What was the motivation of this unique event? It is not easy to get under the skin of a Khazar prince — covered, as it was, by a coat of mail. But if we reason in terms of power-politics, which obeys essentially the same rules throughout the ages, a fairly plausible analogy offers itself. At the beginning of the eighth century the world was polarized between the two super-powers representing Christianity and Islam.
Their ideological doctrines were welded to power-politics pursued by the classical methods of propaganda, subversion and military conquest. The Khazar Empire represented a Third Force, which had proved equal to either of them, both as an adversary and an ally. But it could only maintain its independence by accepting neither Christianity nor Islam — for either choice would have automatically subordinated it to the authority of the Roman Emperor or the Caliph of Baghdad. There had been no lack of efforts by either court to convert the Khazars to Christianity or Islam, but all they resulted in was the exchange of diplomatic courtesies, dynastic inter-marriages and shifting military alliances based on mutual self-interest.
Relying on its military strength, the Khazar kingdom, with its hinterland of vassal tribes, was determined to preserve its position as the Third Force, leader of the uncommitted nations of the steppes. At the same time, their intimate contacts with Byzantium and the Caliphate had taught the Khazars that their primitive shamanism was not only barbaric and outdated compared to the great monotheistic creeds, but also unable to confer on the leaders the spiritual and legal authority which the rulers of the two theocratic world powers, the Caliph and the Emperor, enjoyed. Yet the conversion to either creed would have meant submission, the end of independence, and thus would have defeated its purpose.
What could have been more logical than to embrace a third creed, which was uncommitted towards either of the two, yet represented the venerable foundation of both? The apparent logic of the decision is of course due to the deceptive clarity of hindsight. In reality, the conversion to Judaism required an act of genius. Yet both the Arab and Hebrew sources on the history of the conversion, however varied in detail, point to a line of reasoning as indicated above. To quote Bury once more:
Though the Khazar court’s conversion was no doubt politically motivated, it would still be absurd to imagine that they embraced overnight, blindly, a religion whose tenets were unknown to them. In fact, however, they had been well acquainted with Jews and their religious observances for at least a century before the conversion, through the continued influx of refugees from religious persecution in Byzantium, and to a lesser extent from countries in Asia Minor conquered by the Arabs.
We know that Khazaria was a relatively civilized country among the Barbarians of the North, yet not committed to either of the militant creeds, and so it became a natural haven for the periodic exodus of Jews under Byzantine rule, threatened by forced conversion and other pressures. Persecution in varied forms had started with Justinian I (527-65), and assumed particularly vicious forms under Heraclius in the seventh century, Leo III in the eighth, Basil and Leo IV in the ninth, Romanus in the tenth. Thus Leo III, who ruled during the two decades immediately preceding the Khazar conversion to Judaism, “attempted to end the anomaly [of the tolerated status of Jews] at one blow, by ordering all his Jewish subjects to be baptized”.
Although the implementation of the order seemed to have been rather ineffective, it led to the flight of a considerable number of Jews from Byzantium. Masudi relates:
The last two sentences quoted refer to events two hundred years after the Khazar conversion, and show how persistently the waves of persecution followed each other over the centuries. But the Jews were equally persistent. Many endured torture, and those who did not have the strength to resist returned later on to their faith — “like dogs to their vomit”, as one Christian chronicler gracefully put it. Equally picturesque is the description of a Hebrew writer of one method of forced conversion used under the Emperor Basil against the Jewish community of Oria in southern Italy:
Another Hebrew source remarks on the persecution under the Emperor Romanus (the “Greek King” to whom Masudi refers): “And afterwards there will arise a King who will persecute them not by destruction, but mercifully by driving them out of the country.” The only mercy shown by history to those who took to flight, or were driven to it, was the existence of Khazaria, both before and after the conversion. Before, it was a refugee haven; after, it became a kind of National Home. The refugees were products of a superior culture, and were no doubt an important factor in creating that cosmopolitan, tolerant outlook which so impressed the Arab chroniclers quoted before.
Their influence — and no doubt their proselytizing zeal — would have made itself felt first and foremost at the court and among leading notables. They may have combined in their missionary efforts theological arguments and messianic prophecies with a shrewd assessment of the political advantages the Khazars would derive from adopting a “neutral” religion. The exiles also brought with them Byzantine arts and crafts, superior methods in agriculture and trade, and the square Hebrew alphabet. We do not know what kind of script the Khazars used before that, but the Fihrist of Ibn Nadim, a kind of universal bibliography written circa AD 987, informs us that in his time the Khazars used the Hebrew alphabet.
