Who were the Khazars, and with whom should they be identified today?
The "Khazar issue"
The discovery of the Khazar Kingdom that flourished in the Middle Ages has became now a favourite topic of argument ad speculation by the anti-Semites and other fanatic and hate groups and organizations that attempt to undermine the Jewishness of the Jews, often to claim the rights of the Jews for themselves. Here I want to expose some essential facts regarding the Khazars and their history, their contribution and assimilation within the Ashkenazic Jewry.
Before dealing with the subject of this page, it is important to make clear some irrefutable facts:
There are supporters of the false hypothesis that all present-day Jews are not of Israelite origin but Khazars, and they found their claim in the fact that many Khazars adopted Judaism as their belief. Even if such assertion be true for a large number of Jews (which is not), this may be said exclusively of the Ashkenazim, which is only one of the ethnic branches of the Jewish nation. Actually, nobody can ascribe Khazar origin to the Sephardi, Teymani, Mizrachi, Bukharan, Indian, Ethiopic and all the other branches, that constitute the majority of the Jewish population and are undoubtedly of Semitic, Israelite origin. Therefore, whoever tries to undermine the Jewish right on Eretz Yisrael has failed the goal since the beginning: even if none of the Ashkenazim be a true Jew, all the non-Ashkenazim Jews are enough to claim the Land of Israel as their homeland, with Yerushalaym as their capital.
Notwithstanding, it is essential to establish: 1) the origin of the Ashkenazim Jews of Eastern Europe; 2) the origin of the Khazarian Jews; and 3) the origin of the Russian, Polish and Balkan Jews.
1) Ashkenazim is the general definition applied to the heterogeneous branch of European Jews, excluding those of the Mediterranean area. As the term itself suggests, it referred in origin to the Jews dwelling in the Mitteleuropa, considered to be the land of Ashkenaz, but was subsequently applied in an extended manner to different Jewish communities that include German, Polish, Scandinavian, Russian and Danubian Jews among others.
The Mitteleuropean Jews sojourned in Germany, Austria and Bohemia long enough as to develop their own German-based language: Yiddisch, which became the "official" tongue of all Ashkenazim Jews. It was from Germany that they emigrated eastwards and reached Russia.
Genetic tests indicate that Ashkenazim Jews are also the direct descendants of the Israelites, and their DNA confirms their ancestry from the ancient Middle East. Genetics studies show that Ashkenazim Jews are more closely related to Yemenite Jews, Assyrian Jews, Sephardic Jews, Kurdish Jews, and Arabs than they are to European peoples, and that hardly any intermarriage or conversion has occurred to affect the Jewish groups over the centuries.*
2) When the Khazarian rulers converted to Judaism (and also before), they established religious freedom, which was a determinant fact to attract those persecuted minorities in Europe and the Islamic countries to immigrate into their kingdom. Besides the Jewish population already living in Khazaria, a large number of Jews persecuted in the Byzantine Empire and other areas fled to that land of freedom and prosperity. Jews came to Khazaria from Central Asia, Caucasus, Balkans, Syria, Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and even from Western Europe, as documented by al-Masudi, Sa'adiyah Gaon, the Schechter Letter and other accounts. The Arab writer Dimashqi wrote that these refugee Jews offered their religion to the Khazars and that they "found it better than their own and accepted it".* Jewish immigrants quickly outnumbered the native Jews of the kingdom.
It is documented that also many Khazars adopted Judaism after their kings themselves converted to the Jewish belief, but it is not possible to establish whether they were more or less in number than the original Jew inhabitants of Khazaria.
3) After the fall of the Khazar Empire, the Kievan Rus' took its place and ruled over its territory. Consequently, a large number of Jews - both Khazar and non-Khazar (Israelite) - became the inhabitants of the growing Slavic-Varangian (Russian) state. The Russians inherited most of the social system of the Khazar Kingdom, and granted a relative religious freedom to their new heterogeneous population. Since the 11thcentury c.e., the havoc wrought by the Crusades in the Jewish communities of Western Europe caused a constant stream of German Jews fleeing to the comparatively free countries of the Slavonians. Russia was the most desired land to live in those times. The Jewish settlers from abroad soon outnumbered the native Jews, spreading their Yiddisch language and their customs wherever they established themselves. Besides the Ashkenazim, the great majority of the Jewry, which had until then lived under the shelter of Arab rule, fled eastward to escape the new inquisition in Spain, and reached Ukraine, Poland and Russia, where they met with Jews who had been continuously migrating there from Germany since the 11th century c.e. Most of East European Jews migrated from the west to the east of the continent, and were not descended from the inhabitants of the Khazar Empire. They are actually a fusion of Balkan-Greek Jews from the Byzantine Empire, Babylonian Jews from the Abbasid Caliphate, Yiddish-speaking Jews from Germany, Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish inquisition, and Khazars. All these groups intermarried over the centuries, so that the Khazar converts disappeared as a distinguishable ethnical entity and their descendants became fully Jewish with Israelite ancestry.
