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The Khazars were a semi-nomadic Turkic people from Central Asia, many of whom converted to Judaism. The name 'Khazar' seems to be tied to a Turkic verb meaning "wandering". In the 7th century CE they founded an independent Khaganate in the Northern Caucasus along the Caspian Sea, where over time Judaism became the state religion. At their height, they and their tributaries controlled much of what is today southern Russia, western Kazakhstan, eastern Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and the Crimea.

The Khazars were important allies of the Byzantine Empire, and were a regional superpower of their day. They fought a series of successful wars against the Arab Caliphates, probably preventing an Arab invasion of Eastern Europe. By the end of the tenth century, their power was broken by the Kievan Rus, and the Khazars largely disappeared from history. Today there is controversy over the possible Khazar contribution to the bloodline of modern Ashkenazi Jews.


Origins and prehistory

The origins of the Khazars are unclear. The Khazars themselves traced their origins to Kozar, a son of Togarmeh. Togarmeh is mentioned in the Hebrew scriptures as a grandson of Japheth. Some historians have looked for possible connections between the Khazars and the lost tribes of Israel, but modern scholars generally consider them to be Turks who migrated from the East. Scholars in the USSR considered the Khazars to be an indigenous people of the North Caucasus. Some scholars, such as D.M. Dunlop, considered the Khazars to be connected with a Uyghur tribe called K'o-sa in Chinese sources. However, the Khazar language appears to have been an Oghuric tongue, similar to that spoken by the early Bulgars. Therefore, a Hunnish origin has also been postulated. Since the Turkic peoples were never ethnically homogenous, these ideas need not be deemed mutually exclusive. It is likely that the Khazar nation was made up of tribes from various ethnic backgrounds, as steppe nations traditionally absorbed those they conquered.

Armenian chronicles contain references to the Khazars as early as the late second century. These are generally regarded as anachronisms, and most scholars believe that they actually refer to Sarmatians or Scythians. Priscus relates that one of the nations in the Hunnish confederacy was called Akatziroi. Their king was named Karadach or Karidachus. Some, going on the similarity between Akatziroi and "Ak-Khazar" (see below), have speculated that the Akatziroi were early proto-Khazars.

Dmitri Vasil'ev of Astrakhan State University recently hypothesized that the Khazars moved in to the Pontic steppe region only in the late 500s, and originally lived in Transoxiana. According to Vasil'ev, Khazar populations remained behind in Transoxiana under Pecheneg and Oghuz suzerainty, possibly remaining in contact with the main body of their people.


The Khazars' tribal structure is not well understood. They appear, like many Turkic nations, to have been divided between Ak-Khazars ("White Khazars") and Kara-Khazars ("Black Khazars"). Writers such as Graetz mistakenly believed that these were racial designations; in fact, such distinctions have nothing to do with physical appearance or racial identification. The White-Black distinction is a common social division in Eurasian nomadic tribes, with the "White" group representing the nobility, warrior elite and ruling classes, and the "Black" group making up the commoners, tradesmen, etc.

Peter Golden speculated that the Khazar ethnos was a conglomerate of Oghuric and common Turkic nations, including the Sabirs and North Caucasian Huns as well as elements of the Gokturks.


The formation of the Khazar state

Early Khazar history is intimately tied with that of the Gokturk empire, founded when the Ashina clan overthrew the Juan Juan in AD 552. With the collapse of the Gokturk empire / tribal confederation due to internal conflict in the seventh century, the western half of the Turk empire itself split into two confederations, the Bulgars, led by the Dulo clan, and the Khazars, led by the Ashina clan, the traditional rulers of the Gok Turk empire. By 670, the Khazars had broken the Bulgar confederation, leaving the three Bulgar remnants on the Volga, the Black Sea and the Danube.

The first significant appearance of the Khazars in history is their aid to the campaign of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius against the Sassanid Persians. The Khazar ruler Ziebel (sometimes identified as Tong Yabghu Khagan of the West Turks) aided the Byzantines in overrunning Georgia. A marriage was even contemplated between Ziebel's son and Heraclius' daughter, but never took place.

