III - DECLINE
This is not meant to imply that the Khazars owed their good fortune to their Jewish religion. It is rather the other way round: they could afford to be Jews because they were economically and militarily strong. A living symbol of their power was the Emperor Leo the Khazar, who ruled Byzantium in 775-80 — so named after his mother, the Khazar Princess “Flower” — the one who created a new fashion at the court.
We remember that her marriage took place shortly after the great Khazar victory over the Muslims in the battle of Ardabil, which is mentioned in the letter of Joseph and other sources. The two events, Dunlop remarks, “are hardly unrelated”. However, amidst the cloak-and-dagger intrigues of the period, dynastic marriages and betrothals could be dangerous. They repeatedly gave cause — or at least provided a pretext — for starting a war. The pattern was apparently set by Attila, the erstwhile overlord of the Khazars. In 450 Attila is said to have received a message, accompanied by an engagement ring, from Honoria, sister to the West Roman Emperor Valentinian III.
This romantic and ambitious lady begged the Hun chieftain to rescue her from a fate worse than death — a forced marriage to an old Senator — and sent him her ring. Attila promptly claimed her as his bride, together with half the Empire as her dowry; and when Valentinian refused, Attila invaded Gaul. Several variations on this quasi-archetypal theme crop up throughout Khazar history. We remember the fury of the Bulgar King about the abduction of his daughter, and how he gave this incident as the main reason for his demand that the Caliph should build him a fortress against the Khazars.
If we are to believe the Arab sources, similar incidents (though with a different twist) led to the last flare-up of the Khazar-Muslim wars at the end of the eighth century, after a protracted period of peace. According to al-Tabari, in AD 798, the Caliph ordered the Governor of Armenia to make the Khazar frontier even more secure by marrying a daughter of the Kagan. This governor was a member of the powerful family of the Barmecides (which, incidentally, reminds one of the prince of that eponymous family in the Arabian Nights who invited the beggar to a feast consisting of rich dish-covers with nothing beneath).
The Barmecide agreed, and the Khazar Princess with her suite and dowry was duly dispatched to him in a luxurious cavalcade (see I, 10). But she died in childbed; the newborn died too; and her courtiers, on their return to Khazaria, insinuated to the Kagan that she had been poisoned. The Kagan promptly invaded Armenia and took (according to two Arab sources) 50000 prisoners. The Caliph was forced to release thousands of criminals from his gaols and arm them to stem the Khazar advance.
The Arab sources relate at least one
more eighth-century incident of a misfired dynastic marriage
followed by a Khazar invasion; and for good measure the Georgian
Chronicle has a particularly gruesome one to add to the list (in
which the royal Princess, instead of being poisoned, kills herself
to escape the Kagan’s bed). The details and exact dates are, as
usual, doubtful, and so is the real motivation behind these
campaigns. But the recurrent mention in the chronicles of bartered
brides and poisoned queens leaves little doubt that this theme had a
powerful impact on people’s imagination, and possibly also on
Yet in the middle of this comparatively idyllic period there is an ominous episode which foreshadowed new dangers. In 833, or thereabouts, the Khazar Kagan and Bek sent an embassy to the East Roman Emperor Theophilus, asking for skilled architects and craftsmen to build them a fortress on the lower reaches of the Don. The Emperor responded with alacrity. He sent a fleet across the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov up the mouth of the Don to the strategic spot where the fortress was to be built. Thus came Sarkel into being, the famous fortress and priceless archaeological site, virtually the only one that yielded clues to Khazar history — until it was submerged in the Tsimlyansk reservoir, adjoining the Volga-Don canal. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, who related the episode in some detail, says that since no stones were available in the region, Sarkel was built of bricks, burnt in specially constructed kilns.
Khazar fortress at Sarkel (Belaya Vyezha, Russia).
Aerial photo from excavations conducted by M. I. Artamanov during the 1930's.
He does not mention the curious fact (discovered by Soviet archaeologists while the site was still accessible) that the builders also used marble columns of Byzantine origin, dating from the sixth century, and probably salvaged from some Byzantine ruin; a nice example of Imperial thrift. The potential enemy against whom this impressive fortress was built by joint Roman-Khazar effort, were those formidable and menacing newcomers on the world scene, whom the West called Vikings or Norsemen, and the East called Rhous or Rhos or Rus.