Russian Jews descend mainly from Mitteleuropean Jews, while the first Polish Jews had Slavic given names typical of Bohemia and Moravia. Sephardic Jews from Spain, Portugal, and Turkey emigrated as well to Poland, Hungary and Romania and intermarried with Ashkenazim Jews. This has been confirmed by research done on numerous families' genealogies, some of which have Sephardic surnames and oral traditions of Sephardic ancestry.*
If Khazarian ethnicity may be considered in any way of relevant influence among Russian Jews, the same is not valid for those of Poland; which is confirmed also by the following facts:
Polish "shtetl" life is completely extraneous to the Khazars.
The majority of Polish Jews came from the west, not the east.
There are no places in Poland that may recall Khazar origin.
Most Ashkenazi Jews have Germanic, not Khazar, surnames and customs.
There's not any relevant trace of the Khazarian language among Jews, on the contrary, the Ashkenazim's tongue, Yiddisch, is evidently of German origin.*
The origin of the Khazars and their earliest history is hidden within other peoples of Scythian stock, and very few is known of them before the sixth century c.e., when they established a powerful kingdom in Southern Russia, between the Dniepr and the Aral Sea. Anyway, they are surely very closely related to the Huns, who are the subject of the next chapter. According to their own records, they descend from Togarmah through his son Khozar. This hypothesis would be feasible, but the Khazarian tradition is not creditable since they consider Togarmah the father of Turkic nations and differs from the Caucasian (Kartvelian and Armenian) records which are reliable. According to Khazars, Togarmah had ten sons called Ujur, Tauris, Avar, Uauz, Bizal, Tarna, Khozar, Janur, Bulgar and Savir, whose names obviously coincide with different Turkic tribes once settled in the area around the Black and Caspian Seas, within the Khazarian Empire. This alleged descent from Togarmah seems to belong to the later period, when Khazars adopted Judaism.
Even though some peoples in ancient times joined others of different extraction (like the Alans, that were a leading Sarmatic tribe, then contributed with the Huns/Magyars to form the Hungarian nation while other branches were assimilated by Slavic peoples), the Khazars are more likely related to Magog and eventually to Sumerians. Anyway, it is also possible that the Khazars were in origin a Caucasian people of Togarmah that became part of the Scythian and subsequently Turkic peoples.
The lack of knowledge and information about the Khazars' history and their civilization is due to historic revisionism - as it is well known, history is re-written by those who replaced the extinct civilization, in this case, the Russians and Byzantines, and by the surviving enemies, the Arabs. Their link to Judaism has been a determinant factor for historians to obscure the importance and high cultural development of the Khazars (in a similar way as the Hyksos' rule over Egypt is discredited).
From about the year 4310 to 4390 (550 to 630 c.e.), the Khazars were ruled by the Kök Turks. When that empire collapsed as a result of civil wars, the Khazars successfully achieved their independence.
The kingdom of Khazaria was in the beginning in the Northern Caucasus area, with the capital at Balanjar, identified with the archaeological site Verkhneye Chir-Yurt. Around the year 4480 (720 c.e.), the Khazars transferred their capital to Samandar, by the Caspian Sea, a nice city with beautiful gardens and vineyards. Thirty years later, the administrative centre was moved to the city of Itil, in the Volga Delta, near Khazaran ("Itil" was also the name of the Volga River in those times), and remained the capital of the Khazar kingdom for about two centuries.* Another fortified city and very important trading centre was Sarkel, by the Don River. Also Kiev, which became later the Russian capital, was founded by Khazars and Magyars.
The Khazarian Empire extended its territory from the Dniepr River in the west to the Aral Sea in the east, controlling most of the shores of the Caspian Sea, so that it is still called "Khazar Sea" in Turkish, Persian, Arabic and other languages of that area. The Khazars conquered and ruled over many peoples like Huns, Bulgars, Magyars, Sabirs, Pechenegs, Sarmatic, Slavic, Turkic and Caucasian tribes, etc. and displaced others beyond their kingdom boundaries.
The Khazars advanced over the lands by the Volga River, that was then the realm of the Bulgar Huns and, although these were a numerous and warlike people, they could not withstand the Khazars. Part of them moved northwards along the Volga, outside the Khazar jurisdiction, and settled their capital in the city of Bulgar; others fled westwards as far as the Danube River, where they founded the present-day Bulgaria; and others remained in Khazaria or re-settled in the Caucasus, giving origin to the Balkharian people. Once the Khazars' kingdom was consolidated and prosperous, the Bulgar Huns became their allies.
