The period in question extends from circa 862 — the Russian occupation of Kiev — to circa 965 — the destruction of Itil by Svyatoslav. After the loss of Kiev and the retreat of the Magyars into Hungary, the former western dependencies of the Khazar Empire (except for parts of the Crimea) were no longer under the Kagan’s control; and the Prince of Kiev could without hindrance address the Slavonic tribes in the Dnieper basin with the cry, “Pay nothing to the Khazars!”
The Khazars may have been willing to acquiesce in the loss of their hegemony in the west, but at the same time there was also a growing encroachment by the Rus on the east, down the Volga and into the regions around the Caspian. These Muslim lands bordering on the southern half of the “Khazar Sea” — Azerbaijan, Jilan, Shirwan, Tabaristan, Jurjan — were tempting targets for the Viking fleets, both as objects of plunder and as trading posts for commerce with the Muslim Caliphate. But the approaches to the Caspian, past Itil through the Volga delta, were controlled by the Khazars — as the approaches to the Black Sea had been while they were still holding Kiev.
And “control” meant that the Rus had to solicit permission for each flotilla to pass, and pay the 10 per cent customs due — a double insult to pride and pocket. For some time there was a precarious modus vivendi. The Rus flotillas paid their due, sailed into the Khazar Sea and traded with the people around it. But trade, as we saw, frequently became a synonym for plunder. Some time between 864 and 884 a Rus expedition attacked the port of Abaskun in Tabaristan. They were defeated, but in 910 they returned, plundered the city and countryside and carried off a number of Muslim prisoners to be sold as slaves.
To the Khazars this must have been a grave embarrassment, because of their friendly relations with the Caliphate, and also because of the crack regiment of Muslim mercenaries in their standing army. Three years later — AD 913 — matters came to a head in an armed confrontation which ended in a bloodbath. This major incident — already mentioned briefly (Chapter III, 3) has been described in detail by Masudi, while the Russian Chronicle passes it over in silence. Masudi tells us that “some time after the year of the Hegira 300 [AD 912-913] a Rus fleet of 500 ships, each manned by 100 persons” was approaching Khazar territory:
Five thousand of the Rus escaped, but these too were killed, by the Burtas and the Bulgars. This is Masudi’s account of this disastrous Rus incursion into the Caspian in 912-13. It is, of course, biased. The Khazar ruler comes out of it as a double-crossing rascal who acts, first as a passive accomplice of the Rus marauders, then authorizes the attack on them, but simultaneously informs them of the ambush prepared by “the Muslims” under his own command.
Even of the Bulgars, Masudi says “they are Muslims” — although Ibn Fadlan, visiting the Bulgars ten years later, describes them as still far from being converted. But though coloured by religious prejudice, Masudi’s account provides a glimpse of the dilemma or several dilemmas — confronting the Khazar leadership. They may not have been unduly worried about the misfortunes suffered by the people on the Caspian shores; it was not a sentimental age.
But what if the predatory Rus, after gaining control of Kiev and the Dnieper, were to establish a foothold on the Volga? Moreover, another Rus raid into the Caspian might bring down the wrath of the Caliphate — not on the Rus themselves, who were beyond its reach, but on the innocent — well, nearly innocent — Khazars. Relations with the Caliphate were peaceful, yet nevertheless precarious, as an incident reported by Ibn Fadlan indicates. The Rus raid described by Masudi took place in 912-13; Ibn Fadlan’s mission to Bulgar in 921-2. His account of the incident in question is as follows:
The episode testifies to a nice feeling for the strategy of mutual
deterrence and the dangers of escalation. It also shows once more
that the Khazar rulers felt emotionally committed to the fate of
Jews in other parts of the world.