Two centuries earlier, the conquering Arabs had advanced on the civilized world in a gigantic pincer movement, its left prong reaching across the Pyrenees, its right prong across the Caucasus. Now, during the Viking Age, history seemed to create a kind of mirror image of that earlier phase. The initial explosion which had triggered off the Muslim wars of conquest took place in the southernmost region of the known world, the Arabian desert. The Viking raids and conquests originated in its northernmost region, Scandinavia.
The Arabs advanced northward by land, the Norsemen southward by sea and waterways. The Arabs were, at least in theory, conducting a Holy War, the Vikings waged unholy wars of piracy and plunder; but the results, as far as the victims were concerned, were much the same. In neither case have historians been able to provide convincing explanations of the economical, ecological or ideological reasons which transformed these apparently quiescent regions of Arabia and Scandinavia quasi overnight into volcanoes of exuberant vitality and reckless enterprise.
Both eruptions spent their force within a couple of centuries but left a permanent mark on the world. Both evolved in this time-span from savagery and destructiveness to splendid cultural achievement. About the time when Sarkel was built by joint Byzantine-Khazar efforts in anticipation of attack by the eastern Vikings, their western branch had already penetrated all the major waterways of Europe and conquered half of Ireland. Within the next few decades they colonized Iceland, conquered Normandy, repeatedly sacked Paris, raided Germany, the Rhône delta, the gulf of Genoa, circumnavigated the Iberian peninsula and attacked Constantinople through the Mediterranean and the Dardanelles — simultaneously with a Rus attack down the Dnieper and across the Black Sea.
As Toynbee wrote:
No wonder that a special prayer was inserted in the litanies of the West: A furore Normannorum libera nos Domine. No wonder that Constantinople needed its Khazar allies as a protective shield against the carved dragons on the bows of the Viking ships, as it had needed them a couple of centuries earlier against the green banners of the Prophet. And, as on that earlier occasion, the Khazars were again to bear the brunt of the attack, and eventually to see their capital laid in ruins. Not only Byzantium had reason to be grateful to the Khazars for blocking the advance of the Viking fleets down the great waterways from the north.
We have now gained a better understanding of the cryptic passage in Joseph’s letter to Hasdai, written a century later:
The particular brand of Vikings which the Byzantines called “Rhos” were called “Varangians” by the Arab chroniclers. The most probable derivation of “Rhos”, according to Toynbee, is “from the Swedish word ‘rodher’, meaning rowers”. As for “Varangian”, it was used by the Arabs and also in the Russian Primary Chronicle to designate Norsemen or Scandinavians; the Baltic was actually called by them “the Varangian Sea”.
Although this branch of Vikings originated from eastern Sweden, as distinct from the Norwegians and Danes who raided Western Europe, their advance followed the same pattern. It was seasonal; it was based on strategically placed islands which served as strongholds, armouries and supply bases for attacks on the mainland; and its nature evolved, where conditions were favourable, from predatory raids and forced commerce to more or less permanent settlements and ultimately, amalgamation with the conquered native populations.
Thus the Viking penetration of Ireland started with the seizure of the island of Rechru (Lambay) in Dublin Bay; England was invaded from the isle of Thanet; penetration of the Continent started with the conquest of the islands of Walcheren (off Holland) and Noirmoutier (in the estuary of the Loire). At the eastern extreme of Europe the Northmen were following the same blueprint for conquest. After crossing the Baltic and the Gulf of Finland they sailed up the river Volkhov into Lake Ilmen (south of Leningrad), where they found a convenient island — the Holmgard of the Icelandic Sagas.
On this they built a settlement which eventually grew into the city of Novgorod. From here they forayed on southward on the great waterways: on the Volga into the Caspian, and on the Dnieper into the Black Sea. The former route led through the countries of the militant Bulgars and Khazars; the latter across the territories of various Slavonic tribes who inhabited the north-western outskirts of the Khazar Empire and paid tribute to the Kagan: the Polyane in the region of Kiev; the Viatichi, south of Moscow; the Radimishchy east of the Dnieper; the Severyane on the river Derna, etc.
These Slavs seemed to have developed advanced methods of agriculture, and were apparently of a more timid disposition than their “Turkish” neighbours on the Volga, for, as Bury put it, they became the “natural prey” of the Scandinavian raiders. These eventually came to prefer the Dnieper, in spite of its dangerous cataracts, to the Volga and the Don. It was the Dnieper which became the “Great Waterway” — the “Austrvegr” of the Nordic Sagas — from the Baltic to the Black Sea, and thus to Constantinople.
