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The Khazar Khaganate

When speaking of Jewish history, the popular consensus is that Jews lived exclusively in diaspora since antiquity, with the Jewish Revolts of the Roman Period being the last period of Jewish political rule, and a short-lived one at that. Though this consensus is reductionist in more ways than one—there were multiple groups in that converted to Judaism in pre-Islamic Arabia, some of which became regional powers on the peninsula, and a few small kingdoms in Ethiopia—the Khazar Khaganate of the Early Middle Ages stands out to me as possibly the most powerful of these forgotten Jewish polities, and as the one I find the most interesting.

The Khazars were ethnically Turkic, and most likely originally lived in either the steppes of Central Asia or in the Ural or Caucasus Mountains. Very little is known about their early history, as is usually common with nomadic peoples. We do know, however, that from 570 CE onwards, the Western Kok Turk Khaganate ruled them, but as it fell apart in the 630s, the Khazars established themselves as a independent political entity that ruled from Derbent in the Caucasus to the Volga River. During this period, most Khazars followed Tengrism, an ancient steppe religion, but the empire was multiethnic and multireligious from its very beginnings. As the Khazars expanded, they conquered Great Bulgaria, which caused many Bulgars to migrate south to modern-day Bulgaria. Those that remained paid tribute to the Khazar Khagans.

As the Byzantine Empire became more fervently anti-Jewish, many refugees fled north into the newly-forming Khazar state. Similarly, Jews left Muslim lands for Khazaria as well, and began settling and intermarrying amongst the Khazars and the other ethnic groups in the empire. During this period, the ritual of circumcision and the observance of the Sabbath spread amongst Khazars, and the Jewish immigrants adopted Khazar customs and began referring to themselves as Khazars as well. During this period, many traveling Jewish merchants such as the Radhanites also moved through Khazar territory, further exposing them to Judaism. Though there are many theories as to why the Khazars decided to convert to Judaism, either as a method to preserve independence from the surrounding Christian and Muslim Empires, or due to the influence of Radhanite merchants, tradition tells of a religious dispute called by Bulan, the bek, or military ruler (analogous to the Japanese Shogun, where the Khagan is analogous to the Emperor), between a Christian priest, a Muslim mullah, and a Jewish rabbi. During this debate, none of the three religions could make a convincing argument for why they were superior to the other, so Bulan asked the mullah and priest separately which of the other two religions they would prefer. Both answered they would prefer Judaism, unwilling to admit that their opponent’s religion had merit, and so Bulan decided that it must be the greatest of the three, and converted.

This most likely occurred sometime between 786 and 809, when the Khagan still had power over the Bek, and so at this point the conversion was probably only personal. Over time, however, the Bek gained more control over the Khazar governing structure, and the nobility converted as well. In 830, the seat of the Khagan was also occupied by a Jew. At this point, the general populace still practiced Tengriism, but as it became more evident that the nobles and rulers of the empire were very committed to Judaism, and by the 930s the general Khazar populace had most likely also converted, though this stage of conversion is still debated by historians. Multiple sources from this time period, however, report that most Khazars were Jewish. This metric, however, cannot be applied to the other ethnic groups living within the empire, as it is harder to discern whether or not these groups converted as well.

After the empire’s conversion to Judaism, its rulers became committed to the defense of their religion and other Jews in neighboring empires. For instance, the Arab traveler ibn Fadlan mentions an instance in which the khagan destroyed a minaret on a mosque in Atil and killed the muezzins after hearing that Muslims in Dar al-Babunaj destroyed a synagogue there. Similarly, in their many wars against Arab caliphates, the Khazars prevented Islam from expanding into Eastern Europe. After their conversion to Judaism, their relations with the Byzantine Empire also deteriorated, as the Byzantines saw a powerful Jewish state as a threat to Orthodox Christian dominance of Eastern Europe. Despite these wars, in the 9th Century the Khazars forged a sort of Pax Khazarica, which facilitated the incredible amount of trade passing through their empire between China and the west.

However, by the 10th century, wars with the Rus’ began to weaken the Khaganate. During the early part of the century, the Khazars won most of their battles against the ‘Rus, who were allies of the Byzantines, who increasingly saw the Khazars as their enemies. Now, the roles were reversed: instead of protecting Eastern Europe from Muslim advance, the Khazars stood as a bulwark between Islam and raiders going down the Volga river, who, according to Bek Joseph of the Khazars, “would destroy the whole land of the Ishmaelites [Muslims] as far as Baghdad.” As the century progressed, however, the Rus’ gained an advantage over the Khazar, and Svyatoslav, Grand Duke of Kiev, defeated the Khazar army and Khagan, capturing the fortress-city of Sarkel in 965. By the end of the decade, he controlled the Khazar capital of Atil. The remaining Khazar rulers converted to Islam in order to receive the support of the Khwarizmians, but Grand Prince Vladimir, son of Svyatoslav, conquered the rest of Khazar territory anyway, burning their vineyards at Samandar. The remaining Khazar territory was essentially occupied by the Khwarizmians, though it nominally remained as a political entity until 1016, when the last Khagan, Georgius Tzul, was conquered by a combined Byzantine-Rus’ian army. Though some historians theorize that the Khazars continued to exist in some form or another until the Mongol invasions, the lack of documentation from the 11th to 13th century makes these claims incredibly difficult to verify.

With the fall of the Khazar Khaganate, there would be no independent Jewish state again until the establishment of Israel in 1948. In the Middle Ages, when the threat of retaliation remained a significant deterrent against persecution of any religious group, this lack of statehood contributed to the rising tide of anti-Semitism that swept Europe during the 12th and 13th centuries. What eventually happened to fleeing Khazar Jews is a source of incredible historical debate. Though some claim that Ashkenazi Jews were the descendants of Khazars, this belief was used to support anti-Semitic beliefs that Jews were “Oriental” and non-European. Conversely, some make this argument in order to claim that Ashkenazi Jews are not Middle Eastern in order to prove that these Jews have no connection to Israel. Both of these claims are distinctly anti-Semitic, and using the Khazars to delegitimize Ashkenazi Jewry is both factually incorrect and intolerant. Though we do know that Khazars fled to Europe, communities of European Jews existed in these regions before the arrival of Khazars, showing that Ashkenazi Jews are in no way descended only from fleeing Khazars. Khazars are also believed to also have fled into the Caucasus, Hungary, Romania, the Byzantine Empire, Russia, Kazakhstan, and the Middle East. Some of the Khazar royal family and wealthy merchants are thought to have fled to Andalusia, or Muslim Spain, and many remained within the Kievan Rus’ territories. In these communities, they probably either converted to the prevailing religion, as many probably did in the Middle East while serving as soldiers in Muslim militaries, or integrated into local Jewish communities, as was likely in Spain.

When writing this, I drew all of my information from Kevin Alan Brook’s The Jews of Khazaria, which details Khazar history and culture in far more detail than I have the time or space to do so here. For anyone wishing to learn more, I highly recommend it.

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