Ogur and Oguz
Tengri, Khuday, Deos and God
Crescent And Star
Buddism, Nestoriansm, Islam
Russian Version needs a translation
|Peter B. Golden
THE CONVERSION OF THE KHAZARS TO JUDAISM
The World of the Khazars, Leiden, Boston, 2007, ISSN 0169-8524, ISBN 978 90 04 16042 2
© Copyright 2007 by Koninklijke Brill NV, Leiden, the Netherlands.
Adji M. Türks and Judaism
Golden P. Khazar Conversion
Elhaik E. Ashkenazim and Türks
Nobody bothers to delve into the conversion of the Khazars to Islam or Christianity, but the Khazars' conversion to Judaism is a perennial subject of heightened interest. Fortunately, the facts on that conversion require an abundance of the background information, and thus the works unwittingly enrich the Middle Age history in general, and Turkology in particular. This effect is not specific to particular researchers, its mirror image is the focus on Ottoman history that unwittingly provides a wealth of information on the Middle Age history and Turkology in general. The best contributors to the Türkic history were the scholars exploring self-centered research, wherever is the center.
The Khazars were a small tribe, at the most Khazars numbered 5% of the Kaganate population, covered under an umbrella supraethnic, or a politonym appellative “Khazars”. Somehow researchers tend not to define the term “Khazars”, allowing readers and other researchers to conclude what they please. The loose terminology makes the very subject or event of conversion indistinct. In the most general terms, “conversion” refers to a process of transition from a prior state to a later state, where the prior state is an ubiquitous sprawl of Tengriism among all Türkic people, from the Scythians, Cimmerians and Sarmats on the Atlantic seaboard to the Huns at the Ordos bend, and the later state is a spread of Judaism on the Khazar island of the same Türkic people in a greatly diminished geographical space. The initial stage is not contaminated by alternate influences, since the Huns started rolling their centers westward before the advent of the later religions. An exception to this state was a presence of the miniscule Sarmato-Greek Bosporan kingdom, which may have touched on the local Onogur Bulgars in its sphere of influence. Contamination started in the 4th c. with the advent of the Armeno-Agvan Christianity, then in the 7th c. with the advent of Islam. Gy. Moravcsik asserts that the Greek Chrisyianity made inroads into the
Page numbers are shown at the beginning of the page in blue. Posting notes and explanations, added to the text of the author and not noted specially, are shown in (blue) in parentheses and in blue boxes, or highlighted by blue headers. Diacritics may need verification against the original.
Peter B. Golden
THE CONVERSION OF THE KHAZARS TO JUDAISM
The Khazar conversion to Judaism, an unusual, but not unique occurrence, must be viewed within several larger contexts. The broadest of these was the conversion of the nomadic, steppe peoples to one or another of the universal religious systems (Judaism, Christianity, Manichaeism, Islam or Buddhism). This was a process that was sometimes, but not exclusively, associated with the further growth and articulation of state structures. Although a divine mandate to conquer and rule was often part of the Eurasian nomads’ imperial ideology, they did not create any of the great world religions. For these they turned to the sedentary cultures with which they came in contact. Indeed, this is a further example, it has been argued, of their dependence, in the spheres of both material and spiritual culture, on sedentary society. Their choice of religion often grew out of very immediate, “mundane (rather) than spiritual considerations,” combined with “sound political sense.” Conversion of the elites, especially the ruler, almost always preceded large-scale conversions.1
A somewhat narrower context is that of the struggle by the great agrarian empires of the medieval Mediterranean world to win over to their respective faiths the “heathen barbarian” peoples to their north. More concretely, this meant the struggle of Western and Eastern Christendom and the Muslim Caliphate to convert the Germanic, Slavic and Altaic steppe peoples.
1 See A.M. Khazanov, “The Spread of World Religions in Medieval Nomadic Societies of the Eurasian
Steppes” in M. Gervers, W. Schlepp (eds.), Nomadic Diplomacy, Destruction and Religion from the
Pacific to the Adriatic (Toronto Studies in Central and Inner Asia, 1, Toronto, 1994), pp. 11–15 and
his “World Religions in the Eurasian Steppes: Some Regularities of Dissemination” in G. Bethlenfalvy
et al. (eds.), Altaic Religious Beliefs and Practices. Proceedings of the 33rd Meeting of the
Permanent Altaistic Conference, Budapest, June 24–29, 1990 (Budapest, 1992), pp. 197–201. On the
course of various religions among one Eurasian, Turkic, nomadic, tribal confederation, see P.B.
Golden, “Religion Among the Qıpčaqs of Medieval Eurasia” Central Asiatic Journal, 42/2 (1998), pp.
The fourth century conversion of the Goths to a moderate form of Arian Christianity through the activities of Ulfilas,2 was the first of several attempts by Constantinople to reach beyond the Danube using bilingual and bicultural agents. Evaluations of Byzantine success in the Pontic steppes vary. Moravcsik proclaimed Byzantine conversion activity in eighth century Khazaria “remarkably successful.” Although Christian communities could be found in the steppe and immediately adjoining areas of the North Caucasus, successes were sporadic and do not appear to have resulted in mass conversions.3 In this light, Noonan has recently suggested that Byzantium, in fact, did not fare particularly well here.4 One interesting example, of some relevance to the Khazars, is that of the so-called “North Caucasian Huns,” a subject people of the Khazars. In 682, according to Movsês Dasxuranci, the Albanian ruler Varaz Trdat sent the Albanian (Ałuanian) bishop Israyêl to the “Huns” to bring them into the Christian fold. The ruler, Ałp Iłutuêr (Alp Elteber),5 a son-in-law of the Khazar Qağan, “and his army” were converted. The policy was pronounced a success and the Huns were duly proclaimed “allies.”6 We know nothing of the subsequent fate of Christianity among the North Caucasian Huns. Khazar-led attacks into Albania, however, were still a commonplace in the early eighth century.
The Alans, an important element of Byzantine diplomacy in Western Eurasia, provide a further illustration of the difficulties. According to al-Masûdî, their rulers, previously pagans, had converted to Christianity “during the reign of the 'Abbâsids.”
2 This was initially, but not exclusively, the work of Ulfilas, a man of non-Gothic, or mixed
Gotho-East Roman origins, see R. Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion From Paganism to Christianity
(New York, 1997), pp. 72–77; P. Heather, The Goths (Oxford, 1996), pp. 60–61, 85, 90–91, 131,
After 320/931–2, however, they drove out the bishops and priests sent to them by Byzantium and abjured that faith.7 Christianity had greater success in the Slavic lands, imposed, initially, by force of arms in Turko-Slavic Balkan Bulgaria and through a combination of diplomacy, charismatic missionary leadership (Cyrill and Methodius and their followers) and military pressure elsewhere.8 Islam was also not inactive in Western Eurasia. The 'Abbâsid Caliph al-Mamûn (813–833) composed a work to answer the questions of the ruler of the Burğar regarding the Islamic faith. Although there is some debate over the identity of these Burğar (Danubian-Balkan or Pontic-Bosporan),9 Islam subsequently found a warm reception among the kindred Volga Bulgars whose leader converted in the early tenth century.10 In the Eurasian steppe world and in Eastern Europe, the Khazar conversion (to Judaism) was one of the first, coming sometime after the embrace by the Uygur Qagan (762) of Manichaeanism, but before the conversion of the Balkan Turkic Bulgars (864) and the Slavs of Central and Eastern Europe.
As with mass religious conversions elsewhere, leadership was almost always provided by the rulers themselves and often had to overcome domestic resistance. In the first Türk Empire (Eastern Qaganate: 552–630, 682–742, Western Qaganate: 552–659, ca. 699–766), early rulers such as Mugan (553–572) and his successor Taspar (or Tatpar, 572–578) were interested in Buddhism as were their kinsmen in the Western Türk Qaganate, the progenitor of the Khazar state.11
7 Al-Masûdî, Murûj ad'-D'ahab wa Maâdin al-Jawhar, ed. C. Pellat (Beirut, 1966–1979), I, pp.
These were, apparently, largely personal conversions which did not have a profound impact on society. Subsequently, when Bilge Qagan (716–734) proposed building Buddhist and Taoist temples, Tonyuquq, his Chinese-educated advisor, argued forcefully against it, noting that it was the mobility of the Türks, unencumbered by immovable property, which gave them their military advantage.12
Similar arguments would be advanced in later Turkic-nomadic societies by those who were fearful of the lure of urban life.13 In the Činggisid era, settlement in the cities was viewed as a crime against Činggis Qan’s Yasa.14 Conversion to a universal religion in the steppe invariably involved close contact with urban elements, a program that was not always attractive to the nomadic rank and file. The Sûfî wandering out into the steppe was far more effective in bringing Islam to the Turkic nomads than the learned ‘ulamâ’ of the cities.15 The third context in which the conversion should be viewed is the local one. What were the events and who were the personalities, if they can be determined, that brought about the conversion (to Judaism)? And finally, we must assess the legacy of the conversion (to Judaism). Was this an ephemeral event or did it set in motion long-term changes?