The history and destiny of the Khazars is, more than to any other people, closely related to another Hun tribe: the Magyars. The Khazar-Magyar was a mutual love-hate relationship. In the beginning they were associated against the Bulgars and other tribes, subsequently, the Magyars were allied with the Kabars (rebel Khazars) against the Khazars and Bulgars, that in turn established an alliance. After the collapse of the Khazar Empire, the Magyars, that by that time had consolidated their Danubian kingdom, welcomed many Khazars fleeing from the Russians.
Reliable documents attest that there was a fluent Magyar-Khazar/Kabar relationship, and that Magyars and Khazars learned each other's languages: The Khazar language was spoken in Hungary until the 10th century c.e. and was assimilated into the Magyar tongue. There are still some places in Hungary that show evident Khazar origin, like Nagykozár and Kískozár (Great and Little Khazar).
Another interesting fact is the description that several contemporary authors gave of the Khazars, saying that they had a fair skin, blue eyes, red hair and other features that resemble those of modern Hungarians.
The Khazarian Empire
The Khazar Empire extended its hegemony over a significant part of the world, controlled one of the most important trade routes between the Middle East and Northern Europe, and its civilization influenced Eastern European peoples as far as the Baltic shores and the Danubian Basin. Nevertheless, if it were not for some few references from Arabic, Persian and other sources, the very existence of the Khazars would hardly have become known!
The most important document about their reign reached us through the correspondence of a Sephardi Jew, Hasdai Ibn Shaprut, appointed by the caliph of Cordoba (Spain) to an important administrative role. He heard about a mysterious kingdom in the East where Jews were not persecuted but enjoyed freedom and were even kings, and took advantage of his position to obtain an embassy to Khazaria and establish relationships with that kingdom.
Other records, mainly Arabic, emphasized the Jewish character of that empire.
Even though Khazars were excellent warriors and imposed their rule over several warlike peoples, Khazaria was one of the most pacific states in the world, and had the most advanced justice system. Far from being an expansionist state, has played a role of fundamental importance in stopping Muslim expansionism. Indeed, Arabs conquered westwards all the North-African lands up to the Atlantic Ocean and ruled over Spain, having even crossed the Pyrenees, but they were unable to enlarge their northern border and cross over the Caucasus, because they were repeatedly defeated by the Khazars in the Khazar-Arab wars (7th and 8th centuries c.e.). Khazaria prevented Islam from spreading north of the Caucasus Mountains and thanks to this, all of Eastern Europe has not been overrun by the Arabs and become Islamic.
On the other side, Khazaria has never raised war against the Eastern Roman Empire, on the contrary, had frequently been at war with Byzantium's enemies. Indeed, if the Eastern Roman Empire survived the successive onslaughts of the Sassanid Persians and Abbasid Arabs it is owed to the Khazars. Therefore, it is European Christianity rather than the European Jewry that has taken a great advantage from Khazaria!
The Khazarian cultural heritage and judicial system has been as well adopted by succeeding reigns: the Kievan Rus' (Scandinavian-ruled Slavs) and the Hungarians both adopted the dual-kingship system of the Khazars. The Russian princes also borrowed the title kahan and patterned their legal procedures after the Khazars.
Khazars and Jews
The Khazar royalty was descended from the Ashina Turk dynasty. In the 9th century c.e., the Khazarian kings and nobility as well as a significant part of the Khazarian population embraced the Jewish belief and adopted the hallmarks of Judaism, including Torah and Talmud, the Hebrew script and the observance of Jewish holidays.* Anyway, most of the empire's population adopted either Christianity or Islam. The Jewish kings established a legal system that equally respected each religion, and the courts were ruled by Jewish, Christian, Muslim and also Slavic judges.
The Scythian-Turkic peoples, to which Khazars belong, were originally nomads and had an elementary Runic writing system, if any. In fact, when the Turks conquered the Arab Empire, they adopted Arabic script and began to keep records of their own history, which hardly existed before. In the same way, the Khazar Kahans observed the Jews dwelling in their kingdom and proved admiration for the Jews' culture and technical abilities, so that they appointed Jews as their counsellors and commercial advisors (Ottoman Turk Sultans did the same centuries later). The Jews taught them the art of writing, and since then, the Khazar language was written in Hebrew-Aramaic script.
