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Khazar Empire

The ancient Khazar Empire was a major but almost forgotten power in Eastern Europe. In the Dark ages it converted to Judaism. Khazaria was finally wiped out by the forces of Ghengis Khan, but evidence indicates that the Khazars themselves migrated to Poland and formed the cradle of Western Jewry. The standard story of the origin of the Ashkenazis, or East-European Jews, holds that they descended from refugees of Crusade- and Black-Death-time persecutions of Jews from western Germany who sought a new life in Poland. In 1976 Arthur Koestler revived the theory the bulk of the Ashkenazis were the descendants of a turkik tribe (the medieval Khazars). The Khazar Caucasian Jews -- Koestler's "The Thirteenth Tribe" - were later converts which arose in Slavic Lands -- they weren't from the Mid-East. The geographic contours of the jewish Pale of Settelments under Russian imperial rule overlap significantly the contours of the reduced khazarian province after the Mongols (Gazaria).

Khazars (known also as Chozars, as Khazrs in Armenian and Khwalissas in Russian chronicles), an ancient people who occupied a prominent place among the secondary powers of the Byzantine state-system. In the epic of Firdousi Khazar is the representative name for all the northern foes of Persia, and legendary invasions long before the Christian era are vaguely attributed to them. But the Khazars are an historic figure upon the borderland of Europe and Asia for at least 900 years (AD 190-1100). The epoch of their greatness is from AD 600 to 950. Their home was in the spurs of the Caucasus and along the shores of the Caspian - called by medieval Moslem geographers Bahr-al-Khazar (" sea of the Khazars ").

They were the Venetians of the Caspian and the Euxine, the organizers of the transit between the two basins, the universal carriers between East and West; and the meeting-place of the commerce of Persia, Byzantium, Armenia, Russia and ihc Bulgarians of the middle Volga. The tide of their dominion ebbed and flowed repeatedly, but the normal Khazari may be taken as the territory between the Caucasus, the Volga and the Don, with the outlying province of the Crimea, or Little Khazarh. The southern boundary never greatly altered; it did at times reach the Kur and the Aras, but on that side the Khazars were confronted by Byzantium and Persia, and were for the most part restrained within the passes of the Caucasus. Among the nomadic Ugrians and agricultural Slavs of the north their frontier fluctuated widely, and in its zenith Khazaria extended from the Dnieper to Bolgari upon the Volga, and along the eastern shore of the Caspian to Astarabad.

There were Khazars and Black Khazars. The Khazars were fair-skinned, black-haired of a remarkable beauty and stature; their women indeed were sought as wives equally at Byzantium and Bagdad; while the Kara (black) were ugly, short, and were reported by the Arabs almost as dark as Indians. The latter were indubitably the Ugrian nomads of the steppe, akin to the Tatar invaders of Europe, who convoyed the caravans of the ruling caste. But the Khazars proper were a civic commercial people, the founders of cities, remarkable for somewhat elaborate political institutions, persistence and for good faith - all qualities foreign to the Hun's character.

They appear in European history as White Huns (Ephthalites) or White Bulgarians. Owing to climatic causes thi tract they occupied was slowly drying up. They were the outpost> of civilization towards the encroaching desert, and the Tatar nomadism that advanced with it. They held in precarious subjegation the hordes whom the conditions of the climate made it impossible to supplant. They bore the brunt of the great waves of Tatar conquests, and were eventually overwhelmed.

Amidst this white race of the steppe the Khazars can be first historically distinguished at the end of the 2nd century AD They burst into Armenia in AD 198. They were repulsed and attacked in turn. The pressure of the nomads of the steppe, the quest of plunder or revenge, these seem the only motives of these early expeditions; but in the long struggle between the Roman and Persi?? empires, of which Armenia was often the battlefield, and eventually the prize, the attitude of the Khazars assumed political importance. Armenia inclined to the civilization and ere long to the Christianity of Rome, whilst her Arsacid princes maintained an inveterate feud with the Sassanids of Persia. It became therefore the policy of the Persian kings to call in the Khazars in every collision with the empire (200-350).

During the 4th century however, the growing power of Persia culminated in the annexation of eastern Armenia. The Khazars, endangered by so powerful a neighbour, passed from under Persian influence into that remote alliance with Byzantium which thenceforth characterized their policy, and they aided Julian in his invasion of Persia (363). Simultaneously with the approach of Persia to the Caucasus the terrible empire of the Huns sprang upon the northern steppes. The Khazars, straitened on every side, remained passive till the danger culminated in the accession of Attila (434). Khazaria became the apanage of his eldest son, and the centre of government amongst the eastern subjects of the Hun (448). Even the iron rule of Attila was preferable to the time of anarchy that succeeded it.