As coincidences go, Masudi wrote this in the same year — 943 — in which the Rus repeated their incursion into the Caspian with an even greater fleet; but Masudi could not have known this. For thirty years, after the disaster of 913, they had lain off that part of the world; now they felt evidently strong enough to try again; and it is perhaps significant that their attempt coincided, within a year or two, with their expedition against the Byzantines, under the swashbuckling Igor, which perished under the Greek fire. In the course of this new invasion, the Rus gained a foothold in the Caspian region in the city of Bardha, and were able to hold it for a whole year. In the end pestilence broke out among the Rus, and the Azerbaijanis were able to put the survivors to flight. This time the Arab sources do not mention any Khazar share in the plunder — nor in the fighting.
But Joseph does in his letter to Hasdai, written some years later:
“I guard the mouth of the river and do not permit the Rus who come
in their ships to invade the land of the Arabs … I fight heavy wars
with them.” Whether or not on this particular occasion the Khazar
army participated in the fighting, the fact remains that a few years
later they decided to deny the Russians access to the “Khazar Sea”
and that from 943 onward we hear no more of Rus incursions into the
Caspian. This momentous decision, in all likelihood motivated by
internal pressures of the Muslim community in their midst, involved
the Khazars in “heavy wars” with the Rus. Of these, however, we have
no records beyond the statement in Joseph’s letter. They may have
been more in the nature of skirmishes except for the one major
campaign of AD 965, mentioned in the Old Russian Chronicle, which
led to the breaking up of the Khazar Empire.
Nor did he have a tent, but he spread out a horse-blanket under him, and set his saddle under his head; and all his retinue did likewise.” When he attacked the enemy, he scorned doing it by stealth, but instead sent messengers ahead announcing: “I am coming upon you.” To the campaign against the Khazars, the Chronicler devotes only a few lines, in the laconic tone which he usually adopts in reporting on armed conflicts:
N ow Biela Viezha — the White Castle — was the Slavonic name for Sarkel, the famed Khazar fortress on the Don; but it should be noted that the destruction of Itil, the capital, is nowhere mentioned in the Russian Chronicle — a point to which we shall return. The Chronicle goes on to relate that Svyatoslav “also conquered the Yasians and the Karugians” [Ossetians and Chirkassians], defeated the Danube Bulgars, was defeated by the Byzantincs, and on his way back to Kiev was murdered by a horde of Pechenegs. “They cut off his head, and made a cup out of his skull, overlayed it with gold, and drank from it.”
Khazar fortress at Sarkel (Belaya Vyezha, Russia).
Aerial photo from excavations conducted by M. I. Artamanov during the 1930's.
Several historians have regarded the victory of Svyatoslav as the end of Khazaria — which, as will be seen, is demonstrably wrong. The destruction of Sarkel in 965 signalled the end of the Khazar Empire, not of the Khazar state — as 1918 signalled the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, but not of Austria as a nation. Khazar control of the far-flung Slavonic tribes — which, as we have seen, stretched to the vicinity of Moscow — had now come to a definite end; but the Khazar heartland between Caucasus, Don and Volga remained intact.
The approaches to the Caspian Sea remained closed to the Rus, and we hear of no further attempt on their part to force their way to it. As Toynbee pointedly remarks:
After the death of Svyatoslav, civil war broke out between his sons, out of which the youngest, Vladimir, emerged victorious. He too started life as a pagan, like his father, and he too, like his grandmother Olga, ended up as a repentant sinner, accepted baptism and was eventually canonized. Yet in his youth St Vladimir seemed to have followed St Augustine’s motto: Lord give me chastity, but not yet. The Russian Chronicle is rather severe about this:
Olga’s baptism, around 957 did not cut much ice, even with her own son. Vladimir’s baptism, AD 989, was a momentous event which had a lasting influence on the history of the world. It was preceded by a series of diplomatic manoeuvrings and theological discussions with representatives of the four major religions — which provide a kind of mirror image to the debates before the Khazar conversion to Judaism. Indeed, the Old Russian Chronicle’s account of these theological disputes constantly remind one of the Hebrew and Arab accounts of King Bulan’s erstwhile Brains Trust — only the outcome is different. This time there were four instead of three contestants — as the schism between the Greek and the Latin churches was already an accomplished fact in the tenth century (though it became official only in the eleventh).