During the 7th and 8th centuries the Khazar fought a series of wars against the Umayyad Caliphate, which was attempting simultaneously to expand its influence into Transoxiana and the Caucasus. The first war was fought in the early 650 and ended with the defeat of an Arab force led by Abd ar-Rahman ibn Rabiah outside the Khazar town of Balanjar, after a battle in which both sides used siege engines on the others' troops. A number of Russian sources give the name of a Khazar khagan, Irbis, from this period, and describe him as a scion of the Gokturk royal house, the Ashina. Whether Irbis ever existed is open to debate, as is the issue of whether he can be identified with one of the many Gokturk rulers of the same name.

Several further conflicts erupted in the decades that followed, with Arab attacks and Khazar raids into Kurdistan and Iran. There is evidence from the account of al-Tabari that the Khazars formed a united front with the remnants of the Gok Turks in Transoxiana.

Khazars and Byzantium

Khazar overlordship over most of the Crimea dates back to the late 600s. In the mid 700s the rebellious Crimean Goths were put down and their city, Doros (modern Mangup-Kale ) occupied. A Khazar tudun was resident at Cherson in the 690s, despite the fact that this town was nominally subject to the Byzantine Empire.

They are also known to have been allied with the Byzantine Empire during at least part of the 700s. In 704/705 Justinian II, exiled in Cherson, escaped into Khazar territory and married the sister of the Khagan, Busir . With the aid of his wife, he escaped from Busir, who was intriguing against him with the usurper Tiberius III, murdering two Khazar officials in the process. He fled to Bulgaria, whose Khan Tervel helped him regain the throne. The Khazars later provided aid to the rebel general Bardanes, who seized the throne in 711 as Emperor Philipicus.

The Byzantine emperor Leo III married his son Constantine (later Constantine V Kopronymous) to the Khazar princess Tzitzak (daughter of the Khagan Bihar) as part of the alliance between the two empires. Tzitzak, who was baptized as Irene, became famous for her wedding gown, which started a fashion craze in Constantinople for a type of robe (for men) called tzitzakion. Their son Leo (Leo IV) would be better known as "Leo the Khazar".

The second Khazar-Arab war

Hostilities broke out again with the Caliphate in the 710s, with raids back and forth across the Caucasus but few decisive battles. The Khazars, led by a prince named Barjik, invaded northwestern Iran and defeated the Umayyad forces at Ardebil in 730, killing the Arab warlord al-Djarrah al-Hakami and briefly occupying the town. They were defeated the next year at Mosul, where Barjik directed Khazar forces from a throne mounted with al-Djarrah's severed head, and Barjik was killed. Arab armies led first by the Arab prince Maslamah ibn Abd al-Malik and then by Marwan ibn Muhammad (later Caliph Marwan II) poured across the Caucasus and eventually (in 737) defeated a Khazar army led by Hazer Tarkhan, briefly occupying Atil itself and possibly forcing the Khagan to convert to Islam. The instability of the Umayyad regime made a permanent occupation impossible; the Arab armies withdrew and Khazar independence was re-asserted. It has been speculated that the adoption of Judaism (which in this theory would have taken place around 740) was part of this re-assertion of independence.

It is worth noting that around 739, Arab sources give the name of the ruler of the Khazars as Parsbit or Barsbek, a woman who appears to have directed military operations against them. This suggests that women could have very high positions within the Khazar state, possibly even as a stand-in for the khagan.

Although they stopped the Arab expansion into Eastern Europe for some time after these wars, the Khazars were forced to withdraw behind the Caucasus. In the ensuing decades they extended their territories from the Caspian Sea in the east (Many cultures still call the Caspian Sea "Khazar Sea"; e.g. "Hazar Denizi" in Turkish, "Bahr ul-Khazar" in Arabic) to the steppe region north of Black Sea in the west, as far west at least as the Dnieper River.