They even gave Scandinavian names to the seven major cataracts, duplicating their Slavonic names; Constantine conscientiously enumerates both versions (e.g., Baru-fors in Norse, Volnyi in Slavonic, for “the billowy waterfall”). These Varangian-Rus seem to have been a unique blend unique even among their brother Vikings — combining the traits of pirates, robbers and meretricious merchants, who traded on their own terms, imposed by sword and battle-axe. They bartered furs, swords and amber in exchange for gold, but their principal merchandise were slaves.
A contemporary Arab chronicler wrote:
A modern historian, McEvedy, has summed it up nicely:
Thus the Rus convoys sailing southward in the summer season were at the same time both commercial fleets and military armadas; the two roles went together, and with each fleet it was impossible to foretell at what moment the merchants would turn into warriors. The size of these fleets was formidable. Masudi speaks of a Rus force entering the Caspian from the Volga (in 912-13) as comprising “about 500 ships, each manned by 100 persons”.
Of these 50000 men, he says, 35000 were killed in battle. Masudi may have been exaggerating, but apparently not much. Even at an early stage of their exploits (circa 860) the Rus crossed the Black Sea and laid siege on Constantinople with a fleet variously estimated as numbering between 200 and 230 ships. In view of the unpredictability and proverbial treacherousness of these formidable invaders, the Byzantines and Khazars had to “play it by ear” as the saying goes.
For a century and a half after the fortress of Sarkel was built, trade agreements and the exchange of embassies with the Rus alternated with savage wars. Only slowly and gradually did the Northmen change their character by building permanent settlements, becoming Slavonized by intermingling with their subjects and vassals, and finally, adopting the faith of the Byzantine Church. By that time, the closing years of the tenth century, the “Rus” had become transformed into “Russians”. The early Rus princes and nobles still bore Scandinavian names which had been Slavonized: Rurik from Hrörekr, Oleg from Helgi, Igor from Ingvar, Olga from Helga, and so on.
The commercial treaty which Prince Igor-Ingvar concluded with the Byzantines in 945 contains a list of his companions, only three of which have Slavonic names among fifty Scandinavian names. But the son of Ingvar and Helga assumed the Slavonic name Svyatoslav, and from there onward the process of assimilation got into its stride, the Varangians gradually lost their identity as a separate people, and the Norse tradition faded out of Russian history. It is difficult to form a mental picture of these bizarre people whose savagery sticks out even in that savage age.
The chronicles are biased, written by members of nations who had suffered from the northern invaders; their own side of the story remains untold, for the rise of Scandinavian literature came long after the Age of the Vikings, when their exploits had blossomed into legend. Even so, early Norse literature seems to confirm their unbridled lust for battle, and the peculiar kind of frenzy which seized them on these occasions; they even had a special word for it: berserksgangr — the berserk way. The Arab chroniclers were so baffled by them that they contradict not only each other, but also themselves, across a distance of a few lines. Our old friend Ibn Fadlan is utterly disgusted by the filthy and obscene habits of the Rus whom he met at the Volga in the land of the Bulgars. The following passage on the Rus occurs just before his account of the Khazars, quoted earlier on:
In contrast to this, Ibn Rusta writes about the same time: “They are cleanly in regard to their clothing” — and leaves it at that. Again, Ibn Fadlan is indignant about the Rus copulating and defecating in public, including their King, whereas Ibn Rusta and Gardezi know nothing of such revolting habits. But their own accounts are equally dubious and inconsistent. Thus Ibn Rusta:
But a few paragraphs further down he paints a quite different picture — or rather vignette, of conditions in Rus society:
Regarding their martial virtues, however, the sources are Unanimous:
Such were the prospects which now faced the Khazars. Sarkel was built just in time; it enabled them to control the movements of the Rus flotillas along the lower reaches of the Don and the Don-Volga portage (the “Khazarian Way”). By and large it seems that during the first century of their presence on the scene the plundering raids of the Rus were mainly directed against Byzantium (where, obviously, richer plunder was to be had), whereas their relations with the Khazars were essentially on a trading basis, though not without friction and intermittent clashes.