The Russian Chronicle’s account of Vladimir’s conversion first mentions a victory he achieved against the Volga Bulgars, followed by a treaty of friendship. “The Bulgars declared: ‘May peace prevail between us till stone floats and straw sinks.’” Vladimir returned to Kiev, and the Bulgars sent a Muslim religious mission to convert him. They described to him the joys of Paradise where each man will be given seventy fair women. Vladimir listened to them “with approval”, but when it came to abstinence from pork and wine, he drew the line. “‘Drinking,’ said he, ‘is the joy of the Russes. We cannot exist without that pleasure.’” Next came a German delegation of Roman Catholics, adherents of the Latin rite. They fared no better when they brought up, as one of the main requirements of their faith, fasting according to one’s strength. “… Then Vladimir answered: ‘Depart hence; our fathers accepted no such principle.’”
The third mission consisted of Khazar Jews. They came off worst. Vladimir asked them why they no longer ruled Jerusalem. “They made answer: ‘God was angry at our forefathers, and scattered us among the Gentiles on account of our sins.’ The Prince then demanded: ‘How can you hope to teach others while you yourselves are cast out and scattered abroad by the hand of God? Do you expect us to accept that fate also?’” The fourth and last missionary is a scholar sent by the Greeks of Byzantium. He starts with a blast against the Muslims, who are “accursed above all men, like Sodom and Gomorrah, upon which the Lord let fall burning stones, and which he buried and submerged.… For they moisten their excrement, and pour the water into their mouths, and anoint their beards with it, remembering Mahomet.… Vladimir, upon hearing these statements, spat upon the earth, saying: ‘This is a vile thing.’”
The Byzantine scholar then accuses the Jews of having crucified God, and the Roman Catholics — in much milder terms — of having “modified the Rites”. After these preliminaries, he launches into a long exposition of the Old and New Testaments, starting with the creation of the world. At the end of it, however, Vladimir appears only half convinced, for when pressed to be baptized he replies, “I shall wait yet a little longer.”
He then sends his own envoys, “ten good and wise men”, to various countries to observe their religious practices. In due time this commission of inquiry reports to him that the Byzantine Service is “fairer than the ceremonies of other nations, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth”. But Vladimir still hesitates, and the Chronicle continues with a non-sequitur: “After a year had passed, in 988, Vladimir proceeded with an armed force against Cherson, a Greek city....” (We remember that control of this important Crimean port had been for a long time contested between Byzantines and Khazars.)
The valiant Chersonese refused to surrender. Vladimir’s troops constructed earthworks directed at the city walls, but the Chersonese “dug a tunnel under the city wall, stole the heaped-up earth and carried it into the city, where they piled it up”. Then a traitor shot an arrow into the Rus camp with a message:
When Vladimir received this information, he raised his eyes to heaven and vowed that if this hope was realized, he would be baptized. He succeeded in cutting off the city’s water supply, and Cherson surrendered. Thereupon Vladimir, apparently forgetting his vow, “sent messages to the Emperors Basil and Constantine [joint rulers at the time], saying: ‘Behold, I have captured your glorious city. I have also heard that you have an unwedded sister. Unless you give her to me to wife, I shall deal with your own city as I have with Cherson.’”
Emperors replied: “If you are baptized you shall have her to wife,
inherit the Kingdom of God, and be our companion in the faith.” And
so it came to pass. Vladimir at long last accepted baptism, and
married the Byzantine Princess Anna. A few years later Greek
Christianity became the official religion not only of the rulers but
of the Russian people, and from 1037 onward the Russian Church was
governed by the Patriarch of Constantinople.
The acceptance of Roman Christianity from the Germans would have made Russia a country of Latin or European culture. The acceptance of either Judaism or Orthodox Christianity insured to Russia cultural independence of both Europe and Asia.” But the Russians needed allies more than they needed independence, and the East Roman Empire, however corrupt, was still a more desirable ally in terms of power, culture and trade, than the crumbling empire of the Khazars. Nor should one underestimate the role played by Byzantine statesmanship in bringing about the decision for which it had worked for more than a century.