In his study of cross-cultural contacts in Eurasia, Jerry Bentley notes that “there is no single dynamic” that can be used to explain the “process of large-scale conversion in pre-modern times.” Similarly, there could be more than one reason for conversion, going beyond immediate “spiritual or cultural advantages.” Bentley discerns three broad patterns that come into play: “conversion through voluntary association; conversion induced by political, social, or economic pressure; and conversion by assimilation.”
12 Liu, Die chineschischen Nachrichten, I, pp. 172–173, 224.
As conversion often brought with it considerable, sometimes even radical changes in a variety of human activities, legal, social, culinary, sartorial, linguistic, it is difficult for the historian to reconstruct the motivation for such a change.16
Conversion accounts, whose task is to instruct and strengthen the faith of the newly converted, do not necessarily tell the full story. There is a strong emphasis on the miraculous. Of the various patterns noted, Bentley finds “voluntary association” to be “perhaps the most elusive.” He notes, however, a number of incentives involving “political, economic or commercial alliance with well-organized foreigners.” When viewing the actual examples of voluntary association, the role of long-distance merchants, often dispersed in trading diasporas across a continent, looms particularly large. Moreover, the local elites, in this way, could establish bonds with more powerful states from which political and military as well as commercial advantages could be gained. Association with a recognized imperial power could also confer domestic political benefits, bolstering otherwise weak regimes.17 The pace and depth of conversion must also be taken into consideration.
In much of the literature on conversions of Inner Asian peoples, attempts are made, as Devin DeWeese has noted, to “minimize the impact of the ‘new’ religion or to deny its significance beyond small circles within an Inner Asian state or people.”18 This has certainly been true of some of the scholarship regarding the Khazars. Richard Eaton, in his study of the Islamization of Bengal, provides an important model for the assimilation of a new faith in an agrarian community. His conclusions are equally valid for the pastoral-nomadic peoples. Eaton identified three stages in this process that began in Bengal in the thirteenth century and concluded in the eighteenth century. In the first stage, elements of the new faith were included in the already existing belief system. In Bengal this involved the activities of dynamic Sûfîs who pioneered the opening of new lands for cultivation and with this the inclusion of Muslim figures in the local pantheon. To proper Muslims this is simply širk (polytheism), the gravest sin in Islam. But, in this way, Islamic ideas, however distorted, became familiar and infiltrated the local belief system.
16 J. Bentley, Old World Encounters. Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre- Modern Times
(Oxford, 1993), pp. 8–9.
In the second stage, Muslim notions, ideas and values came to be identified with elements of the earlier faith as the symbiosis of the no longer really competing belief systems deepens. Such a situation can last for a long time. Eventually, in the Bengali case, the Mughal government took an active role, alongside entrepreneurial-minded local Muslims, promoting more orthodox versions of Islam. This led to the third stage in which the old religion was displaced by a fully Islamic one. Further reform took place, but this was now in an Islamic setting.19 This pattern of inclusion, identification and displacement can also be observed in the steppe world. Within the Khazar orbit, the initial stages can be seen in the conversion tale of the North Caucasian Huns noted previously. The chopping down of the pagan holy forest by the priests and the conversion of the trees into Christian symbols and a site of Christian worship provides a graphic illustration of what DeWeese terms “assimilative displacement.”20 The burial practices of Islamicizing Volga Bulğaria 21 in the tenth and eleventh centuries still preserved elements of earlier Pre-Islamic custom and belief.22 Bulğar tomb inscriptions mixed Arabic and Turkic.23 By the eleventh century, Volga Bulğar scholars were known in the Islamic heartlands.24 We should bear these models in mind when we examine the course of Khazar Judaization.
Since the closest, contemporary conversion of a Turkic steppe state to a universal, world-religion is that of the Uyğurs, for comparative purposes we might briefly examine this event. In 762, in the Chinese capital, Luoyang, which his forces had “liberated” at the request of the Tang from rebels, Bögü, the Uyğur Qağan, converted to Manichaeanism, having been instructed in that faith by Soġdian Manichaean priests who had been residing there.
19 R. Eaton, The Rise of Islam and the Bengal Frontier 1204–1760 (Berkeley, 1993), pp. 268–303.
Manichaeanism had been moving along the Silk Route finding devotees among the Soġdians (as had other religions such as Nestorian Christianity) and those peoples with whom they closely interacted, especially the Turkic nomads. Manichaean missionaries at the Uyğur court soon encountered opposition from the Uyğur aristocracy which Bögü for a time overcame. Whether the religion spread much beyond the Uyğur elite is unclear. It did, however, become the state religion,25 surviving the assassination of Bögü Qagan in a coup led by anti-Manichaean aristocrats in 779.26 The Soġdian adherents of this faith living among the Uyğurs are noted as niġošaklar and sartlar.
The former term denotes, literally, the “listeners,” i.e. the Manichaean rank and file. Sart, a term ultimately of Sanskrit origin (sârtha “caravan”) (särtha “merchant”), meant “merchant” and subsequently in Turkic came to denote the urban (usually Iranian) (usually Sogdian and Indian, later also Iranian traders) populace as a whole, with some pejorative connotations.27 Religion and commerce were often inseparable along the Silk Route.28
The Uyğur conversion was known to the medieval Muslim geographers and historians 29 and an-Nadîm portrays them as ready to retaliate against the whole of the Muslim community in their lands, should any of their coreligionists be harmed in the Islamic lands.30 Clearly, a closer identification with the new faith was taking place.
Much later, in the Mongol-era, Juvainî gives us an important if somewhat garbled account of the conversion itself with Buddhism (much more widespread among the Uyğurs in his day) substituted for Manichaeansim.
25 S.N.C. Lieu, Manichaenism in the Later Roman Empire and Medieval China. A Historical
Survey (Manchester, 1985), pp. 189–194; H.-J. Klimkeit, Gnosis and the Silk Road. Gnostic Texts from
Central Asia (San Francisco, 1993), pp. 364–368.
The account is filled with shamanic references to tree cults, holy mountains, the miraculous birth of rulers and dreams that precede the conversion and concludes with a religious debate, all familiar elements in Turkic conversion narratives and found in the Khazar accounts as well.31
Why did the Uyğurs convert to this much-persecuted faith? As in other instances, it may have been a very public way of proclaiming their ideological independence from China and to sharpen distinctions with their rivals, the Qarluqs and Qırğız, among whom Nestorian Christianity had made some headway.32
The Uyğur conversion to Manichaeanism did not leave a legacy. Manichaeanism faded during the post-imperial diaspora, while Buddhism became dominant, alongside smaller Nestorian Christian communities, both eventually supplanted by Islam (except for a small Buddhist community).33 A distant observer, the Zoroastrian Dênkart (last redaction in the tenth century) provides a curious footnote to this. Surveying the impact of non-Zoroastrian faiths, it remarks that “thus it is clear that the false doctrine of Yišô in Rome (Hrôm) and that of Môšê among the Khazars and that of Mânî in Turkistan took away their might and the valor that they once possessed and made them feeble and decadent among their rivals...”34
With this as background we may now ask what do we know of the indigenous belief system or systems that were present among the Khazars? 35 What were they converting from?
31 'Alâ ad-Dîn Atâ Malik Juvainî,
Tarîh- i Jahân-Gušâ, ed. M. Qazwînî (Leiden-London, 1912,
1916, 1937), I, pp. 40–45, E.J. Boyle (trans.), The History of the World-Conqueror
(Cambridge, Mass, 1958), I, pp. 55–60. See the excellent discussion in DeWeese, Islamization and
Native Religion, pp. 282–286, 511–514. Bögü (Turkic “wise”) is here
called Buqu Khân. After being visited by a tutulary spirit who takes him off to a holy
mountain (Aq Tağ) and other shamanic types of initiation, he gains victories. He then
has a dream of a holy stone, a dream shared by his vizier. This prompted a campaign that
resulted in conquests and the founding of the city of Balasağun/Quz Balıq. The Uyğurs
were still shamanists, having experts in the “science of magic” whom they call qam (the
Turkic term for “shaman”). Buqu then convened a religious debate between the qams
and the toyins (Turk. “Buddhist monk” < Chin. daoren [tao-jên], see Clauson, ED, pp. 569, 625)) from
China (Hitâi). The Buddhist monks won the debate and the Uyğurs
were converted to that faith.
