Friday, September 5, 2008

It's Reigning Khazars! Breaking News Update: Long-Lost Jewish Capital Found

The Khazar Empire, from J.-H. Schnitzler,
“L’Empire de Charlemagne et celui
des Arabes . . . au commencement du
IXme siècle . . . . (Strasbourg, 1857)

Agence France-Presse announces, “Russian archaeologists find long-lost Jewish capital.”

The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz recently reported the discovery of ruins of the walls of Jerusalem dating from 2100 years ago. Those archaeologists, however, were Israelis, and there is of course nothing long-lost about a Jewish capital in Jerusalem under the Second Commonwealth (debate centers instead on the age, nature, and extent of any historical remains associated with the biblical accounts of David and Solomon.)

What is noteworthy about the French report is that the long-lost capital happens to lie within the boundaries of the Russian Federation.

This exciting archaeological news provides a welcome opportunity to introduce a new rubric that I had long intended to add.

The history of the Khazars is so dramatic and mysterious that someone encountering it for the first time could be excused for dismissing it as a fiction or fantasy—as many have indeed done.

A Turkic people, who maintained their independence in the face of both the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim Caliphate, the Khazars blocked the advance of the Arabs and Islam in eastern Europe—a development every bit as fateful as, though far less well-known than, the parallel achievement of Charles Martel and the Franks in the west at Poitiers in 732. In the early ninth century, stunningly, the Khazars converted—en masse, it is now believed—to rabbinic Judalsm. At its height, this Jewish empire dominated the territory between the Black and Caspian Seas, controlling the lower Dnieper, Don, and Volga rivers, and stretching from Kiev in the west to Khwarizm in the east. Indeed, the Caspian Sea was known as the “Khazar Sea,” a term that survives in Turkish, Arabic, and Farsi usage, among others.

Khazaria, celebrated for its military prowess, agricultural riches, economic influence, and religious tolerance, became a mediating force and buffer between the realms of Islam and Eastern Christianity and rivaled the Byzantine and Carolingian empires in extent and power. In the second half of the tenth century, the ascendant Russian state in effect destroyed the Khazar empire, the severely truncated remains of which succumbed to the Mongols nearly three centuries later.

The Jewish character of the Khazar empire is now irrefutably proven through textual sources, but archaeological evidence, for a variety of political as well as practical reasons, has until recently been relatively scarce or poorly diffused. Numerous individual artifacts survive (often in obscurity or secrecy), but scientists continue to seek intact complete settlements. The great fortress of Sarkel, on the Don, was only partially excavated by Soviet researchers before it was submerged under both a reservoir and a cloak of silence during the Stalin era. The holy grail of the archaeological quest (to borrow an image from another cultural tradition) has therefore been the final and greatest of the three historic Khazar capitals, Itil (or Atil), at the mouth of the Volga near the Caspian Sea.

According to AFP, it has now been found:
MOSCOW (AFP) — Russian archaeologists said Wednesday they had found the long-lost capital of the Khazar kingdom in southern Russia, a breakthrough for research on the ancient Jewish state.

"This is a hugely important discovery," expedition organiser Dmitry Vasilyev told AFP by telephone from Astrakhan State University after returning from excavations near the village of Samosdelka, just north of the Caspian Sea.

"We can now shed light on one of the most intriguing mysteries of that period -- how the Khazars actually lived. We know very little about the Khazars -- about their traditions, their funerary rites, their culture," he said.

The city was the capital of the Khazars, a semi-nomadic Turkic peoples who adopted Judaism as a state religion, from between the 8th and the 10th centuries, when it was captured and sacked by the rulers of ancient Russia.

At its height, the Khazar state and its tributaries controlled much of what is now southern Russia, western Kazakhstan, eastern Ukraine, Azerbaijan and large parts of Russia's North Caucasus region.The capital is referred to as Itil in Arab chronicles but Vasilyev said the word may actually have been used to refer to the Volga River on which the city was founded or to the surrounding river delta region.

Itil was said to be a multi-ethnic place with houses of worship and judges for Christians, Jews, Muslims and pagans. Its remains have until now never been identified and were said to have been washed away by the Caspian Sea.