The Russian Chronicle’s naive account of Vladimir’s game of procrastination gives us no insight into the diplomatic manoeuvrings and hard bargaining that must have gone on before he accepted baptism — and thereby, in fact, Byzantine tutelage for himself and his people. Cherson was obviously part of the price, and so was the dynastic marriage to Princess Anna. But the most important part of the deal was the end of the Byzantine-Khazar alliance against the Rus, and its replacement by a Byzantine-Russian alliance against the Khazars. A few years later, in 1016, a combined Byzantine-Russian army invaded Khazaria, defeated its ruler, and “subdued the country” (see below, IV, 8).
Yet the cooling off towards the Khazars had already started, as we have seen, in Constantine Porphyrogenitus’s day, fifty years before Vladimir’s conversion. We remember Constantine’s musings on “how war is to be made on Khazaria and by whom”. The passage quoted earlier on (II, 7) continues:
Toynbee, after quoting this passage, makes the following, rather touching comment:
The answer to Toynbee’s rhetorical question is obviously that the
Byzantines were inspired by Realpolitik — and that, as already said,
theirs was not a sentimental age. Nor is ours.
This “effective control” was now to be transferred from the Khazar Kagan to the Rus Kagan, the Prince of Kiev. But it did not work. The Khazars were a Turkish tribe of the steppes, who had been able to cope with wave after wave of Turkish and Arab invaders; they had resisted and subdued the Bulgars, Burtas, Pechenegs, Ghuzz, and so on.
The Russians and their Slav subjects were no match for the nomad warriors of the steppes, their mobile strategy and guerilla tactics. As a result of constant nomad pressure, the centres of Russian power were gradually transferred from the southern steppes to the wooded north, to the principalities of Galiczia, Novgorod and Moscow. The Byzantines had calculated that Kiev would take over the role of Itil as the guardian of Eastern Europe and centre of trade; instead, Kiev went into rapid decline. It was the end of the first chapter of Russian history, followed by a period of chaos, with a dozen independent principalities waging endless wars against each other.
This created a power vacuum, into which poured a new wave of conquering nomads — or rather a new off-shoot of our old friends the Ghuzz, whom Ibn Fadlan had found even more abhorrent than the other Barbarian tribes which he was obliged to visit. These “pagan and godless foes”, as the Chronicle describes them, were called Polovtsi by the Russians, Kumans by the Byzantines, Kun by the Hungarians, Kipchaks by their fellow Turks. They ruled the steppes as far as Hungary from the late eleventh to the thirteenth century (when they, in turn, were swamped by the Mongol invasion). They also fought several wars against the Byzantines. Another branch of the Ghuzz, the Seljuks (named after their ruling dynasty) destroyed a huge Byzantine army in the historic battle of Manzikert (1071) and captured the Emperor Romanus IV Diogenes.
Henceforth the Byzantines
were unable to prevent the Turks from gaining control of most
provinces of Asia Minor — the present-day Turkey — which had
previously been the heartland of the East Roman Empire. One can
only speculate whether history would have taken a different course
if Byzantium had not abandoned its traditional policy, maintained
throughout the three previous centuries, of relying on the Khazar
stronghold against the Muslim, Turkish and Viking invaders. Be that
as it may, Imperial Realpolitik turned out to have been not very
Historians, famished for facts, have nothing left but a few bleached bones to gnaw at like starving bloodhounds, in the forlorn hope of finding some hidden morsel to sustain them. In the light of what has been said before, it appears that the decisive event precipitating the decline of Khazar power was not Svyatoslav’s victory, but Vladimir’s conversion. How important was in fact that victory, which nineteenth-century historians habitually equated with the end of the Khazar state? We remember that the Russian Chronicle mentions only the destruction of Sarkel, the fortress, but not the destruction of Itil, the capital. That Itil was indeed sacked and devastated we know from several Arab sources, which are too insistent to be ignored; but when and by whom it was sacked is by no means clear.