In 758, the Abbasid Caliph Abdullah al-Mansur ordered Yazid ibn Usayd al-Sulami , one of his nobles and military governor of Armenia, to take a royal Khazar bride and make peace. Yazid took home a daughter of Khagan Baghatur, the Khazar leader. Unfortunately, the girl died inexplicably, possibly in childbirth. Her attendants returned home, convinced that some Arab faction had poisoned her (not unreasonable, all things considered), and her father was enraged. A Khazar general named Ras Tarkhan invaded what is now northwestern Iran, plundering and raiding for several months. Thereafter relations between the Khazars and the Abbasid Caliphate (less expansionist than its Umayyad predecessors) became increasingly cordial.

Khazar religion

Turkic shamanism

Originally, the Khazars practiced traditional Turkic shamanism, focused on the sky god Tengri, but were heavily influenced by Confucian ideas imported from China, notably that of the Mandate of Heaven. The Ashina clan were considered to be the chosen of Tengri and the kaghan was the incarnation of the favor the sky-god bestowed on the Turks. A kaghan who failed had clearly lost the god's favor and was typically ritually executed. Historians have sometimes wondered, only half in jest, if the Khazar tendency to occasionally execute their rulers on religious grounds led those rulers to seek out other religions.

The Khazars worshipped a number of deities subordinate to Tengri, including the fertility goddess Umay, Kuara, a thunder god, and Erlik, the god of death.

Conversion to Judaism

Jewish communities had existed in the Greek cities of the Black Sea coast since late classical times. Cherson, Sudak, Kerch and other Crimean cities possessed Jewish communities, as did Gorgippa, and Samkarsh / Tmutarakan was said to have had a Jewish majority as early as the 670s. The original Jewish settlers were joined by waves of immigration fleeing persecution in the Byzantine Empire, Sassanid Persia (particularly during the Mazdak revolts, and later within the Islamic world. Jewish merchants such as the Radhanites regularly traded in Khazar territory, and may have wielded significant economic and political influence. Though their origins and history are somewhat unclear, the Mountain Jews also lived in or near Khazar territory and may have been allied with or subject to Khazar overlordship; it is conceivable that they too played a role in the conversion.

At some point in the last decades of the 8th century or the early 9th century, the Khazar royalty and nobility converted to Judaism, and part of the general population followed. The extent of the conversion is debated. Historically, most scholars believed that only the upper classes converted to Judaism; there is some support for this in contemporary Muslim texts. However, recent archeological excavations have uncovered widespread shifts in burial practices. Around the mid 800s burials in Khazaria began to take on a decidedly Jewish flavor. Grave goods disappeared almost altogether. Judging by interment evidence, by 950 Judaism had become widespread among all classes of Khazar society.

Essays in the Kuzari, written by Yehuda Halevi, details a moral liturgical reason for the conversion which some consider a moral tale. Some researchers have suggested part of the reason for this mass conversion was political expediency to maintain a degree of neutrality: The Khazar empire was between growing populations; Muslims to the east and Christians to the west. Both religions recognized Judaism as a forebear and worthy of some respect. The exact date of the conversion is hotly contested. It may have occurred as early as 740 or as late as the mid 800s. Recently-discovered numismatic evidence suggests that Judaism was the established state religion by c. 830, and though St. Cyril (who visited Khazaria in 861) did not identify the Khazars as Jews, the khagan of that period, Zachariah, had a biblical Hebrew name. Some medieval sources give the name of the rabbi who oversaw the conversion of the Khazars as Isaac Sangari or Yitzhak ha-Sangari.

The first Jewish Khazar king was named Bulan which means "elk", though some sources give him the Hebrew name Sabriel. A later king, Obadiah, strengthened Judaism, inviting rabbis into the kingdom and building synagogues. Jewish figures such as Saadia Gaon made positive references to the Khazars, and they are excoriated in contemporary Karaite writings as "bastards"; it is therefore unlikely that they adopted Karaism as some (such as Abraham Firkovitch) have proposed.