According to Ibn Rusta, aside from the Judaized ruling stratum, the “rest of the Khazars profess a religion similar to that of the Turks.”36 Gardîzî, who drew on the same sources, compares the Khazar native religion to that of the Oğuz Turks.37 It is quite likely that Khazar native religion was much like that of the North Caucasian Huns and other Turkic peoples. We have already mentioned the tree cult and how it was transformed by the Christian missionaries to their own purposes. Mention is also made of a god called K’uar38 (not otherwise attested as the name of a deity). Those persons or objects struck by “flashes of thundering fiery lightning and ethereal fire” are considered sacrifices to him.39 The principle god is Tangri Xan, the familiar supreme celestial god Tengri of the Inner Asian peoples.40 To this fearsome “gigantic savage monster,” according to Bishop Israyêl, they sacrificed horses. They also made offerings to fire, water, the moon, to “all creatures considered in their eyes to be in some way remarkable” and to “certain gods of the road.”41 This is probably a reference to the Old Türk yol tengri,42 probably a god of fortune. The North Caucasian Huns also beat drums and whistled over corpses, cut themselves as part of their mourning ritual, engaged in naked sword fights at the graves, wrestled and raced their horses this way and that as some were occupied with “weeping and wailing and others in games of diabolical fury.”43 Israyêl also mentions the “royal graves of the thunder” (čopayk’) and “the tall idols and the čopayk’ with the filthy skins of the altars.”44
36 Ibn Rusta, Kitâb al-A‘lâq an-Nafîsa, ed. M.J. De Goeje (Leiden, 1892), p. 139. Ad- Dimašqî,
Kitâb Nuhbat ad-Dahr fî ‘Ajâ’ib al-Barr wa’l-Bahr, ed. M.A.F. Mehren (St. Petersburg, 1866), p. 263,
says that they “knew not religion (milla), like the Turks.”
The term is still found in the North Caucasus today. In Osetin, coppay and in Čerkes čoppa denote a “ritual dance and singing performed around a person who has been struck by lightning, the refrain repeated during this ritual...”45 In Qaračay-Balqar, it is the name of a fertility deity of thunder and lightning, second only to Teyri (= Tengri) “to whom a kid was sacrificed.” Prayers to Čoppa were accompanied by ritual dancing.46 There are depictions, in aristocratic grave complexes in Khazaria, of scenes of ritual combat, dancing of naked warriors armed with spears and wearing masks. There is also evidence of the worship of oak trees to which animal sacrifies (wild boars) were brought and of totemism.47 Of Khazar native religious practices we have few direct notices.
Funerary practices, as evidenced by the sites investigated in Khazaria by Russian and Soviet archaeologists, indicate a belief in another world that was much like the one they had left. Warriors were buried with their horses, weapons and food, items they would need in their journey to the next world. Sometimes, in the graves of well to do there were human sacrifices of young women and children (probably slaves or servitors).
The skeletons were often wholly or partially destroyed to render the deceased harmless and perhaps to cleanse him or free him from worldly concerns. These and other pagan spiritual concepts were widespread throughout Khazaria, regardless of location or the ethnic affiliations of the deceased.48
The Khazar Hebrew conversion accounts mention that the Khazar ruler Bulan drove out the “magicians” (qosmîm) and idolators.”49 Presumably, this is a reference to Khazar qams (shamans). The sun amulets worn by the North Caucasian Huns, perhaps a part of the Tengri cult, are found all over Khazar territory.50
45 V.I. Abaev, Istoriko-étimologičeskij slovar’ osetinskogo jazyka (Moskva, 1958), I, p. 314.
In the Vita Constantini, the famous “apostle to the Slavs,” the Khazar ruler who summoned him to participate in a religious debate at the Khazar court says “from the first (isprva) we know of one God who is above all and to Him we bow towards the east and observe some of our shameful (stoudny) customs.”51 At a dinner with the Qağan, the latter raised his goblet saying “we drink in the name of the One God who created every living thing (tvar’).”52 These are probably references to the Tengri cult.
There is clear evidence of a cult of ancestor worship and human sacrifice connected with it. The death of a Khazar tudun, in 710–711, occasioned the killing of the Byzantine official who was with him together with three hundred soldiers as part of the funeral observances.53 Ibn Fadlân tells us that after constructing over a river a multi-room mausoleum, termed “Paradise,” for the deceased Qağan, they decapitated those who built it.54
Al-Istahrî notes the reverence with which the Khazar royal grave was approached. Anyone riding towards the tomb had to dismount, prostrate himself before the tomb and then continue on foot until he was at a suitable distance from the holy site.55 The Qağan, of course, given his possession of qut (the heavenly mandate/good fortune to rule)56 was accorded extraordinary respect. Al-Istahrî, and others, remark on his sacral character. He rarely appeared in public.
51 T. Lehr-Spławiński, Żywoty Konstantyna i Metodego (Obszerne) (Poznań, 1959), pp. 26–27.
When the Beg/Išad 57/Yilig (the deputy ruler who ran the actual affairs of state) approached him, he prostrated himself, “rolling himself in the dust” (tamarraġa fî at-turâb) and then waited until he was summoned.58 Ibn Fadlân reports that the deputy ruler daily “enters (into the presence of the Great Qağan, humbly (mutawâdian), showing humility (ihbât) and calmness (sakîna). He only enters before him barefoot and in his hand is a piece of firewood (hatab). When he greets him, he ignites this piece of firewood between his hands and when it is all burned up, he sits together with the king on his throne, on his right side.”59 The use of purifying fire so that one might be admitted to the royal presence was well-known in the steppe world.60 These rites must also be considered part of the pre-conversion Khazar religion.
These or similar types of funerary practices involving human sacrifice were widespread in the steppe. Al-Muqaddasî (al-Balhî)61 says of the Turks that “among them are those who bury with the deceased their slaves and servants, (leaving them) alive, in the grave mound, until they die.”62 Other examples can be cited for groups ranging from the Scythians, Xiongnu (Huns), Hephthalites, Qitans, Qıpčaqs, Mongols, Jurčens and Ottomans.63 The Khazar grave structure described by Ibn Fadlân is an example of the qorığ “a royal enclosure,”64 which is clearly linked with Old Türk burial customs.65
58 Al-Istahrî, ed. De Goeje, p. 224.
Archaeologists have found many ashpits in maritime Daghestan, an early area of Khazar habitation. These are connected with sun or fire cults that may have been part of Khazar worship.
In addition, there are finds of the teeth of boars, dogs and wolves, some of them perforated, in both Daghestan and Saltovo-Majackaja culture areas, that, very likely, had some cultic functions or were used as amulets.66
Monotheistic world religions were already penetrating Khazaria, in particular Christianity.67 Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of a sizable number of Christian churches in maritime Daghestan, a region of Khazar influence. In particular, this was the work of Armenian/Albanian missionaries operating out of Č’or (Darband/Bâb al-Abwâb or a locale near it)68 long active in missionary efforts among a variety of “Hunnic” peoples. There is also evidence of Georgian Christian missionary activity elsewhere in the region.69 In this connection we may note the Georgian Life of St. Abo (< Arab. Habîb) who was martyred in 786. An Arab Muslim who had taken service with the Georgian Prince Nerses, he fled with his master to the Khazars, ca. 779–780. The latter are described as “wild men, fearsome of face, savage in character, drinkers of blood, without religion except that they recognize a god the creator.”
66 Magomedov, Obrazovanie, pp. 155–158.
In other words, the Khazars, at this time, were still largely followers of the Tengri cult. Here, Abo, converted to Christianity.70 According to al-Muqaddasî, writing in the late tenth century, the bulk of the inhabitants of Samandar, one of the early Khazar centers in the North Caucasus, were Christians.71 Al-Istahrî, however, mentions that there are Muslims and mosques in Samandar, but notes that “their king is a Jew” and a relative of the Khazar ruler. Ibn Hawqal (who took much of his information from al-Istahrî or their common source) says that “the Muslims and people of various other faiths and pagans (Tabaqât ahl al-milal wa’l-wata'niyûn) inhabited this country and adds that there are mosques, churches and synagogues in Samandar.72
The Crimea, a region in which there was often an uneasy Byzantine- Khazar condominium, was another source of ongoing Christian influences emanating from the Crimean Goths and the Black Sea Christian communities.73 When the Khazars extended their influence over Ap’xazet’i/Abxazia-Western Georgia (whose ruler ca. 780, Leon, was the grandson of the Khazar Qagan and who had asserted his independence of Constantinople with Khazar aid), an anti-Khazar revolt broke out (780s, perhaps 790s) in Gothia. Although there is no direct evidence to tie Byzantium to it, it is indicative of the friction that had developed in this region.74 These conflicts form part of the background to the Khazar conversion. There is also some evidence for the creation of a larger Church structure in the region in the form of a number of episcopal seats, subject to the metropolitanate of Doros (Gothic Crimea) and covering the lower Volga, North Caucasian and Crimean zones.75
70 The sources of his conversion, apparently, were the “many towns and villages in
that northern land which by the grace of the Holy Ghost abide securely in the Christian
faith,” see D.M. Lang (ed. trans.), Lives and Legends of the Georgian Saints (London, 1956, reprint:
Crestwood, NY, 1976), pp. 118–119.
The dating of this organizational proposal and its actual impact are uncertain (last quarter of the eighth century?).76 Clearly, there was a serious effort to strengthen the Christian/Byzantine position in Khazaria at this time. Why? Was this a response to the growing Jewish influence, to the conversion of the Khazar ruler to Judaism noted in al-Masûdî or a factor contributing to that conversion?
