At the height of their empire the tribe known as the
Khazars controlled an area roughly encompassing The Ural
Mountains to the Carpathian Range, the Caucusus,and much
of the Black Sea. About 1/3 of what is now Eastern Europe,
as well as much of the Asian Steppes came under direct
control of the Khazars or one of their client states.
The powers of the world at the time, Islam and Christianity,
were pushing ever closer to a total domination of much
of the populated world. The Eastern Caliphate with its
seat in Baghdad, had begun to cross the Caucusus and had
hoped to conquer the area of the Black Sea and Eastern
The vast area separating the Eastern Christian
Empire, or Byzantium and the Eastern Caliphate was home
to numerous Turkic tribes, related by similarities in
language origin and a common geographic ancestry. These
tribes were mostly nomadic, expert horseman, fierce
warriors, and inclined to remain unaffiliated with either
the Christian or Islamic Empires.
Over time one of those tribes, The Khazars, grew in
both size and sophistication and in turn came to be
the dominant buffer between Byzantiums' eastward designs,
and Islams' westward advances. Trade between Christianity
and Islam took place through the land of the Khazars.
Both spheres of influence put intense pressure on the
Khazars to adopt their religion and worldview, thereby
tipping the balance of power in the area. The Khazars
chose a diplomatic course that steered clear of favoring
one over the other, earned the grudging respect of both
and insured their status and independence. They chose
to become Jews!
There have been several stories of the Khazar conversion
that have made it to us this day, coming from Moslem,
Jewish and Christian sources.
al Masudi, a traveler from the Eastern Caliphate wrote
that the Byzantine Emperor forced the Jews to emigrate
and they came to the Khazar country and found "an
intelligent but uneducated race to whom they offered
their religion. The natives found it better than there
own and accepted it."
In the late 950's, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, while serving
the court of Abd al Rahman III, Caliph of the Umayyad
Empire, the Western Islamic Caliphate in Spain, used
his diplomatic ties to inquire about Jewish communities
throughout the world and intervene on their behalf whenever
possible. Hasdai first heard of the existence of the
Khazars from merchant traders from Persia. Hasdai decided
to send a delegation. He believed that the Khazars may
have represented one of the ten lost tribes of Israel
and were descendants from Palestine, as the Sephardim
were. The letter contained a formal greeting, some detail
of the current Caliph, and questions about the Jewish
rituals of the Khazars. The response from Joseph included
his version of the events that led to the conversion
of the Khazars.
In Joseph's version, his ancestor King Bulan, drove
out the sorcerers and idolaters from his land. An angel
later appeared to Bulan telling him he must worship
the one true god, and in return he would "bless
and multiply Bulan's offspring, and deliver his enemies
into his hands and secure his kingdom to the end of
Joseph continues by relating how Bulan was again visited
in a dream and bade to build a place of worship in which
the Lord may dwell, for: "the sky and the skies
above the sky are not enough to hold me". Bulan
tells the angel that he wishes to carry out the endeavor
but doesn't possess enough gold or silver to finance
such an enterprise. The angel told Bulan to lead his
armies into Armenia where a treasure of silver and gold
There are Arab and Armenian sources that relate stories
about a Khazar invasion into the area in 731C.E., lead
by "Bulkhan". These sources seem to fit very
well with the time frame of Joseph's story and Arab
sources relate the fact that the Khazars controlled
gold and silver mines in the Caucasus.
After the success in Armenia, "The King of Edom
(Byzantium) and the King of the Ishmaelim (Muslims)
heard the news and sent him envoys .... and learned
men to convert him to their beliefs." Bulan was
wise and also sent for a Jew. After long and futile
discussions, the king decides to meet with the representatives'
seperately. He asks the Christian which of the other
two religions is nearer the truth. The Christian answers,
the Jews". He then asks the Muslim the same question
and gets the same answer, "the Jews". Since
both Christianity and Islam believe that Judaism is
nearer the truth, Bulan chooses to adopt the Jewish
Regardless of how or why it happened, once the conversion
took place, Judaism seems to have become stratified
into Khazar society, and those who could, mostly the
ruling classes, did send their sons to study in the
great academies in Spain and quite possibly the great
Academy at Sura in Babylonia as well.
The Kagan was a hereditary ruler who lived in seclusion,
and established traditional law. By the 10th Century,
the Kagan was reduced to a spiritual figurehead, and
the real power was in the hands of the Bek, a person
serving beside the Kagan. The Bek led the army and ran
the government, with the Kagan remaining the Chief Judge.
Under the Bek were a variety of administrative and military
officials and local governors. While most were appointed,
some localities elected leaders. The governors collected
taxes on the products of blacksmiths, food and drink,
and customs duties. A court, composed of two Jews, two
Muslims, two Christians and one pagan, dealt primarily
with trade issues.
In the 720's the Khazar capital was the city of Samander,
which was visited by the Arab traveler, Al-Istakhri.