Khazar relations with world Jewry

The Khazars enjoyed close relations with the Jews of the Levant and Persia. The Persian Jews, for example, hoped that the Khazars might succeed in conquering the Caliphate (Harkavy, in Kohut Memorial Volume, p. 244). The high esteem in which the Khazars were held among the Jews of the Orient may be seen in the application to them, in an Arabic commentary on Isaiah ascribed by some to Saadia Gaon, and by others to Benjamin Nahawandi, of Isaiah 48:14: "The Lord hath loved him." "This," says the commentary, "refers to the Khazars, who will go and destroy Babel" (i.e., Babylonia), a name used to designate the country of the Arabs (Harkavy in "Ha-Maggid." 1877, p. 357).

Likewise, the Khazar rulers viewed themselves as the protectors of international Jewry. They were known to retaliate against Muslim or Christian interests in Khazaria for persecution of Jews abroad. Ibn Fadlan relates that around 920 the Khazar ruler received information that Muslims had destroyed a synagogue in the land of Babung , in Iran; he gave orders that the minaret of the mosque in his capital should be broken off, and the muezzin executed. He further declared that he would have destroyed all the mosques in the country had he not been afraid that the Muslims would in turn destroy all the synagogues in their lands.

Other religions

Besides Judaism, other religions probably practiced in areas ruled by the Khazars include Greek Orthodox, Nestorian, and Monophysite Christianity, Zoroastrianism as well as Norse, Finnic, and Slavic cults. Religious toleration was maintained for the kingdom's three hundred plus years. Many Khazars reportedly were converts to Christianity and Islam. (See "Judiciary", below.)


Khazar Kingship

Khazar kingship was divided between the khagan and the Bek or Khagan Bek. Contemporary Arab historians related that the Khagan was purely a spiritual ruler or figurehead with limited powers, while the Bek was responsible for administration and military affairs.

In the Khazar Correspondence, King Joseph identifies himself as the ruler of the Khazars and makes no reference to a colleague. It has been disputed whether Joseph was a Khagan or a Bek; his description of his military campaigns make the latter probable. A third option is that by the time of the Correspondence (c. 950-960) the Khazars had merged the two positions into a single ruler, or that the Beks had somehow supplanted the Khagans or vice versa.

The army

Khazar armies were led by the Bek and commanded by subordinate officers known as tarkhans. A famous tarkhan referred to in Arab sources as Ras or As Tarkhan led an invasion of Armenia in 758. The army included regiments of Muslim auxiliaries known as Arsiyah, of Khwarezmian or Alan extraction, were quite influential and exempt from campaigning against their fellow Muslims. Early Russian sources called them Khazaran, their city, Khvalisy and the Khazar (Caspian) sea Khvaliskoye, possibly referring to these Khwarezmians.

In addition to the Bek's standing army, the Khazars could call upon tribal levies in times of danger and were often joined by auxiliary troops from subject nations.

Other officials

Settlements were governed by administrative officials known as tuduns. In some cases (such as the Byzantine settlements in southern Crimea), a tudun would be appointed for a town nominally within another polity's sphere of influence.

Other officials in the Khazar government included Jawyshyghr and Kundur, but their responsibilities are unknown.


Muslim sources report that the Khazar supreme court consisted of two Jews, two Christians, two Muslims, and a "heathen" (whether this is a Turkic shaman or a priest of Slavic or Norse religion is unclear), and a citizen had the right to be judged according to the laws of his religion. Some have argued that this configuration is unlikely, as a Beit Din, or rabbinical court, requires three members. It is therefore possible that as practitioners of the state religion, the Jews had three judges on the Supreme Court rather than two, and that the Muslim sources were attempting to downplay their influence. A Muslim or Christian court can function with only one or two judges.

Economic position


The Khazars occupied a prime trade nexus. Goods from western Europe travelled east to Central Asia and China and vice versa, and the Muslim world could only interact with northern Europe via Khazar intermediaries. The Radanites, a guild of medieval Jewish merchants, had a trade route that ran through Khazaria, and may have been instrumental in the Khazars' conversion to Judaism.