It served the dual purpose of scholarly discourse in Hebrew (analogous to the use of mediaeval Latin in the West) and as a written alphabet for the various languages spoken in Khazaria (analogous to the use of the Latin alphabet for the various vernaculars in Western Europe). From Khazaria the Hebrew script seemed to have spread into neighbouring countries. Thus Chwolson reports that “inscriptions in a non-Semitic language (or possibly in two different non-Semitic languages) using Hebrew characters were found on two gravestones from Phanagoria and Parthenit in the Crimea; they have not been deciphered yet.” (The Crimea was, as we have seen, intermittently under Khazar rule; but it also had an old-established Jewish community, and the inscriptions may even pre-date the conversion.)
Some Hebrew letters (shin and tsadei) also found their way into the Cyrillic alphabet, and furthermore, many Polish silver coins have been found, dating from the twelfth or thirteenth century, which bear Polish inscriptions in Hebrew lettering (e.g., Leszek krol Polski — Leszek King of Poland), side by side with coins inscribed in the Latin alphabet. Poliak comments:
Thus while the
conversion was no doubt inspired by opportunistic motives —
conceived as a cunning political manoeuvre — it brought in its wake
cultural developments which could hardly have been foreseen by those
who started it. The Hebrew alphabet was the beginning; three
centuries later the decline of the Khazar state is marked by
repeated outbreaks of a messianic Zionism, with pseudo~Messiahs like
David El-Roi (hero of a novel by Disraeli) leading quixotic crusades
for the re-conquest of Jerusalem. After the defeat by the Arabs in
737, the Kagan’s forced adoption of Islam had been a formality
almost instantly revoked, which apparently left no impression on his
people. In contrast to this, the voluntary conversion to Judaism was
to produce deep and lasting effects.
The first, by Dimaski (written in 1327), reiterates that at the time of Harun al Rashid, the Byzantine Emperor forced the Jews to emigrate; these emigrants came to the Khazar country where they found “an intelligent but uneducated race to whom they offered their religion. The natives found it better than their own and accepted it.” The second, much more detailed account is in al-Bakri’s Book of Kingdoms and Roads (eleventh century):
The Arab historians certainly had a gift for sugaring the pill. Had
the Muslim scholar been able to participate in the debate he would
have fallen into the same trap as the Bishop, for both accepted the
truth of the Old Testament, whereas the upholders of the New
Testament and of the Koran were each outvoted two to one. The King’s
approval of this reasoning is symbolic: he is only willing to accept
doctrines which are shared by all three — their common denominator —
and refuses to commit himself to any of the rival claims which go
beyond that. It is once more the principle of the uncommitted world,
applied to theology. The story also implies, as Bury has pointed
out, that Jewish influence at the Khazar court must already have
been strong before the formal conversion, for the Bishop and the
Muslim scholar have to be ‘sent for”, whereas the Jew is already
“with him” (the King).
To appreciate its significance a word must be said about the personality of Hasdai Ibn Shaprut — perhaps the most brilliant figure in the “Golden Age” (900-1200) of the Jews in Spain. In 929, Abd-al-Rahman III, a member of the Omayad dynasty, succeeded in unifying the Moorish possessions in the southern and central parts of the Iberian peninsula under his rule, and founded the Western Caliphate. His capital, Cordoba, became the glory of Arab Spain, and a focal centre of European culture with a library of 400000 catalogued volumes. Hasdai, born 910 in Cordoba into a distinguished Jewish family, first attracted the Caliph’s attention as a medical practitioner with some remarkable cures to his credit.
Abd-al-Rahman appointed him his court physician, and trusted his judgment so completely that Hasdai was called upon, first, to put the state finances in order, then to act as Foreign Minister and diplomatic trouble-shooter in the new Caliphate’s complex dealings with Byzantium, the German Emperor Otto, with Castile, Navarra, Arragon and other Christian kingdoms in the north of Spain. Hasdai was a true uomo universale centuries before the Renaissance who, in between affairs of state, still found the time to translate medical books into Arabic, to correspond with the learned rabbis of Baghdad and to act as a Maecenas for Hebrew grammarians and poets.