Upon his death (454) the wild immigration which he had arrested revived. The Khazars and the Sarogours {i.e. White Ogors, possibly the Barsileans of the Volga delta) were swept along in a flood of mixed Tatar peoples which the conquests of the Avars had set in motion. The Khazars and their companions broke through the Persian defences of the Caucasus. They appropriated the territory up to the Kur and the Aras, and roamed at large through Iberia, Georgia and Armenia.

Throughout the 6th century Khazaria was the mere highway for the wild hordes to whom the Huns had opened the passage into Europe, and the Khazars took refuge (like the Venetians from Attila) amongst the seventy mouths of the Volga. The pressure of the Turks in Asia precipitated the Avars upon the West, The conquering Turks followed in their footsteps (560-580). They beat down all opposition, wrested even Bosporus in the Crimea from the empire, and by the annihilation of the Ephthalites completed the ruin of the White Race of the plains from the Oxus to the Don. The empires of Turks and Avars, however, ran swiftly their barbaric course, and the Khazars arose out of the chaos to more than their ancient renown. They issued from the land of Barsilia and extended their rule over the Bulgarian hordes left masterless by the Turks, compelling the more stubborn to migrate to the Danube (641).

The agricultural Slavs of the Dnieper and the Oka were reduced to tribute, and before the end of the 7th century the Khazars had annexed the Crimea, had won complete command of the Sea of Azov, and, seizing opon the narrow neck which separates the Volga from the Don, had organized the portage which has continued since an important link in the traffic between Asia and Europe. The alliance with Byzantium was revived. Simultaneously, and no doubt in concert, with the Byzantine campaign against Persia (589), the Khazars had reappeared in Armenia, though it was not till 625 that they appear as Khazars in the Byzantine annals. They are then described as " Turks from the East," a powerful nation which held the coasts of the Caspian and the Euxine, and took tribute of the Viatitsh, the Severians and the Polyane. The khakan, enticed by the promise of an imperial princess, furnished Heradius with 40.000 men for his Persian war, who shared in the victory over Chosroes at Nineveh.

Meanwhile the Moslem empire had arisen. The Persian empire was struck down (637) and the Moslems poured into Armenia, the khakan, who had defied the summons sent him by the invaders, now aided the Byzantine patrician in the defence of Armenia. The allies were defeated, and the Moslems undertook the subjugation of Khazaria (651). Eighty years of warfare followed, but in the end the Moslems prevailed. The khakan and his chieftains were captured and compelled to embrace Islam (737) and till the decay of the Mahommeaan empire Khazaria with all the other countries of the Caucasus paid an annual tribute of children and of corn (737-861). Nevertheless, though overpowered in the end, the Khazars had protected the plains of Europe from the Mahommcdans, and made the Caucasus the limit of their conquests.

While yet in their pagan state, the Khazars were exposed at one and the same time to the influences of three religions: Mohammedanism, which pursued its triumphant march from the Arabic Caliphate; Christianity, which was spreading in Byzantium, and Judaism, which, headed by the Exilarchs and Gaons of Babylonia, was centered in the Caliphate, while its ramifications spread all over the Empire of Byzantium and its colonies on the Black Sea. The Arabs and the Byzantines succeeded in converting several groups of the Khazar population to Islam and Christianity, but the lion's share fell to Judaism, for it managed to get hold of the royal dynasty and the ruling classes. The conversion of the Khazars to Judaism, which took place about 740, is described circumstantially in the traditions preserved among the Jews and in the accounts of the medieval Arabic travelers. The King, or Khagan, of the Khazars, by the name of Bulan, arranged a disputation between the advocates of the three religions, to be held in his presence. Both the Mohammedan and the Christian acknowledge the superiority of Judaism to the religion of their antagonist, so Bulan adopted the Jewish religion, and many of the Khazar nobles followed his example.

In the ninth and tenth centuries, the kingdom of the Khazars, governed by rulers professing the Jewish faith, attained to outward power and inner prosperity. The accounts of the Arabic writers of that period throw an interesting light on the inner life of the Khazars, which was marked by religious tolerance. The king of the Khazars and the governing classes professed the Jewish religion. Among the lower classes the three monotheistic religions were all represented, and in addition a considerable number of pagans still survived. In spite of the fact that royalty and nobility professed Judaism, the principle of religious equality was never violated.