At any rate, the Khazars were able to control the Rus trade routes and to levy their 10 per cent tax on all cargoes passing through their country to Byzantium and to the Muslim lands. They also exerted some cultural influence on the Northmen, who, for all their violent ways, had a naive willingness to learn from the people with whom they came into contact. The extent of this influence is indicated by the adoption of the title “Kagan” by the early Rus rulers of Novgorod. This is confirmed by both Byzantine and Arab sources; for instance, Ibn Rusta, after describing the island on which Novgorod was built, states “They have a king who is called Kagan Rus.”
Moreover, Ibn Fadlan reports that the Kagan Rus has a general who leads the army and represents him to the people. Zeki Validi has pointed out that such delegation of the army command was unknown among the Germanic people of the North, where the king must be the foremost warrior; Validi concludes that the Rus obviously imitated the Khazar system of twin rule. This is not unlikely in view of the fact that the Khazars were the most prosperous and culturally advanced people with whom the Rus in the early stages of their conquests made territorial contact. And that contact must have been fairly intense, since there was a colony of Rus merchants in Itil — and also a community of Khazar Jews in Kiev. It is sad to report in this context that more than a thousand years after the events under discussion, the Soviet regime has done its best to expunge the memory of the Khazars’ historic role and cultural achievements.
On January 12, 1952, The Times carried the following news item:
Artamonov, whom I have frequently quoted, published (besides numerous articles in learned journals) his first book, which dealt with the early history of the Khazars, in 1937. His magnum opus, History of the Khazars, was apparently in preparation when Pravda struck. As a result, the book was published only ten years later — 1962 — carrying a recantation in its final section which amounted to a denial of all that went before — and, indeed, of the author’s life-work. The relevant passages in it read:
The dictates of the Party line completed the process of obliteration
which started with the flooding of the remains of Sarkel.
The Varangians levied tribute on “Chuds”, “Krivichians”, etc. — i.e., the more northerly Slavonic people — while the Khazars continued to levy tribute on the Viatichi, the Seviane, and, most important of all, the Polyane in the central region of Kiev. But not for long. Three years later if we can trust the dating (in the Russian Chronicle), the key town of Kiev on the Dnieper, previously under Khazar suzerainty, passed into Rus hands. This was to prove a decisive event in Russian history, though it apparently happened without an armed struggle.
According to the Chronicle, Novgorod was at the time ruled by the (semilegendary) Prince Rurik (Hrörekr), who held under his sway all the Viking settlements, the northern Slavonic, and some Finnish people. Two of Rurik’s men, Oskold and Dir, on travelling down the Dnieper, saw a fortified place on a mountain, the sight of which they liked; and were told that this was the town of Kiev, and that it “paid tribute to the Khazars”. The two settled in the town with their families, “gathered many Northmen to them, and ruled over the neighbouring Slavs, even as Rurik ruled at Novgorod. Some twenty years later Rurik’s son Oleg [Helgi] came down and put Oskold and Dir to death, and annexed Kiev to his sway.”
Kiev soon outshone Novgorod in importance: it became the capital of
the Varangians and “the mother of Russian towns”; while the
principality which took its name became the cradle of the first
Russian state. Joseph’s letter, written about a century after the
Rus occupation of Kiev, no longer mentions it in his list of Khazar
possessions. But influential Khazar-Jewish communities survived both
in the town and province of Kiev, and after the final destruction of
their country they were reinforced by large numbers of Khazar
emigrants. The Russian Chronicle keeps referring to heroes coming
from Zemlya Zhidovskaya, “the country of the Jews”; and the “Gate of
the Khazars” in Kiev kept the memory of its erstwhile rulers alive
till modern times.
The Magyars had been the Khazars’ allies, and apparently willing vassals, since the dawn of the Khazar Empire. “The problem of their origin and early wanderings have long perplexed scholars”, Macartney wrote; elsewhere he calls it “one of the darkest of historical riddles”. About their origin all we know with certainty is that the Magyars were related to the Finns, and that their language belongs to the so-called Finno-Ugrian language family, together with that of the Vogul and Ostyak people living in the forest regions of the northern Urals.
Thus they were originally unrelated to the Slavonic and Turkish nations of the steppes in whose midst they came to live — an ethnic curiosity, which they still are to this day. Modern Hungary, unlike other small nations, has no linguistic ties with its neighbours; the Magyars have remained an ethnic enclave in Europe, with the distant Finns as their only cousins. At an unknown date during the early centuries of the Christian era this nomadic tribe was driven out of its erstwhile habitat in the Urals and migrated southward through the steppes, eventually settling in the region between the Don and the Kuban rivers.