He obviously was an enlightened, yet a devoted Jew, who used his diplomatic contacts to gather information about the Jewish communities dispersed in various parts of the world, and to intervene on their behalf whenever possible. He was particularly concerned about the persecution of Jews in the Byzantine Empire under Romanus (see above, section I). Fortunately, he wielded considerable influence at the Byzantine court, which was vitally interested in procuring the benevolent neutrality of Cordoba during the Byzantine campaigns against the Muslims of the East. Hasdai, who was conducting the negotiations, used this opportunity to intercede on behalf of Byzantine Jewry, apparently with success.
According to his own account, Hasdai first heard of the existence of an independent Jewish kingdom from some merchant traders from Khurasan in Persia; but he doubted the truth of their story. Later he questioned the members of a Byzantine diplomatic mission to Cordoba, and they confirmed the merchants’ account, contributing a considerable amount of factual detail about the Khazar kingdom, including the name — Joseph — of its present King. Thereupon Hasdai decided to send couriers with a letter to King Joseph. The letter (which will be discussed in more detail later on) contains a list of questions about the Khazar state, its people, method of government, armed forces, and so on — including an inquiry to which of the twelve tribes Joseph belonged.
This seems to indicate that Hasdai thought the Jewish Khazars to hail from Palestine — as the Spanish Jews did — and perhaps even to represent one of the Lost Tribes. Joseph, not being of Jewish descent, belonged, of course, to none of the tribes; in his Reply to Hasdai, he provides, as we shall see, a genealogy of a different kind, but his main concern is to give Hasdai a detailed — if legendary — account of the conversion — which took place two centuries earlier — and the circumstances that led to it. Joseph’s narrative starts with a eulogy of his ancestor, King Bulan, a great conqueror and a wise man who “drove out the sorcerers and idolaters from his land”.
Subsequently an angel appeared to King Bulan in his dreams, exhorting him to worship the only true God, and promising that in exchange He would “bless and multiply Bulan’s offspring, and deliver his enemies into his hands, and make his kingdom last to the end of the world”. This, of course, is inspired by the story of the Covenant in Genesis; and it implies that the Khazars too claimed the status of a Chosen Race, who made their own Covenant with the Lord, even though they were not descended from Abraham’s seed. But at this point Joseph’s story takes an unexpected turn. King Bulan is quite willing to serve the Almighty, but he raises a difficulty:
There is nothing in Genesis, nor in the Arab accounts of the conversion, about a great prince whose consent has to be obtained. It is an unmistakable reference to the Khazar double kingship. The “Great Prince”, apparently, is the Bek; but it is not impossible that the “King” was the Bek, and the “Prince” the Kagan. Moreover according to Arab and Armenian sources, the leader of the Khazar army which invaded Transcaucasia in 731 (i.e., a few years before the presumed date of the conversion) was called “Bulkhan”.
Joseph’s letter continues by relating how the angel appeared once more to the dreaming King and bade him to build a place of worship in which the Lord may dwell, for: “the sky and the skies above the sky are not large enough to hold me”. King Bulan replies bashfully that he does not possess the gold and silver required for such an enterprise, “although it is my duty and desire to carry it out”. The angel reassures him: all Bulan has to do is to lead his armies into Dariela and Ardabil in Armenia, where a treasure of silver and a treasure of gold are awaiting him. This fits in with Bulan’s or Bulkhan’s raid preceding the conversion; and also with Arab sources according to which the Khazars at one time controlled silver and gold mines in the Caucasus.
Bulan does as the angel told him, returns victoriously with the loot, and builds “a Holy Tabernacle equipped with a sacred coffer [the “Ark of the Covenant”], a candelabrum, an altar and holy implements which have been preserved to this day and are still in my [King Joseph’s] possession”. Joseph’s letter, written in the second half of the tenth century, more than two hundred years after the events it purports to describe, is obviously a mixture of fact and legend. His description of the scant furnishings of the place of worship, and the paucity of the preserved relics, is in marked contrast to the account he gives in other parts of the letter of the present prosperity of his country.
