, often duplicating one another, often contradicting one
another, and tacked together with the roughest of editing.” But we
must beware of bathwaterism — throwing the baby away with the water,
as scholarly critics are sometimes apt to do. Constantine was
privileged as no other historian to explore the Imperial archives
and to receive first-hand reports from his officials and envoys
returning from missions abroad. When handled with caution, and in
conjunction with other sources, De Administrando throws much
valuable light on that dark period.
Apart from orally transmitted folklore, legends and songs (such as
the “Lay of Igor’s Host”), the earliest written source in Russian is
the Povezt Vremennikh Let, literally “Tale of Bygone Years”,
variously referred to by different authors as The Russian Primary
Chronicle, The Old Russian Chronicle, The Russian Chronicle,
Pseudo-Nestor, or The Book of Annals. It is a compilation, made in
the first half of the twelfth century, of the edited versions of
earlier chronicles dating back to the beginning of the eleventh, but
incorporating even earlier traditions and records.
It may therefore,
as Vernadsky says, “contain fragments of authentic information even
with regard to the period from the seventh to the tenth century” — a
period vital to Khazar history. The principal compiler and editor of
the work was probably the learned monk Nestor (b. 1056) in the
Monastery of the Crypt in Kiev, though this is a matter of
controversy among experts (hence “Pesudo-Nestor”). Questions of
authorship apart, the Povezt is an invaluable (though not
infallible) guide for the period that it covers. Unfortunately, it
stops with the year 1112, just at the beginning of the Khazars’
mysterious vanishing act. The mediaeval Hebrew sources on Khazaria
will be discussed in Appendix III.
(B) MODERN LITERATURE
It would be presumptuous to comment on the modern historians of
repute quoted in these pages, such as Toynbee or Bury, Vernadsky,
Baron, Macartney, etc. — who have written on some aspect of Khazar
history. The following remarks are confmed to those authors whose
writings are of central importance to the problem, but who are known
only to a specially interested part of the public. Foremost among
these are the late Professor Paul F. Kahle, and his former pupil,
Douglas Morton Dunlop, at the time of writing Professor of Middle
Eastern History at Columbia University.
Paul Eric Kahle (1875-1965)
was one of Europe’s leading orientalists and masoretic scholars. He
was born in East Prussia, was ordained a Lutheran Minister, and
spent six years as a Pastor in Cairo. He subsequently taught at
various German universities and in 1923 became Director of the
famous Oriental Seminar in the University of Bonn, an international
centre of study which attracted orientalists from all over the
world. “There can be no doubt”, Kahle wrote, “that the international
character of the Seminar, its staff, its students and its visitors,
was the best protection against Nazi influence and enabled us to go
on with our work undisturbed during nearly six years of Nazi regime
in Germany.… I was for years the only Professor in Germany who had a
Jew, a Polish Rabbi, as assistant.”
No wonder that, in spite of his
impeccable Aryan descent, Kahle was finally forced to emigrate in
1938. He settled in Oxford, where he received two additional
doctorates (in philosophy and theology). In 1963 he returned to his
beloved Bonn, where he died in 1965. The British Museum catalogue
has twenty-seven titles to his credit, among them The Cairo Geniza
and Studies of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among Kahle’s students before
the war in Bonn was the young orientalist D. M. Dunlop. Kahle was
deeply interested in Khazar history.
When the Belgian historian
Professor Henri Grégoire published an article in 1937 questioning
the authenticity of the “Khazar Correspondence”, Kahle took him to
“I indicated to Grégoire a number of points in which he could
not be right, and I had the chance of discussing all the problems
with him when he visited me in Bonn in December 1937. We decided to
make a great joint publication — but political developments made the
plan impracticable. So I proposed to a former Bonn pupil of mine, D.
M. Dunlop, that he should take over the work instead. He was a
scholar able to deal both with Hebrew and Arabic sources, knew many
other languages and had the critical training for so difficult a
The result of this scholarly transaction was Dunlop’s The
History of the Jewish Khazars, published in 1954 by the Princeton
University Press. Apart from being an invaluable sourcebook on
Khazar history, it provides new evidence for the authenticity of the
Correspondence (see Appendix III), which Kahle fully endorsed.