They thus became neighbours of the Khazars, even before the latter’s rise to prominence. For a while they were part of a federation of semi-nomadic people, the Onogurs (“The Ten Arrows” or ten tribes); it is believed that the name “Hungarian” is a Slavonic version of that word; while “Magyar” is the name by which they have called themselves from time immemorial. From about the middle of the seventh to the end of the ninth centuries they were, as already said, subjects of the Khazar Empire.
It is a remarkable fact that during this whole period, while other tribes were engaged in a murderous game of musical chairs, we have no record of a single armed conflict between Khazars and Magyars, whereas each of the two was involved at one time or another in wars with their immediate or distant neighbours: Volga Bulgars, Danube Bulgars, Ghuzz, Pechenegs, and so on — in addition to the Arabs and the Rus. Paraphrasing the Russian Chronicle and Arab sources, Toynbee writes that throughout this period the Magyars “took tribute”, on the Khazars’ behalf, from the Slav and Finn peoples in the Black Earth Zone to the north of the Magyars’ own domain of the Steppe, and in the forest zone to the north of that.
The evidence for the use of the name Magyar by this date is its survival in a number of place-names in this region of northerly Russia. These place-names presumably mark the sites of former Magyar garrisons and outposts.” Thus the Magyars dominated their Slavonic neighbours, and Toynbee concludes that in levying tribute, “the Khazars were using the Magyars as their agents, though no doubt the Magyars made this agency profitable for themselves as well”. The arrival of the Rus radically changed this profitable state of affairs.
At about the time when Sarkel was built, there was a conspicuous movement of the Magyars across the Don to its west bank. From about 830 onward, the bulk of the nation was re-settled in the region between the Don and the Dnieper, later to be named Lebedia. The reason for this move has been much debated among historians; Toynbee’s explanation is both the most recent and the most plausible:
This arrangement worked well enough for nearly half a century. During this period the relation between Magyars and Khazars became even closer, culminating in two events which left lasting marks on the Hungarian nation. First, the Khazars gave them a king, who founded the first Magyar dynasty; and, second, several Khazar tribes joined the Magyars and profoundly transformed their ethnic character.
The first episode is described by Constantine in De Administrando (circa 950), and is confirmed by the fact that the names he mentions appear independently in the first Hungarian Chronicle (eleventh century). Constantine tells us that before the Khazars intervened in the internal affairs of the Magyar tribes, these had no paramount king, only tribal chieftains; the most prominent of these was called Lebedias (after whom Lebedia was later named):
Another dynastic alliance which had misfired. But the Kagan was determined to strengthen the ties which bound Lebedias and his tribes to the Khazar kingdom:
But Lebedias appears to have been a proud man; he declined, with
appropriate expressions of gratitude, the offer to become a puppet
king, and proposed instead that the honour should be bestowed on a
fellow chieftain called Almus, or on Almus’s son, Arpad. So the
Kagan, “pleased at this speech”, sent Lebedias with a suitable
escort back to his people; and they chose Arpad to be their king.
The ceremony of Arpad’s installation took place “after the custom
and usage of the Khazars, raising him on their shields. But before
this Arpad the Magyars never had any other ruler; wherefore the
ruler of Hungary is drawn from his race up to this day.” “This day”
in which Constantine wrote was circa 950, that is, a century after
the event. Arpad in fact led his Magyars in the conquest of Hungary;
his dynasty reigned till 1301, and his name is one of the first that
Hungarian schoolboys learn. The Khazars had their fingers in many
They also taught the tongue of the Khazars to the Magyars, and up to this day they speak the same dialect, but they also speak the other language of the Magyars. And because they proved themselves more efficient in wars and the most manly of the eight tribes [i.e., the seven original Magyar tribes plus the Kabars], and leaders in war, they were elected to be the first horde, and there is one leader among them, that is in the [originally] three hordes of the Kavars, who exists to this day.” To dot his i’s, Constantine starts his next chapter with a list “of the hordes of Kavars and Magyars. First is that which broke off from the Khazars, this above-mentioned horde of the Kavars.”, etc.
