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Khazars

KHAZARS

The Khazars were an ethnic group, belonging to the Turkish peoples, who, toward the end of the second century of the Christian Era, had settled in the region between the Caucasus and the lower Volga and Don Rivers, and in the following centuries, after a series of victories over the Byzantines, the Persians, and the Arabs, established a powerful kingdom in southeastern Asia. At the beginning of the eighth century, dynastic ties bound the Khazars more closely to Constantinople, which led to a limited spread of Christianity among them. They also became acquainted with Judaism from the numerous Jews who lived in the Crimea and along the Bosphorus. When the Byzantine emperor, Leo the Isaurian, persecuted the Jews in a.d. 723, many Jews found refuge in the Khazar kingdom, and their influence was so great that, around the middle of the eighth century, the king of the Khazars and many of the Khazar nobility accepted the Jewish faith. According to a widespread legend, the conversion of the Khazars to judaism followed a religious discussion in which their king was particularly impressed by the arguments of Jewish theologians.

After the conversion of the leading Khazars to Judaism, many Jews, including several Jewish scholars, migrated to the Khazar kingdom, where they kept in touch with the intellectual centers of the Jewish world, especially those in Mesopotamia and Palestine. The literary sources indicate explicitly that the Khazars acknowledged the authority of the Talmud; hence, they must not have been affected in religious matters by the Karaites.

The Khazars' acceptance of Judaism coincided with a period of peaceful development in their history, when they focused their attention on the strengthening of their power at home and on the extending of their political influence abroad. They thus established new commercial centers of importance at various places throughout their sphere of influence, and in these places, as well as in their older cities, such as Itil in the delta of the Volga, and Samkarsh and Tamatarcha on the Bosphorus, the Jewish element formed an important part of the population. At Semender on the Caspian Sea, a viceroy of the Khazars, who was likewise a convert to Judaism, had his headquarters. Although the most important posts among the Khazars were held by families which had been converted to Judaism, there reigned in Khazaria a spirit of religious toleration such as was rarely to be found at the time in Christian or Moslem countries.

In the last third of the ninth century, the Khazar kingdom suffered considerably from the incursions of another Turkish people, the Petchonegs. Meanwhile, since the Russians occupied the region at the delta of the Dnieper and even attacked Constantinople, the Byzantines were forced, for the sake of mutual defense, to strengthen their friendly relations with the Khazars. The task of doing this was entrusted to Cyril, the later apostle of the Slavs, who used the opportunity to further an effort to win the Khazars to Christianity. At the beginning of the tenth century, however, the Byzantines allied themselves with peoples who were hostile to the Khazars, and among these people, too, they sent their Christian missionaries. The Khazar king was once more able to avert the threatened invasion of his land, but he put an end to the vaunted religious toleration in his realm. After this failure of the Byzantines in their efforts to weaken the Khazars, they induced the Russians to undertake a military campaign against them. The Russian grand duke, Igor, captured the city of Samkarsh and the Khazar cities in the Crimea, but he was then defeated, together with his Byzantine allies, by the Khazars. Yet the Russians' advance could not be checked forever. Between a.d. 964 and 969 they overran most of the region where the Khazars had been settled. Many of the Khazars withdrew into the remote steppes and especially into the inaccessible mountain country of the Caucasus. From here their king appealed to various Muslim countries for help, offering them in return his willingness to become a Muslim himself.

For some centuries several sections of the former kingdom of the Khazars preserved a certain amount of political independence, and in these regions the Khazar people remained loyal to their Jewish faith. However, when the Crimea was later conquered by the Tartars, most of the remaining Khazars embraced Islam, while the others were absorbed, partly by the Rabbanite and partly by the Karaite communities of Jews. Yet the so-called Mountain Jews of modern times are in part descendants of the ancient Khazars. Some Khazar elements seem to have entered Hungary, too, at an early date in the train of the Magyars, who were akin to the Khazars and once belonged to their kingdom.

Although the European Jews in the first Christian millennium had some knowledge of the existence of a Jewish kingdom in Khazaria, they did not have much precise information about it. The Spanish-Jewish scholar and statesman, asdai Ibn Shaprut, who lived around the middle of the tenth century, sent a letter to King Joseph of the Khazars in which he asked several definite questions about this people. The king's answer, written in Hebrew, was cited by various medieval authors and was also used by Judah Ben Samuel ha-levi in his Kuzari (about a.d. 1100). Toward the end of the nineteenth century, a copy of this letter was discovered among the documents that were found in the geniza of the synagogue of Old Cairo, together with other documents concerning the Khazars. Their contents largely corroborate the data already known about this people from the Armenian, Byzantine, and Arabic historians.

Bibliography: j. brutzkus, Encyclopaedia Judaica: Das Judentum in Geschichte und Gegenwart, 10 v. (Berlin 192834) 5:337350. r. w. rogers, The Jewish Encyclopedia, ed. j. singer, 13 v. (New York 190106) 4:17. j. starr, Universal Jewish Encyclopedia, 10 v. (New York 193944) 6:375378. a. yarmolinsky, "The Khazars: A Bibliography," Bulletin of the New York Public Library (Sept. 1938), rev. ed. printed separately (New York 1939).

[k. hruby]

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