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The Khazars were semi-nomadic Turkic people who established one of the largest polities of medieval Eurasia, with the capital of Atil and territory comprising much of modern-day European Russia, western Kazakhstan, eastern Ukraine, Azerbaijan, large portions of the northern Caucasus (Circassia, Dagestan), parts of Georgia, the Crimea, and northeastern Turkey. A successor state of the Western Turks, Khazaria was a polyethnic state with a population of Turkic, Uralic, Slavic, and Palaeo-Caucasian peoples. Khazaria was the first feudal state to be established in Eastern Europe. During the 9th and 10th centuries, Khazaria was one of the major arteries of commerce between northern Europe and southwestern Asia, as well as a connection to the Silk Road.

The name "Khazar" is found in numerous languages and seems to be tied to a Turkic verb form meaning "wandering" (Modern Turkish: Gezer). Because of their jurisdiction over the area, the Caspian Sea was named the "Khazar Sea", and even today the Azeri, Turkish, Persian, and Arabic languages designate the Caspian by this term (in Turkish, "Hazar Denizi"; in Arabic, "Bahr-ul-Khazar"; in Persian, "Daryaye Khazar"). Pax Khazarica is a term used by historians to refer to the period during which the Khazaria dominated the Pontic steppe and the Caucasus Mountains.Sabirs and Bulgars came under Khazar jurisdiction during the 7th century. The Khazars forced some of the Bulgars (led by Asparukh) to move to modern-day Bulgaria, while other Bulgars fled to the upper Volga River region where the independent state of Volga Bulgaria was founded. In addition to their role in indirectly bringing about the creation of the modern Balkan nation of Bulgaria, the Khazars played an even more significant role in European affairs. By acting as a buffer state between the Muslim world and the Christian world, Khazaria prevented Islam from significantly spreading north of the Caucasus Mountains and Eastern Europe.

This was accomplished through a series of wars known as the Khazar–Arab Wars, which took place in the late 7th and early 8th centuries. The wars established the Caucasus and the city of Derbent as the boundary between the Khazars and the Arabs.

Khazaria had an ongoing entente with Byzantium. Serving their partner in wars against the Abbasid Caliphate, Khazars aided the Byzantine emperor Heraclius (reigned 610–641) by sending an army of 40,000 soldiers in their campaign against the Persians. In 775, Leo IV was crowned as the sole emperor of the Byzantine Empire. Sarkel was built in 830s by a joint team of Greek and Khazar architects to protect the north-western border of the Khazar state.

The Khazars had, for years, been venturing forth southward, in their marauding raids on the Muslim countries south of the Caucasus. The major attempt of the Muslim armies to take control of the Transcaucasus came in 622 while Mohammed was still leading Islam. Islamic army conquered Persia, Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt, Armenia, part of Azerbaijan and surrounded the Byzantine heartland (present-day Turkey) in a pincer movement which extended from the Mediterranean to the Caucasus and the southern shores of the Caspian. This was the time when the long series of wars called Khazar-Arab wars began. These wars eventually saw the Arabs defeated at every advance with the death of thousands of Arab soldiers including their commander, Abd ar-Rahman ibn Rabiah, and the Arab armies in complete disarray.

The Arab armies' inability to traverse the Caucasus made it logistically impossible for them to besiege the Roman capital of Constantinople. Coupled with the military barrier presented by the Khazars themselves, this prevented Europe from more direct and intensive assaults by the forces of Islam, arguably keeping it from falling to the Muslim armies.

After fighting the Arabs to a standstill in the North Caucasus, Khazars became increasingly interested in replacing their Tengri shamanism with a state religion that would give them equal religious standing with their Abrahamic neighbors.

According to the Khazar Correspondence, Khagan Bulan summoned three clerics representing the three religions and had them dispute their creeds before him. But, no cleric could convince the others, or the sovereign, that his religion was the best. So the ruler spoke to each of them separately. He asked the Christian priest: "If you had to give up Christianity, which one would you prefer - Islam or Judaism?" The priest said: "If I were to give up Christianity, I would become a Jew." Bulan then asked the follower of Islam the same question, "Christianity or Judaism?" and the Moslem also chose Judaism. This is how Bulan came to choose Judaism for himself and the people of Khazaria in the seventh century, and thereafter the Khazars lived according to Judaic law. During the 8th century, all the Khazar royalty and much of the aristocracy converted to Judaism. Yitzhak ha-Sangari is the name of the rabbi who converted the Khazars to Judaism.

