The Khazars enter history in the fifth century AD. In the thirteenth, they disappear. Why are these seminomads, who reigned from the Caucasus and the Urals to the Caspian and the Dnieper of interest to students of Eurasian history?
First, because the Khazars, along with the Franks and the Byzantines, served as a dam against the tide of Islam, then threatening Europe from three sides. Second, because the Khazarian Empire had a very particular dual structure of government. Third, the Khazars had an enduring influence on their neighbours, and as allies of the Greeks, contributed to the perpetuation of Eastern Rome. Last but not least, religion draws our attention. Though many Khazars were Muslim or Christian, the leading clans, as well as the royal family, adopted the Mosaic laws.
With the disintegration of the Western Turkish Empire in the seventh century AD, the Khazars were freed from the yoke of their Turkic brethren. Henceforth Khazar external relations were with neighbouring tribes, the Bulgars and Magyars who became their vassals, Byzantines, Arabs, Russians and to a lesser extent, Ostrogoths and Vikings. The Khazars influenced world history through the Bulgars, Seljuks and Magyars. They split the Bulgars into two confederations, one which moved West and conquered present-day Bulgaria, the so-called proto-Bulgarians. Arpad, leading his people to present-day Hungary, was a Khazar-nominated Khan. Seljuk who took his Turks to present-day Turkey, was the son of Timuryalik, an officer in the service of the Khazars….
The beginning of the end
By the tenth century Khazar relations with the Byzantines had soured…. Arab-Khazar relations were more hostile. Although many more Khazars were Muslim than Christian, the history of Khazaria is riddled by wars with Arab invaders. Arab forces made deep incursions into Khazar territory, conquering the Caucasus, destroying the former Khazar capitals of Balanjar and Samandar and threatening the capital Khazaran-Itil (Atil) on the lower stretches of the Volga.
With the rise of the Kievan-Rus state in Ukraine a new enemy arose at the end of the tenth century…. The downfall of the Khazar Empire came in 1016 as a consequence of combined Byzantinian and Kievan actions….
Khazaria’s political system might provide the key to understanding Khazaria’s downfall. Like other Turkic peoples, the Khazars had a system of tribal and clan rule. Of the many tribes that made-up the empire, one or two were dominant. Within these tribes, leading clans existed, and within the clan were leading families; the royal family came from the leading clan. This did not mean, however, that the royal family held de-facto power in the country. Real power was wielded by the Beg, comparable to the great-vizir, shogun, or hofmeijer….
Khazaria’s economy, unlike the steppe empires where cattle breeding was the dominant source of income, depended on trade and agriculture. Cattle, rice, fish and wheat were the most important products. The country was situated at a crossroads on the silk-route. The Khazars’ tolerance attracted many traders, among them Greeks, Arabs and Jews. Besides the trade with Byzantium, the Caspian offered numerous possibilities for exchange with Persians and Arabs. This oriental trade was supported by raw materials found in the Caucasus, such as gold and silver. The slave trade was also important. Russians brought slaves from the North to the slave-market in Itil, who where then shipped to the Muslim lands in the South. Russians, Bulgars and Burtas brought in furs and fish. Tributes paid by vassal tribes and the Caliph added to the Khazar treasury, as did transiting merchants who paid ten percent of the value of their goods to tax collectors….
The odd man out
The third factor undermining the power of Khazaria was its religion. The Khazar Khagan Bulan accepted the Jewish faith in the second half of the ninth century; his successor Obadiah established synagogues and Judaic schools. The reason for the conversion to Judaism might well have been political. Conversion to Islam would have brought Khazaria under its archenemy, the Caliph. Conversion to Christianity would have made the country too dependent on Constantinople, which, though Khazaria’s main ally, could never be fully trusted.
Judaism was an elegant third way out. But this choice also meant isolation and the danger of being crushed between two powerful monotheist faiths, one from the South and one from the West. And so it happened. There was no brother power to call to in the end….
Khazaria was an enigma in world history. The Khazar Empire governed a crucial region on the Eurasian crossroads for over three hundred years, with social and state structures not readily found elsewhere. The conversion to Judaism of their leaders and tribes might not be unique in history, but remains a fascinating event that has stirred the imaginations of many.
Like many other horse riders, their state withered away, leaving traces that can be seen today. Without the Khazar Empire, present-day Bulgaria and Hungary might not exist in their present forms; this may be true for Turkey and Ukraine as well. Even after a millennium we find words pointing to Khazaria, such as the name of the largest inland sea on earth (Khazar Sea in Farsi, Turkish and Arabic).
There’s more at www.khazaria.com.