He later wrote that it had vineyards and gardens, and
that Muslims and mosques were plentiful, as well as
markets. A later traveler, Ibn Hauqal, said there were
people of multiple religions living there, with mosques,
churches and synagogues. In 750, Itil became the capital
of Khazaria. Travelers wrote that only the royal and
public buildings were made of brick; most homes were
yurts, or felt covered tents. The Khazars also founded
part of Kiev as an economic hub, where people engaged
in jewelry making, blacksmithing, bone and stone carving,
The Khazars grew grain and vegetables, using plows,
hoes, sickles and scythes. They operated mills and created
irrigation canals, and transported their goods in carts
and on skiffs in the Volga River. They grew grapes and
cherries and caught fish, bred domestic animals, and
hunted wild animals, using arrows, spears, axes and
Khazaria was an important trading center, on the crossroads
of the trade routes between Europe and China. The Great
Silk Road, long the center of trade between China and
the West, was blocked to Christian traders by the Muslims,
so Byzantium concentrated their trade to China through
Khazaria. Khazars participated in trade, trading candlewax,
honey and wine. They exported central silver dishes
and coins, quilts, cotton, felt, and cushion covers
to the Urals and beyond, and imported pottery from Armenia,
Iraq and Iran.
The traders included Jewish Radhanite merchants, traveling
between Regensburg, Vienna and Kiev, Khazaria, Persia
and China, trading cinnamon, musk, camphor, swords,
silk, furs, and slaves; Viking Rus traders, who transported
furs, foxskins and swordblades; Arabs, and perhaps Chinese.
All traders paid custom duties, which were the main
source of revenue for Khazaria.
The Khazars held influence in the area as evidenced
by the stories that have made there way to us from various
sources. Cherson, a border city between Byzantium and
Khazaria became the home in exile of the former Byzantine
Emperor Justinian II. He managed to escape and make
his was the Khazar city of Doros where formed an alliance
with the Kagan to regain the throne, and the Kagan's
sister was given to the former Emperor in marriage.
In the meantime, Kagan Busir made a deal with the new
Byzantium Emperor Tiberius III who offered a rich reward
for Justinian, dead or alive. Busir ordered Justinian
assassinated but when his wife, Busir's sister, heard
of the plot, she warned her husband and the two were
able to flee to the land of the Bulgars. The Bulgar
king then made an alliance with Justinian and helped
him regain his throne.
During his second rein, Justinian had become overwhelmed
with his hatred for the inhabitants of Cherson, now
a Khazar town and sent expeditions against it. The Khazar
army met the expeditionary force and upon being taken
prisoner by the Khazars, Justinian's representative
in the area, a man named Bardanes, promptly switched
allegiance from the Bulgars and Justinian, to the Kazars,
as did the entire Byzantine expeditionary force. The
Byzantine armies deposed Justinian and elected Bardanes
the new Emperor under the name of Philippicus.
While Philippicus was deposed a few years later, the
story goes to show the influence that the Khazars wielded
over the destinies of the Eastern Empire.
That the Khazars were astute and able enough to finesse
their way onto the scene as a superpower is true enough.
What we must also come to realize when discussing the
extent of their empire and influence, is that the world
map of Eastern Europe and Asia looks the way it does
thanks in large part to the Khazars. Had Islam gained
a permanent foothold in eastern Europe, the pressure
on Christian western Europe may have been too great
to sustain its Christian kingdoms. Had Christianity
made permanent inroads into the central Asia, the Caliphate
may have had to expend resources at it's northern border
that could have zapped much needed resources from the
war against the Crusaders.
It is ironic that the most celebrated information we
have on the Khazars, that being the Hasdai letters,
were written by the Kagan who saw the destruction of
his state. It wasn't pressure from the Caliph in the
east, or the Emperor in the south that caused the eventual
fall of the kingdom, it was the pagan hordes from the
north, known variously as Vikings, Norsemen, and in
the east, Varangians, or, the Rus. They were expert
sailors, and fearless warriors on land.
In the mid to late ninth century, there was conspicuous
movement of the various tribes in Eastern Europe and
Asia. The Magyars, long allies of the Khazars and their
agents in the Steppes, had begun moving across the Don
River. Prior to the move, they were charged with collecting
tribute from the Slav and Finn people north of their
domain. The Rus had now begun their sweep with a combination
of savage warfare and plunder, and the Kagan needed
help securing his eastern and northern borders. It seems
that the relocation of the Magyar was a mutual arrangement.
At about the same time, an agreement between Byzantium
and the Khazars brought craftsmen, engineers and architects
to Khazaria to help build a massive fortress on the
Volga, just south of the Don River in their new capital,
Itil. The fortress was known as Sarkel. It seems that
the relocation of the Magyar and the construction of
Sarkel were part of a combined strategy to halt the
The strategy wasn't to last very long. In about 862C.E.,
the Rus conquered and occupied Kiev. At about the same
time, in a global version of musical chairs, a tribe
called the Pechenegs located in the area between the
Volga and the Ural rivers and also ruthless according
to Emperor Constantine, were retreating in advance of
an onslaught from their neighbors to the east, the Ghuzz.
The Pechenegs tried to cross the Don and settle in Khazaria
but the Khazars beat them off. The Pechenegs continued
their move to the west and confronted the relocated
allies of the Khazars, the Magyar. In successive assaults,
the Pechenegs continued to push the Magyar, and in 896,
struck a deal with the Bulgars situated along the Danube.