Marwân forced Qagan to convert to Islam
Equally important as a background factor was the protracted struggle in which the Khazars and Arabs had been engaged for control of the Caucasus.77 In 737, the Umayyad general (and subsequently last Umayyad Caliph) Marwân broke through into the Khazar core lands on the Volga, captured the Qagan and forced him to convert to Islam. According Ibn Atam al-Kûfî, “and with him many people of his house became Muslims and people of his country.”78
There is very little evidence to indicate that the Qagan remained a Muslim. The quick retreat of the Arab armies and the growing disorder in the Umayyad Caliphate, which was toppled in 750, left little political pressure to remain Muslim. There is one notice, however, which may indicate that Islam had continued among some elements of the Khazar ruling clan.
76 It is preserved in a fourteenth century Greek manuscript. Obolensky would place
it earlier, between 733–746, see Artamonov, Ist. Xazar, pp. 258–261; D. Obolensky, The Byzantine
Commonwealth. Eastern Europe 500–1453 (London, 1971), pp. 174–175. J. (Gy.) Moravcsik, “Byzantine Christianity and the Magyars in the Period of Their Migration”
The American Slavic and East European Review, 5 (1946), pp. 40–41; Dvornik, Les
légendes, p. 164.
Al-Istahrî (writing in the middle of the tenth century, although much of his data is drawn from earlier sources) reports that the Qağanal office was barred to a very able member of the royal clan (who sold fish in the market) because he was a Muslim, “for they only summon to the Qaganate one who professes Judaism.”79 The story, if true, would indicate that some members of the Qağanal house had either retained their allegiance to Islam or had been subsequently converted.
In any event, there were still Muslims within the ruling clan. It is hard to imagine, however, given the high positions held by Muslims in Khazar society and government, that this young man was reduced to fish-mongering because of his religion.
According to Ibn Fadlân the legal affairs of the Muslims who reside in or come to Khazaria for trade are handled by a Muslim slave (ġulâm) of the Khazar king who is called Hz (cf. Khwârazmian χž “pleasant”?)80 “and no one else hears their cases or passes judgments among them.”81 Al-Masûdî, in the 940’s, reports that the wazîr of the Khazar king was a Muslim named Ahmad b. Kûya and notes that Muslims “are predominant (ġâlib) in” the capital Atıl/Itil, “because they constitute the army of the king. They are called in this town Ursiyya.”82 This standing army of the king, perhaps the royal comitatus, al-Masûdî is only talking of the troops within the capital, was staffed by an immigrant community of Muslims from the Khwârazm region who had left their homeland, “after the appearance of Islam,” and had taken service with the king of the Khazars. Ahmad b. Kûya was from this community.83 When the king warred on Infidels, he was accompanied by 7000 of them. They stood aside, however, in wars with Muslims.84 We can see that non-Judaic religious allegiance did not preclude access to the highest levels of power.
79 Al-Istahrî, ed. De Goeje, p. 224. See Dunlop, History, pp. 97–98 for a slightly different
Conversion to Judaism
With these remarks we have come to the question of the conversion itself. What do we know of the circumstances of the conversion, its setting and dating? The historicity of the conversion narratives has been explored by Dunlop, Pritsak and others.85 Pritsak has termed them “epic narratives” and there are certainly elements that fit within the general mold of Turkic conversion tales. The dating remains problematic. It is, perhaps, most useful to examine our sources chronologically or according to the era from which our source has drawn its information.
As has long been noticed, none of the contemporary sources emanating from their immediate neighbors make direct mention of the Khazar conversion. The earliest source is the passage in Christian of Stavelot’s (also known as Druthmar of Aquitaine) commentary on Matthew (Expositio in Matthaeum Evangelistam) the extant manuscripts of which date to the tenth century.86 The sources for the notice are dated to sometime after the death of Charlemagne and before the conversion of the Balkan Bulğar ruler Boris to Christianity in 864 — although a recent study suggests that it might have stemmed from South Italian or Roman sources of the 860’s or 870’s. The text says “We are not aware of any nation under the sky that would not have Christians among them. For even in Gog and Magog, the Hunnic people who call themselves Gazari, those whom Alexander confined, there was a tribe more brave than the others. This tribe had already been circumcised, and they profess all dogmata of Judaism (omnem Judaismum observat). However, the Bulgars, who are also from those seven tribes, are now becoming baptized.”87
The Gazari are, presumably, the Khazars although this term or the “Kozary” of the perhaps nearly contemporary Vita Constantini (Constantine/Cyril was in the Khazar state ca. 861) could have reflected any of a number of peoples within Khazaria.88 The Vita Constantini (written perhaps in the early 880s, if not immediately after Constantine’s death in 869)89 tells of a religious debate held at the court of the Khazar ruler.
85 Dunlop, History, chaps. v–vi; Pritsak, “The Khazar Kingdom’s Conversion to Judaism”
Harvard Ukrainian Studies, II (1978), pp. 261–281.
According to this account the debate took place because “the Jews are counseling us (ustjat ny) to accept their faith and usages (detel’) and the Saracens, on the other hand, offering peace and many gifts, are pulling us to their faith.” Hence, the appeal to the Byzantine emperor, “because of our old friendship and love,” to send “a learned man” to present the Christian position and “should he defeat the Jews and Saracens we will adopt your faith.”90 From this it would appear that the question of Khazar religious orientation, at the highest levels, was still undecided ca. 861, although local partisans of Judaism clearly held high, influential positions at the court and were shaping the policy debate within the government. In other words, Judaism was by this time a powerful presence within the Khazar state. Constantine’s mission was fundamentally political in nature and could not have been otherwise. Political issues were, in any event, inevitably and inextricably intertwined with proselytizing efforts.91 Success would have altered the Judaizing course of the Khazar government and brought the Khazar Empire fully into the “Byzantine Commonwealth.” Although it did not succeed on the religious plane, Constantine, according to the Vita, was able to bring home some Byzantine prisoners who had been in Khazar captivity and firm up the Khazaro-Byzantine entente.92 The Vita indicates more than hints that not all had been well in Khazar-Byzantine relations. More importantly, the Vita appears to have distorted the actual situation at the Khazar court. The Khazar elite had already converted to Judaism (see below).
90 For the Vita Constantini, see Lehr-Spławiński,
Żywoty Konstantyna i Metodego, pp. 27 ff.; Constantinus et Methodius Thessalonicenses, Fontes, eds. F. Grivec, F. Tomšić in
Radovi Staroslavenskog Instituta (Zagreb), IV (1960), pp. 109 ff.
Somewhat more problematic is the account of Eldad ha-Dani, a mysterious Jewish traveler and tale-teller, who is said to have visited Spain ca. 880 and wrote of the presence of the tribe of Simeon and the half-tribe of Manasseh in the land of the Khazars. The authenticity of the texts has been called into question.93 He is, perhaps, the figure claiming Danite descent who visited Spain “in the days of our fathers” mentioned in the letter of Hasdai ben Šaprût, the Jewish courtier of the Spanish Umayyads who initiated the Khazar correspondence.94
Ibn Hurdâd bih (d. ca. 912) was the master of the post in al-Jibâl (Media) and a man who was well informed about the lands of the ‘Abbâsid Caliphate and its neighbors. His Kitâb al-Masâlik wa’l-Mamâlik, which underwent two redactions (846–7 and 885–6, not all of which survives), has a very valuable notice on the Jewish merchants, the Râd âniyya, who came to the Khazar cities as part of their trans-Eurasian itinerary and appear to have been supplanted by the Rus’ by the time of the second redaction.95 The surviving text says nothing about Khazar Judaism. Ibn al-Faqîh, however, who drew liberally on Ibn Hurdâd bih has more information on this, as we shall see. Pritsak has suggested that the thirteenth-century compiler, Yâqût, in his Mujam al-Buldân, who remarks that “their (the Khazar) king” (malikuhum) is a Jew,96 took this part of his text from Ibn Hurdâd bih. This would be the earliest Muslim reference to Khazar Judaism.97 But, Yâqût himself says that he took his information from Ibn Fadlân and it is more widely accepted that the former and al-Istahrî are the primary sources for the Mujam’s notices on the Khazars.98
93 See discussion in Dunlop, History, pp. 140–141, 168; Marquart,
Streifzüge, pp. 197–198 and n. 3. On Eldad, see S.W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, III (New
York, 1952–1983), III pp. 116–117, 208, VI, pp. 220–221.
There is a sizable corpus of Muslim historians who take note of the Khazars (given the prolonged warfare between the Arabs and the Khazars they could hardly have failed to do so), but they, too, are silent about Khazar Judaism. They include such important ninth and early tenth century authors as: al-Ya'qûbî, al-Balâdurî and at-Tabarî. Ibn Atam al-Kûfî (d.926) noted the conversion of the Qagan to Islam, but has nothing to say regarding other religions in Khazaria.
The situation changes, however, with Ibn al-Faqîh whose Kitâb al-Buldân was probably written ca. 902–903 (he died in the 950s)99 and largely drew on Ibn Hurdâd bih. He reports, however, that “all of the Khazars are Jews. But, they have been Judaized recently.”100 Lewicki was of the opinion that this notice was taken directly from Ibn Hurdâd bih and hence dates to the 840’s or 880’s.101 It might also, however, be an updating of the latter’s material by Ibn al-Faqîh, reflecting the large-scale Judaization of the Khazars that had occurred by the time of his writing.
