Zach – So, a priest, a rabbi and an imam walk into a yurt…
Anna – What are you blathering about?
Joan – Iz one of his silly jokes, no?
Zach – No, I’m serious. This is history. How a large kingdom converted to Judaism was because of a meeting where representatives from each of the major religion had a chat and debated about it.
Anna – Before he gets to the punchline, let’s introduce our panel. Today we have Joan D’Arc, Cleopatra, Gaspar I’m a charlatan Correia and Olga of Kiev.
Gaspar – Wait…what was that?
Anna – Nothing.
Olga – Where is food? Zachski said we would have food.
Gaspar – I ordered pizza. Don’t fret.
Olga – With bacon?
Gaspar – Double pepperoni and double bacon.
Olga – I guess it will do.
Cleopatra – And grapes. Yes, grapes. I call for grapes. And figs. Can’t do without figs.
Joan D’Arc – Enough delay! We will start zeez discussion, oui?
Zach – yes, let’s begin. Khazaria is a kingdom south of Russia by the black and Caspain Seas. Check the map.
Anna – The kingdom was created when Turkic people from Western China migrated westward.
Gaspar – That’s a polite way of putting it. The Mongols chased them out. Remember last week’s Han Dynasty panel? Well it mentioned pushing Huns and Turks westward, this kingdom of Khasaria is one of the results.
Zach – Is Gaspar actually….
Gaspar – Now, we need to understand a little about the Turks here. (Gaspar leans forward and gestures with his hands.) They weren’t one racial group. Some were Mongolian, some had fair skin and blue eyes and some had bright red hair. When they went west they picked up people along the way from just about everywhere. North of the Black Sea where they eventually settled already had a large Jewish population. The Khazars didn’t just tolerate the Jews, they liked them. So when Jews from other parts of the world heard about that, they flocked to Khazaria. Persecution pushed them out of Western Europe, the Byzantine Empire and Africa and Palestine. It became an oasis of Jewish culture on the Asian steppes.
Anna – Gaspar, I’m impressed.
Gaspar – I am a historian, you puffed up princess.
Olga – Your mom’s a historian.
(Cleopatra moves close to Gaspar.)
Cleopatra – Gaspar, I had no idea you were so…scholarly. Oh, please tell me more. (strokes Gaspar’s cheek. Joan glares at them and clears her throat.)
Joan – Also, ze Khazars had connections to ze Chinese, Mongols, Persians, Arabs, Byzantines, Russians and even ze Polish. They often allies with Byzantium against ze Arabs and prevented an Arab invasion of southern Russia.
Olga – We Russians don’t need stinking Khazars to protect us against anything!
Zach – That reminds me Olga, where are you from?
Olga – Kiev of course!
Zach – Well guess what? The Khazars founded Kiev.
Olga – What??
Zach – Yup. They founded the great city of Kiev and later on the Rus took it from them.
Olga – Ha ha! My peoples take what they want.
Anna – Yes, the Khazars created a large and powerful Empire that collected tribute from its many neighbors. They weren’t as great as us Romans of course, but no one is. Because they controlled the northern route of the Silk Road, they didn’t lack for money either.
Zach – Now, these Turks were nomads, but more civilized people moved into their lands. The cities they created had yurts (think: Mongol tents) mixed with wooden and stone houses. Their religion was a shamanic pagan one and their writing was simple runes. However, they were impressed with monotheism and all the cool culture and impressive ceremonies it brought with it. So, the leaders started looking around. The Jews that were already living there were pretty outspoken and were building a growing population. The Khazars had two leaders, a spiritual one called a “Kagan” was the most powerful. A secondary leader that dealt with day to day stuff and warfare was called a “Bek.” Well, the Bek having the army you can guess what happened. Beks became more and more powerful until the Kagan was just a figure head. In 860 AD, Khazaria sent an envoy to Constantinople and asked, “What’s up with this whole Christianity thing?” So, the Byzantines sent Cyril and his brother to go talk to them. Cyril is famous for making the Cyrillic alphabet that Russia uses today… in a modified form. The Muslims were asked to send a representative as well. They met in the Kagan’s palace and there they were asked questions and debated about religion. We’re not sure why, but the Bek chose Judaism. Some say it was because he was already familiar with it and others say it was a way to assert his independence from the Christian Byzantines and the Islamic Caliphate.