Constantine tells us that the Bulgars and the Pechenegs
made a pact to annihilate the Magyar, and while the
Magyar fighters were away on a campaign, the two tribes
descended into the land of the Magyars and massacred
their families. The Magyar warriors returned to find
their families killed, their homes desolate and ruined.
The once mighty Magyar then moved into present-day Hungary,
were they remain to this day.
With the Magyar gone the loss of Kiev was inevitable.
The western tribes were no longer under the Kagan's
control and the Rus could now rally the Slavonic tribes
around the Dnieper River with the cry, "Pay no
tribute to the Khazars".
The loss of tribute and territory in the west was further
exacerbated by the fact that the Rus were also following
the Volga River down to the Caspian Sea, putting pressure
on the Khazars from the east. In 910C.E., the goal of
the Rus was to sack the rich cities of the Caliphate
along the Caspian, but each time a flotilla traveling
down the Volga passed the Khazarian capital of Itil,
they were required to solicit permission, and pay customs
duty. The Russians were not pleased with the arrangements,
and the Khazars were equally perturbed because of their
friendly relations with the Caliphate at the time. In
913 the matter exploded when the Russian fleet entered
the Caspian Sea and once again set their sites on the
Islamic cities around it. The Rus were particularly
brutal and destroyed all that stood in their way, including
woman and children. They raped and pillaged, raided
and burned and even made incursions inland.
With the Magyars gone, Kiev gone and the Dnieper River
firmly in the hands of the Vikings, control of the Black
Sea was wavering. In 945, Byzantium entered into a commercial
treaty with the prince of Kiev, Prince Ingvar - (later
Igor), who was leader of the western Russian activities.
The Rus were beginning the process of assimilating into
Slavic culture, adopting Slavic names, and in the process
becoming closer with the Christian Empire. The good
relations that the Khazars had enjoyed with Byzantium
were becoming strained under the pressure being applied
to their western frontier, and another, less overt action.
In 957 during a state visit, Helga - (later Olga), Igors's
widow accepted baptism from no less than, the Byzantine
Emperor Constantine himself. This small act sealed the
fate of the Khazars.
Svyatoslav would hear none of this, and continued
his brutal assault on everything Khazar. In an action
against one of the Khazars tribute tribes south of Moscow,
the Prince of Kiev decided to turn south and head for
the Don River. One chronicler has the Prince, in true
Viking form, sending messengers to the Khazars and announcing:
"I am coming upon you". When the Kagan heard
of the approach, he sent the army out to meet them.
The Rus won the day, and took control of the Don River.
The Khazars fortress on The Don, Sarkel, fell to the
Russians in 965.
Arthur Koestler, in his book 'The Thirteenth Tribe:
The Khazar Empire and Its Heritage argues that the defeated
Khazars were the predominant ancestors of the Ashkenazic
Jews. He based his theories on immigrations of the Khazars
to Eastern Europe, which is supported by various types
of evidence, some of which he cited, and some cited
later by Kevin Brook.
Before the destruction of Khazaria, some Khazars joined
the Magyars and migrated to Hungary. They were among
the soldiers protecting Hungary's borders. In the 10th
Century, Hungarian Duke Taksony, son of a Khazar princess
and Magyar royalty, invited Khazar Jews to settle in
Hungary. If it is to be believed, a Byzantine chronicle
indicates that many Hungarian troops in the 12th Century
observed Jewish law.
According to Martin Gilbert, Jews migrated from Khazaria
to Lithuania in 1016, and Jews from Vilnius claim Khazar
ancestry. Documents and archeological finds indicate
that Khazars founded glass factories in Grodno.
These similarities may support the idea of a Khazar
influence in Eastern Europe, but they hardly support
an argument that the Khazars were the predominant ancestors
of the Ashkenazic Jews.
The greatest evidence against a significant Khazar
ancestry for Ashkenazic Jews is DNA testing. Data shows
that the predominant origin of Ashkenazic Jews has been
the Middle East. This indicates that the role of the
native-born Khazars as a source of Ashkenazic Jews was
minor. However, there is some genetic evidence that
characteristics of some Ashkenazic Jews are shared by
Armenians and Turks, and Jews from the Balkans. The
documentary and archeological evidence for a Khazar
origin is stronger in Hungary and the Ukraine. Still,
the sources I have examined seem to show that the influence
of the Khazarian Jews in those areas, no matter how
large or small, was overwhelmed by the emigration of
Another reason for the slight DNA differences in some
Ashkenazic Jews may be intermarriage. Jews converted
and intermarried with others in ancient Israel, in the
Roman Empire and in Medieval Europe. There is no reason
to think that it did not occur in Central Asia as well.
Jews from Crimea and the Byzantine Empire, who may have
originated in the Middle East intermarried with the
Turks. Genetic tests show that intermarriage occurred
far less with Jews than in the population as a whole,
and in certain groups, like the Kohanim, it happened
very little at all. This infrequent intermarriage could
well have been enough to account for any genetic marker