In the interval between the decline of the Mahommedan rmpre and the rise of Russia the Khazars reached the zenith of their power. The merchants of Byzantium, Armenia and Bagdad met in the markets of Itil (whither since the raids of the Mahommcdans the capital had been transferred from Scmendcr), and traded for the wax, furs, leather and honey that came down the Volga. So important was this traffic held at Constantinople that, when the portage to the Don was endangered by the irruption of a fresh horde of Turks (the Petchenegs), the emperor Theophilus himself despatched the materials and the workmen to build for the Khazars a fortress impregnable to their forays (834). Famous as the one stone structure s in that stoneless region, the post became known far and wide amongst the hordes of the steppe as Sar-kel or the White Abode. Merchants from every nation found protection and good faith in the Khazar cities. The Jews, expelled from Constantinople, sought a home amongst them, developed the Khazar trade, and contended with Mahommcdans and Christians for t he theological allegiance of the Pagan people. The dynasty accepted Judaism (c. 740), but there was equal tolerance for all. and each man was held amenable to the authorized code and to the official judges of his own faith.

At the Byzantine court the khakan was held in high honor. The emperor Justinian Rhinotmetus took refuge with him during his exile and married his daughter (702). Justinian's rival Vardanes in turn sought an asylum in Khazaria, and in Leo IV. 775) the grandson of a Khazar sovereign ascended the Byzantine throne. Khazar troops were amongst the bodyguard of the imperial court; they fought for Leo VI. against Simeon of Bulgaria ; and the khakan was honoured in diplomatic intercourse with the seal of three solidi, which marked him as a potentate of the first rank, above even the pope and the Carolingian monarch.

It was, however, from a power that Constantine did not consider that the overthrow of the Khazars came. The arrival of the Varangians amidst the scattered Slavs (862) had united them into a nation. The advance of the Petchenege from the East gave the Russians their opportunity. Before the onset of those fierce invaders the precarious suzerainty of the khakan broke up. By calling in the Uzes, the Khazars did indeed dislodge the Petchcnegs from the position they had seized yi the heart ofthe kingdom between the Volga and the Don, but only to drive them inwards to the Dnieper. The Hungarians, severed from theirkindredand theirruters. migrated to the Carpathians, whilst Oleg. the Russ prince of Kiev, passed through the Slav tribes of the Dnieper basin with the cry "Pay nothing to the Khazars" (884).

The kingdom dwindled rapidly to its ancient limits between the Caucasus, the Volga and the Don, while the Russian traders of Novgorod and Kiev supplanted the Khazars as the carriers between Constantinople and the North. When Ibn Fadian visited Khazaria forty years later, Itil was even yet a great city, with baths and market-places and thirty mosques, but there was no domestic product nor manufacture; the kingdom depended solely upon the now precarious transit dues, and administration was in the hands of a major domus also called khakan.

Slavonian tribes, who had been united under the leadership of Bussian princes, not only threw off the yoke of the Khazars, whose vassals they were, but also succeeded in invading and finally destroying their center at the mouth of the Volga. At the assault of Swiatoslav of Kiev the rotten fabric crumbled into dust. His troops were equally at home on land and water. Sarkel, Itil and Scmender surrendered to him (965-969). He pushed his conquests to the Caucasus, established Russian colonies upon the Sea of Azov, devastated the Khazar territories on the Ityl, and, penetrating to the heart of the country, dislodged the Khazars from the Caspian region.

The Khazars withdrew to their possessions on the Black Sea, and established themselves in particular on the Crimean Peninsula, which for a long time retained the name of Khazaria. The principality of Tmutarakan, founded by his grandson Mstislav (988), replaced the kingdom of Khazaria, the last trace of which was extinguished by a joint expedition of Russians and Byzantines (1016). A remnant of the nation took refuge in an island of the Caspian (Siahcouye); others retired to the Caucasus; part emigrated to the district of Kasakhi in Georgia, and appear for the first time joining with Georgia in her successful effort to throw off the yoke of the Seljuk Turks (1089).

The greatly reduced Khazar kingdom in Tauris, the survival of a mighty empire, was able to hold its own for nearly half a century, until in the eleventh century it fell a prey to the Russians and Byzantines (1016). The last of the khakans, George, Tzula, was taken prisoner. But the name is thought to survive in Kadzaria, the Georgian title for Mingrclia, and in Kadzaro, the Turkish word for the Lazis. Till the 13th century the Crimea was known to European travellers as Gazaria; the "ramparts of the Khazars" are still distinguished in the Ukraine; and the record of their dominion survives in the names of Kazarck, Kazaritshi, Kazarinovod, Kozar-owka, Kuzari, and perhaps in Kazan.

The relatives of the last khagan fled, according to tradition, to their coreligionists in Spain. The Khazar nation was scattered, and was subsequently lost among the other nations. By one account the remnants of the Khazars in the Crimea who professed Judaism were merged with the native Jews, consisting partly of Eabbanites and partly of Karaites. In this way the ancient Jewish settlements on the Crimean Peninsula suddenly received a large increase. At the same time the influx of Jewish immigrants, who, together with the Greeks, moved from Byzantium towards the northern shores of the Black Sea, continued as theretofore, the greater part of these immigrants consisting of Karaites, who were found in large numbers in the Byzantine Empire.




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