Between the 8th and 11th centuries there existed in Central Asia an empire powerful enough to rival that of the Byzantines, the Arabs, or the emerging Rus and European states. Khazar, a nation of Oghuric Turks, speaking a Chuvash dialect, played a pivotal role in history. They are described as “their complexions white, their eyes blue, their hair flowing and predominantly reddish...” (Koestler, p. 19). The empire eventually decayed and its inhabitants scattered though it left behind a legacy stronger than any evidenced by political or military might. It brought forward the realization of a Jewish homeland amidst the diaspora The Khazars erupted from the Asian steppes around the 5th century under the dominion of the Hun empire. By the middle of the sixth century, with Attila's death and the subsequent collapse of the Hun empire, the Khazars found themselves subjugated yet again, this time by the West Turkish Empire, a confederation of tribes ruled by a leader. This empire represented one corner of a “triangle of power, “also consisting of Byzantium and Persia. The Persian kingdom eventually fell, as did the West Turkish Empire. The Khazars, having a foothold in their new empire, began conquering the surrounding tribes. They soon represented a corner of a new triangle of power, also incorporating Byzantium and the Arab lands of the Caliph. The essence of this paper is to illustrate the emerging nationality of the Khazars and how they came to accept a new religion and faith, how they identified themselves as Jews. Khazaria had an important Jewish community long before the conversion of the Kagan, or Khazar ruler, and nobles to Judaism. Not committed to any militant religious ideology, it became a haven for Jewish refugees from Byzantium and the Muslim lands fleeing persecution, forced conversion and other threats. These Jews brought with them crafts from their native lands, better methods of agriculture and trade, and importantly, the Hebrew alphabet which became the medium of thought and expression throughout the Khazarian Jewish community. Judaism was therefore not alien to the Khazars by 740 CE, when Judaism was embraced as the nation’s religion.
The conversion to Judaism of the Khazars is referenced in several sources. Arab historian Dimaski, writing an account in 1327 based on the famous Arab historian al-Masudi‘s own lost work, recounts that the Jews were forced to emigrate by the Byzantine Emperor. The Jews arrived in the Khazar country where they found “an intelligent but uneducated race to whom they offered their religion. The natives found it better than their own and accepted it.” (Koestler, p. 63)
A second account, also from Masudi‘s original is detailed by another Arab historian al-Bakri, in the 11th century. According to this work, the Khazar king realized his pagan beliefs were false. Deciding to convert to one of the world’s three major monotheistic religions, he summoned a Christian Bishop and a scholarly Muslim and also conferred with a Jew (who was not summoned but already present owing to the Jewish influence already in Khazaria). To each he asked the important ideals of their fate, ultimately accepting the Jewish argument that all three religions recognize the truth of Judaism, though not two agree on any other. The Kagan therefore chose to accept the common denominator, in effect not dismissing any of the religions.
There exists an important Jewish account as well, existing in the form of letters between Hasdai Ibn Shaprut (b. 910), an enlightened Jew from Spain’s “Golden Age," and Khazar King “Joseph.” Hasdai served as court physician to the Caliph, Foreign Minister, and later diplomat. Hearing of the Kingdom of Khazaria from diplomatic contacts, Hasdai wrote the king for information on his kingdom and its Jewish heritage. Joseph responded telling the 200 year old story of King Bulan and his vision of God in a dream. Within this dream a covenant was formed. Accepting service to the one true lord Bulan called for delegations of Jews, Christians and Muslims, finding ultimately only one religion with truths established by all three. In the letter, Joseph informed Hasdai that the Khazars are not from Semitic descent, but from Khazar, son of Togarma (ancestor of all Turkish tribes), the grandson of Noah’s third son Japheth. Joseph then mentions a religious revival under King Obadiah, a grandson to King Bulan. Obadiah "fortified the Law according to tradition and usage, built synagogues and schools, assembled a multitude of Israel’s sages, gave them lavish gifts of gold and silver, and made them interpret the twenty four books, the Mishna, and the Talmud..” (Koestler, p. 73).