No Khazar paid taxes to the central government. Revenue came from a 10% levy on goods transiting through the region, and from tribute paid by subject nations. The Khazars exported honey, furs, wool, millet, fish, and slaves. D.M. Dunlop and Artamanov asserted that the Khazars produced no material goods themselves, living solely off of trade. This theory has been refuted by discoveries over the last half-century, which include pottery and glass factories.

Khazar coinage

The Khazars are known to have minted silver coins, called Yarmaqs. Many of these were copies of Arab dinars, which were in widespread use due to their reliable silver content. Some surviving examples bear the legend "Ard al-Khazar" (Arabic for "land of the Khazars"); others the phrase "Moses is the Prophet of God" (a modification of the Muslim coin inscription "Muhammad is the Prophet of God").

Extent of influence

The Khazar Khaganate was at its height an immensely powerful state. The Khazar heartland was on the lower Volga and the Caspian coast as far south as Derbent. In addition, from the late 600s the Khazars controlled most of the Crimea and the northeast littoral of the Black Sea. By 800 Khazar holdings included most of the Pontic steppe as far west as the Dneiper and as far east as the Aral Sea (some Turkic history atlases show the Khazar sphere of influence extending well east of the Aral. During the Khazar-Arab war of the early 700s, some Khazars evacuated to the Ural foothills, and some settlements may have remained.

Khazar towns

Khazar towns included:

  • Along the Caspian coast and Volga delta:
Atil; Khazaran; Samandar
Balanjar; Kazarki; Sambalut; Samiran
Kerch (also called Bospor); Feodosia; Gusliyev (modern Yevpatoria); Samkarsh (also called Tmutarakan, Tamatarkha); Sudak (also called Sugdaia)
  • In the Don valley:
  • Numerous Khazar settlements have been discovered in the Mayaki-Saltovo region. On the Dneiper, the Khazars founded a settlement called Sambat, which was part of what would become the city of Kiev. Chernigov is also thought to have started as a Khazar settlement.

Tributary and subject nations

Numerous nations were tributaries of the Khazars. A client-king subject to Khazar overlordship was called an "Elteber". At various times, Khazar vassals included:

In the Pontic steppes, Crimea and Turkestan

The Pechenegs ; the Oghuz; the Crimean Goths; the Crimean Huns (Onogurs?); the early Magyars

In the Caucasus

Georgia; Abkhazia; various Armenian principalities; Arran; the North Caucasian Huns; Lazica; the Caucasian Avars; the Kassogs; and the Lezgins.

On the Upper Don and Dneiper

Various East Slavic tribes such as the Derevlians and the Vyatichs; various early Rus polities

On the Volga

Volga Bulgaria; the Burtas; various Finno-Ugrian forest tribes such as the Mordvins and Ob-Ugrians; the Bashkir; the Barsils

Decline and fall

The rise of Rus

Originally the Khazars were probably allied with various Norse factions who controlled the region around Novgorod and regularly travelled through Khazar-held territory to attack territories around the Black and Caspian Seas. By 913, however, the Khazars were engaged in open hostilities with Norse marauders. The Khazar fortress of Sarkel, constructed with Byzantine aid around 830, may have been constructed as a defense against Rus incursions, as well as attacks by nomadic people such as the Pechenegs.

In the 10th century the empire began to decline due to the attacks of both Vikings from Kievan Rus and various Turkic tribes. It enjoyed a brief revival under the strong rulers Aaron and Joseph, who subdued rebellious client states such as the Alans and led victorious wars against Rus invaders.