The horde or tribe which actually calls itself “Magyar” comes only third. It looks as if the Magyars had received — metaphorically and perhaps literally — a blood transfusion from the Khazars. It affected them in several ways. First of all we learn, to our surprise, that at least till the middle of the tenth century both the Magyar and Khazar languages were spoken in Hungary. Several modern authorities have commented on this singular fact. Thus Bury wrote:
Toynbee remarks that though the Hungarians have ceased to be bilingual long ago, they were so at the beginnings of their state, as testified by some two hundred loan-words from the old Chuvash dialect of Turkish which the Khazars spoke (see above, Chapter I, 3). The Magyars, like the Rus, also adopted a modified form of the Khazar double-kingship. Thus Gardezi: “… Their leader rides out with 20000 horsemen; they call him Kanda [Hungarian:
The close cooperation between Khazars and Magyars came to an end when the latter, AD 896, said farewell to the Eurasian steppes, crossed the Carpathian mountain range, and conquered the territory which was to become their lasting habitat. The circumstances of this migration are again controversial, but one can at least grasp its broad outlines. During the closing decades of the ninth century yet another uncouth player joined the nomad game of musical chairs: the pechenegs. What little we know about this Turkish tribe is summed up in Constantine’s description of them as an insatiably greedy lot of Barbarians who for good money can be bought to fight other Barbarians and the Rus.
They lived between the Volga and the Ural rivers under Khazar suzerainty; according to Ibn Rusta, the Khazars “raided them every year” to collect the tribute due to them. Toward the end of the ninth century a catastrophe (of a nature by no means unusual) befell the Pechenegs: they were evicted from their country by their eastern neighbours. These neighbours were none other than the Ghuzz (or Oguz) whom Ibn Fadlan so much disliked — one of the inexhaustible number of Turkish tribes which from time to time cut loose from their Central-Asiatic moorings and drifted west. The displaced Pechenegs tried to settle in Khazaria, but the Khazars beat them off.
The Pechenegs continued their westward trek, crossed the Don and invaded the territory of the Magyars. The Magyars in turn were forced to fall back further west into the region between the Dnieper and the Sereth rivers. They called this region Etel-Köz, “the land between the rivers”. They seem to have settled there in 889; but in 896 the Pechenegs struck again, allied to the Danube Bulgars, whereupon the Magyars withdrew into present-day Hungary. This, in rough outline, is the story of the Magyars’ exit from the eastern steppes, and the end of the Magyar-Khazar connection. The details are contested; some historians maintain, with a certain passion, that the Magyars suffered only one defeat, not two, at the hands of the Pechenegs, and that Etel-Köz was just another name for Lebedia, but we can leave these quibbles to the specialists. More intriguing is the apparent contradiction between the image of the Magyars as mighty warriors, and their inglorious retreat from successive habitats.
Thus we learn from the Chronicle of Hinkmar of Rheims that in 862 they raided the Fast Frankish Empire — the first of the savage incursions which were to terrorize Europe during the next century. We also hear of a fearful encounter which St Cyril, the Apostle of the Slavs, had with a Magyar horde in 860, on his way to Khazaria. He was saying his prayers when they rushed at him luporum more ululantes — “howling in the manner of wolves”. His sanctity, however, protected him from harm. Another chronicle mentions that the Magyars, and the Kabars, came into conflict with the Franks in 881; and Constantine tells us that, some ten years later, the Magyars “made war upon Simeon (ruler of the Danube Bulgars) and trounced him soundly, and came as far as Preslav, and shut him up in the fortress called Mundraga, and returned home.”
How is one to reconcile all these valiant deeds with the series of retreats from the Don into Hungary, which took place in the same period? It seems that the answer is indicated in the passage in Constantine immediately following the one just quo ted:
Thus the bulk of the army was “away on a campaign” when their land and families were attacked; and to judge by the chronicles mentioned above, they were “away” raiding distant countries quite frequently, leaving their homes with little protection. They could afford to indulge in this risky habit as long as they had only their Khazar overlords and the peaceful Slavonic tribes as their immediate neighbours.
But with the advent of the land-hungry Pechenegs the situation changed. The disaster described by Constantine may have been only the last of a series of similar incidents. But it may have decided them to seek a new and safer home beyond the mountains, in a country which they already knew from at least two previous forays. There is another consideration which speaks in favour of this hypothesis. The Magyars seem to have acquired the raiding habit only in the second half of the ninth century — about the time when they received that critical blood-transfusion from the Khazars.
