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Medieval Army Lists

Khazaria (586-1083 AD)
DBA 93

The following essay is based on Dennis A. Leventhal's article, "Suggested Modifications to an MW Army List: The Khazars," which appears in SAGA, No. 73 (Feb. 2000), pp. 31-35, and is reproduced in large part here with the author's permission.

Khazaria served as the western anchor of the northern Silk Road for several centuries, specifically 7th through 10th, as well as a major buffer state between the Christian and Islamic worlds. However, by a combination of both accident and design, knowledge of this early medieval empire was lost to the world until very recently. The famous and comprehensive Victorian "Wall Chart of World History," originally published in 1890 and now housed in the Library of the British Museum in London, does not even mention the Khazars. And yet, Arab records note that in the 9th Century the Caliph in Baghdad set up a throne room with four thrones representing the four major imperial figures of the world at that time, i.e., (1) himself as leader of the Islamic Empire, (2) Charlemagne of Western Christendom, (3) the Emperor of China, and (4) the Qaghan of the Khazars. The Byzantine Emperor was not considered worthy of inclusion!

Initially a confederation of Turkic tribes with the good fortune to be situated along the Silk Road, the Khazars evolved from their closed nomadic society into a pluralistic, urban and agrarian society as they absorbed Jews escaping Byzantine and Arab persecution, other non-Muslims fleeing the Arab Conquest, Arabs from the east, Slavs from the north, and other nomadic tribes. As the country prospered, others came to expand their trading networks, and to seek new manufacturing and agricultural opportunities. Khazaria was ruled (at least symbolicly) by the Khagan (also Kagan or Gaghan) who hailed from a "royal" Khazarian lineage. Actual power was wielded by the Beg (or Bek), who was the senior general and statesman of the empire, chosen by proven success on the battlefield to serve as the supreme leader of the standing regular army, and who also managed all diplomatic relations, as well as internal governmental administration. An analogy can be made to medieval Japan and the respective roles of the Emperor and the Shogun. Power was also wielded in varying degrees by the various tribal chieftains.

Only very recent exploration and research has brought to light the unique nature and full extent of Khazarian civilization. A surprisingly tolerant and pluralistic society, even its army incorporated relatively harmoniously Jews, Christians, Muslims and Pagans at a time when religious warfare was the order of the day around the Mediterranean and in Western Europe. By welcoming educated and worldly Jews from both Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East (even to the point where these proto-Turks converted to Judaism in the 8th century), the Khazars rapidly absorbed many of the arts and technologies of civilization.

As a direct result of this cultural infusion, they became one of the very few Asian steppe tribal societies that successfully made the transition from nomad to urbanite. Settling in their newly created towns and cities between the Caspian Sea and the Crimean Peninsula on the Black Sea, they became literate and multi-lingual agriculturalists, manufacturers and international traders. (See Kevin A. Brook, The Jews of Khazaria, Northvale, New Jersey: Jason Aronson Inc., 1999, pages 82-86, 99-107; and Samuel Kurinsky, The Glassmakers: An Odyssey of the Jews, New York: Hippocrene Books, 1991, pages 321-352.) Even the great city of Kiev is now thought by many scholars to have been founded by the Khazars under its earlier name of Sambata (Brook, p. 35). They also rapidly evolved a relatively sophisticated military establishment (compared to other "hordes" such as the Ghuzz, Pechenegs, Bulgars, etc.).

Khazar HorsemanTheir first military appearance in recorded history of any significance occurred in 627 C.E., when 40,000 Khazar horsemen, under a formal military alliance with the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, joined a campaign against Sassanian Persia. (See A. Koestler, The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and Its Heritage, New York: Random House, 1976, page 25.) Greatly weakened by this war with Byzantium and its allies, the Sassanids rapidly succumbed to the subsequent onslaught of Islamic Arabs, which allowed the Khazars to seize lands in the Transcaucacus region.

As an indicator of Khazarian military capabilities, they are noted as having utilized artillery, such as catapults and ballistae, as early as the Arab-Khazar wars in the 7th century. (See Koestler, page 27.) Later in their history, in the early 9th century, the Khazars employed Byzantine engineers to build a major brick fortress on the lower Don River, at a site that became known as Sarkel (a Turkish word meaning "White Fortress"). Architecturally, Sarkel was a combination of Turko-Iranian and Byzantine technological characteristics. (See Brook, pages 38-39, and "The Khazarian Fortress of Sarkel" on-line at The Khazaria Info Center.

The advance of the Arab Conquest forced the Khazars to abandon Derbent (661), but around 685 the Khazars counterattacked south of the Caucacus, seizing large portions of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. Armenia became the principal battleground between the two empires in the 720s, with the tide gradually shifting back toward the Arabs. In 737 AD, the Arabs defeated the Khazars and drove them north of the Caucacus. An Arab army then sacked the Khazarian capital at Itil before withdrawing south of the Caucacus, effectively establishing that mountain range as their boundary.

Although losing ground, Khazaria by its determined resistance effectively stopped the new Islamic Empire from flanking Christendom in the east at a time when Europe was in disarray. In fact, Khazaria "was the only credible rival to the caliphate in the Near East during the seventh and eighth centuries" (Mark Whittow, The Making of Byzantium, 600-1025, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, page 225).

