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Khazars |
The Khazar compromise

Khazars is drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 200, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

A strange nomadic people resolves the Muslim-Christian issue by opting for Judaism; for two centuries they prevail between the Black and Caspian, then vanish from history

Khazars - The Khazar compromise

Khazars - The Khazar compromise

Among the Turkic and Mongol peoples who roared at unpredictable intervals and with hurricane force from the Asian steppes, the most intriguing are the Khazars, dominant between the Caspian and Black seas from the eighth through the tenth centuries.1 Speaking a Turkic tongue, yet frequently fair-skinned and even red-haired, they consistently blocked Islam’s advance toward eastern Europe. They never became Muslim–but did not accept Christ either. Instead, they adopted Judaism en masse, a relatively rare circumstance. Moreover, despite the conversion of these ferocious warriors to the Jewish faith, and despite the fact that they also seem to have been industrious traders and craftsmen, the Khazars disappeared from history without leaving a single written record of their passing.

They apparently originated in the Caucasus, then spread north and westward. At their fullest strength in the late eighth century, they were exacting tribute from the Alans, Goths, Greeks, Magyars and Bulgars. Their capital was at Itil, where the Volga River flows into the Caspian Sea. There, during the winter months, lived their khagan, a secluded and seemingly ritualized monarch on whom depended the welfare of the state. Only he of all Khazar males could let his hair grow long and free, loosely bound with a red band; all other men wore braids. According to Muslim sources, a khagan was ritually strangled when his reign had lasted forty years. An actively governing official, known as the bec, seems to have gradually usurped the royal power.

Under their unremitting military discipline, the Khazars frequently executed their own troops after a defeat. Yet their peacetime crafts were impressive, ranging from the making of leather clothing to silver jewelry and bronze mirrors. Some historians credit them with the manufacture of Europe’s first paper and glass.

Khazar traders roamed as far northwest as Sweden, buying and selling furs and slaves, while silk, coral, pearls and other luxuries traveled from China to Itil and thence to Europe. They established extensive farms and orchards (some irrigated), and made wine production a major business. They lived in felt tents and clay houses, reserving brick for palaces and other public buildings.

Khazars likely followed a shamanistic religion that deified natural forces, and Judaism may initially have reached them through traders. However, Greek-speaking Jewish artisans had long been resident in Roman colonies along the Black Sea and in the Crimea, Jewish communities already existed in the Balkans, and Jewish refugees eventually entered Khazaria from Muslim lands as well. Although details of their conversion are scarce, author Kevin Alan Brook in The Jews of Khazaria strongly theorizes that a crucial debate between Christian, Muslim and Jewish teachers took place before the khagan and the bec in the summer of 861.

Backing his thesis are certain documented facts. For one, in 860 the Byzantine emperor Michael III sent to the Khazars, at their own request, the missionary Cyril. According to a life of Cyril written by his brother Methodius, the khagan insisted in an ensuing debate that his people were intended by God to be illiterate (Cyril and Methodius being widely known as the originators of the Slavonic alphabet). Methodius also writes that the Khazar ruler already had some knowledge of Jewish beliefs.

According to Muslim sources, the bec asked the Muslim envoys whether they preferred Judaism or Christianity. Judaism, they replied. Then the bec put the same question to the Christians, and they acknowledged that they preferred Judaism over Islam. Therefore, the bec reasoned, since Judaism was older, and respected by both the others, it was obviously the best option. Judaism may also, of course, have offered a shield against both Christian and Muslim neighbors. Jewish sources claim that the victories and personal influence of a certain great warrior of mixed Khazar and Jewish parentage was another factor.

No scholarly authority seriously disputes the Khazar conversion, which is well attested by medieval Jewish scholarship from Spain and Egypt. The form adopted was orthodox. It included circumcision, Sabbath observance, ritual washing, avoiding the flesh of scripturally forbidden animals, and other practices laid down in the Torah. How far Judaism penetrated the population beyond the Khazar nobility has been debated, but Brook concludes that most Khazars became Jewish.

Nemesis for the Khazars came from the North, where the Viking Rus established themselves midway down the Volga River before 840. Their fleets progressed downstream toward Itil, which lacked a navy, and Viking pirates infested the region. After a few initial victories, the Khazars were eliminated by a Rus-Byzantium alliance early in the eleventh century. Fleeing survivors probably mingled with earlier Jewish communities in eastern Europe. Migration statistics of any kind are unavailable, and the absence of records means that time has left only a tantalizing trace of this unique people.

1. A roll call of just the better-known nomad peoples that attacked Europe between the fourth and fourteenth centuries would include the Alans, Huns, Avars, Magyars, Scythians, Bulgars, Cimmerians, Seljuk Turks, Mongols and Tatars.

This is the end of the Khazars category article drawn from Chapter Eight, beginning on page 200, of Volume Six, The Quest for the City. To continue reading more about Khazars from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at