The days of his ancestor Bulan appear to him as remote antiquity, when the poor but virtuous King did not even have the money to construct the Holy Tabernacle — which was, after all, only a tent. However, Joseph’s letter up to this point is merely the prelude to the real drama of the conversion, which he now proceeds to relate. Apparently Bulan’s renunciation of idolatry in favour of the “only true God” was only the first step, which still left the choice open between the three monotheistic creeds. At least, this is what the continuation of Joseph’s letter seems to imply:
So we have another Brains Trust, or round-table conference, just as
in Masudi, with the difference that the Muslim has not been poisoned
beforehand. But the pattern of the argument is much the same. After
long and futile discussions, the King adjourns the meeting for three
days, during which the discutants are left to cool their heels in
their respective tents; then he reverts to a stratagem. He convokes
the discutants separately. He asks the Christian which of the other
two religions is nearer the truth, and the Christian answers, “the
Jews”. He confronts the Muslim with the same question and gets the
same reply. Neutralism has once more carried the day.
Now this Menahem was a celebrated Hebrew poet, lexicographer and grammarian, a secretary and protégé of Hasdai’s. He was obviously given the task of drafting the epistle to King Joseph in his most ornate style, and he took the opportunity to immortalize himself by inserting his own name into the acrostic after that of his patron. Several other works of Menahem ben-Sharuk are preserved, and there can be no doubt that Hasdai’s letter is his handiwork. After the poem, the compliments and diplomatic flourishes, the letter gives a glowing account of the prosperity of Moorish Spain, and the happy condition of the Jews under its Caliph Abd al Rahman, “the like of which has never been known....
And thus the derelict sheep were taken into care, the arms of their persecutors were paralysed, and the yoke was discarded. The country we live in is called in Hebrew Sepharad, but the Ishmaelites who inhabit it call it al-Andalus.” Hasdai then proceeds to explain how he first heard about the existence of the Jewish kingdom from the merchants of Khurasan, then in more detail from the Byzantine envoys, and he reports what these envoys told him:
This bit of information offered by Hasdai to the Khazar King about the King’s own country is obviously intended to draw a detailed reply from Joseph. It was good psychology: Hasdai must have known that criticism of erroneous statements flows easier from the pen than an original exposition. Next, Hasdai relates his earlier efforts to get in touch with Joseph. First he had sent a messenger, a certain Isaac bar Nathan, with instructions to proceed to the Khazar court. But Isaac got only as far as Constantinople, where he was courteously treated, but prevented from continuing the journey. (Understandably so: given the Empire’s ambivalent attitude towards the Jewish kingdom, it was certainly not in Constantine’s interest to facilitate an alliance between Khazaria and the Cordoba Caliphate with its Jewish Chief Minister.)
So Hasdai’s messenger returned to Spain, mission unaccomplished. But soon another opportunity offered itself: the arrival at Cordoba of an embassy from Eastern Europe. Among its members were two Jews, Mar Saul and Mar Joseph, who offered to deliver Hasdai’s letter to King Joseph. (According to Joseph’s reply to Hasdai, it was actually delivered by a third person, one Isaac ben-Eliezer.) Having thus described in detail how his letter came to be written, and his efforts to have it delivered, Hasdai proceeds to ask a series of direct questions which reflect his avidity for more information about every aspect of the Khazar land, from its geography to its rites in observing the Sabbath. The concluding passage in Hasdai’s letter strikes a note quite different from that of its opening paragraphs:
The beginning of the letter praises the happy lot of the Jews in
Spain; the end breathes the bitterness of the exile, Zionist fervour
and Messianic hope. But these opposite attitudes have always
co-existed in the divided heart of Jews throughout their history.
The contradiction in Hasdai’s letter gives it an added touch of
authenticity. How far his implied offer to enter into the service of
the Khazar King is to be taken seriously is another question, which
we cannot answer. Perhaps he could not either.
It starts with a fanfare of greetings, then reiterates the main contents of Hasdai’s letter, proudly emphasizing that the Khazar kingdom gives the lie to those who say that “the Sceptre of Judah has forever fallen from the Jews’ hands” and “that there is no place on earth for a kingdom of their own”. This is followed by a rather cryptic remark to the effect that “already our fathers have exchanged friendly letters which are preserved in our archives and are known to our elders”. Joseph then proceeds to provide a genealogy of his people. Though a fierce Jewish nationalist, proud of wielding the ‘sceptre of Judah”, he cannot, and does not, claim for them Semitic descent; he traces their ancestry not to Shem, but to Noah’s third son, Japheth; or more precisely to Japheth’s grandson, Togarma, the ancestor of all Turkish tribes.