Thwarted in the south, the Khazars turned their attention to the west, extending their domain from the Caspian Sea and the lower Volga in the east to the north shore of the Black Sea as far as the Dneiper River in the west. They extracted tributes from the Alans, the Magyars, the Goths, the Greeks of the Crimea, and the Volga Bulgars. However, the rise of the Pechenegs in the north and the arrival of the Rus in Kiev greatly diminished Khazarian influence. The campaign of Prince Svyatoslav of Kiev effectively broke the back of the Khazarian empire in 965 AD, although a portion of the kingdom continued until at least 1030 AD and references to the Khazars appear as late as the 12th Century as they migrated westward.

DBA Army Composition

1x WWg The Khazarian War Wagon was used to transport and protect the Khagan if/when he deigned to appear on the battlefield and can be compared to the Italian carrioco. It was a defensive device, not a mobile missile-firing platform.
2x Cv Khazarian Nobles (including the CnC Beg and Arsiyah regulars).
4x Cv or Lh More Khazarian nobles and/or Arsiyahs. The balance of Cavalry and/or Light Horse would be comprised of Khazarian horse archers, Torkils and Burtas tributaries and levies/allies drawn from subject Alans, Bulgars, and/or Magyars.
2x Lh See above.
2x Sp Khazar Guard and levy foot, Slav or Russ levy spear.
1x Ps Khazar, Slav, Russ and/or Alan levy archers

Notes on Army Composition

Khazar CavalryThe Arsiyah Cavalry units in this army, which formed the regular standing army of the Khazars, were primarily mercenary, non-Arab Muslims from Khwarizm and the various Central Asian city-states located along the Silk Road.

The Burtas were Turkish tribal folk who lived in tents just north of the Caspian Sea, maintaining a somewhat nomadic existence according to the requirements of seasonal grazing on the steppes. Be sure you get some fairly scruffy figures when you build this unit. Torkils were another Khazar tributary tribe very similar to the Burtas, and located so as to be a buffer against the Pechenegs.

As described above, the Khazars did make use occasional use of Artillery. As a variation to the official DBA 1.1 list, I would suggest making Artillery an optional element that can be chosen in lieu of the War Wagon element. Or you may elect to eliminate the War Wagon option altogether, substituting a choice of Cavalry, Light Horse, Psiloi, and/or Artillery.


The "official" DBA enemies of Khazaria include the Later Sassanid (73b), Early Bulgar (87), Slav (89), Ghuzz (94), Arab Conquest (96), Thematic Byzantine (99), Arab Imperial (100), Magyar (107), Russ (108), Pecheneg (109), Ghaznavid (115), and Georgian (121) armies.


Dennis Leventhal: Some notes on figures are in order. With apologies to 25 mm buffs, these comments refer to 15 mm only because thatıs what Iıve used for my Khazar army. Essex figures go very well with this army. Not only does Essex offer a great looking Khazar HC figure (HSA6), but their other Dark Ages figures allow the creation of an army with interesting 'in-period' variety. For example, some of the irregular Cavalry and Light Horse units can be made by mixing together Bulgar Horse/Bows (HSA4), Pecheneg Horse/Bows (HSA5), and Avar Horse/Bows (HSA12) from their "Asiatic Hordes" list., and several others from their "Huns (mixed)" list (see HU1 and HU3).

Essexıs "Ghaznavid" heavy cavalry (AEA20) looks just right for the trained Arsiyah troopers.

Essex "Ancient Equipment" offerings are also very useful. The Light Bolt Throwers (XEQ1) will cover Khazar artillery quite nicely. For the camp, I suggest using the Pack Camels (XEQ6). These are Bactrian camels and therefore technically correct for this army, which also employed Bactrian camels to transport its Mounted Infantry. Essex also offers a wide selection of horse- and ox-drawn wagons that can also be used in this context.

Khazar command stands should have a raised standard consisting of a silvery mirror on a long pole. This detail has been authenticated in contemporary Arab records. Also, adding the Camel drummer from Essexıs Mongol mounted command pack (MOA9) to the CiCıs stand is a nice touch.

This is one army where the usage of the Star of David as a shield emblem is most appropriate. Both textual and archeological evidence has shown that most of the Khazars converted to Judaism between the years 750 to 860, and that the Star of David was a popular decorative motif in that culture.


Apart from the general historical references cited above, there is relatively little available on Khazarian military history. One very useful reference for building this army is Ian Heath's Armies of the Dark Ages: 600-1066 (WRG, 1980). It contains many sketches and descriptions of individual troop types not only for the Khazars but also for their many allies and enemies.

For those interested in the geo-political configurations of Khazaria, check out the html entitled "Khazarian Historical Maps by Richard Burd" at www.khazaria.com on the Web. This hyperlink will take you to a site that has four beautifully colored maps showing respectively (a) migration routes into Eastern Europe, and major early battle sites, of Huns and proto-Turks, including Khazars; (b) Khazarian expansion, and major battle sites, during the 600 to 850 C.E. period; (c) the Khazar Empire at its height in 850 C.E.; and (d) the decline of Khazaria, and major battle sites, from 850 to 965 C.E. The research that went into these maps incorporates the latest available materials on this subject.

Kevin Brook's excellent book, The Jews of Khazaria, not only pulls together all the past research in a comprehensive and critical manner, but also brings to light the latest of the ongoing research into this fascinating empire of the steppes.

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Last Updated: Sept. 18, 2000

My thanks to Dennis Leventhal, an avowed fan of the "Medieval Warfare" rules by Terry Gore, for allowing his material to be adapted to the DBA context. Images are obtained from other sources. Comments, questions or suggested additions to this page can be sent to Chris Brantley, brant@erols.com.