It may have proved a mixed blessing. The Kabars, who were “more efficient in war and more manly”, became, as we saw, the leading tribe, and infused their hosts with the spirit of adventure, which was soon to turn them into the scourge of Europe, as the Huns had earlier been. They also taught the Magyars “those very peculiar and characteristic tactics employed since time immemorial by every Turkish nation — Huns, Avars, Turks, Pechenegs, Kumans — and by no other … light cavalry using the old devices of simulated flight, of shooting while fleeing, of sudden charges with fearful, wolf-like howling.” These methods proved murderously effective during the ninth and tenth centuries when Hungarian raiders invaded Germany, the Balkans, Italy and even France — but they did not cut much ice against the Pechenegs, who used the same tactics, and could howl just as spine-chillingly.
Thus indirectly, by the devious logic of history, the Khazars were instrumental in the establishment of the Hungarian state, whereas the Khazars themselves vanished into the mist. Macartney, pursuing a similar line of thought, went even further in emphasizing the decisive role played by the Kabar transfusion:
And yet the Hungarians managed to preserve their ethnic identity.
They also succeeded, after the bilingual period, in preserving their original Finno-Ugric language in the midst of their German and Slav neighbours — in contrast to the Danube Bulgars, who lost their Original Turkish language, and now speak a Slavonic dialect. However, the Kabar influence continued to make itself felt in Hungary, and even after they became separated by the Carpathian Mountains, the Khazar-Magyar connection was not completely severed. According to Vasiliev, in the tenth century the Hungarian Duke Taksony invited an unknown number of Khazars to settle in his domains.
It is not unlikely that these immigrants contained a fair proportion of Khazarian Jews. We may also assume that both the Kabars and the later immigrants brought with them some of their famed craftsmen, who taught the Hungarians their arts (see above, Chapter I, 13). In the process of taking possession of their new and permanent home, the Magyars had to evict its former occupants, Moravians and Danube Bulgars, who moved into the regions where they still live.
Their other Slavonic neighbours
too — the Serbs and Croats — were already more or less in situ.
Thus, as a result of the chain-reaction which started in the distant
Urals — Ghuzz chasing Pechenegs, chasing Magyars, chasing Bulgars
and Moravians, the map of modern Central Europe was beginning to
take shape. The shifting kaleidoscope was settling into a more or
less stable jigsaw.
We may add, for the sake of piquantry, that the “learned Patriarch”, Photius, whose eloquence saved the Imperial city, was none other than “Khazar face” who had sent St Cyril on his proselytizing mission. As for the Rus retreat, it was caused by the hurried return of the Greek army and fleet; but “Khazar face” had saved morale among the populace during the agonizing period of waiting. Toynbee too has interesting comments to make on this episode. In 860, he writes, the Russians “perhaps came nearer to capturing Constantinople than so far they have ever come since then”.
And he also shares the view expressed by several Russian historians, that the attack by the eastern Northmen’s Dnieper flotilla across the Black Sea was coordinated with the simultaneous attack of a western Viking fleet, approaching Constantinople across the Mediterranean and the Dardanelles:
This makes one appreciate the stature of the adversary with whom the
Khazars had to contend. Nor was Byzantine diplomacy slow in
appreciating it — and to play the double game which the situation
seemed to demand, alternating between war, when it could not be
avoided, and appeasement in the pious hope that the Russians would
eventually be converted to Christianity and brought into the flock
of the Eastern Patriarchate. As for the Khazars, they were an
important asset for the time being, and would be sold out on the
first decent — or indecent — opportunity that offered itself
As Bury comments:
Among these consequences was the recruiting of Scandinavian sailors into the Byzantine fleet — by 902 there were seven hundred of them. Another development was the famous “Varangian Guard”, an élite corps of Rus and other nordic mercenaries, including even Englishmen. In the treaties of 945 and 971 the Russian rulers of the Principality of Kiev undertook to supply the Byzantine Emperor with troops on request. In Constantine potphyrogenitus’ day, i.e., the middle of the tenth century, Rus fleets on the Bosphorus were a customary sight; they no longer caine to lay siege on Constantinople but to sell their wares.
Trade was meticulously well regulated (except when armed clashes intervened):
To make sure that all transactions should be nice and proper, black-market dealings in currency were punished by amputation of one hand. Nor were proselytizing efforts neglected, as the ultimate means to achieve peaceful coexistence with the increasingly powerful Russians. But it was hard going. According to the Russian Chronicle, when Oleg, Regent of Kiev, concluded the treaty of 911 with the Byzantines, “the Emperors Leo and Alexander [joint rulers], after agreeing upon the tribute and mutually binding themselves by oath, kissed the cross and invited Oleg and his men to swear an oath likewise.