Incidentally, Professor Dunlop, born in 1909, is the son of a
Scottish divine, and his hobbies are listed in Who’s Who as
“hill-walking and Scottish history”. Thus the two principal
apologists of Khazar Judaism in our times were good Protestants with
an ecclesiastic, Nordic background.
Another pupil of Kahle’s with a
totally different background, was Ahmed Zeki Validi Togan, the
discoverer of the Meshhed manuscript of Ibn Fadlan’s journey around
Khazaria. To do justice to this picturesque character, I can do no
better than to quote from Kahle’s memoirs:
Several very prominent Orientals belonged to the staff of the [Bonn]
Seminar. Among them I may mention Dr Zeki Validi, a special protégé
of Sir Aurel Stein, a Bashkir who had made his studies at Kazan
University, and already before the first War had been engaged in
research work at the Petersburg Academy. During the War and after he
had been active as leader of the Bashkir-Armee [allied to the
Bolshevists], which had been largely created by him. He had been a
member of the Russian Duma, and had belonged for some time to the
Committee of Six, among whom there were Lenin, Stalin and Trotzki.
Later he came into conflict with the Bolshevists and escaped to
Persia. As an expert on Turkish — Bashkirian being a Turkish
language — he became in 1924 adviser to Mustafa Kemal’s Ministry of
Education in Ankara, and later Professor of Turkish in Stambul
University. After seven years, when asked, with the other Professors
in Stambul, to teach that all civilisation in the world comes from
the Turks, he resigned, went to Vienna and studied Mediaeval History
under Professor Dopsch.
After two years he got his doctor degree
with an excellent thesis on Ibn Fadlan’s journey to the Northern
Bulgars, Turks and Khazars, the Arabic text of which he had
discovered in a MS. in Meshhed. I later published his book in the
“Abhandlungen für die Kunde des Morgenlandes”. From Vienna I engaged
him as Lecturer and later Honorar Professor for Bonn. He was a real
scholar, a man of wide knowledge, always ready to learn, and
collaboration with him was very fruitful. In 1938 he went back to
Turkey and again became Professor of Turkish in Stambul University.
Yet another impressive figure in a different way, was Hugo Freiherr
von Kutschera (1847-1910), one of the early propounders of the
theory of the Khazar origin of Eastern Jewry. The son of a
high-ranking Austrian civil servant, he was destined to a diplomatic
career, and studied at the Oriental Academy in Vienna, where he
became an expert linguist, mastering Turkish, Arabic, Persian and
other Eastern languages. After serving as an attaché at the
Austro-Hungarian Embassy in Constantinople, he became in 1882
Director of Administration in Sarajevo of the provinces of Bosnia-Hercegovina,
recently occupied by Austro-Hungary.
His familiarity with oriental
ways of life made him a popular figure among the Muslims of Bosnia
and contributed to the (relative) pacification of the province. He
was rewarded with the title of Freiherr (Baron) and various other
honours. After his retirement, in 1909, he devoted his days to his
lifelong hobby, the connection between European Jewry and the
Khazars. Already as a young man he had been struck by the contrast
between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews in Turkey and in the Balkans;
his study of the ancient sources on the history of the Khazars led
to a growing conviction that they provided at least a partial answer
to the problem.
He was an amateur historian (though a
quasi-professional linguist), but his erudition was remarkable;
there is hardly an Arabic source, known before 1910, missing from
his book. Unfortunately he died before he had time to provide the
bibliography and references to it; Die Chasaren — Historische Studie
was published posthumously in 1910. Although it soon went into a
second edition, it is rarely mentioned by historians. Abraham N.