The Kitâb al-Alâq an-Nafîsa (written ca. 903–912) of Ibn Rusta, only one book of which has survived, dates from about the same time as Ibn al-Faqîh’s work. Basically a compiler, like so many of the Islamic geographers, Ibn Rusta drew on a number of sources, both contemporary merchants and travelers and written works from the mid- to late-ninth century.102 He says of the Khazars that “their supreme chief professes Judaism as does also the Îšâ[d] and those of the leaders and great ones who sympathize with his inclinations. The rest of them profess a religion similar to that of the Turks.”103
Gardîzî whose Zayn al-Ahbâr dates from ca. 1050, drew from many of the same sources used by Ibn Rusta. He reports that the Qagan and Išâd are Jews as “are all who are inclined (meil dârad) to (these) two from among the generals (sarhangân) and great men. The rest of them have a faith (bar dînî and) which resembles that of the religion of the Oğuz Turks (ba-dîn-i turkân-i ġuzz mânad).”104
99 See discussion in Lewicki, Źródła, II/1, pp. 9–10.
Ibn Fadlân, one of our few sources who actually set foot in the region (in 921–922), in his capacity as secretary to the Caliphal mission to Volga Bulğaria, reports that “the Khazars and their king are all Jews” (wa al-hazar wa malikuhum kulluhum yahûd). This section, however, is not found in the Mašhad manuscript, but preserved in Yâqût’s occasionally jumbled compilation.105 It is clear, nonetheless, that by his time the core element of the state, the Khazars, were Judaized.
Roughly contemporary to Ibn Fadlân was Saadiah Gaon (892–942) who makes several references to the Khazars and Khazaria, but says nothing explicitly about their Judaism. The latter might be implied from his mention of a certain Isaac Bar Abraham of Iraq who went to Khazaria and settled there.106 But, it could be argued that the Khazar economy attracted men of a variety of religions and Saadiah’s comment might only indicate that there was a Jewish community there. Saadiah’s lack of explanation about Khazar Judaism might also indicate that it was so well-known to his audience that there was no need to belabor the obvious.
The Qaraite scholar, al-Qirqisânî, writing ca. 937, in his comments on Genesis 9:27, mentions that “some other commentators are of the opinion that this verse alludes to the Khazars who accepted Judaism.”107 Again, there is no explanation, but rather the sense that the audience knew well what the reference was. Certainly, by this time, the association of Khazaria and Judaism in the Jewish world was an established fact, not requiring further commentary. Zvi Ankori who examined these and other statements emanating from the Qaraite communities, concluded that the general tenor of al-Qirqisânî’s remarks displayed a certain lack of enthusiasm for these converts.
105 Yâqût, Mujam al-Buldân (Beirut ed.), II, p. 369. Earlier, II, p. 368, he had only
noted “their king is a Jew” (wa malikuhum yahûdî); Ibn Fadlân/Togan, Arabic text,
p. 45/Germ. trans. p104. The edition by Sâmî ad-Dahân, Risâla Ibn Fadlân (Damascus, 1379/1959) omits this part.
Other Qaraite commentators, such as Yafet b. 'Alî of Basra (fl. 950–980), maligned them with the charge of bastardy. Ankori, on the basis of Qaraite hostility towards the Khazars, considers it quite unlikely that the Khazars would have been converts to Qaraism.108 This appears to find further confirmation in the genuine Khazar documents. In particular, the letter which is believed to have stemmed from the Khazar community in tenth century Kiev, shows no traces of non-Rabbinical Judaism.109 Al-Masûdî, in his description of the Khazar capital, Atıl/Itil, writes: “In this city there are Muslims, Christians, Jews and pagans. As concerns the Jews, they are the king (malik, by which he later notes he means the Qağan), his entourage and the Khazars of his tribe (min jinsihi). The king of the Khazars converted to Judaism during the caliphate of (Hârûn) ar-Rašîd (reg. 786–809, pbg). Some Jews joined him, arriving there from various Islamic urban centers and from Byzantium (Rûm). This was because the king of Rûm, in our time i.e in 332/943 it is Armanûs (Romanos Lekapenos, reg. 920–944), converted those Jews who were in his kingdom to the Christian religion, using coercion on them...” He goes on to note that many Jews fled from Byzantium to Khazaria as a consequence of this. He also writes that he has discussed the conversion of the Khazar ruler in another work.110 Unfortunately, this work has not come down to us. This is, however, the clearest statement we have for the conversion to Judaism at the highest levels in Khazar society and for an influx of Jews from abroad.
It is quite likely that we have an abridged version of the conversion account in ad-Dimašqî, writing ca. 727/1327, who attributes the notice to Ibn al-Atî r and has clearly jumbled, other, imperfectly understood, sections from Ibn al-Miskawaih. He also places it in the time of Hârûn ar-Rašîd.111
108 Although some tenth century Palestinian Qaraite authors show evidence of messianic
expectations from Khazaria, see Ankori, The Karaites, pp. 64–78.
Of the other surviving works attributed (albeit with some considerable uncertainty) to al-Masûdî, the ‘Ajâib ad-Dunyâ and the Ahbâr az-Zamân we find the brief notice that “as concerns the Turks..., they possess no religion. Some of them profess the faith of the Majus and others are Judaized.”112 This tells us little.
Al-Istahrî (ca. 951, but most probably harkening back to an earlier time) reports that “their king is a Jew” and that “the Khazars are Muslims, Christians and Jews and among them are idolaters. The smallest group are the Jews, most of them are Muslims and Christians, except the king and his people of distinction (who) are Jews. The morality of the pagans prevails among them.”113 Ibn Hawqal (writing in the 970’s) repeats essentially the same notice as does also the thirteenth century compiler, Yâqût (ca. 1229).114 This theme limiting Judaism to the Khazar ruling elite is also reflected in the mid-eleventh century author, Ishâq ibn al-Husain and in the anonymous twelfth century Risâla fî’l-Aqâlîm.115
From about the mid-tenth century also stems the famous Khazar Correspondence between Hasdai ibn Šaprût, the Jewish courtier of the Spanish Umayyads and the Khazar king, Joseph. Stemming from this same era is the “Letter of an Unknown Khazar Jew” or Cambridge Document” (previously called the “Schechter Document”) found among the treasures of the Cairo Geniza and dated, perhaps, to ca. 949.116 The issue of the authenticity of the Correspondence has a long and mottled history which need not detain us here. Dunlop and most recently Golb have demonstrated that Hasdai’s letter, Joseph’s response (dating perhaps from the 950s)117 and the “Cambridge Document” are, indeed, authentic.
112 For the ‘Ajâ’ib ad-Dunyâ (Bursa Hüsein Çelebi Kütüphanesi, Ms. 746, ff. 63b–
64b), see R. Şeşen (ed. trans.), El-Cahiz, Hilâfet Ordusunun Menkibeleri ve Türkler’in
Fazîletleri (Ankara, 1967), p. 32; Ahb âr az-Zamân wa man abâdahu’l-Hidtâ'n, ed. H. 'Asî
(Beirut, 1386/1966), pp. 98–99. See also discussions in D.M. Dunlop, Arab Civilization
to A.D. 1500 (New York, 1971), p. 110; T. Khalidi, Islamic Historiography. The Histories
of Masûdî (Albany, 1975), pp. 154–155.
What we have are copies (as Golb suggests), perhaps from an 11th century codex of Hasdai’s diplomatic correspondence.118 The “Cambridge Document” has many controversial points, which we need not consider at this moment, focusing, instead, on the conversion narrative contained within it. Jews are said to have arrived in Khazaria from or via Armenia at some unstated time (perhaps as early as the period of persecution unleashed by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (610–641) in the early 630s).119 In Khazaria they intermingled with the Khazars while preserving, apparently imperfectly, elements of their ancestral faith. Subsequently, one of the prominent Jewish military leaders, coaxed by his devout wife and father-in-law, began to espouse more vigorously a form of Judaism more closely adhering to traditional Jewish norms. This angered the Byzantines and the Muslims. It was at this stage that this “great chief ” (ha-sar ha-gadol) called for a religious disputation to settle the roiling religious question. In its aftermath (the conclusions are nowhere clearly stated), the Khazar officers called for Jewish books which had been kept in a “cave in the plain of Tyzwl (תיזול). These were produced and the explanations offered by the “sages of Israel” proved critical. “Then,” we are told, “returned Israel, with the people of Qazaria, (to Judaism) completely” and Jews began to emigrate to Khazaria from Iran, Iraq and Byzantium. This strengthening of religious faith also led to centralization of a hitherto diffused form of government (“there was no king in the land of Qazaria; but rather whoever would achieve victories in war would they appoint over themselves as chief officer of the army”).
117 It survives in a Long and a Short Redaction, the manuscript of the Long Redaction
(Firkovič Collection) is from the thirteenth century and the Short Redaction [Christ
Church, Oxford] from the sixteenth century, see Kokovcov, Perepiska, p. xi; Golb, Pritsak, Khazarian
Hebrew Documents, p. 76.
Now, they “appointed over them one of the sages” who is called kagan (בגן) i.e. Qağan.120 Constantine Zuckerman, who has most recently analyzed this text, suggests that the notion of a “return” to Judaism was a means of getting around the potential divisions between Jews and converts.