The identity of some of these tribes, with names spelt in the Hebrew script is rather dubious, but that hardly matters; the characteristic feature in this genealogical exercise is the amalgamation of Genesis with Turkish tribal tradition. After the genealogy, Joseph mentions briefly some military conquests by his ancestors which carried them as far as the Danube; then follows at great length the story of Bulan’s conversion.
There follow more boasts about military victories, conquered nations, etc., and then a significant passage:
This indicates that, about a couple of generations after Bulan, a religious revival or reformation took place (possibly accompanied by a coup d’état on the lines envisaged by Artamonov). It seems indeed that the Judaization of the Khazars proceeded in several steps. We remember that King Bulan drove out “the sorcerers and idolators” before the angel appeared to him; and that he made his Covenant with the “true God” before deciding whether He was the Jewish, Christian or Muslim God.
It seems highly probable that the conversion of King Bulan and his followers was another intermediary step, that they embraced a primitive or rudimentary form of Judaism, based on the Bible alone, excluding the Talmud, all rabbinical literature, and the observances derived from it. In this respect they resembled the Karaites, a fundamentalist sect which originated in the eighth century in Persia and spread among Jews all over the world particularly in “Little Khazaria”, i.e., the Crimea. Dunlop and some other authorities surmised that between Bulan and Obadiah (i.e., roughly between 740 and 800) some form of Karaism prevailed in the country, and that orthodox “Rabbinic” Judaism was only introduced in the course of Obadiah’s religious reform.
The point is of some
importance because Karaism apparently survived in Khazaria to the
end, and villages of Turkish-speaking Karaite Jews, obviously of
Khazar origin, still existed in modern times (see below, Chapter V,
4). Thus the Judaization of the Khazars was a gradual process
which, triggered off by political expediency, slowly penetrated into
the deeper strata of their minds and eventually produced the
Messianism of their period of decline. Their religious commitment
survived the collapse of their state, and persisted, as we shall
see, in the Khazar-Jewish settlements of Russia and Poland.
Next, Joseph attempts to answer Hasdai’s questions about the size and topography of his country. But he does not seem to have a competent person at his court who could match the skill of the Arab geographers, and his obscure references to other countries and nations add little to what we know from Ibn Hawkal, Masudi and the other Persian and Arabic sources. He claims to collect tribute from thirty-seven nations — which seems a rather tall proposition; yet Dunlop points out that nine of these appear to be tribes living in the Khazar heartland, and the remaining twenty-eight agree quite well with Ibn Fadlan’s mention of twenty-five wives, each the daughter of a vassal king (and also with Eldad ha-Dani’s dubious tales).
We must further bear in mind the multitude of Slavonic tribes along the upper reaches of the Dnieper and as far as Moscow, which, as we shall see, paid tribute to the Khazars. However that may be, there is no reference in Joseph’s letter to a royal harem — only a mention of a single queen and her maids and eunuchs’. These are said to live in one of the three boroughs of Joseph’s capital, Itil: “in the second live Israelites, Ishmaelis, Christians and other nations who speak other languages; the third, which is an island, I inhabit myself, with the princes, bondsmen and all the servants that belong to me.…. We live in the town through the whole of winter, but in the month of Nisan [March-April] we set out and everyone goes to labour in his field and his garden; every clan has his hereditary estate, for which they head with joy and jubilation; no voice of an intruder can be heard there, no enemy is to be seen.
The country does not have much rain, but there are many rivers with a multitude of big fish, and many sources, and it is generally fertile and fat in its fields and vineyards, gardens and orchards which are irrigated by the rivers and bear rich fruit … and with God’s help I live in peace.” The next passage is devoted to the date of the coming of the Messiah:
The concluding paragraph of Joseph’s letter is a reply to Hasdai’s
apparent offer to enter into the service of the Khazar king:
Joseph here appears to pose as the defender of the Baghdad Caliphate against the Norman-Rus raiders (see Chapter III). This might seem a little tactless in view of the bitter hostility between the Omayad Caliphate of Cordoba (which Hasdai is serving) and the Abassid Caliphs of Baghdad. On the other hand, the vagaries of Byzantine policy towards the Khazars made it expedient for Joseph to appear in the role of a defender of Islam, regardless of the schism between the two Caliphates. At least he could hope that Hasdai, the experienced diplomat, would take the hint.