The Kabar rebellion and the departure of the Magyars

At some point in the ninth century (as reported by Constantine Porphyrogenitus) a group of three Khazar clans called the Kabars revolted against the Khazar government. Omeljan Pritsak and others have speculated that the revolt had something to do with a rejection of rabbinic Judaism; this is unlikely as it is believed that both the Kabars and mainstream Khazars had pagan, Jewish (both rabbinic and Karaite), Christian, and Muslim members. Pritsak maintained that the Kabars were led by the Khagan Khan-Tuvan Dyggvi in a war against the Bek. In any event Pritsak cited no primary source for his propositions in this matter. The Kabars were defeated and joined a confederacy led by the Magyars. It has been speculated that "Hungarian" derives from the Turkic word "Onogur", or "Ten Arrows", referring to seven Finno-Ugric tribes and the three tribes of the Kabars.

In the closing years of the ninth century the Khazars and Oghuz allied to attack the Pechenegs, who had been attacking both nations. The Pechenegs were driven westward, where they forced out the Magyars (Hungarians) who had previously inhabited the Don-Dnieper basin in vassalage to Khazaria. Under the leadership of the chieftain Lebedias and later Arpad, the Hungarians moved west into modern-day Hungary. The departure of the Hungarians led to an unstable power vacuum and the loss of Khazar control over the steppes north of the Black Sea.

Rus and Byzantine hostility

The alliance with the Byzantines began to collapse in the early 900s, possibly as a result of the conversion to Judaism. Byzantine and Khazar forces may have clashed in the Crimea, and by the 940s Constantine VII Porphyrogentius was speculating in De Administrando Imperio about ways in which the Khazars could be isolated and attacked. The Byzantines during the same period began to attempt alliances with the Pechenegs and the Rus, with varying degrees of success.

The Rus warlords Oleg and Sviatoslav I of Kiev launched several wars against the Khazar khaganate, often with Byzantine connivance. The Schechter Letter relates the story of a campaign against Khazaria by HLGW (Oleg) around 941; this calls into question the timeline of the Primary Russian Chronicle and other related works.

Sviatoslav finally succeeded in destroying Khazar imperial power in the 960s. The Khazar fortresses of Sarkel and Tamatarkha fell to the Rus in 965, with the capital city of Atil following circa 967 or 969.

Khazars outside of Khazaria

  • Khazar rabbinical students are known to have studied in Spain from the accounts of Abraham ibn Daud, and Jews from Kiev and elsewhere in Russia, who may or may not have been Khazars, were reported in France, Germany and England.
  • Many Khazar Jews probably fled foreign conquest into Hungary and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. There they likely merged with local Jews and ensuing waves of Jewish immigration from Germany. They most likely did not constitute the dominant group within Eastern European Jewry, as Arthur Koestler maintained (see below).

Late references to the Khazars

There is debate as to the temporal and geographic extent of Khazar polities following Sviatoslav's sack of Atil in 967/9, or even whether any such states existed. The Khazars may have retained control over some areas in the Caucasus for another two centuries, but sparse historical records make this difficult to confirm.

The evidence of later Khazar polities includes:

  • Sviatoslav did not occupy the Volga basin after he destroyed Atil, and departed relatively quickly to embark on his campaign in Bulgaria. The permanent conquest of the Volga basin seems to have been left to later waves of steppe peoples like the Kipchaks.