Poliak was born in 1910 in Kiev; he came with his family to
Palestine in 1923. He occupied the Chair of Mediaeval Jewish History
at Tel Aviv University and is the author of numerous books in
Hebrew, among them a History of the Arabs; Feudalism in Egypt
1250-1900; Geopolitics of Israel and the Middle East, etc.
on “The Khazar Conversion to Judaism” appeared in 1941 in the Hebrew
periodical Zion and led to lively controversies; his book Khazaria
even more so. It was published in 1944 in Tel Aviv (in Hebrew) and
was received with — perhaps understandable — hostility, as an
attempt to undermine the sacred tradition concerning the descent of
modern Jewry from the Biblical Tribe. His theory is not mentioned in
the Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971-2 printing. Mathias Mieses, however,
whose views on the origin of Eastern Jewry and the Yiddish language
I have quoted, is held in high academic esteem. Born 1885 in
Galicia, he studied linguistics and became a pioneer of Yiddish
philology (though he wrote mostly in German, Polish and Hebrew).
was an outstanding figure at the First Conference on the Yiddish
Language, Czernovitz, 1908, and his two books: Die
Entstehungsursache der jüdischen Dialekte (1924) and Die Jiddische
Sprache (1924) are considered as classics in their field. Mieses
spent his last years in Cracow, was deported in 1944 with
destination Auschwitz, and died on the journey.
THE “KHAZAR CORRESPONDENCE”
THE exchange of letters between the Spanish statesman Hasdai ibn
Shaprut and King Joseph of Khazaria has for a long time fascinated
historians. It is true that, as Dunlop wrote, “the importance of the
Khazar Correspondence can be exaggerated. By this time it is
possible to reconstruct Khazar history in some detail without
recourse to the letters of Hasdai and Joseph.” Nevertheless, the
reader may be interested in a brief outline of what is known of the
history of these documents.
Hasdai’s Letter was apparently written
between 954 and 961, for the embassy from Eastern Europe that he
mentions (Chapter III,3-4) is believed to have visited Cordoba in
954, and Caliph Abd-al-Rahman, whom he mentions as his sovereign,
ruled till 961. That the Letter was actually penned by Hasdai’s
secretary, Menahem ben-Sharuk — whose name appears in the acrostic
after Hasdai’s — has been established by Landau, through comparison
with Menahem’s other surviving work. Thus the authenticity of
Hasdai’s Letter is no longer in dispute, while the evidence
concerning Joseph’s Reply is necessarily more indirect and complex.
The earliest known mentions of the Correspondence date from the
eleventh and twelfth centuries. Around the year 1100 Rabbi Jehudah
ben Barzillai of Barcelona wrote in Hebrew his “Book of the
Festivals” — Sefer ha-Ittim — which contains a long reference,
including direct quotations, to Joseph’s Reply to Hasdai. The
passage in question in Barzillai’s work starts as follows:
We have seen among some other manuscripts the copy of a letter which
King Joseph, son of Aaron, the Khazar priest wrote to R. Hasdai bar
Isaac. We do not know if the letter is genuine or not, and ifit is a
fact that the Khazars, who are Turks, became proselytes. It is not
definite whether all that is written in the letter is fact and truth
or not. There may be falsehoods written in it, or people may have
added to it, or there may be error on the part of the scribe.…
reason why we need to write in this our book things which seem to be
exaggerated is that we have found in the letter of this king Joseph
to R. Hasdai that R. Hasdai had asked him of what family he was, the
condition of the king, how his fathers had been gathered under the
wings of the Presence [i.e., become converted to Judaism] and how
great were his kingdom and dominion. He replied to him on every
head, writing all the particulars in the letter.
Barzillai goes on to quote or paraphrase further passages from
Joseph’s Reply, thus leaving no doubt that the Reply was already in
existence as early as AD 1100. A particularly convincing touch is
added by the Rabbi’s scholarly scepticism. Living in provincial
Barcelona, he evidently knew little or nothing about the Khazars.
About the time when Rabbi Barzillai wrote, the Arab chronicler, Ibn
Hawkal, also heard some rumours about Hasdai’s involvement with the
Khazars. There survives an enigmatic note, which Ibn Hawkal jotted
down on a manuscript map, dated AH 479 — AD 1086. It says:
Hasdai ibn-Ishaq thinks that this great long mountain [the Caucasus]
is connected with the mountains of Armenia and traverses the country
of the Greeks, extending to Khazaran and the mountains of Armenia.