The meeting between the
two correspondents — if ever seriously intended — never took place.
No further letters — if any were exchanged — have been preserved.
The factual content of the “Khazar Correspondence” is meager, and
adds little to what was already known from other sources. Its
fascination lies in the bizarre, fragmentary vistas that it conveys,
like an erratic searchlight focussing on disjointed regions in the
dense fog that covers the period.
King Joseph is mentioned in it as a contemporary and referred to as “my Lord”, Khazaria is called “our land”; so the most plausible inference is that the letter was written by a Khazar Jew of King Joseph’s court in Joseph’s lifetime, i.e., that it is roughly contemporaneous with the “Khazar Correspondence”. Some authorities have further suggested that it was addressed to Hasdai ibn Shaprut, and handed in Constantinople to Hasdai’s unsuccessful envoy, Isaac bar Nathan, who brought it back to Cordoba (whence it found its way to Cairo when the Jews were expelled from Spain). At any rate, internal evidence indicates that the document originated not later than in the eleventh century, and more likely in Joseph’s lifetime, in the tenth. It contains another legendary account of the conversion, but its main significance is political.
The writer speaks of an attack on Khazaria by the Alans, acting under Byzantine instigation, under Joseph’s father, Aaron the Blessed. No other Greek or Arab source seems to mention this campaign. But there is a significant passage in Constantine Porphyrogenitus’s De Adminisdrando Imperio, written in 947-50, which lends some credibility to the unknown letter-writer’s statements:
Now, according to Joseph’s Letter, the ruler of the Alans paid
tribute to him, and whether in fact he did or not, his feelings
toward the Kagan were probably much the same as the Bulgar King’s.
The passage in Constantine, revealing his efforts to incite the
Alans to war against the Khazars, ironically reminds one of Ibn
Fadlan’s mission with a parallel purpose. Evidently, the days of the
Byzantine-Khazar rapprochement were long past in Joseph’s time. But
I am anticipating later developments, to be discussed in Chapter
Halevi was a Zionist who died on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem; the Kuzari, written a year before his death, is a philosophical tract propounding the view that the Jewish nation is the sole mediator between God and the rest of mankind. At the end of history, all other nations will be converted to Judaism; and the conversion of the Khazars appears as a symbol or token of that ultimate event. In spite of its title, the tract has little to say about the Khazar country itself, which serves mainly as a backdrop for yet another legendary account of the conversion — the King, the angel, the Jewish scholar, etc. — and for the philosophical and theological dialogues between the King and the protagonists of the three religions.
However, there are a few factual references, which indicate that Halevi had either read the correspondence between Hasdai and Joseph or had other sources of information about the Khazar country. Thus we are informed that after the appearance of the angel the King of the Khazars “revealed the secret of his dream to the General of his army”, and “the General” also looms large later on — another obvious reference to the dual rule of Kagan and Bek. Halevi also mentions the “histories” and “books of the Khazars” — which reminds one of Joseph speaking of “our archives”, where documents of state are kept. Lastly, Halevi twice, in different places of the book, gives the date of the conversion as having taken place “400 years ago” and “in the year 4500” (according to the Jewish calendar).
This points to AD 740, which is the most likely date. All in all, it is a poor harvest as far as factual statements are concerned, from a book that enjoyed immense popularity among the Jews of the Middle Ages. But the mediaeval mind was less attracted by fact than by fable, and the Jews were more interested in the date of the coming of the Messiah than in geographical data. The Arab geographers and chroniclers had a similarly cavalier attitude to distances, dates and the frontiers between fact and fancy.
This also applies to the famed German-Jewish traveller, Rabbi Petachia of Ratisbon, who visited Eastern Europe and western Asia between 1170 and 1185. His travelogue, Sibub Ha‘olam, “Journey around the World”, was apparently written by a pupil, based on his notes or on dictation. It relates how shocked the good Rabbi was by the primitive observances of the Khazar Jews north of the Crimea, which he attributed to their adherence to the Karaite heresy:
So incensed was the Rabbi that, when he subsequently crossed the Khazar heartland, all he had to say was that it took him eight days, during which “he heard the wailing of women and the barking of dogs”. He does mention, however, that while he was in Baghdad, he had seen envoys from the Khazar kingdom looking for needy Jewish scholars from Mesopotamia and even from Egypt, “to teach their children Torah and Talmud”.
