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The history of Khazaria presents us with a fascinating example of how Jewish life flourished in the Middle Ages.
In a time when Jews were persecuted throughout Christian Europe, the kingdom of Khazaria was a beacon of hope. Jews were able to flourish in Khazaria because of the tolerance of the Khazar rulers, who invited Byzantine and Persian Jewish refugees to settle in their country.
Due to the influence of these refugees, the Khazars found the Jewish religion to be appealing and adopted Judaism in large numbers. Most of the available information about the Khazars comes from Arabic, Hebrew, Armenian, Byzantine, and Slavic sources, most of which are reliable.
There is also a large quantity of archaeological evidence concerning the Khazars that illuminates multiple aspects of the Khazarian economy (arts and
crafts, trade, agriculture, fishing, etc.) as well as burial practices.
The Khazars were a Turkic1 people who originated in Central Asia.
The early Turkic tribes were quite diverse, although it is believed that reddish hair was predominant among them prior to the Mongol conquests. In the beginning, the Khazars believed in Tengri shamanism, spoke a Turkic language, and were nomadic. Later, the Khazars adopted Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, learned Hebrew and Slavic, and became settled in cities and towns throughout the north Caucasus and Ukraine.
The Khazars had a great
history of ethnic independence extending approximately 800 years from the
5th to the 13th century.
Yet, the Kök kaganate under which they had
lived provided the Khazars with their system of government. For example, the
Khazars followed the same guidelines as the Kök Turks regarding the
succession of kings.
At its maximum extent, the independent country of Khazaria included the geographic regions of southern Russia, northern Caucasus, eastern Ukraine, Crimea, western Kazakhstan, and northwestern Uzbekistan.
Other Turkic groups such as the Sabirs and Bulgars came under Khazar jurisdiction during the 7th century. The Khazars forced some of the Bulgars (led by Asparukh) to move to modern-day Bulgaria, while other Bulgars fled to the upper Volga River region where the independent state of Volga Bulgharia was founded.
The Khazars had their greatest power over other tribes in the 9th century, controlling eastern Slavs, Magyars, Pechenegs, Burtas, North Caucasian Huns, and other tribes and demanding tribute from them.
Because of their jurisdiction over the area, the Caspian Sea was named
the "Khazar Sea", and even today the Azeri, Turkish, Persian, and Arabic
languages designate the Caspian by this term (in Turkish, "Hazar Denizi"; in
Arabic, "Bahr-ul-Khazar"; in Persian, "Daryaye Khazar").
The wars established the
Caucasus and the city of Derbent as the boundary between the Khazars and the
The first Khazar capital was Balanjar, which is identified with the archaeological site Verkhneye Chir-Yurt.
During the 720s, the Khazars transferred their capital to Samandar, a coastal town in the north Caucasus noted for its beautiful gardens and vineyards. In 750, the capital was moved to the city of Itil (Atil) on the edge of the Volga River.
In fact, the name "Itil" also designated the Volga River in the medieval age.
Itil would remain the Khazar capital for at least another 200 years. Itil, the administrative center of the Khazar kingdom, was located adjacent to Khazaran, a major trading center. In the early 10th century, Khazaran-Itil's population was composed mostly of Muslims and Jews, but a few Christians lived there also. The capital city had many mosques. The king's palace was located on an island nearby, which was surrounded by a brick wall.
The Khazars stayed in their capital during the
winter, but they lived in the surrounding steppe in the spring and summer to
cultivate their crops.
Kiev is a Turkic place name (Küi = riverbank + ev = settlement). A community of Jewish Khazars lived in Kiev. Other towns of the Khazars, many of which also had important Jewish communities, included Kerch (Bospor), Feodosia, Tamatarkha (Tmutorokan), Chufut-Kale, Sudak, and Sarkel.
The local governor of Samandar was Jewish, and it may be assumed that many of the governors of these other localities were also Jewish. A major brick fortress was built in 834 in Sarkel, along the Don River.
It was a cooperative Byzantine-Khazar venture, and Petronas Kamateros, a Greek, served as chief engineer during the construction.
Civilization and trade
The staple foods for the Khazars were rice and fish. Barley, wheat, melons, hemp, and cucumbers were also harvested in Khazaria.
There were many orchards and fertile regions around the Volga River, which
the Khazars depended upon due to the infrequency of rain. The Khazars hunted
foxes, rabbits, and beavers to supply the large demand for furs.
Jewish Radhanite traders of Persia passed thru Itil on their way to western Europe, China, and other locations.
The Iranian Sogdians also made use of
the Silk Road trade, and their language and runic letters became popular
among the Turks. Khazars traded with the people of Khwarizm (northwest
Uzbekistan) and Volga Bulgharia and also with port cities in Azerbaijan and
To some extent, the Khazarian kings influenced
the religion of the Khazar people, but they tolerated those who had
different religions than their own, so that even when these kings adopted
Judaism they still let Greek Christians, pagan Slavs, and Muslim Iranians
live in their domains. In the capital city, the Khazars established a
supreme court composed of 7 members, and every religion was represented on
this judicial panel (according to one contemporary Arab chronicle, the
Khazars were judged according to the Torah, while the other tribes were
judged according to other laws).
Jews came to Khazaria from modern-day Uzbekistan, Armenia, Hungary, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, and many other places, as documented by al-Masudi, the Schechter Letter, Saadiah Gaon, and other accounts. The Arabic writer Dimashqi wrote that these refugee Jews offered their religion to the Khazar Turks and that the Khazars "found it better than their own and accepted it".
The Jewish Radhanite traders may have also
influenced the conversion. Adopting Judaism was perhaps also a symbol of
political independence for Khazaria, holding the balance of power between
Muslim Caliphate and the Christian Byzantine Empire.
The books of the Mishnah, Talmud, and Torah thus became important to many Khazars. Saint Cyril came to Khazaria in 860 in a Byzantine attempt to convert the Khazars to Christianity, but he was unsuccessful in converting them away from Judaism. He did, however, convince many of the Slavs to adopt Christianity. By the 10th century, the Khazars wrote using Hebrew letters.
The major Khazar Jewish documents from that
period were written in the Hebrew language. The Ukrainian professor Omeljan
Pritsak estimated that there were as many as 30,000 Jews in Khazaria by the
10th century. In 2002, the Swedish numismatist Gert Rispling discovered a
Khazar Jewish coin.
Many artifacts from the Khazars, exhibiting
their artistic and industrial talents, have survived to the present day.
During the 10th century, the East Slavs were united under Scandinavian overlordship.
A new nation, Kievan Rus, was formed by Prince Oleg. Just as the Khazars had left their mark on other peoples, so too did they influence the Rus. The Rus and the Hungarians both adopted the dual-kingship system of the Khazars.
The Rus princes even borrowed the title kagan.
Archaeologists recovered a variety of Khazar or
Khazar-style objects (including clothing and pottery) from Viking gravesites
in Chernigov, Gnezdovo, Kiev, and even Birka (Sweden). The residents of
Kievan Rus patterned their legal procedures after the Khazars. In addition,
some Khazar words became part of the old East Slavic language: for example,
bogatyr ("brave knight") apparently derives from the Khazar word
Some of them migrated westward into Hungary, Romania, and Poland,
mixing with other Jewish communities.2
Suggestions for further research
Here are some useful published introductory materials on the Khazars.
Some are available from retail bookstores, while others are only available through libraries.