The Khazars succeeded in holding off the Arabs, but a young, expanding Rus' state vanquished the Khazar empire in the late 10th century. Medieval Ruthenian epic poems mention Ruthenian warriors fighting the Jewish Giant (Богатырь Жидовин).

Between 965 and 969, Khazar sovereignty was broken by Sviatoslav I of Kiev. They became a subject people of Kievan Rus'. Gradually displaced by the Rus', the Kipchaks, and later the conquering Mongol Golden Horde, the Khazars largely disappeared as a culturally distinct people.

Formation of the Khazar state

Early Khazar history is intimately tied with that of the Göktürk Empire, founded when the Ashina clan overthrew the Juan Juan in 552 CE. It is known that in 515-516 Hunnic-Savirs attacked Armenia. The widow of the Hunnic-Savir prince Bolakh Boariks concluded a peace with Byzantine in 527. In 529, Prince Khosrau I of the Persian Empire fought the social movement led by the Zoroastrian priest Mazdak. Numerous Jewish families who supported the movement had to flee the country north of Caucasus Mountains. In 552, a western-Turkic khaganate is mentioned led by khagan Tumyn (or Tumen) out of the Ashina clan. There are some speculations that the Western portion of the Göktürk Empire in the West became known as Avars. During that time, there is mention of Savirs' and Khazars' attacks on Caucasus Albania.

The first significant appearance of the Khazars in history is their aid to the campaign of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius against the Sassanid Persians. The Khazar ruler Ziebel (sometimes identified as Tong Yabghu Khagan of the West Turks) aided the Byzantines in overrunning Georgia. A marriage was even contemplated between Ziebel's son and Heraclius' daughter, but never took place. During these campaigns, the Khazars may have been ruled by Bagha Shad and their forces may have been under the command of his son Buri-shad.

With the collapse of the Göktürk Empire due to internal conflict in the 6th century, the western half of the Turkish empire split into a number of tribal confederations, among whom were the Bulgars, led by the Dulo clan, and the Khazars, led by the Ashina clan, the traditional rulers of the Göktürk Empire. By 670, the Khazars had broken the Bulgar confederation, causing various tribal groups to migrate and leaving two remnants of Bulgar rule - Volga Bulgaria, and the Bulgarian khanate on the Danube River.

During the 7th and 8th centuries, the Khazar fought a series of wars against the Umayyad Caliphate, which was attempting simultaneously to expand its influence into Transoxiana and the Caucasus. The first war was fought in the early 650 and ended with the defeat of an Arab force led by Abd ar-Rahman ibn Rabiah outside the Khazar town of Balanjar, after a battle in which both sides used siege engines on the others' troops.


Near East in 800 CE, showing the Khazar Khanate at its height.

A number of Russian sources give the name of a Khazar khagan, Irbis, from this period, and describe him as a scion of the Göktürk royal house, the Ashina. Whether Irbis ever existed is open to debate, as is the issue of whether he can be identified with one of the many Göktürk rulers of the same name.

Several further conflicts erupted in the decades that followed, with Arab attacks and Khazar raids into Kurdistan and Iran. There is evidence from the account of al-Tabari that the Khazars formed a united front with the remnants of the Göktürks in Transoxiana.

Khazars and Byzantium

Khazar dominion over most of the Crimea dates from the late 7th century C.E. In the mid-8th century, the rebellious Crimean Goths were put down and their city, Doros (modern Mangup) occupied. A Khazar tudun was resident at Cherson in the 690s, despite the fact that this town was nominally subject to the Byzantine Empire.

The Khazars are also known to have been allied with the Byzantine Empire during at least part of the 8th century. In 704/705 Justinian II, exiled in Cherson, escaped into Khazar territory and married Theodora, the sister of the Khagan Busir. With the aid of his wife, he escaped from Busir, who was working against him with the usurper Tiberius III, murdering two Khazar officials in the process. He fled to Bulgaria, whose Khan Tervel helped him regain the throne. The Khazars later provided aid to the rebel general Bardanes, who seized the throne in 711 as Emperor Philippicus.

The Byzantine emperor Leo III married his son Constantine (later Constantine V Kopronymous) to the Khazar princess Tzitzak (Çiçek in Turkish), daughter of the Khagan Bihar) as part of the alliance between the two empires. Tzitzak, who was baptized as Irene, became famous for her wedding gown, which started a fashion craze in Constantinople for a type of robe (for men) called tzitzakion. Their son Leo (Leo IV) would be better known as "Leo the Khazar".

First Published on 07/22/02 02:51 pm