King Bulan adopted Judaism in 4621 (861 c.e.), according to tradition, after having heard a debate between representatives of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim faiths. King Ovadiyah, his successor and the first of a series of kings with Hebrew names, established synagogues and Jewish schools in Khazaria. The Khazar nobility and many of the common people, as well as some of the Alan tribes, embraced Judaism. (see Khazar Kings list)
Yet, the association between Jews and Khazars begins many centuries earlier. The Jews encountered Scythian-Turkic tribes, including the Khazars, in the fifth century b.c.e. in Asia, when Israelite merchants from Assyria and Persia reached Kaifeng, then the capital of China. It is even possible that intermarriage occurred with Khazars and members of some of the Northern Israelite tribes, those considered "lost", which have dwelled in China and only now are being discovered and returning back to Israel. In this case, the Khazars' particular tendency towards Judaism would have a natural, genetic link. In fact, such idea was also spread among Khazar kings, who asserted that they did not convert, but returned back to Judaism. If this is true, the "Khazar Issue" supporters (see above) would lack any reason at all, but I would not fall into speculative theories as they do.
Jewish-Turk relationships were continuous since then, and Jews became an influent people in many Central Asian towns like Balkh, Bukhara, Samarkand, Tashkent, etc. Jews and the Turkic tribes dwelled together and had a peaceful exchange during centuries.
When the Khazars settled around the Caspian Sea, they found there some communities of Jews that were deported from Galil in 3409 (351 b.c.e.).
In the 10th century c.e., the political situation changed: the Sarmatic-Slavic tribes were organized under Scandinavian Russians, giving birth to a new rising power, the Kievan Rus'. On the other front, the Abbasid Empire was in decline, consequently, no longer threatening for Byzantium. This situation frustrated the importance of Khazaria as a safeguard for the Christian Europe. The Magyars consolidated their state in the Danubian Basin, and aimed at achieving the hegemony over the Balkans, where their kin-related Bulgars were still the leading nation.
The perfidious Byzantines, who have always taken advantage of the good relationships with the Khazarian Empire, first supported the Magyars against the Bulgarians (who were allies of the Khazars), by assailing them from the south while Magyars advanced in the north. Hungary became the new hegemonic state in the Balkans. Secondly, the Byzantines encouraged the Rus' (Varangian Scandinavians have supplied the Eastern Roman Empire with mercenary troops for centuries) to attack the Khazar Kingdom, that fell under the Viking armies in 4776 (1016 c.e.).
Nevertheless, the Khazar heritage was transferred to the two new powerful states: the Rus' and Hungary. The rather underdeveloped Rus tribes thus became heir to the industrial, technological and commercial development that took place under the Judaic/Khazar state over the course of three centuries. The presence of Jewish communities in Kiev and elsewhere in Southern Russia were essential for maintaining the industries they had established and for bringing wealth into the region with the commercial ties they had likewise established.
After the fall of their kingdom, the Khazars gradually intermixed mainly with the Kipchak (Kuman) populations and lost their character of being a distinct people. Several ethnic groups of the Caucasus such as Karachays, Kumyks and Daghestani tribes have Khazars among their ancestors. The Kabars (a rebel Khazar tribe of whom many were also Jewish) emigrated to Hungary and were assimilated by their very closely kin-related Magyars.
The Khazarian population in Hungary was in constant increase since the Hungarian Duke Taksony (4715-4730 / 955-970 c.e.) invited Khazar Jews to settle in his realm. On the other hand, Hungarian Jews promoted for a while the suggestion that they were themselves of Khazar rather than authentic Jewish origin, and hence legitimate Hungarians no less than the Magyars.** There were many converted Khazars among them, but the majority was of original Jewish stock. Undoubtedly, the most strongly Khazar element within Jews is present in Hungarian Jews, descendants of the last Khazars who fled into Hungary until the 14th century c.e., where they were received by their former vassals, the Magyar kings. The Hungarian Jews are definitely a fusion of Semitic German Jews, Khazars, Kabars and Sephardic immigrants who came to Hungary by way of Italy fleeing from the Spanish inquisition.
Concerning the Jewish communities that remained in the formerly Khazar territories, they were assimilated by the Slavic-speaking Jews, and in a later period, by the Yiddisch-speaking immigrants from Central Europe, that outnumbered the native Russian Jews. In this way, the Khazar origin within Jewry was reduced to a minority and furtherly disappeared by intermarriage.
Conclusion: There is a Khazar component in the ancestry of many Eastern European Jews, though it has been rendered irrelevant by intermarriage with the overwhelming majority of Semitic Ashkenazim. The most authentic descendants of the Khazars are today to be found among the modern Hungarians, including many Hungarian Jews, and in a lesser degree, also within Bulgarians and some peoples of the Caucasus area.
The phrases in italics followed by asterisk (*) are quoted from Khazaria.com; those followed by double asterisk (**) from Itamar Even-Zohar's site.
Other sources: Hebrew History Federation.