Khazaria: A Forgotten Jewish Empire
Nicholas Soteri reflects on the early religious controversies of Eastern Europe, focusing in particular on an often overlooked kingdom, the Khazar.
With the break-up of the Soviet Union and the troubles prevalent in the Balkans there has been much renewed interest in the early history of Eastern Europe. Troubles have fuelled nationalist tendencies in the region and there has been much talk of an Orthodox-Catholic (East-West) Christian and Islamic divide, which has a well- documented history and which historians are retracing. Much emphasis has been placed on religious difference and intolerance as the source of the trouble. But does such an explanation get at the crux of the problem or is religion just a small part of much wider and complicated conflicts? If religion does play a part, how large a part? Are nationalistic tendencies largely shaped by considerations of religion? What part do ideas about 'race' play? Are concepts of 'race' influenced by concepts of nationalism or vice versa? And how far do religious ideas influence those about race? How far are religion and 'race' distinguishable indicators of ethnicity? Indeed, what is 'race'? These questions have plagued mankind from time immemorial and attempts to answer them have never been wholly satisfactory but have often incurred danger. The procrustean nature of ideas about nationalism seem never ending. Suffice to say that the religions of Islam, Orthodox and Catholic Christianity have exerted a large influence on the history and shaping of Eastern Europe.
Yet one very interesting epoch in the history of Eastern Europe has been overlooked, if not totally forgotten, by most historians which is of import. to another great religion in the area – Judaism. Khazaria, or mention of the Khazars, is a non-starter to most. Yet historians, and medieval historians in particular, should be aware of the important existence of this powerful kingdom which played just as crucial a part in the stemming of the Arab advance into Europe as Charles Martel did at Tours at around the same time (i.e. the eighth century). However, this Khazar kingdom was neither Christian nor Muslim at the height of its power but Judaic, which makes study of it all the more interesting, since it places a powerful Judaic military presence amidst the power politics of the period in question.
Scholars in the last 100 to 150 years or so have been treating Byzantium (bulwark of Christendom in the east) as a generative, powerful, creative force and a superpower of its day, rather than the degenerating remnants of a Roman empire in the east as Gibbon had once regarded it. Relations between Byzantium and the Arab empire (the other superpower of the day) and their influences have been rightly regarded as important for the study of any aspect of medieval history. Yet, in between these two superpowers lay a third, if not superpower at least important power, strategically, militarily, and economically – Khazaria. This kingdom held considerable sway between the early seventh and early eleventh centuries, extending its power' from its homeland in the northern Caucasus to Eastern Europe and beyond. It was only in 1016 when a joint Russo-Byzantine expedition was launched against the Khazars that the Khazar empire suffered irremediable loss and its decline was sealed. Most of our evidence for the history of the Khazars comes from literary sources. Information on archaeological sites is scanty, since all of these were in the former Soviet Union and are not very accessible; royal burial sites are non-existent since, as our sources tell us, these were placed under streams.
Both Byzantium and the Arab empire viewed the Khazars as a linchpin in the power-diplomacy game and an all-important factor in any balance of power considerations. Byzantium regarded Khazaria as more important than any Western kingdom, as can be seen from the Byzantine emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus' De Cerimoniis, a treatise written on state protocol in the tenth century, where letters of correspondence to the Khaqan of the Khazars were to be given a gold seal worth three solidi, whereas those addressed to the pope in Rome or the 'Emperor in the West' were given a seal worth only two solidi. The importance placed on the power of the Khazars can also be seen in the practice adopted by the Persian king of having three golden thrones permanently placed in the royal palace, in addition to his own, representing the great powers of the day: one for the Khazar khaqan, one for the Byzantine emperor, and another for the emperor of China. As allies of the Byzantines the Khazars not only stemmed the Arab advance into Europe (from the seventh century onwards) but earlier helped to bring about the downfall of the Persian empire by supplying the Byzantine emperor, Heraclius, with 40,000 soldiers under the leadership of Ziebel in 627.
However, who were these Khazars and where did they come from? How did they come to build a powerful empire to the north of the great civilised states of the day in Europe and the Middle East – namely Byzantium, Persia and later the Arab empire? How did they resist these culturally advanced states which were vying for influence in the strategically crucial area which the Khazars controlled? That the Khazars did resist culturally, in the attempt to not allow any of these outside powers to gain influence in their territories, is amply illustrated by the decision of the royal family, sometime in the eighth century under either the kingship of Bulan or Obadiah, to take the unusual step of converting to Judaism. In this way neither Christian Byzantium nor the new Muslim empire to the south could gain power indirectly through religious blackmail and other such means. By adopting Judaism Khazar khaqan ingeniously managed to give a neutral impression to those powers involved in Christian-Muslim (and Christian- Christian) squabbles. Thus Khazaria not only resisted religious influence, and the political influence that accompanied it, from Christian and Muslim powers but also managed somewhat to divert their perceptions of hostility which would have arisen had the Khazars converted to one of these faiths.
The story of the Khazar conversion, although largely fictional, contains revealing insights into the power-politics of the day and how religious considerations played a major part. According to the story the khaqan, on hearing the various arguments put forward by Christian, Muslim and Judaic missionaries, asked each in turn which of the other two religions was considered more acceptable after their own. As to what the Jewish representative replied is of no consequence since both the Christian and Muslim representatives (fearing each other) answered that after their own the Jewish faith would be the most acceptable – the consequences of a Khazar conversion to either Christianity or Islam could have been disastrous to the unsuccessful party. As things turned out the Khazars opted for a path which attracted least hostility, least obligation, and least cultural influence from any of the other major powers of the day.