He was well informed about these parts because he visited them and
met their principal kings and leading men.
It seems most unlikely that Hasdai actually visited Khazaria; but we
remember that he offered to do so in his Letter, and that Joseph
enthusiastically welcomed the prospect in the Reply; perhaps the
industrious Hawkal heard some gossip about the Correspondence and
extrapolated from there, a practice not unfamiliar among the
chroniclers of the time. Some fifty years later (AD 1140) Jehudah
Halevi wrote his philosophical tract “The Khazars” (Kuzri).
already said, it contains little factual information, but his
account of the Khazar conversion to Judaism agrees in broad outlines
with that given by Joseph in the Reply. Halevi does not explicitly
refer to the Correspondence, but his book is mainly concerned with
theology, disregarding any historical or factual references. He had
probably read a transcript of the Correspondence as the less erudite
Barzillai had before him, but the evidence is inconclusive. It is
entirely conclusive, however, in the case of Abraham ben Daud (cf.
above, II, 8) whose popular Sefer ha-Kabbalah, written in 1161,
contains the following passage:
You will find congregations of Israel spread abroad from the town of
Sala at the extremity of the Maghrib, as far as Tahart at its
commencement, the extremity of Africa [Ifriqiyah, Tunis], in all
Africa, Egypt, the country of the Sabaeans, Arabia, Babylonia, Elam,
Persia, Dedan, the country of the Girgashites which is called Jurjan,
Tabaristan, as far as Daylam and the river Itil where live the
Khazar peoples who became proselytes. Their king Joseph sent a
letter to R. Hasdai, the Prince bar Isaac ben-Shaprut and informed
him that he and all his people followed the Rabbanite faith. We have
seen in Toledo some of their descendants, pupils of the wise, and
they told us that the remnant of them followed the Rabbanite faith.
The first printed version of the Khazar Correspondence is contained
in a Hebrew pamphlet, Kol Mebasser, “Voice of the Messenger of Good
News”. It was published in Constantinople in or around 1577 by Isaac
Abraham Akrish. In his preface Akrish relates that during his
travels in Egypt fifteen years earlier he had heard rumours of an
independent Jewish kingdom (these rumours probably referred to the
Falashas of Abyssinia); and that subsequently he obtained “a letter
which was sent to the king of the Khazars, and the king’s reply”. He
then decided to publish this correspondence in order to raise the
spirits of his fellow Jews. Whether or not he thought that Khazaria
still existed is not clear. At any rate the preface is followed by
the text of the two letters, without further comment.
Correspondence did not remain buried in Akrish’s obscure little
pamphlet. Some sixty years after its publication, a copy of it was
sent by a friend to Johannes Buxtorf the Younger, a Calvinist
scholar of great erudition. Buxtorf was an expert Hebraist, who
published a great amount of studies in biblical exegesis and
rabbinical literature. When he read Akrish’s pamphlet, he was at
first as sceptical regarding the authenticity of the Correspondence
as Rabbi Barzillai had been five hundred years before him. But in
1660 Buxtorf finally printed the text of both letters in Hebrew and
in a Latin translation as an addendum to Jehudah Halevi’s book on
the Khazars. It was perhaps an obvious, but not a happy idea, for
the inclusion, within the same covers, of Halevi’s legendary tale
hardly predisposed historians to take the Correspondence seriously.
It was only in the nineteenth century that their attitude changed,
when more became known, from independent sources, about the Khazars.
The only manuscript version which contains both Hasdai’s Letter and
Joseph’s Reply, is in the library of Christ Church in Oxford.