Ibn Hawkal, the principal source, says it was done by the Rus who “utterly destroyed Khazaran, Samandar and Itil” — apparently believing that Khazaran and Itil were different towns, whereas we know that they were one twin-town; and his dating of the event differs from the Russian Chronicle’s dating of the fall of Sarkel which Ibn Hawkal does not mention at all, just as the Chronicle does not mention the destruction of Itil. Accordingly, Marquart suggested that Itil was sacked not by Svyatoslav’s Rus, who only got as far as Sarkel, but by some fresh wave of Vikings. To complicate matters a little more, the second Arab source, ibn Miskawayh, says that it was a body of “Turks” which descended on Khazaria in the critical year 965. By “Turks” he may have meant the Rus, as Barthold maintained.
But it could also have been a marauding horde of Pechenegs, for instance. It seems that we shall never know who destroyed Itil, however long we chew the bones. And how seriously was it destroyed? The principal source, Ibn Hawkal, first speaks of the “utter destruction” of Itil, but then he also says, writing a few years later, that “Khazaran is still the centre on which the Rus trade converges”. Thus the phrase “utter destruction” may have been an exaggeration. This is the more likely because he also speaks of the “utter destruction” of the town of Bulghar, capital of the Volga Bulgars. Yet the damage which the Rus caused in Bulghar could not have been too important, as we have coins that were minted there in the year 976-7 — only about ten years after Svyatoslav’s raid; and in the thirteenth century Buighar was still an important city. As Dunlop put it:
It obviously was. Khazaran-Itil, and the other towns of the Khazars, consisted mostly of tents, wooden dwellings and “round houses” built of mud, which were easily destroyed and easily rebuilt; only the royal and public buildings were of brick. The damage done must nevertheless have been serious, for several Arab chroniclers speak of a temporary exodus of the population to the Caspian shore or islands. Thus Ibn Hawkal says the Khazars of Itil fled from the Rus to one of the islands of the “naphta coast” [Baku], but later returned to Itil and Khazaran with the aid of the Muslim Shah of Shirwan. This sounds plausible since the people of Shirwan had no love for the Rus who had plundered their shores earlier on.
Other Arab chroniclers, Ibn Miskawayh and Muqaddasi (writing later than Ibn HIawkal), also speak of an exodus of Khazars and their return with Muslim help. According to Ibn Miskawayh, as a price for this help “they all adopted Islam with the exception of their king”. Muquadassi has a different version, which does not refer to the Rus invasion; he only says that the inhabitants of the Khazar town went down to the sea and came back converted to Islam. The degree of his reliability is indicated by the fact that he describes Bulghar as being closer to the Caspian than Itil, which amounts to placing Glasgow south of London.
In spite of the confused and biased nature of these accounts, which seems all too obvious, there is probably some truth in them. The psychological shock of the invasion, the flight to the sea, and the necessity of buying Muslim help may have led to some deal which gave the Muslim community in Khazaria a greater say in the affairs of state; we remember a similar deal with Marwan two centuries earlier (I, 7), which involved the Kagan himself, but left no mark on Khazar history. According to yet another Arab source — Biruni, who died in 1048 — Itil, in his time, was in ruins — or rather, once more in ruins. It was rebuilt again, but henceforth it went under the name of Saksin. It figures repeatedly in the chronicles well into the twelfth century as “a large town on the Volga, surpassed by none in Turkestan”, and eventually, according to one source, became the victim of inundations. Another century later the Mongol ruler Batu built his capital on its site.
In summing up what the Russian Chronicle and
the Arab sources tell us about the catastrophe of 965, we can say
that Itil was devastated to an unknown extent by the Rus or some
other invaders, but rebuilt more than once; and that the Khazar
state emerged from the ordeal considerably weakened. But there can
be little doubt that inside its shrunken frontiers it survived for
at least another two hundred years, i.e., to the middle of the
twelfth century, and perhaps — though more doubtfully — until the
middle of the thirteenth.
