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‘Invincible’ a modern depiction of a battle between Rus and Khazars.

The Khazars: A Forgotten Medieval Empire that Ruled the Northern Caucasus

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"The Khazar people were an unusual phenomenon for Medieval times. Surrounded by savage and nomadic tribes, they had all the advantages of the developed countries: structured government, vast and prosperous trading, and a permanent army. At the time, when great fanatism and deep ignorance contested their dominion over Western Europe, the Khazar state was famous for its justice and tolerance. People persecuted for their faiths flocked into Khazaria from everywhere. As a glistening star it shone brightly on the gloomy horizon of Europe, and faded away without leaving any traces of existence."
- Vasilii V. Grigoriev, in his essay "O dvoystvennosti verkhovnoy vlasti u khazarov" (1835), reprinted in his 1876 compilation book Rossiya i Aziya

The Khazars were a semi-nomadic, Turkic-speaking people who became a major commercial empire in the northern Caucasus during the 7th century AD. Over the centuries they expanded their power to include eastern Ukraine, Crimea, southern Russia, western Kazakhstan, and northwestern Uzbekistan too.

Khazar coin, the so called 'Moses coin', from the Spillings Hoard at Gotland Museum. (W.carter/CC BY SA 4.0)

Khazar coin, the so called 'Moses coin', from the Spillings Hoard at Gotland Museum. (W.carter/ CC BY SA 4.0 )

Uncertain Origins

The origins of the Khazars are unclear and they arrived in the Volga-Caucasus region at an undetermined time in history. The Khazars are generally accepted to be of Turkic origin and probably migrated to the area from Central Asia. It has also been suggested that the Khazars were once part of the 5th century Hunnic Empire as the Akatzirs that were mentioned by the Byzantine diplomat and historian named Priscus of Panium.

By the second half of the 6th century, the Khazars came under the rule of the Western Turkic Khaganate. When the khaganate was dissolved in the middle of the following century, the Khazars established their own khaganate by conquering some of the neighboring Bulgar, Caucasian, and Slavic tribes. The Khazar were initially nomadic horsemen, though when they conquered these tribes, they adopted their agricultural practices as well, and settled down. Additionally, the Khazars engaged in trade as well, which enabled them to later develop into a strong commercial empire.

Khazar fortress at Sarkel (Belaya Vyezha, Russia). Aerial photo from excavations conducted by M. I. Artamanov during the 1930's. (Public Domain)

Khazar fortress at Sarkel (Belaya Vyezha, Russia). Aerial photo from excavations conducted by M. I. Artamanov during the 1930's. ( Public Domain )

Arab-Khazar Wars

Not long after the founding of their khaganate, the Khazars came into conflict with the Rashidun Caliphate. Shortly before his death in 644 AD, the caliph Umar instructed his troops to expand northwards into the Caucasus. It was, however, only in 652/3 AD that the first major battle was fought between the Khazars and the Arabs near the town of Balanjar. The Khazars succeeded in repelling the invaders, and the Arab commander, Abd ar-Rahman ibn Rabiah, was killed. The Arabs continued their war against the Khazars, and their continuous attacks eventually forced the Khazars to withdraw north of the Caucasus. Nevertheless, the early victories of the Khazar over the Arabs helped to block the expansion of the Caliphate northwards into Eastern Europe.

The Khazars maintained cordial relations with the other superpower of the day, the Byzantine Empire. For instance, during the 7th century, the Khazars provided military aid to the emperor Heraclius during his campaign against the Sassanians. Additionally, two 8th century emperors, Justinian II, and Constantine V, each had Khazar wives. Moreover, the Khazars protected the Byzantines from the nomadic tribes in the steppes to the north of the Caucasus, as their khaganate served as a buffer state between the two.

The Khazars grew wealthy as a result of trade, which was greatly facilitated by their geographical position. The east-west route linking the Far East and the Byzantine Empire , as well as the north-south route linking the Slavic tribes and the Caliphate, both had to pass through the lands of the Khazars. The Khazars collected customs fees from the caravans carried along these routes, thereby contributing to the prosperity of the khaganate.

The Rus trading slaves with the Khazars: ‘Trade in the East Slavic Camp’ (1913) by Sergei Ivanov. (Public Domain)

The Rus trading slaves with the Khazars: ‘Trade in the East Slavic Camp’ (1913) by Sergei Ivanov. ( Public Domain )

The Khazars’ Conversion to Judaism

The Khazars would have no doubt encountered both Christianity and Islam through their interaction with the Byzantines and Arabs, as well as their dealings with merchants. In spite of that, the Khazars did not adopt either faith. Around the 8th century, Judaism began to spread amongst the Khazars, as a result of Jewish settlers. At the beginning of the 9th century, Judaism was adopted as the state religion of the khaganate, which made it a neutral zone between the warring Christian Byzantines and Muslim Arabs. In any case, the Khazars tolerated other religions and all faiths co-existed peacefully in their realm.

A circular metal disc with a six-pointed star symbol from the context of the Khazar Khanate, sometimes interpreted as Jewish but seen by others as shamanistic or pagan. The circular nature of the disc may represent the sun, and the 6 points may represent rays of the sun. (Public Domain)

A circular metal disc with a six-pointed star symbol from the context of the Khazar Khanate, sometimes interpreted as Jewish but seen by others as shamanistic or pagan. The circular nature of the disc may represent the sun, and the 6 points may represent rays of the sun. ( Public Domain )

By the 10th century, the Khazar Khaganate began to decline. To their north and west, another Turkic group, the Pechenegs, were increasing in strength. In addition, the Eastern Slavic tribes were now united under the Kievan Rus ’.

In 965 AD, Sviatoslav I, the Grand Prince of Kiev, launched a campaign against the Khazars, defeated them, and brought the Khazar Khaganate to an end. Interestingly, the Khazar language is not known to have survived, and the textual information about these people are obtained from Byzantine and Arab sources.

Sviatoslav I of Kiev (in boat), destroyer of the Khazar Khaganate. (Public Domain)

Sviatoslav I of Kiev (in boat), destroyer of the Khazar Khaganate. ( Public Domain )

Top image: ‘Invincible’ a modern depiction of a battle between Rus and Khazars.  Source: Vladimir-Kireev/ Deviant Art

By Wu Mingren

References

Brook, K. A., 2014. An Introduction to the History of Khazaria. Available at: http://www.khazaria.com/khazar-history.html

Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, 2001. Khazars. Available at: http://www.encyclopediaofukraine.com/display.asp?linkpath=pages%5CK%5CH%5CKhazars.htm

Dugdale-Pointon, T., 2011. Khazar Khaganate. Available at: http://www.historyofwar.org/articles/wars_khazar.html

Jewish Virtual Library, 2018. Khazars. Available at: https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/khazars

Brook, K.A., 2014. An Introduction to the History of Khazaria. Khazaria.com. Available at: http://www.khazaria.com/khazar-history.html

The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2017. Khazar. Available at: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Khazar

www.encyclopedia.com, 2018. Khazars. Available at: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/asia-and-africa/central-asian-history/khazars

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