According to Dunlop and the Russian expert, Kokovtsov, the
manuscript “presents a remarkably close similarity to the printed
text” and “served directly or indirectly as a source of the printed
text”. It probably dates from the sixteenth century and is believed
to have been in the possession of the Dean of Christ Church, John
Fell (whom Thomas Brown immortalized with his “I do not love thee,
Another manuscript containing Joseph’s Reply but not Hasdai’s Letter is preserved in the Leningrad Public Library. It is
considerably longer than the printed text of Akrish and the Christ
Church manuscript; accordingly it is generally known as the Long
Version, as distinct from the Akrish-Christ Church “Short Version”,
which appears to be an abbreviation of it. The Long Version is also
considerably older; it probably dates from the thirteenth century,
the Short Version from the sixteenth. The Soviet historian Ribakov
has plausibly suggested that the Long Version — or an even older
text — had been edited and compressed by mediaeval Spanish copyists
to produce the Short Version of Joseph’s Reply.
At this point we
encounter a red herring across the ancient track. The Long Version
is part of the so-called “Firkowich Collection” of Hebrew
manuscripts and epitaphs in the Leningrad Public Library. It
probably came from the Cairo Geniza, where a major part of the
manuscripts in the Collection originated. Abraham Firkowich was a
colourful nineteenth-century scholar who would deserve an Appendix
all to himself. He was a great authority in his field, but he was
also a Karaite zealot who wished to prove to the Tsarist government
that the Karaites were different from orthodox Jews and should not
be discriminated against by Christians. With this laudable purpose
in mind, he doctored some of his authentic old manuscripts and
epitaphs, by interpolating or adding a few words to give them a
Thus the Long Version, having passed through the
hands of Firkowich, was greeted with a certain mistrust when it was
found, after his death, in a bundle of other manuscripts in his
collection by the Russian historian Harkavy. Harkavy had no
illusions about Firkowich’s reliability, for he himself had
previously denounced some of Firkowich’s spurious interpolations.
Yet Harkavy had no doubts regarding the antiquity of the manuscript;
he published it in the original Hebrew in 1879 and also in Russian
and German translation, accepting it as an early version of Joseph’s
letter, from which the Short Version was derived. Harkavy’s
colleague (and rival) Chwolson concurred that the whole document was
written by the same hand and that it contained no additions of any
Lastly, in 1932, the Russian Academy published Paul Kokovtsov’s authoritative book, The Hebrew-Khazar Correspondence in
the Tenth Century including facsimiles of the Long Version of the
Reply in the Leningrad Library, the Short Version in Christ Church
and in Akrish’s pamphlet. After a critical analysis of the three
texts, he came to the conclusion that both the Long and the Short
Versions are based on the same original text, which is in general,
though not always, more faithfully preserved in the Long Version.
Kokovtsov’s critical survey, and particularly his publication of the
manuscript facsimiles, virtually settled the controversy — which,
anyway, affected only the Long Version, but not Hasdai’s letter and
the Short Version of the Reply. Yet a voice of dissent was raised
from an unexpected quarter. In 1941 Poliak advanced the theory that
the Khazar Correspondence was, not exactly a forgery, but a
fictional work written in the tenth century with the purpose of
spreading information about, or making propaganda for, the Jewish
kingdom. (It could not have been written later than the eleventh
century, for, as we have seen, Rabbi Barzillai read the
Correspondence about 1100, and Ibn Daud quoted from it in 1161).
this theory, plausible at first glance, was effectively demolished
by Landau and Dunlop. Landau was able to prove that Hasdai’s Letter
was indeed written by his secretary Menahem ben-Sharuk. And Dunlop
pointed out that in the Letter Hasdai asks a number of questions
about Khazaria which Joseph fails to answer — which is certainly not
the way to write an information pamphlet:
There is no answer forthcoming on the part of Joseph to enquiries as
to his method of procession to his place of worship, and as to
whether war abrogates the Sabbath.… There is a marked absence of
correspondence between questions of the Letter and answers given in
the Reply. This should probably be regarded as an indication that
the documents are what they purport to be and not a literary
Dunlop goes on to ask a pertinent question:
Why the Letter of Hasdai at all, which, though considerably longer
than the Reply of Joseph, has very little indeed about the Khazars,
if the purpose of writing it and the Reply was, as Poliak supposes,
simply to give a popular account of Khazaria? If the Letter is an
introduction to the information about the Khazars in the Reply, it
is certainly a very curious one — full of facts about Spain and the
Umayyads which have nothing to do with Khazaria.