While few Jewish travellers from the West undertook the hazardous journey to the Volga, they recorded encounters with Khazar Jews at all principal centres of the civilized world. Rabbi Petachia met them in Baghdad; Benjamin of Tudela, another famous traveller of the twelfth century, visited Khazar notables in Constantinople and Alexandria; Ibraham ben Daud, a contemporary of Judah Halevi’s, reports that he had seen in Toledo “some of their descendants, pupils of the wise”. Tradition has it that these were Khazar princes — one is tempted to think of Indian princelings sent to Cambridge to study.
Yet there is a curious ambivalence in the attitude toward the Khazars of the leaders of orthodox Jewry in the East, centred on the talmudic Academy in Baghdad. The Gaon (Hebrew for “excellency”) who stood at the head of the Academy was the spiritual leader of the Jewish settlements dispersed all over the Near and Middle East, while the Exilarch, or “Prince of Captivity”, represented the secular power over these more or less autonomous communities. Saadiah Gaon (882-942), most famous among the spiritua1 excellencies, who left voluminous writings, repeatedly refers in them to the Khazars.
He mentions a Mesopotamian Jew who went to Khazaria to settle there, as if this were an every-day occurrence. He speaks obscurely of the Khazar court; elsewhere he explains that in the biblical expression “Hiram of Tyre”, Hiram is not a proper name but a royal title, “like Caliph for the Ruler of the Arabs, and Kagan for the King of the Khazars.” Thus Khazaria was very much “on the map”, in the literal and metaphorical sense, for the leaders of the ecclesiastical hierarchy of oriental Jewry; but at the same time the Khazars were regarded with certain misgivings, both on racial grounds and because of their suspected leanings toward the Karaite heresy.
One eleventh-century Hebrew author, Japheth ibn-Ali, himself a Karaite, explains the word mamzer, “bastard”, by the example of the Khazars who became Jews without belonging to the Race. His contemporary, Jacob ben-Reuben, reflects the opposite side of this ambivalent attitude by speaking of the Khazars as “a single nation who do not bear the yoke of the exile, but are great warriors paying no tribute to the Gentiles”.
In summing up the Hebrew sources on the Khazars that have come down to us, one senses a mixed reaction of enthusiasm, scepticism and, above all, bewilderment. A warrior-nation of Turkish Jews must have seemed to the rabbis as strange as a circumcized unicorn. During a thousand years of Dispersion, the Jews had forgotten what it was like to have a king and a country. The Messiah was more real to them than the Kagan. As a postscript to the Arab and Hebrew sources relating to the conversion, it should be mentioned that the apparently earliest Christian source antedates them both.
At some date earlier than 864,
the Westphalian monk, Christian Druthmar of Aquitania, wrote a Latin
treatise Expositio in Evangelium Mattei, in which he reports that
“there exist people under the sky in regions where no Christians can
be found, whose name is Gog and Magog, and who are Huns; among them
is one, called the Gazari, who are circumcized and observe Judaism
in its entirety”. This remark occurs à propos of Matthew 24.14 which
has no apparent bearing on it, and no more is heard of the subject.
He travelled to their country via Cherson in the Crimea; in Cherson he is said to have spent six months learning Hebrew in preparation for his mission; he then took the “Khazarian Way” — the Don-Volga portage — to Itil, and from there travelled along the Caspian to meet the Kagan (it is not said where). The usual theological disputations followed, but they had little impact on the Khazar Jews Even the adulatory Vita Constantine (Cyril’s original name) says only that Cyril made a good impression on the Kagan, that a few people were baptized and two hundred Christian prisoners were released by the Kagan as a gesture of goodwill. It was the least he could do for the Emperor’s envoy who had gone to so much trouble.
There is a curious sidelight thrown on the story by students of Slavonic philology. Cyril is credited by tradition not only with having devised the Cyrillic but also the Glagolytic alphabet. The latter, according to Baron, was “used in Croatia to the seventeenth century. Its indebtedness to the Hebrew alphabet in at least eleven characters, representing in part the Slavonic sounds, has long been recognized”. (The eleven characters are A, B, V, G, E, K, P, R, S, Sch, T.) This seems to confirm what has been said earlier on about the influence of the Hebrew alphabet in spreading literacy among the neighbours of the Khazars.