Archaeologists have been excavating in the area if Samosdelka for the past nine years but have only now collected enough material evidence to back their thesis, including the remains of an ancient brick fortress, he added.

"Within the fortress, we have found huts similar to yurts, which are characteristics of Khazar cities.... The fortress had a triangular shape and was made with bricks. It's another argument that this was no ordinary city."

Around 10 university archaeologists and some 50 students took part in excavations in the region this summer, which are partly financed by the Jewish University in Moscow and the Russian Jewish Congress.
The essence of the Khazar story is familiar to scholars in mediæval and Jewish studies, and lineaments of it have also furnished the stuff of legend, (including cultural classics from Yehudah ha-Levi in Muslim Spain to Pushkin in nineteenth-century Russia), but the details of this historical episode are virtually unknown to the general public. In part for that reason, the mysterious rise and disappearance of the Khazars and their empire have prompted a great deal of speculation, most of it fanciful, some of it vicious. Among the latter, the two most prominent beliefs are, in brief (I’ll return to them in future postings):

(1) European Jews are mainly descendants of Khazar converts, and therefore not “Semites” of Middle Eastern origin, as a result of which a Jewish state in that region is illegitimate.

(There is a historical debate to be had here—or was, at any rate: all the documentary, and now, genetic evidence refutes this theory of Jewish ethnicity. In any case, the assertion should be irrelevant to political debates because it negates neither the ancient history nor the obstinate modern fact of a Jewish state in Israel.)

(2) The Khazars—whether defined as a discrete ethnic subgroup or employed as a synonym for European Jews or Zionists, tout court—represent a distinctly sinister force in world history. Until recently, this paranoid view was confined to the lunatic fringe that one associates with the John Birchers and their anticommunist ilk, fascists and white supremacists old and new, and contemporary Arab and Islamist hate groups.

What is most disturbing is that elements of the two political claims (one cannot dignify them with the name of “arguments” or lines of “reasoning”) are gaining currency and converging. When the creation of Israel by the United Nations—an institution regarded by progressives as a force for anti-colonialism and the general good—can again be seriously called into question more than half a century after the fact, both the founding and survival of the Jewish state can only appear the more mysterious. As a result, the distance between the quasi-respectable rants about the “Israel lobby” by Walt and Mearsheimer (1, 2) and the outré conspiracy theories of 9-11 “troofers” and hatemongers of all stripes is smaller and more rapidly traversed than one would have cared to imagine.

For these reasons, as well as because of its intrinsic historical importance, then, the story of Khazaria earns a place among the rubrics of the present blog.

One shudders to think how reactions to the news story may develop on the internet.

For the moment, though, let us hope that the emphasis will be on serious science and the celebration and further investigation of a great discovery.

realm of the Khazars and designation
of the Caspian Sea as the Khazar Sea,
from Conrad Malte Brun, “Géographie
Du Moyen Age principalement au
IXe Siècle” (Paris, 1837)


The Jews of Khazaria (now out in a second edition; Rowman and Littlefield, 2006), by Kevin Alan Brook, provides the single most convenient and comprehensive overview of the growing but widely dispersed specialized literature on the Khazars. His website,, offers an overview of Khazar history as well as regular updates on new historical and archaeological discoveries.


RonL said...

I'm probably wasting my time here, but if you had read Brooks's book and looked at the studies at, you would know that the genetic studies are conclusive; most European Jews are not Khazars.

Citizen Wald said...

Yes, you were wasting your time--because you evidently did not take the time to read carefully what I said. Had you done so, you would not have imputed to me views that are the opposite of what I actually said:

(1) In citing a perversely durable belief that European Jews are Khazars, I described it as belonging to the realm of "speculation, most of it fanciful, some of it vicious," and went on to state that it had not withstood the test of scientific scrutiny: "genetic evidence refutes this theory of Jewish ethnicity." Clear enough, one would think.

(2) I am personally acquainted with Mr. Brook and have most assuredly read his book. Neither one of us is a genetic scientist, but both of us have carefully studied the same specialized scientific literature that he summarizes.

(3) Speaking of careful reading: Please note that his name is Brook--not Brooks, as you would have it.