Dunlop then clinches the argument by a linguistic test which proves
conclusively that the Letter and the Reply were written by different
people. The proof concerns one of the marked characteristics of
Hebrew grammar, the use of the so-called “waw-conversive”, to define
tense. I shall not attempt to explain this intricate grammatical
quirk, and shall instead simply quote Dunlop’s tabulation of the
different methods used in the Letter and in the Long Version to
designate past action:
with Imperfect Simple Waw
Hasdai’s Letter 48 14
Reply (Long Version) 1 95
In the Short Version of the Reply, the first method (Hasdai’s) is
used thirty-seven times, the second fifty times. But the Short
Version uses the first method mostly in passages where the wording
differs from the Long Version. Dunlop suggests that this is due to
later Spanish editors paraphrasing the Long Version. He also points
out that Hasdai’s Letter, written in Moorish Spain, contains many
Arabisms (for instance, al-Khazar for the Khazars), whereas the
Reply has none. Lastly, concerning the general tenor of the
Correspondence, he says:
…Nothing decisive appears to have been alleged against the factual
contents of the Reply of Joseph in its more original form, the Long
Version. The stylistic difference supports its authenticity. It is
what might be expected in documents emanating from widely separated
parts of the Jewish world, where also the level of culture was by no
means the same. It is perhaps allowable here to record the
impression, for what it is worth, that in general the language of
the Reply is less artificial, more naive, than that of the Letter.
To sum up, it is difficult to understand why past historians were so
reluctant to believe that the Khazar Kagan was capable of dictating
a letter, though it was known that he corresponded with the
Byzantine Emperor (we remember the seals of three solidi); or that
pious Jews in Spain and Egypt should have diligently copied and
preserved a message from the only Jewish king since biblical times.
SOME IMPLICATIONS - ISRAEL AND THE DIASPORA
WHILE this book deals with past history, it unavoidably carries
certain implications for the present and future. In the first
place, I am aware of the danger that it may be maliciously
misinterpreted as a denial of the State of Israel’s right to exist.
But that right is not based on the hypothetical origins of the
Jewish people, nor on the mythological covenant of Abraham with God;
it is based on international law — i.e., on the United Nations’
decision in 1947 to partition Palestine, once a Turkish province,
then a British Mandated Territory, into an Arab and a Jewish State.
Whatever the Israeli citizens’ racial origins, and whatever
illusions they entertain about them, their State exists de jure and
de facto, and cannot be undone, except by genocide.
into controversial issues, one may add, as a matter of historical
fact, that the partition of Palestine was the result of a century of
peaceful Jewish immigration and pioneering effort, which provide the
ethical justification for the State’s legal existence. Whether the
chromosomes of its people contain genes of Khazar or Semitic, Roman
or Spanish origin, is irrelevant, and cannot affect Israel’s right
to exist — nor the moral obligation of any civilized person, Gentile
or Jew, to defend that right. Even the geographical origin of the
native Israeli’s parents or grandparents tends to be forgotten in
the bubbling racial melting pot. The problem of the Khazar infusion
a thousand years ago, however fascinating, is irrelevant to modern
The Jews who inhabit it, regardless of their chequered
origins, possess the essential requirements of a nation: a country
of their own, a common language, government and army. The Jews of
the Diaspora have none of these requirements of nationhood. What
sets them apart as a special category from the Gentiles amidst whom
they live is their declared religion, whether they practice it or
not. Here lies the basic difference between Israelis and Jews of the
Diaspora. The former have acquired a national identity; the latter
are labelled as Jews only by their religion — not by their
nationality, not by their race. This, however, creates a tragic
paradox, because the Jewish religion — unlike Christianity, Buddhism
or Islam — implies membership of a historical nation, a chosen race.