As to the origins of the Khazar kingdom, this can be traced back to the West Turkish empire – a confederation of Turkic tribes, of which the Khazars were but one, stretching from the Black Sea to Turkestan in the mid-sixth to mid-seventh centuries. Some time in the seventh century this empire began to dissolve and the Khazars later emerged as dominant in the area north of the Caucasus. Later expanding their domains, until by the tenth century they controlled an empire which ranged from the plains of Hungary to the Aral Sea and Ural Mountains, the Khazars controlled all trade passing through south-east Europe towards the Byzantine and Arab empires and the numerous peoples living in this vast area. Thus Khazaria was not only strategically important and a military force to be reckoned with but controlled an important trade route. Their capital, Itil, was at the crossroads of east-west as well as north- south trade routes, and the Khazars extracted a large revenue from taxing goods passing through their territories, not only towards the high civilisations of Islam and Byzantium but also towards the western European kingdoms, northern Europe, and the Turkic peoples to the east of their domains. As for goods produced within the Khazar kingdom itself, these were mainly agricultural – rice, millet, honey, wine, sheep and fisheries from the Khazar ('Caspian') Sea. However, the Khazars possessed few natural resources and never developed their economy through trade to any level of sophistication. Most of the state revenues came from tax dues imposed on trade passing through the Khazar empire, and taxes exacted upon subject peoples. It was, mainly, the military might of the Khazars that kept the empire intact. Once this had been weakened, by persistent Russian attacks in the late tenth to early eleventh centuries, there was not much else to hold the empire together. By the time of the Mongol invasions of Genghis Khan, in the early thirteenth century, the Khazar empire had shrunk both in size and importance to a small area between the Caucasus mountains and the Don and Volga rivers.
However, Khazaria had proved an extremely powerful force to he reckoned with between the seventh and tenth centuries. During this time it stemmed the advance of an Arab empire at its most dynamic (conquering) phase and managed to hold the status quo for centuries; it dabbled in the affairs of Byzantine politics, sometimes wielding considerable influence; it also held back the persistent tribal migrations of peoples from the Russian and Central Asian steppes, which had been menacing Europe for centuries; and it held considerable power, influence over the Slavs and other 'newly emerging peoples' of Eastern Europe. Why, then, does there seem to be no substantial amount of literature in the English language on this seemingly (as a result) obscure empire and people which played such an important role in the early history of Europe and especially south-east and Eastern Europe? At about the time of the decline of the Khazar empire, which took place from the tenth and eleventh centuries onwards, there seems to follow a period of rudimentary state formations in Eastern Europe. However, these very kingdoms which were later to develop into the modern states of Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Hungary, Romania, the Czech and Slovak republics, Austria and Germany, up until and well into this century were home to substantial communities of peoples professing the Jewish faith. That these Jewish communities could very well he descendants of the Khazars and subject peoples of their empire begs the question of all anti-Semitic movements ever to take place in Central and Eastern Europe being void of all meaning (since these communities would be of indigenous ancestry to the region just as much as the peoples they find themselves among, if not having an older presence).
It is a widely held belief among historians that the Jewish communities of Europe are descendants of the diaspora of Roman times and consequent diasporas from Western Europe. Apart from the point that not many are aware of the important existence of this medieval Jewish kingdom, and cannot therefore consider its impact on subsequent history, there seems to be a fallacy here. For the diaspora of the Roman epoch led to an exodus of Jews from Palestine to other parts of the Roman Empire which never incorporated most of the lands of Eastern Europe, thus these Jewish emigrés settled mainly in the west of Europe. That later diasporas from Western Europe fled eastward does still not explain the substantial Jewish communities existing in Eastern Europe from a very early date, i.e. before the tenth century. To add to this, the main language of Central and Eastern European Jews before this century was Yiddish, which is a mixture of Hebrew, Slavonic and east Germanic dialects. Had these Jews migrated from Western Europe would their language not have incorporated a large element of West European loan words? By any account, there is no record of a mass exodus of Jewish peoples from Western to Eastern Europe. But that large population movements of various peoples from East to West Europe occurred up to, and especially at the time of, the Mongol invasions no historian would deny. That the Khazars and their descendants would have been part of this general movement would logically follow.
If this be the case there is a lesson to be learned from such an ironic twist of history. Whether one considers themselves Russian, Bosnian; Serbian, Albanian, Croatian, or Macedonian there is no valid criterion for establishing such nationalisms. Just as the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe (using the Khazar example) are more or less of the same 'racial stock’ as the peoples they find themselves among, so too are the Muslims of the Balkans, Croats, Bosnians and Serbs. When one speaks of Bosnian Croats/Serbs this becomes a contradiction in terms (highlighting the futility of racial categorisations). Both are Bosnians, yet due to their religious bent, i.e. Orthodox or Catholic Christianity, identify, or are identified, with Serbian. or Croat nationalisms. To add fuel to the tire, why do we in the West refer to 'Bosnian Muslims'? Using religion as an indication of ethnicity for the latter group but not for their Christian counterparts.
The problems of nationalism in Eastern Europe are much more complex than a simple explanation of religious difference. However, using the example of the Khazars and their descendants, it can be exemplified that nationalist movements, with their tenacious convictions about race, can affect the perceptions of both aggressor and victim alike which, when one probes deeper into the espoused ideologies, seem to be based on false premises and, ultimately, contradictory theories.