It was, “a practical way to save the cohesion of the Khazar people.” Moreover, the primitive, “bookless” Judaism that had existed up to this time finds parallels in the characterization of Khazar beliefs found in the Vita Constantini,121 although Khazar religious beliefs described briefly in that text could just as easily be a reference to the Tengri cult.
Joseph’s response to Hasdai’s letter contains another version of the conversion narrative. In it, the Khazar king (melek') Bulan, “a wise and God-fearing” man drove out the “sorcerers and idol-worshippers.” Having received two heaven-sent dreams as a result of his strivings and having then convinced this heavenly apparition to appear to the “great chief ” (ha-sar ha-gadol, if Bulan is the Beg, then obviously this would be the Qağan)122 to win him over, he then gathered together his “princes, slaves and his entire people” and they converted to the new faith. A third angelic visitation produced a request that he build a temple and assured him military success in a raid on Azarbayjan as a means to gather the necessary funds. Byzantium and the Muslim rulers, having learned of this (clearly there were pro-Byzantine and pro-Muslim factions at the court), sent him gifts and tried to win him over. A religious disputation followed in which Judaism prevailed. The conversion is said to have taken place 340 years before Joseph’s time. Some generations after Bulan, during the reign of Obadiyah, the kingdom was “renewed” and the faith strengthened according to traditional Jewish norms.123
120 See text and translation
in Golb, Pritsak, Khazarian Hebrew Documents, pp. 106–
Al-Muqaddasî (writing ca. 985) describes Khazaria as “a broad district beyond the (Caspian) sea, (a land of) squalor and woe, of many sheep, honey and Jews.”124 The Khazar state was mortally wounded by the Rus’ campaigns (in alliance with the Oğuz) of 965–969. In this notice, if it is a reflection of the situation at the time of al-Muqaddasî’s writing, we find evidence that there were still large numbers of Jews in Khazaria. On the other hand, he also notes in his description of the “Khazar,” the Khazar capital on the Volga, that its inhabitants had earlier moved to the sea coast (i.e. the Caspian?) and then returned. “They converted to Islam since they had earlier been Jews.”125 This clearly refers to the time after the Rus’-Oğuz overrruning of the city. Muslims had, in all likelihood, comprised the majority — or at least plurality — of the population of the capital. After the disasters of 965–969, many Jews and Judaized Khazars had undoubtedly fled the city. Those that remained appear to have converted to Islam. The continuing existence of Khazar Jewish communities, however, may be seen in the account of the Rus’ chronicles of the series of religious interrogations conducted by the ruler of Kiev, Vladimir I, in 986 who declined Volga Bulğar Muslim, Khazar Jewish and German Catholic invitations to accept their faiths before converting to Orthodox Christianity.126
An-Nadîm, writing ca. 987–988, in a notice on the script systems used by the “Turks and those related to them,” comments that “the Khazars write Hebrew.”127 An echo of this theme is found in Fahr ad-Dîn Mubârakšâh (ca. 1206) who, in a notice clearly conflated from several sources, states that the “Khazars also have a script which is derived from that of the Rûs, a branch of the Rûm who live near them. They write in this script and are called Rûm-Rûs. They write from left to right, the letters are not joined. There are twenty-two letters all together (and no more). The greater part of these Khazars who use this script are Jews.”128
124 Al-Muqaddasî, ed. De Goeje, p. 355.
A Sunnî qâdî, ‘Abd al-Jabbâr b. Muhammad al-Hamdânî of Rayy (Iran) in a polemical work directed against the Ismâ'îlîs and other Shî'ites as well as the Christians written ca. 400/1009–1010, cited the Khazar conversion, which he placed “recently in the days of the ‘Abbâsids and during their rule” as an example of a bellicose, violent people who were converted by a single proselytizer using the power of argument rather than military force.129 The individual is left unnamed.
Al-Bakrî (scr. 1086, d. ca. 1094) has a longer notice for which he, obviously, drew on a number of sources: “in general, the Khazars are Muslims and Christians. Among them are (also) idolators. The smallest of the groups among them is the Jews.130 Their king professes the Jewish faith.” Having been first a pagan (majûs) and then a Christian, he “saw the wrongness of his what he believed” and convened a religious disputation “between the three Peoples of the Book (ash âb al-kitâb).” A learned local Jew bested the Christian bishop in debate and then had someone poison his Muslim opponent. Thus, “the Jew won the king’s favor (istimâla) to his religion and he became a Jew.”131
Interestingly enough, it is one of our latest sources, Yehudah Halevi, who, in the opening lines of his famous defense of Judaism written in Arabic in 1140 (the Kitâb al-Hujjâh wa’d-Dalîl fî Nasr ad-Dîn ad-' D'alîl or more popularly Kitâb al-Hazarî, it was translated into Hebrew, in 1167 by Yehudah Ibn Tibon, the Sefer Ha-Kuzarî), says that having been asked to “provide refutations” to defend Rabbinical Judaism, he remembered “the arguments of the rabbi who studied with a Khazar king, who converted to Judaism some four hundred years ago.”132 His contemporary, Abraham ibn Daud, writing in the 1160’s confirms the interest in Khazar matters among Iberian Jewish intellectuals. He mentions the Khazar Jewish community as part of the larger Rabbinical, as opposed to Qaraite, community, knows of the Khazar Hebrew correspondence and even remarks that “we have seen some of their descendants in Toledo, scholars who informed us that their legal practice conforms to Rabbanite usage.”133
129 See the Kitâb Tatb'ît Dalâ’il Nubuwwat Sayyidinâ Muhammad and discussion in
S. Pines, “A Moslem Text Concerning the Conversion of the Khazars to Judaism” Journal of
Jewish Studies 13 (1962), pp. 45–55, Arabic text (in transcription), p. 55, Eng. trans. p. 47. The notice reads: “One of the Jews undertook the conversion of the Khazars (who) are
(comprised of) many peoples, and they were converted by him and joined his religion.”
The Khazar Hebrew correspondence is also noted by the somewhat older Yehuda ben Barzillay of Barcelona (ca. 1090–1105), who, however, was less certain about its authenticity and indeed of the fact of the Khazar conversion.134
Despite the overwhelming evidence of the written sources, archaeological evidence for Judaism is hard to come by. One of the brick buildings in Sarkel (a fortress-trade center on the Don built with Byzantine assistance in 840–841)135 may have been a synagogue, but this is by no means certain. There are no other traces of Judaic or Christian belief in that complex that have been uncovered thus far.136 Warrior graves with Jewish symbols are found at Čelarevo (70 km. from Belgrad) in Yugoslavia.
These may have been Qabar. Given the absence of Jewish, Christian
or Muslim religious paraphernalia in the Khazar sites investigated thus
far, Pletnëva concluded that paganism remained the “unifying religion”
of Khazaria.137 There can be little doubt that paganism was an important
element in Khazar culture and probably a significant substratal element
in the religious beliefs of those that converted to one or another of the
monotheistic religions. But, one must ask, are we to expect much religious
134 Kokovcov, Perepiska, Heb. text, pp. 127–128/Russ. trans., pp. 128–131; Dunlop, History, p.
Archaeology has not yet revealed all of its secrets, as Petruxin has noted in his “afterword” to Pletnëva’s book.138 Most importantly, the Khazar capital remains undiscovered.139
Dating and Impact of the Conversion
The dating of the conversion remains a matter of scholarly dispute.
Dunlop, after an exhaustive analysis of the Arabic and Hebrew sources, concluded that “sometime
before 112/730, the leading Khazars may
have come under the influence of Judaism.” In the aftermath of a religious
debate, ca. 740, the Qağan accepted “a modified Judaism” and in
800, moved to full Rabbinical Judaism.140 A cautionary note should be
sounded here. In 733, when Constantine Copronymus married Čiček, the daughter of the Qağan, the
Byzantine sources make no mention of
138 Pletnëva, Očerki, pp. 227–230. Petruxin attributes the “elusiveness” of Khazar
Judaic monuments to both the incompleteness of the Khazar archaeological record and
to the “thin stratum” of Jewish adherents.
Dieter Ludwig, following these same stages of Judaization, concluded that by the time of Constantine’s mission (860) the preponderance (Übergewicht) of Jews at the Khazar court indicates that the conversion of the Khazar elite to Judaism had been accomplished, probably sometime before 835–840.143 Artamonov also viewed this as a “long, sometimes unnoticed process” in which the intermingling of Jews with Khazars played a greater role than preaching. The process began, he suggests in Daghestan, one of the early centers of the Khazars. The “culprits” (vinovniki, an interesting choice of words) in this process were local Daghistanian Jews.