As we enter the eleventh century, we read first of the already mentioned joint Byzantine-Rus campaign of 1016 against Khazaria, in which the country was once more defeated. The event is reported by a fairly reliable source, the twelfth-century Byzantine chronicler Cedrenus. A considerable force was apparently needed, for Cedrenus speaks of a Byzantine fleet, supported by an army of Russians. The Khazars evidently had the qualities of a Jack-in-the-Box, derived from their Turkish origin, or Mosaic faith, or both. Cedrenus also says that the name of the defeated Khazar leader was Georgius Tzul.
Georgius is a Christian name; we know from an earlier report that there were Christians as well as Muslims in the Kagan’s army. The next mention of the Khazars is a laconic entry in the Russian Chronicle for the year 1023, according to which “[Prince] Mtislav marched against his brother [Prince] Yaroslav with a force of Khazars and Kasogians”. Now Mtislav was the ruler of the shortlived principality of Tmutorakan, centred on the Khazar town of Tamatarkha (now Taman) on the eastern side of the straights of Kerch. This, as already said, was the only Khazar territory that the Rus occupied after their victory of 965.
The Khazars in Mtislav’s army were thus probably levied from the local population by the Russian prince. Seven years later (AD 1030) a Khazar army is reported to have defeated a Kurdish invading force, killed 10000 of its men and captured their equipment. This would be added evidence that the Khazars were still very much alive and kicking, if one could take the report at face value. But it comes from a single twelfth century Arab source, ibn-al-Athir, not considered very reliable. Plodding on in our chronology, anxious to pick up what morsels of evidence are left, we come across a curious tale about an obscure Christian saint, Eustratius.
Around AD 1100, he was apparently a prisoner in Cherson, in the Crimea, and was ill-treated by his “Jewish master”, who forced ritual Passover food on him. One need not put much trust in the authenticity of the story (St Eustratius is said to have survived fifteen days on the cross); the point is that it takes a strong Jewish influence in the town for granted — in Cherson of all places, a town nominally under Christian rule, which the Byzantines tried to deny to the Khazars, which was conquered by Vladimir but reverted later (circa 990) to Byzantium.
They were still equally powerful in Tinutorakan. For the year 1079 the Russian Chronicle has an obscure entry: “The Khazars [of Tmutorakan] took Oleg prisoner and shipped him overseas to Tsargrad [Constantinople].” That is all. Obviously the Byzantines were engaged in one of their cloak-and-dagger intrigues, favouring one Russian prince against his competitors. But we again find that the Khazars must have wielded considerable power in this Russian town, if they were able to capture and dispatch a Russian prince.
Four years later Oleg, having come to terms with the Byzantines, was allowed to return to Tmutorakan where “he slaughtered the Khazars who had counseled the death of his brother and had plotted against himself”. Oleg’s brother Roman had actually been killed by the Kipchak-Kumans in the same year as the Khazars captured Oleg. Did they also engineer his brother’s murder by the Kumans? Or were they victims of the Byzantines’ Macchiavellian game of playing off Khazars and Rus against each other? At any rate, we are approaching the end of the eleventh century, and they are still very much on the scene. A few years later, sub anno 1106, the Russian Chronicle has another laconic entry, according to which the Polovtsi, i.e., the Kumans, raided the vicinity of Zaretsk (west of Kiev), and the Russian prince sent a force out to pursue them, under the command of the three generals Yan, Putyata and “Ivan, the Khazar”.