There is, of course, also a political motive theorized for the conversion of the Khazars. Historian J.B. Bury suggests that by accepting a monotheistic religion and one which was the root of both Islam and Christianity, the Khazars would no longer be resented as heathen barbarians. More importantly, under Judaism, the sovereignty of the Khazar Kagan ~would not be compromised by influence from the Emperor of Byzantium or the Caliph.
What is clear from the sources is that by the middle of the 8th century the Khazar king and his court had accepted Judaism. Judaism was not, however, impressed on all the population. While many chose to follow in the footsteps of the king; others retained other religions. Also, in Khazaria there existed a flourishing Muslim community. Masudi relates that “in this city (Khazar-Itil) are Muslim, Christians, Jews and pagans. The Jews are the king his attendants and the Khazars of his kind” (Koestler, p. 60). The Khazars did not show the same intolerance the region’s other great powers had towards conflicting faiths. Khazaria traditionally served as a gate between the Muslim lands and Eastern Europe. Controlling access to and from the Black Sea and Caspian Sea, or “Khazar Sea” as it was called in Azeri, Turkish, Persian, and Arabic. They kept Arab armies from marching into Eastern Europe, Byzantium getting outflanked by the Arabs, and Russian forces from marching into Arab lands. There are many accounts of Arab armies fighting deep into Khazarian lands only to be driven back, Rus fleets raiding Arab towns along the Black Sea only to be stopped by forces by the Khazar army, and of Byzantine attempts at allying with Khazaria against both the Rus invaders and Arab armies. In 965, Rus Prince Svyatoslav amassed a large army and conquered the Khazar fortress of Sarkel, built to give the Khazars control of Rus movements along the “Khazarian Way, “or Don and Don-Volga portage. With Sarkel destroyed the Rus army was able to bolster Slavonic tribes formerly under Khazar dominance and conquer Khazar territory. This marked an end to the Khazar Empire, but not the nation. Ultimately, religion was to play a hand in the fall of the Khazaria. Prince Svyatoslav‘s youngest son, Vladimir, converted to Greek Christianity. This resembles the Khazar conversion in some ways. There are accounts that he summoned members of the Jewish faith, Islam, Catholicism, and Greek Christianity, the latter of which was apparently the more convincing. It is also probable that he, too, sought a degree of independence from the Pope and Caliph. Greek Christianity was chosen over Judaism as the Byzantine Empire was a more likely ally than a crumbling Khazaria. The Rus and Byzantines joined forces, attacked the Khazars, raided the capital, and eventually subdued the country in 1016. Mentions of Khazars remain, however scant. The “bylina,“ heroic epics or folk songs from the Kiev period refer to Khazaria as a “country of Jews" or “Jewish heroes.“ By the middle of the thirteenth century the nation is heard of no more.
As to where the Khazars disappeared has been subject of much speculation it is commonly believed that the majority of the Khazarian Jews migrated to Poland, Lithuania, Hungary and the Balkans. In these countries appeared large concentrations of Jews. In Poland and Lithuania appeared shtetls, country towns of mostly Jewish population perhaps representing the missing link between market towns of Khazaria and Jewish settlements in Eastern Europe. Also in common between Khazarian and Polish Jewry are manners of dress and diet. The accounts are few and imprecise due to lack of records. What is clear is that the same factors that drove Jews to Khazaria from the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim lands must have doubtless drove them to Eastern Europe as well. Jews were already present in eastern Europe though were largely augmented by the Khazar migration. The Khazarian Empire thus fell, its fate similar to many empires before its time. Its hand in history is great, as the evolution of civilization could have been greatly altered had Khazaria not held back forces intent on destroying each other, the same forces eventually responsible for destroying it. Its story is remarkable, unfortunately not widely known. Nathan Ausubel, a Jewish historian, summed it up best when he stated “OF all the astonishing experiences of the widely dispersed Jewish people none was more extraordinary than that concerning the Khazars” (Brook, p.1).
Brook, Kevin Alan, Khazaria: The Jewish Nation in Russian and Ukraine;
Dunlop, D. M., The History of the Jewish Khazars; Princeton University Press; Princeton, N. J.; 1954
Koestler, Arthur; The Thirteenth Tribe, The Khazar Empire and Its Heritage; Random House; New York; 1976