He also points to the old Jewish settlements in the Crimea and Taman peninsula (Phanagoria) whose numbers had grown thanks to Byzantine persecutions under Heraclius and Leo III (717–741). A Daghestanian setting for the conversion, however, is complicated by the absence, thus far, of any Jewish cultic objects in the various Khazar sites that have been examined in that region. It should also be added that there are no contemporary traces of Islam either. Local chronicles, toponyms and popular legends, however, do point to old, Pre-Judeo-Tat Jewish settlements and these may go back to Khazar times.144
Following al-Masûdî, Artamonov points to the late eighth-early ninth century as a particular turning point. In his interpretation, the Vita Constantini clearly shows that the Khazars were Judaized. He further argues that the conversion to one of the acceptable monotheisms of Western Asia, given Khazar involvement with both Byzantium and the Caliphate, was a necessity in the aftermath of the events of 737. Faced with either Christianity or Islam, they chose Judaism as a middle way out.
It gained them “entry into the circle of medieval civilization and at the same time secured them an independent status” between the competing Christian and Muslim states. There were also domestic needs, a new ideology to meet the requirements of “new forms of socio-economic relations.” Although a good choice as a demonstration of independence, Artamonov says that Judaism, with its non-proselytizing character was poorly suited to compete with the younger faiths, Christianity and Islam.145
143 Ludwig, Struktur und
Gesellschaft, I, pp. 161–163. Since he dates (pp. 328–332) the
letter of Christian of Stavelot to a period ca. 835–840 or “a little later,” the conversion of
the Khazars must have occurred before that.
The notion that Judaism provided a neutral status between Byzantium and the Islamic World as well as securing commercial relations across the Mediterranean is an old one, going back to the Russian Eurasianist school.146 But, if Judaism here was non-proselytizing, how were the Khazars converted?
In point of fact, conversions of elites or large-scale conversions to Judaism were not very common, but not unknown, e.g. the conversions of the Idumaeans and the Ituraeans in the late second century BCE, the Judaization of the ruling elites of Adiabene (in present day Northern Iraq) in the mid-first century C.E. and of the Himyârî kings in Yemen (perhaps as early as the fourth century C.E.) and the incorporation of Berber elements into North African Jewry in medieval times.147 In Medieval Europe, Jewish policies regarding proselytism varied with time and place, depending on local and external conditions.148 A frontier zone like Khazaria, at the interstices of the great Eurasian and West Asian trade routes and the cultures and religions that traversed this zone borne by merchants and others, was precisely a region in which Judaism, unfettered by Christian or Muslim overlords who prohibited Jewish proselytizing, could freely compete.
Novoselcev dates Khazar interest in monotheistic faiths to the seventh century (e.g. the mission of bishop Israyêl noted earlier). He discounts the notice of the Qağan’s conversion to Islam in 737, noted only by Ibn Atam al-Kûfî and al-Balâdurî, as reflecting a not very reliable oral tradition that was not repeated by more discriminating authors such as at-Tabarî, al-Masûdî and Ibn al-Atî r among others. The Muslim sources fix Judaism as the state religion in Khazaria by the 850– 870’s. Novoselcev considers al-Masûdî’s notice as the only one “worthy of belief.” Beyond that, the sources do not permit a more exact dating of the event.
146 See the comments of G. Vernadskij (Vernadsky), Opyt istorii Evrazii (Berlin, 1934), pp. 51–52.
He attributes the process of conversion to the Išâd/Beg who forced the Qagan to accept Judaism. Islam and Christianity were excluded because of political complications whereas, in his view, the Jews, on whom the Carolingians and Spanish Umayyads looked with special favor, “monopolized European trade,” controlling the transit trade between Europe and Asia. Khazaria attracted Jews fleeing persecutions in Byzantium and emigrants from the Caliphate. The Jewish colonies in the Crimea were also significant. Nonetheless, based on a selective reading of the Muslim sources, Novoselcev concludes that Jews comprised the smallest grouping of those espousing monotheistic faiths in Khazaria. Judaism and Jewish culture (including literacy in Hebrew) had some impact, but so did Islam which in the tenth century was gaining ground and was the religion of the royal army.149
Most recently, Constantine Zuckerman has argued for the primacy of the Vita Constantini in dating the conversion. He dismisses al-Masûdî’s notice as a “somewhat confused resumé of a more detailed account in a work which is no longer preserved,” but holds open the possibility of rehabilitating him in light of the revival of Jewish traditions noted in the Cambridge Letter.150 Why al-Masûdî should be confused about his own work and what elements of confusion are to be found in his account are not spelled out. Rather, Zuckerman says that since only one religious debate took place (the Cambridge Document and the Vita Constantini are describing one and the same event), in 861, the conversion must have occurred not long after the debate. Conversion was in one stage, at the initiative of Bulan, the Beg/Military chief. It was probably prefaced by some individual conversions (this may be the background to al-Masûdî’s notice). Zuckerman contends that “the spread of Judaism among the Khazars was, in reality, more gradual and slower than the Cambridge Document would admit (though in no way limited to the upper class). He concludes, however, that it had only a “limited penetration” among the Khazars.151 Finally, he suggests that “the link between the conversion and the new mode of government, as established in the Genizah Letter, appears to be wholly justified.”152
149 Novoselcev, Xazarskoe gosudarstvo, pp. 144–154.
The linking of the dual kingship in Khazaria with Judaization has appeared over the years in a number of variants. Artamonov placed the emergence of the dual kingship in the early ninth century and connected it with the activities of Obadiyah, to whom he attributed the imposition of full Rabbinical Judaism and a coup d’état that reduced the Qagan to a largely ceremonial position.153 This produced the revolt of the Qabars.154 The Qagan was also compelled to convert to Judaism. This form of governance did not derive from Judaism, but was, he suggests, an innovation resulting from the replacement of one ruling dynasty by another.155
Pletnëva identified Obadiyah with the unnamed Khazar ruler (the Qagan in her view) mentioned in al-Masûdî’s notice as converting to Judaism. The consequence of this Judaization of the Qağan, Beg and Itil aristocracy, she argues, was to alienate the ruling clique from the rest of the Khazar aristocracy which resulted in a power struggle between the non-Judaized provinces and the capital. Pletnëva concluded that Obadiayah was among those who perished in this “Khazarian Fronde” and the state itself was weakened.156
Pritsak also placed the emergence of the Beg to sometime after 799
but before 833 when the Beg 157 is shown playing an important role in
foreign affairs (the building of Sarkel). The Beg, who, he conjectures, is
the major domo from the Iranian *Barč/Warâz/Bolčan clan, is identified
with Obadiyah and the Khazar ruler who converted during the reign of
Hârûn ar-Rašîd. This Beg forced the Qağanal clan to convert to Judaism, producing the “Judaization
of the institution of the Khaghanate,”
153 Cf. Ibn Fadlân/Togan, Arab text, pp. 43–46/trans. 139–140; al-Mas‘ûdî,
Murûj, ed. Pellat, I, pp. 212, 214–215; Al-Istahrî, ed. De Goeje, p. 224 etc.
As for the much-debated question of the dating of the conversion, we now have some new evidence that gives added weight to al-Masûdî’s notice. It has become clear that the Khazars in the early ninth century minted coins, perhaps in response to a decline in Muslim minting in the 820s. The Khazar coins were invariably imitations of Islamic dirhams.
However, they included, in some instances, the inscription ard al-hazar (“Land of the Khazars”), Turkic tamğas and some dirhams with the most striking formula (for imitation Islamic coins): Mûsâ rasûl Allâh “Moses is the Messenger of God,” a clear substitution for the Islamic Muhammad rasûl Allâh. The five “Moses dirhams” uncovered thus far have been dated to 837/838 on the basis of die-chains.159 There can be little question that, at the least, the governing strata of Khazaria had been Judaized by this time — perhaps relatively recently so (as al-Masûdî indicates) and wanted to dramatically and visibly assert this new religious profile in the turbulent 830s. Coins were important ideological symbols and in the medieval “Age of Faith” projected the official religion of the state or at least that of its ruling group.
As I have noted elsewhere, the institution of a dual kingship, often encompassing a sacral king as well, is a widespread phenomenon in Eurasia — indeed worldwide.160 There is nothing but conjecture to connect it with the reforms of Obadiyah, the further evolution of Khazar Judaism or the Qabars (who may have had Judaic elements in their midst). The fact is we do not know when, precisely, the Khazar system of dual kingship emerged. It could not have come ex nihilo. It was not present in the early stages of Khazar history. Given the Old Türk traditions of the Khazar state (described in al-Istahrî and mirroring the same investiture ceremonies depicted in the Chinese sources for the Türks)161 and the overall institutional conservatism of steppe society, one must exercise great caution here.
159 R.K. Kovalev, “What Does Historical Numismatics Suggest About the Monetary
History of Khazaria in the Ninth Century? — Question Revisited” Archivum Eurasiae
Medii Aevi 13 (2003), pp. 106–114 and his “Creating Khazar Identity through Coins: The
Special Issue Dirham of 837/8” in F. Curta (ed.), East Central and Eastern Europe in the
Middle Ages (Ann Arbor, 2005), pp. 220–253.