According to the religion of the Rus, the latter swore by their weapons and by their god Perun, as well as by Volos, the god of cattle, and thus confirmed the treaty.” Nearly half a century and several battles and treaties later, victory for the Holy Church seemed in sight: in 957 Princess Olga of Kiev (widow of Prince Igor) was baptized on the occasion of her state visit to Constantinople (unless she had already been baptized once before her departure — which again is controversial). The various banquets and festivities in Olga’s honour are described in detail in De Caerimonus, though we are not told how the lady reacted to the Disneyland of mechanical toys displayed in the Imperial throne-room — for instance, to the stuffed lions which emitted a fearful mechanical roar. (Another distinguished guest, Bishop Liutprand, recorded that he was able to keep his sang-froid only because he was forewarned of the surprises in store for visitors.)
The occasion must have been a major headache for the master of ceremonies (which was Constantine himself), because not only was Olga a female sovereign, but her retinue, too, was female; the male diplomats and advisers, eighty-two of them, “marched self-effacingly in the rear of the Russian delegation”. Just before the banquet there was a small incident, symbolic of the delicate nature of Russian-Byzantine relations. When the ladies of the Byzantine court entered, they fell on their faces before the Imperial family, as protocol required. Olga remained standing “but it was noticed, with satisfaction, that she slightly if perceptibly inclined her head.
She was put in her place by being seated, as the Muslim state guests had been, at a separate table.” The Russian Chronicle has a different, richly embroidered version of this state visit. When the delicate subject of baptism was brought up, Olga told Constantine “that if he desired to baptize her, he should perform this function himself; otherwise she was unwilling to accept baptism”. The Emperor concurred, and asked the Patriarch to instruct her in the faith.
She was, as already mentioned, the widow of Prince Igor, supposedly the son of Rurik, whom the Russian Chronicle describes as a greedy, foolish and sadistic ruler. In 941 he had attacked the Byzantines with a large fleet, and “of the people they captured, some they butchered, others they set up as targets and shot at, some they seized upon, and after binding their hands behind their backs, they drove iron nails through their heads. Many sacred churches they gave to the flames.” In the end they were defeated by the Byzantine fleet, spouting Greek fire through tubes mounted in the prows of their ships.
This episode was followed by another treaty of friendship four years later. As a predominantly maritime nation, the Rus were even more impressed by the Greek fire than others who had attacked Byzantium, and the “lightning from heaven” was a strong argument in favour of the Greek Church. Yet they were still not ready for conversion. When Igor was killed in 945 by the Derevlians, a Slavonic people upon which he had imposed an exorbitant tribute, the widowed Olga became Regent of Kiev.
She started her rule by taking fourfold revenge on the Derevlians: first, a Derevlian peace mission was buried alive; then a delegation of notables was locked in a bath-house and burned alive; this was followed by another massacre, and lastly the main town of the Derevlians was burnt down. Olga’s bloodlust seemed truly insatiable until her baptism. From that day onward, the Chronicle informs us, she became
In due course she was canonized as the first
Russian saint of the Orthodox Church.
It was only in 988, in the reign of his son, St Vladimir, that the ruling dynasty of the Russians definitely adopted the faith of the Greek Orthodox Church — about the same time as Hungarians, Poles, and Scandinavians, including the distant Icelanders, became converted to the Latin Church of Rome. The broad outlines of the lasting religious divisions of the world were beginning to take shape; and in this process the Jewish Khazars were becoming an anachronism. The growing rapprochement between Constantinople and Kiev, in spite of its ups and downs, made the importance of Itil gradually dwindle; and the presence of the Khazars athwart Rus-Byzantine trade-routes, levying their 10 per cent tax on the increasing flow of goods, became an irritant both to the Byzantine treasury and the Russian warrior merchants.
Symptomatic of the changing Byzantine attitude to their former allies was the surrender of Cherson to the Russians. For several centuries Byzantines and Khazars had been bickering and occasionally skirmishing, for possession of that important Crimean port; but when Vladimir occupied Cherson in 987, the Byzantines did not even protest; for, as Bury put it, “the sacrifice was not too dear a price for perpetual peace and friendship with the Russian state, then becoming a great power”.
The sacrifice of Cherson may have been justified; but the sacrifice of the Khazar alliance turned out to be, in the long run, a short-sighted policy.