Khazars. A nomadic Turkish people who in the darkest centuries of the Middle Ages created a powerful steppe empire in the east of Europe. It arouses great emotions, but not because of the Khazars' commercial talents, their ruthlessness and militancy. Khazaria has gone down in history because its rulers made a completely unusual decision. They decided to become Jews.
The Khazars appeared on the border of Europe in the 6th century CE. and settled in what is now Dagestan in the northern Caucasus. For about a hundred years, they remained part of the West Turkish kaganate, and after its dissolution, they created their own state in 630–650.
In the second half of the 7th century, they already controlled the territory stretching from the Crimea and the Dnieper to the shores of the Caspian Sea and from the North Caucasus to the central Volga basin. The area was very ethnically diverse:Alans, Goths, Bulgarians, Pechenegs, Ruthenians lived here ... There were many Greeks, Arabs, Jews and Persians in the cities.
The Khazarian kaganate in the 9th century. The navy blue line marks the state borders, and the purple zone of influence (Fig. Briangotts, CC BY-SA 3.0).
Christianity, Islam, Judaism… What would you choose?
The ethnic mosaic was overlapped by religion. In this area, the influence of both Islam and Christianity in its Eastern Byzantine version crossed. There were also Jewish communities here.
The followers of all these confessions enjoyed considerable tolerance on the part of the steppe rulers. Ibn Rosteh, an Arabic writer in the early tenth century, mentions the king of the city of Hajdfln who was subordinate to the Khazars, who "prays with the Muslims on Friday, with the Jews on Saturday and with the Christians on Sunday."
The Khazars themselves were pagans following tengrism - a religion common to the Turkish and Mongolian peoples of the Asian steppes. Shamanistic practices and ancestor worship were present in it, as well as faith in the Great Heaven having the features of monotheism. This was the case until at least the middle of the eighth century.
In 737, during one of the many wars, the Khazars were defeated in a battle with the Arabs. The victors demanded that the defeated convert to Islam as a condition of peace, and thus the steppe ruler became a Muslim with his family. It was, however, apparently pure opportunism, and the religion of the prophet did not catch on either in the ruling dynasty or among the state's elite. And perhaps it was this experience that prompted the Khazarian kaganism to make a decision that continues to amaze today.
Excavations in the Khazarian fortress Sarkel on the Lower Don (photo:public domain).
The Khazars did not embrace Christianity, nor did they stick to Islam. Instead, they chose Judaism. Today it is difficult to write about their conversion in detail. They did not leave behind any written accounts, so we are doomed to foreign sources:Byzantine, Arab and Jewish.
They are often contradictory. The adoption of the new religion probably took place at the turn of the eighth and ninth centuries but it may have happened decades earlier… or later.
It is uncertain how many Khazars and their subjects accepted the Mosaic faith. Most likely it was only members of the ruling family and a narrow ruling elite that did. Most of the country's population either adhered to the old pagan beliefs or to Christianity and Islam.
The reasons for the decision to convert to Judaism can only be speculated. Khazaria was a refuge for many of the Chosen People who fled Byzantium in the face of successive waves of persecution. Jews from Iraq and traveling Jewish merchants also came to these areas. Perhaps they managed to convert the Khazarian elite.
There is a controversial theory that Ashkenazi Jews are descended from the Khazars (pictured is a painting by Maurice Gottlieb of Jews praying in the synagogue on the Yom Kippur festival).
Most researchers tend to take a different view. Judaism was presumably chosen as a counterweight to both Christianity and Islam . Joining the group of monotheistic "peoples of the book" allowed to improve the position on the international arena and gain the status of "civilized", equal partners. At the same time, it was a way for the Khazars to limit the political influence of Byzantium and the Arab caliphate in their own country.
It's just a myth?
It is possible that all these considerations are ... pointless. Recently, opinions have emerged that undermine the truthfulness of the messages about the conversion of the Khazars to the Mosaic religion. Prof. Shaul Stampfer of the Hebrew University has made a detailed analysis of all sources on the subject and concluded that they are completely misleading.
Prince of Rus Svyatoslav I, who crashed the Khazar army in 965 and destroyed their two largest cities. Soon after, their state ceased to exist (photo:Marsijan, public domain).
The scholar also points out that many of the most important authors writing about the steppe state did not mention at all about the alleged conversion of its rulers to Judaism. Such an event is also not confirmed by archaeological finds. According to the historian, this is simply a historical myth and nothing else.
- Kevin Alan Brook, The Jews of Khazaria , Rowman &Littlefield Publishers, Lanham – Boulder – New York – Toronto – Plymouth, UK 2006.
- Krzysztof Dąbrowski, Teresa Nagrodzka-Majchrzyk, Edwart Tryjarski, European Huns, Proto-Bulgarians, Khazars, Pechenegs , Ossolineum, Wrocław-Warsaw-Kraków-Gdańsk 1975.
- Grzegorz Rostkowski, Conversion of Khazaria to Mosaism at the turn of the 8th and 9th centuries , "Fasciculi Historici Novi", vol. 2, From the history of medieval Central and Eastern Europe, with study edited by Jan Tyszkiewicz, DiG, Warsaw 1998, pp. 7-15
- Shaul Stampfer, Did the Khazars Convert to Judaism ?, "Social Studies:History, Culture, Society", n. 19, no. 3 (Spring / Summer 2013), pp. 1-72
- Constantin Zuckerman, On the Date of the Khazars' Conversion to Judaism and the Chronology of the Kings of the Rus Oleg and Igor. A Study of the Anonymous Khazar Letter from the Genizah of Cairo , 'Revue des études byzantines', vol. 53 (1995), pp. 237-270.