This is the last mention of the Khazars in the Old Russian Chronicle, which stops ten years later, in 1116. But in the second half of the twelfth century, two Persian poets, Khakani (circa 1106-90) and the better-known Nizami (circa 1141-1203) mention in their epics a joint Khazar-Rus invasion of Shirwan during their lifetime. Although they indulged in the writing of poetry, they deserve to be taken seriously as they spent most of their lives as civil servants in the Caucasus, and had an intimate knowledge of Caucasian tribes. Khakani speaks of “Dervent Khazars” — Darband being the defile or “turnstile” between the Caucasus and the Black Sea, through which the Khazars used to raid Georgia in the good o1d days of the seventh century, before they developed a more sedate style of life. Did they revert, towards the end, to the unsettled nomad-warrior habits of their youth? After — or possibly before — these Persian testimonies, we have the tantalizingly short and grumpy remarks of that famed Jewish traveller, Rabbi Petachia of Regensburg, quoted earlier on (II, 8).
We remember that he was so huffed by the lack of talmudic learning among the Khazar Jews of the Crimean region that when he crossed Khazaria proper, he only heard “the wailing of women and the barking of dogs”. Was this merely a hyperbole to express his displeasure, or was he crossing a region devastated by a recent Kuman raid? The date is between 1170 and 1185; the twelfth century was drawing to its close, and the Kumans were now the omnipresent rulers of the steppes. As we enter the thirteenth century, the darkness thickens, and even our meagre sources dry up. But there is at least one reference which comes from an excellent witness. It is the last mention of the Khazars as a nation, and is dated between 1245-7. By that time the Mongols had already swept the Kumans out of Eurasia and established the greatest nomad empire the world had as yet seen, extending from Hungary to China.
In 1245, Pope Innocent IVsent a mission to Batu Khan, grandson of Jinghiz Khan, ruler of the western part of the Mongol Empire, to explore the possibilities of an understanding with this new world power — and also no doubt to obtain information about its military strength. Head of this mission was the sixty-year-old Franciscan friar, Joannes de Plano Carpini. He was a contemporary and disciple of St Francis of Assisi, but also an experienced traveller and Church diplomat who had held high offices in the hierarchy. The mission set out on Easter day 1245 from Cologne, traversed Germany, crossed the Dnieper and the Don, and arrived one year later at the capital of Batu Khan and his Golden Horde in the Volga estuary: the town of Sarai Batu, alias Saksin, alias Itil.
After his return to the west, Carpini wrote his
celebrated Historica Mongolorum. It contains, amidst a wealth of
historical, ethnographical and military data, also a list of the
people living in the regions visited by him. In this list,
enumerating the people of the northern Caucasus, he mentions, along
with the Alans and Circassians, the “Khazars observing the Jewish
religion”. It is, as already said, the last known mention of them
before the curtain falls. But it took a long time until their
memory was effaced. Genovese and Venetian merchants kept referring
to the Crimea as “Gazaria” and that name occurs in Italian documents
as late as the sixteenth century. This was, however, by that time
merely a geographical designation, commemorating a vanished nation.
They do not enter directly into our story, but they do so through a back-door, as it were, for the great Seljuk dynasty seems to have been intimately linked with the Khazars. This Khazar connection is reported by Bar Hebracus (1226-86), one of the greatest among Syriac writers and scholars; as the name indicates, he was of Jewish origin, but converted to Christianity, and ordained a bishop at the age of twenty. Bar Hebraeus relates that Seljuk’s father, Tukak, was a commander in the army of the Khazar Kagan, and that after his death, Seljuk himself, founder of the dynasty, was brought up at the Kagan’s court. But he was an impetuous youth and took liberties with the Kagan, to which the Katoun — the queen — objected; as a result Seljuk had to leave, or was banned from the court.
We may add here that — according to Artamonov — specifically Jewish
names also occurred among that other Ghuzz branch, the Kumans. The
sons of the Kuman Prince Kobiak were called Isaac and Daniel.
The “Lay of Igor’s Host”, already mentioned, about that leader’s defeat by the Kumans, is the best known among them. The bylina were transmitted by oral tradition and — according to Vernadsky “were still chanted by peasants in remote villages of northern Russia in the beginning of the twentieth century”. In striking contrast to the Russian Chronicle, these epics do not mention by name the Khazars or their country; instead they speak of the “country of the Jews” (Zemlya Jidovskaya), and of its inhabitants as “Jewish heroes” (Jidovin bogatir) who ruled the steppes and fought the armies of the Russian princes. One such hero, the epics tell us, was a giant Jew, who came “from the Zemlya Jidovskaya to the steppes of Tsetsar under Mount Sorochin, and only the bravery of Vladimir’s general, Ilya Murometz, saved Vladimir’s army from the Jews”.