Clear evidence for it is relatively late (the
latter part of the ninth century perhaps and more probably the tenth century — although it was probably present by the first third of the ninth
century. Iranian influences via the Ors guard of the Qağans may also
have been a factor.162 These were societies that were not given to political
Pritsak has suggested that Joseph’s letter represents the “official version of the proselyte dynasty” and the Cambridge Document is an “unofficial version of indigenously Jewish circles.”164 DeWeese, however, cautions us that “Khazar converts might be just as likely to assert their ancestral links with Jewish tribes as immigrant Jews would have been to assert their primacy in bringing the religion to the Khazars.” Indeed, these two accounts show a creative synthesis of the two traditions, Khazar paganism and Judaism.165 Zuckerman contends that the Khazars created, in effect, a myth of a Khazar “return” to Judaism, so that the various stages of Judaism could be presented as a revival and the unity of the converts and Jews maintained.166 One would hardly expect otherwise. This is an important element in the internalization of the new religion. Clear evidence that the Khazars were doing this can be found in the Kievan Khazar Hebrew letter. Turkic shamans (qam), it would appear, could become kôhêns and Levites, as Golb has suggested. This was part of what he terms “the construction or gradual evolution of a mythic substratum justifying and explaining the conversion.” The “sacerdotal metamorphosis”
162 See P.B. Golden, “The Khazar Sacral Kingship” Pre-Modern Russia and Its World, ed. K. Reyerson,
Th. Stavrou, J. Tracy, Schriften zur Geistesgeschichte des östlichen
Europas (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2006), pp. 79–102
The “sacerdotal metamorphosis” of individuals or groupings from the old shamanic element that had previously conducted sacrifices for the community perfectly accords with this new world view.167
Another manifestation of this synthesis of old and new can be seen in the cave motif in the conversion narratives. The ethnogonic myth of the Türks centered on the ancestral cave in which the Ashina were conceived from the mating of their human ancestor and a wolf ancestress. The Ashina-Türks, from whose western ruling branch the Khazar ruling house most probably derived, continued to offer sacrifices at the ancestral cave.168 As DeWeese has noted, this myth and ritual complex became highly politicized during the period of the Second Türk Empire and it would be surprising “not to find echoes of this complex among the Khazars.” Moreover, “the complex of mountains, sea and cave” of the Cambridge Document mirrors that of other Inner Asian ethnogonic myths.169
Clearly the notion of a “return” to Judaism had been internalized and is reflected in the conversion narratives. Joseph, while placing the genealogy of himself and his people, as descendants of Japheth, in a context that would be familiar to Hasdai, also notes that the eponymous “Khazar,” was one of the ten sons of Togarmah from whom Jews of the Middle Ages understood the Turks to derive.170
The “reforms” of Obadiah, if they are not a pious interpolation, also fit into the familiar pattern of conversion and internalization. After several generations (in some groupings considerably longer), the new faith has not only supplanted and covered over the more obvious elements of the old religion, but has, inevitably, produced those learned enough in its precepts to desire to bring it into full conformity with the “proper” laws and traditions of the faith. We are moving, using Eaton’s model, from inclusion to displacement.
Conversion probably took place in stages. It began, as so often was the case, at the top, with the ruling house, perhaps episodically as early as the mid-eighth century (certainly after 737), but not extending at that stage much beyond the ruling strata. Some important stage must have been reached by the era of Hârûn ar-Rašîd, as reported by al-Masûdî.
167 Golb, Pritsak, Khazarian Hebrew Documents, pp. 27–29.
The “Moses coins” clearly reflect the growing weight at the top political levels of society. This was also a period of conflict with Byzantium which was trying to strengthen the Christian presence in Khazaria. The now overt movement towards Judaism may have represented a critical shift in foreign policy. Perhaps, the Byzantine contribution to the building of Sarkel (ca. 840–841) was not only to deal with threats in the steppe (Hungarians and perhaps more distantly, Pečenegs), but also to win favor with the Khazar governing elite? The conversion of the Khazar ruling elite to Judaism could not have been welcome news in Constantinople.
Conversion at the top does not necessarily mean immediate mass conversion. We may note here the example of the Činggisid Khan Berke (1257–1267), ruler of the Jočid ulus who converted to Islam before his accession and was followed by other Islamized rulers, but the movement of important, critical sectors of this ulus to Islam occurred only after the conversion of Özbek Khan (1312–1341). At the time of Constantine’s mission, the Qağan may have still been willing to entertain other religious systems or at least appear to do so, although Jews and Judaized elements within the immediate ruling strata, were most probably already guiding the internal dialogue on this question. By the latter part of the ninth century and early tenth century, Judaism, at least within the core tribes, was becoming more widespread, hence the notices in Ibn al-Faqîh (“all of the Khazars are Jews, but, they have been Judaized recently”) and Ibn Fadlân (“the Khazars and their king are all Jews”). In the history of religious conversion in the steppe this is what one would expect to find.
Moreover, these sources directly contradict the assertion by Artamonov
and others that Judaism was limited only to the ruling elite and “never
became the religion of the Khazar people or more precisely those tribes
that formed Khazaria.”171 On the contrary, Khazar Judaism may have
also begun to reach subject or allied peoples. Thus, Seljukid tradition
accords Old Testament names (Mîkâ’îl, Isrâ’îl, Mûsâ and Yûnus) to the
sons of Seljuk, whose father Toqaq Temür Yalığ, according to some
171 Artamonov, Istorija Xazar, p. 266.
The conversion narratives give differing versions regarding the actual agents of conversion, the Khazar Jewish accounts emphasizing its “internal” sources, i.e. stemming from Khazar Jews who have recovered their ancestral faith. Pritsak has suggested that the Khazars, like their contemporaries, the Uyğurs, were introduced and converted to these universalistic faiths (Judaism and Manichaeanism respectively) by long distance merchants.173 With the Uyğurs this is certainly true. Like the Türks before them, they had developed a symbiotic, political, cultural and economic relationship with the Soġdians, the great culture-bearing merchants along the Silk Route. Did Jewish merchants, who appear to have been outnumbered in the Khazar capital by the large Muslim community, play a similar role? Were the local Jewish merchants affiliated with the Râd âniyya? Our sources provide no clear-cut answer.
Trade and the spread of religions and the cultural paraphernalia associated with them (e.g. script systems) do seem to be connected across Eurasia,174 and it is not implausible to posit a similar kind of connection in Khazaria. But, this is not an absolute certainty. These powerful royal courts invariably attracted “holy men” of non-commercial origins who proselytized because they believed they were doing the bidding of their God. Later Jewish sources, beginning in the thirteenth century (Nachmanides) mention the still elusive figure of Isaac Sangarî who is credited with converting the Khazar king.175 Of course, in any number of instances, the holy man and merchant could be one and the same. The tradition of debates or royal interrogations is also well established in the Inner Asian conversion paradigm.176
173 Pritsak, “Conversion” HUS, II (1978), pp. 280–281.
The “reform” movement inaugurated by Obadiyah, if, indeed, true, similarly follows the conversion paradigm of Inner Asian peoples: nominal conversion, backsliding followed by a renewal and deepening of the faith along with bringing it more into conformity with the norms of that faith, the pattern, as DeWeese terms it, of “summons, consent, test and decisive affirmation.”177 The Khazar conversion, seen in its Eurasian context, does not, in fact, appear so exceptional.
The impact of the Khazar conversion in terms of Khazaria’s relations with its neighbors is also difficult to assess. It has been claimed that after the conversion, Constantinople devoted more efforts to the Caucasus and the Rus’ danger. Indeed, Judaization, never mentioned in the Byzantine chronicles, in effect ended the Khazaro-Byzantine entente. Others contend that no real change occurred.178 It is clear from Constantine Porphyrogenitus’s De Administrando Imperio that in his day Byzantium was relying more on the Pečenegs as an instrument of policy in the steppe. This, however, may have been the normal consequence of the Khazar decline. There is no overt indication of a religious issue, the Byzantines remaining remarkably silent on this question. This silence may itself tell us much about the Byzantine reception of the growing Judaization of the Khazars. The Byzantines had failed to bring the Khazars into Christendom. This was a foreign policy defeat and undoubtedly the source of some resentment in Constantinople. As for the Islamic world, with which the Khazars had a contentious early history, we have only the report from Ibn Fadlân that the Khazar king destroyed the minaret of the Friday mosque in Atıl in retaliation for the destruction of a synagogue in Dâr al-Bâbûnaj. The king is alleged to have said that he would have done worse if not for fear of Muslim retaliation against Jews.179
177 DeWeese, Islamization, pp.
The persecutions of Jews by the Byzantine emperor, Romanos Lekapenos, resulted in attacks on Christians in Khazaria.180 Clearly, the Khazar ruler, by this time, saw himself as a defender of the Jews.
Centuries after the fall of Khazaria as a major power (965–969), there are obscure references in some documents from the Cairo Geniza to messianic ideas or movements associated with Khazaria.181 “Jewish” Khazaria retained some symbolic value, but had long since ceased to be a reality.
180 Al-Mas‘ûdî, Murûj ed. Pellat, I, p. 212. On the complexities of this era, see N. Golb, O.
Pritsak, Khazarian Hebrew Documents of the Tenth Century (Ithaca, 1982), pp. 80, 90, 104, 114–115.
Ogur and Oguz
Tengri, Khuday, Deos and God
Crescent And Star
Buddism, Nestoriansm, Islam