Jewish sources

  • A letter in Hebrew dated 4746 (985/986) refers to "our lord David, the Khazar prince" who lived in Taman. The letter said that this David was visited by Russians to ask about religious matters- this could be connected to the Vladimir conversion which took place during the same time period. Taman was a Russian principality around 988, so this successor state (if that is what it was) may have been conquered altogether.
  • Abraham ibn Daud, a twelfth-century Spanish rabbi, reported meeting Khazar rabbinical students in Toledo, and that they informed him that the "remnant of them is of the rabbinic faith." This reference indicates that some Khazars maintained ethnic, if not political, autonomy at least two centuries after the sack of Atil.
  • Petachiah of Ratisbon, a thirteenth-century rabbi and traveler, reported traveling through "Khazaria", though he gave few details of its inhabitants except to say that they lived amidst desolation in perpetual mourning.
He further related:
Whilst at Baghdad [I] saw ambassadors from the kings of Meshech, for Magog (n.b.- medieval Christian writers said that the Khazars lived in the land of Gog and Magog) is about ten days' journey from thence. The land extends as far as the Mountains of Darkness (a term often used to describe the Caucasus). Beyond the Mountains of Darkness are the sons of Jonadab, son of Rechab (an official in the court of the Judahite king Josiah). To the seven kings of Meshech an angel appeared in a dream, bidding them to give up the laws and statutes, and to embrace the laws of Moses, son of Amram. If not, he threatened to lay waste their country. However, they delayed until the angel commenced to lay waste their country, when the kings of Meshech and all the inhabitants of their countries became proselytes, and they sent to the head of the academy (i.e., the Gaon of Sura or Pumbedita) a request to send them some disciples of the wise. Every disciple that is poor goes there to teach them the law and Babylonian Talmud. From the land of Egypt the disciples go there to study. He saw the ambassadors visit the grave of [the prophet] Ezekiel..."
The account of the conversion of the "seven kings of Meshech" is extremely similar to the accounts of the Khazar conversion given in the Kuzari, and in King Joseph's Reply. It is possible that Meshech refers to the Khazars, or to some Judaized polity influenced by them. Arguments against this possibility include the reference to "seven kings" (though this, in turn, could refer to seven successor tribes or state micropolities).

Muslim sources

  • Ibn Hawqal and al-Muqaddasi refer to Atil after 969, indicating that it may have been rebuilt. Al-Biruni (mid-1000s) reported that Atil was in ruins, and did not mention the later city of Saqsin which was built nearby, so it is possible that this new Atil was only destroyed in the middle of the eleventh century. Even assuming al-Biruni's report was not an anachronism, there is no evidence that this "new" Atil was populated by Khazars rather than by Pechenegs or a different tribe.
  • Ibn al-Athir, who wrote around 1200, described "the raid of Fadhlun the Kurd against the Khazars". Fadhlun the Kurd has been identified as al-Fadhl ibn Muhammad al-Shaddadi, who ruled Arran and other parts of Azerbaijan. According to the account he attacked the Khazars but had to flee when they ambushed his army and killed 10,000 of his men. Two of the great early 20th century scholars on Eurasian nomads, Marquart and Barthold, disagreed about this account. Marquart believed that this incident refers to some Khazar remnant that had reverted to paganism and nomadic life. Barthold, (and more recently, Kevin Brook), took a much more skeptical approach and said that ibn al-Athir must have been referring to Georgians or Abkhazians. There is no evidence to decide the issue one way or the other.

Russian sources

  • In 986 Khazar Jews were present at Vladimir's disputation to decide on the prospective religion of the Kievian Rus. Whether these were Jews who had settled in Kiev or emissaries from some Jewish Khazar remnant state is unclear. The whole incident is regarded by some scholars as a fabrication, but the reference to Khazar Jews (after the destruction of the Khaganate) is still relevant. Heinrich Graetz alleged that these were Jewish missionaries from the Crimea, but provided no reference to primary sources for his allegation.
  • In 1023 the Russian Chronicle reports that Mstislav (one of Vladimir's sons) marched against his brother Yaroslav with an army that included "Khazars and Kasogs". Kasogs were an early Circassian people. "Khazars" in this reference is considered by most to be intended in the generic sense, but some have questioned why the reference reads "Khazars and Kasogs", when "Khazars" as a generic would have been sufficient. Even if the reference is to Khazars, of course, it does not follow that there was a Khazar state in this period. They could have been Khazars under the rule of the Rus.
  • Prince Oleg of Kiev was reportedly kidnapped by "Khazars" in 1078 and shipped off to Constantinople, although most scholars believe that this is a reference to the Kipchaks.