Cleopatra – And where the leader goes, so do the people. Yes, I read a few historians that said “only the leaders were Jews.” I say, nonsense. The people followed.
Olga – Exactly! We Rus leaders converted and look. Whole country of Christians now.
Cleopatra – There is plenty of archeological evidence to prove that Judaism was far more widespread than just the leaders. The funeral practices completely changed. There were letters and historical documents written by Byzantine and Arab chroniclers saying that most of the people were Jews. Also, the use of Hebrew became widespread as well. So, if someone says “No, just the leaders were Jews.” Punch them in the face and tell them “Cleopatra sends her regards.”
Gaspar – But let’s not overlook the true source of the Khazars power. Yes, they had a large professional army with trained and armored cavalry. But what really drove fear into their enemies’ hearts were their golems. These unstoppable warriors of stone destroyed the Jewish Empire’s enemies without remorse or pity.
Cleopatra – But, that’s not true my precious Gaspar.
Zach – Don’t bother. We’ve tried to talk sense into him before.
Cleopatra – But you don’t have my skill set my dear Zachy poo.
Anna – Zachy poo?
Joan – Enough of zis distraction. The leaders of Khazar converted and within a few decades, much of ze people converted as well, oui? Why zey didn’t convert to my beloved faith I’ll never know. But Jewish scholars from around ze world wrote about Khazar and wrote letters to the kings. Two such letters still exist! Ze Khazar leader named Joseph replied to a rabbi in Spain and told him all about zeir way of life, how they send for scholars from Egypt, Iraq, Greece and France to come and teach them ze Tora.
Anna – Do you know what happened next, Zachy poo?
Zach – Don’t call me that.
Anna – Trouble began brewing with the Rus, their fine neighbors to the north. My people, the “Byzantines” didn’t like this growing empire that weren’t Christians, so they used a little diplomacy to get the Rus and Khazars to attack one another. The wars went off and on for a century or so.
Olga – Oh! Oh! I know this! My son, Svyatoslav, he take his army and go and crush the Khazars. He was so excited about it. I told him to pack his favorite boots. He always forgot them. “No, Svy, when you go killing many peoples, make sure to stay warm or you get the cold. He never listened. He was bad boy. He was also a pagan. The little…
Zach – Yes, we get it. Your son crushed the Khazar army in a single horrible battle and occupied a powerful fortress the Khazars had held for centuries. The Khazar Kagan then took the field personally and went out to meet Olga’s son. The Khazars lost big and after that the Rus continued to take more land from the Khazars.
Joan – So sad. As ze Rus attacked from ze north, the Muslims saw ze opportunity and attacked from ze south. Only a small part of Khazaria survived and zis was eventually captured by combined Rus and Byzantine armies under Emperor Basil II. Zay crushed ze Khazar kingdom. The Khazars that fell under Muslim occupation were forced to convert to Islam. Ze Khazars under Rus occupation were scattered. So sad.
Cleopatra – But the Khazar Jews were survivors. Many were scattered. Some came to live in Russia. Others went to Poland, Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries. They spread Judaism all across the continent with the death of their kingdom. They lost their land and wouldn’t have another land to call their own until 1948 with the creation of Israel. Many Jewish Cossacks of Russia claimed to be descended from Khazaria.
Zach – I wish we could tell more, but not a lot is known. There is more to learn but you’ll have to find that out on your own. Please, go look it up and learn more about this unique and interesting Kingdom of Khazaria.