All Jewish festivals commemorate events in national history: the
exodus from Egypt, the Maccabean revolt, the death of the oppressor
Haman, the destruction of the Temple. The Old Testament is first and
foremost the narrative of a nation’s history; it gave monotheism to
the world, yet its credo is tribal rather than universal. Every
prayer and ritual observance proclaims membership of an ancient
race, which automatically separates the Jew from the racial and
historic past of the people in whose midst he lives. The Jewish
faith, as shown by 2000 years of tragic history, is nationally and
socially self-segregating. It sets the Jew apart and invites his
being set apart. It automatically creates physical and cultural
It transformed the Jews of the Diaspora into a
pseudo-nation without any of the attributes and privileges of
nationhood, held together loosely by a system of traditional beliefs
based on racial and historical premises which turn out to be
illusory. Orthodox Jewry is a vanishing minority. Its stronghold
was Eastern Europe where the Nazi fury reached its peak and wiped
them almost completely off the face of the earth. Its scattered
survivors in the Western world no longer carry much influence, while
the bulk of the orthodox communities of North Africa, the Yemen,
Syria and Iraq emigrated to Israel.
Thus orthodox Judaism in the
Diaspora is dying out, and it is the vast majority of enlightened or
agnostic Jews who perpetuate the paradox by loyally clinging to
their pseudo-national status in the belief that it is their duty to
preserve the Jewish tradition. It is, however, not easy to define
what the term “Jewish tradition” signifies in the eyes of this
enlightened majority, who reject the Chosen-Race doctrine of
orthodoxy. That doctrine apart, the universal messages of the Old
Testament — the enthronement of the one and invisible God, the Ten
Commandments, the ethos of the Hebrew prophets, the Proverbs and
Psalms — have entered into the mainstream of the
Judeo-Helenic-Christian tradition and become the common property of
Jew and Gentile alike.
After the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jews
ceased to have a language and secular culture of their own. Hebrew
as a vernacular yielded to Aramaic before the beginning of the
Christian era; the Jewish scholars and poets in Spain wrote in
Arabic, others later in German, Polish, Russian, English and French.
Certain Jewish communities developed dialects of their own, such as
Yiddish and Ladino, but none of these produced works comparable to
the impressive Jewish contribution to German, Austro-Hungarian or
The main, specifically Jewish literary
activity of the Diaspora was theological. Yet Talmud, Kabbala, and
the bulky tomes of biblical exegesis are practically unknown to the
contemporary Jewish public, although they are, to repeat it once
more, the only relics of a specifically Jewish tradition — if that
term is to have a concrete meaning — during the last two millennia.
In other words, whatever came out of the Diaspora is either not
specifically Jewish, or not part of a living tradition. The
philosophical, scientific and artistic achievements of individual
Jews consist in contributions to the culture of their host nations;
they do not represent a common cultural inheritance or autonomous
body of traditions.
To sum up, the Jews of our day have no cultural
tradition in common, merely certain habits and behaviour-patterns,
derived by social inheritance from the traumatic experience of the
ghetto, and from a religion which the majority does not practice or
believe in, but which nevertheless confers on them a pseudo-national
status. Obviously — as I have argued elsewhere — the long-term
solution of the paradox can only be emigration to Israel or gradual
assimilation to their host nations. Before the holocaust, this
process was in full swing; and in 1975 Time Magazine reported that
American Jews “tend to marry outside their faith at a high rate;
almost one-third of all marriages are mixed”.
lingering influence of Judaism’s racial and historical message,
though based on illusion, acts as a powerful emotional break by
appealing to tribal loyalty. It is in this context that the part
played by the thirteenth tribe in ancestral history becomes relevant
to the Jews of the Diaspora. Yet, as already said, it is irrelevant
to modern Israel, which has acquired a genuine national identity. It
is perhaps symbolic that Abraham Poliak, a professor of history at
Tel Aviv University and no doubt an Israeli patriot, made a major
contribution to our knowledge of Jewry’s Khazar ancestry,
undermining the legend of the Chosen Race. It may also be
significant that the native Israeli “Sabra” represents, physically
and mentally, the complete opposite of the “typical Jew”, bred in
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