Byzantine, Georgian and Armenian sources

  • There is the joint attack on the Khazar state in Kerch, ruled by Georgius Tzul, by the Byzantines and Russians in 1016, documented by Kedrenos. Following 1016, there are more ambiguous references to Khazars that may or may not be using "Khazars" in a general sense (the Byzantines and Arabs, for example, called all steppe people "Turks"; before them the Romans had called them all "Scythians").
  • The Jewish Khazars were also mentioned in a Georgian chronicle as a group that inhabited Derbent in the late 1100s.

Western sources

  • Giovanni di Plano Carpini, a thirteenth century Papal legate to the court of the Mongol Khan Guyuk, gave a list of the nations the Mongols had conquered in his account. One of them, listed among tribes of the Caucasus, Pontic steppe and the Caspian region, was the "Brutakhi, who are Jews." The identity of the Brutakhi is unclear. Giovanni later refers to the Brutakhi as shaving their heads. Though Giovanni refers to them as Kipchaks, they may have been a remnant of the Khazar people. Alternatively, they may have been Kipchak converts to Judaism (possibly connected to the Krymchaks or the Crimean Karaites).


Date of the conversion

The date of the conversion, and whether it occurred as one event or as a sequence of events over time, is widely disputed. The issues surrounding this controversy are discussed above.

Extent of the conversion

The number of Khazars who converted to Judaism is also hotly contested. D.M. Dunlop was of the opinion that only the upper class converted; this was the majority view until relatively recently. The relatively sudden shift in burial customs during the mid 800s suggests a more widespread conversion, which hypothesis has been recently championed by Kevin A. Brook .

Koestler's theory and the surrounding controversy

Some historians, and most famously the non-historian novelist Arthur Koestler (in a work, The Thirteenth Tribe, containing unsubstantiated speculation and appropriated historical accounts), have proposed that Jewish Khazars are the ancestors of most or all Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews, but the idea is the subject of much debate. Recent genetic studies have demonstrated that Middle Eastern elements dominate the Ashkenazi male line (see Y-chromosomal Aaron), but the female line appears to have a substantially different history. Some have argued this suggests Middle Eastern men marrying into local European communities [2]
[3] meaning that Ashkenazim are either not related to Jewish Khazars or that Jewish Khazars represent only a small element of Ashkenazi ancestry rather than the dominant element suggested by Koestler.

Others critics of the Khazar-Ashkenazi theory have suggested these ideas have become political and anti-Zionist in nature. The Khazar theory has been adopted by some anti-Zionists, especially in the Arab world; such proponents of the theory argue that if Ashkenazi Jews are primarily Khazar in origin, then they would be exempt from God's promise of Canaan to Jews as recorded in the Bible, were one to ignore that the promise also applies to converts, and the fact that over half of Israeli Jews are not Ashkenazi. Some have countered that such charges of a political motive are not relevant to the core of the argument; in any event, Koestler himself was emphatically pro-Zionist.

At other times, the Khazar myth has served as a catalyst for state antisemitism in the Soviet Union and a justification for conquest by Russian nationalists. [4]

Others have claimed Khazar origins for such groups as the Karaim, Krymchaks, Mountain Jews, and Gruzim. There is little evidence to support any of these theories, although it is likely that some Khazar descendents found their way into these communities.

See also


  • Kevin Alan Brook, The Jews of Khazaria, 1st ed., Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1999
  • Essay: Are Russian Jews Descended from the Khazars?
  • Kevin Alan Brook, "Tales about Jewish Khazars in the Byzantine Empire Resolve an Old Debate". Los Muestros, No. 54, p. 27.
  • Douglas M. Dunlop, The History of the Jewish Khazars, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1954.
  • Norman Golb and Omeljan Pritsak , Khazarian Hebrew Documents of the Tenth Century. Ithaca: Cornell Univ. Press, 1982.

External links

  • Bibliography of Khazar Studies
  • Primary sources on the Conversion
  • Eurasian Nomads
  • Khazar Historic Maps
  • Norman Finkelshteyn's Jewish Warriors - The Khazar Khaganate
  • Caveats in Researching the Khazars
  • Criticisms of Khazar Studies by Norman Finkelshteyn

Last updated: 05-03-2005 17:50:55