There are several versions of this tale, and the search for the whereabouts of Tsetsar and Mount Sorochin provided historians with another lively game. But, as Poliak has pointed out, “the point to retain is that in the eyes of the Russian people the neighbouring Khazaria in its final period was simply ‘the Jewish state’, and its army was an army of Jews”. This popular Russian view differs considerably from the tendency among Arab chroniclers to emphasize the importance of the Muslim mercenaries in the Khazar forces, and the number of mosques in Itil (forgetting to count the synagogues).
The legends which circulated among Western Jews in the Middle Ages provide a curious parallel to the Russian bylina. To quote Poliak again: “The popular Jewish legend does not remember a ‘Khazar’ kingdom but a kingdom of the ‘Red Jews’.” And Baron comments:
Another bit of semi-legendary, semi-historical folklore connected with the Khazars survived into modern times, and so fascinated Benjamin Disraeli that he used it as material for a historical romance: The Wondrous Tale of Alroy. In the twelfth century there arose in Khazaria a Messianic movement, a rudimentary attempt at a Jewish crusade, aimed at the conquest of Palestine by force of arms. The initiator of the movement was a Khazar Jew, one Solomon ben Duji (or Ruhi or Roy), aided by his son Menahem and a Palestinian scribe.
These appeals were apparently addressed to the Jewish communities in the Middle East, and seemed to have had little effect, for the next episode takes place only about twenty years later, when young Menahem assumed the name David al-Roy, and the title of Messiah. Though the movement originated in Khazaria, its centre soon shifted to Kurdistan. Here David assembled a substantial armed force — possibly of local Jews, reinforced by Khazars — and succeeded in taking possession of the strategic fortress of Amadie, north-east of Mosul. From here he may have hoped to lead his army to Edessa, and fight his way through Syria into the Holy Land.
The whole enterprise may have been a little less quixotic than it seems now, in view of the constant feuds between the various Muslim armies, and the gradual disintegration of the Crusader strongholds. Besides, some local Muslim commanders might have welcomed the prospect of a Jewish crusade against the Christian Crusaders. Among the Jews of the Middle East, David certainly aroused fervent Messianic hopes.
One of his messengers came to Baghdad and — probably with excessive zeal — instructed its Jewish citizens to assemble on a certain night on their flat roofs, whence they would be flown on clouds to the Messiah’s camp. A goodly number of Jews spent that night on their roofs awaiting the miraculous flight. But the rabbinical hierarchy in Baghdad, fearing reprisals by the authorities, took a hostile attitude to the pseudo-Messiah and threatened him with a ban.
Not surprisingly, David al-Roy was assassinated — apparently in his sleep, allegedly by his own father-in-law, whom some interested party had bribed to do the deed. His memory was venerated, and when Benjamin of Tudela travelled through Persia twenty years after the event, “they still spoke lovingly of their leader”. But the cult did not stop there. According to one theory, the six-pointed “shield of David” which adorns the modern Israeli flag, started to become a national symbol with David al-Roy’s crusade. “Ever since,” writes Baron, “it has been suggested, the six-cornered ‘shield of David’, theretofore mainly a decorative motif or a magical emblem, began its career toward becoming the chief national-religious symbol of Judaism.
Long used interchangeably with the pentagram or the ‘seal of Solomon’, it was attributed to David in mystic and ethical German writings from the thirteenth century on, and appeared on the Jewish flag in Prague in 1527.” Baron appends a qualifying note to this passage, pointing out that the connection between al-Roy and the six-pointed star “still awaits further elucidation and proof”. However that may be, we can certainly agree with Baron’s dictum which concludes his chapter on Khazaria: