Sunday, November 18, 2012

OMG Khazars Part 1

What Up, Nerds?

So. I haven't written any posts in a long time.

It may be the case that nobody ever really reads me, in which case nobody is unhappy. But maybe there are one or two of you out there who have checked my blog in the last few months. Maybe there are even one or two of you who have missed this little dose of history each week. If so, I appreciate you dearly. And I apologize to you for not posting for so long. I'm sorry.

I hope I can make it up to you by telling you about some poorly known Jews. Khazars are on the menu, y'all!

The story starts a long ways back.

In the 500's AD the Turks erupted out of modern Mongolia. That's pretty par for the course in central Asia--it's just a place that spawns huge nomadic hordes that ricochet all around Eurasia. Like the Huns before them and the Mongols after them that's where the Turks started.

This Turkish Göktürk empire spread pretty quickly. It was led by the Ashina clan, who will dominate the early history of these peoples. As they conquered, they assimilated the conquered people who became "Turks" themselves. The cascading wave of new and old Turks were going to keep pouring into lands from Manchuria to Persia, Turkey, and the Balkans from then through the 1600's. But back then they were still only really in central Asia.

Eurasia at the height of the Göktürk Empire, mid 500's AD.

The Empire lasted for a while. But when the fourth Ashina Khagan of the Turks died in the 580's, the eastern and western halves of the Göktürk empire supported rival Turkish princes who both wanted to be the new Khagan. Seeing the fracturing of the empire, more claimants to the throne declared themselves Khagan and there were many wars in between them. The power of the Ashina clan splintered. The western Khagan almost conquered the east. The easterners almost conquered each other. But in the end nobody could quite swing it. So the west and the east of the empire were permanently split.

Soon the east started to buckle under military pressure from the native Uyghur people.

The Ashina Khagan of the West focused on the defense and the stability of his realm. Maybe because of that, the west remained stronger. Around the year 630 he allied with the Eastern Roman Empire to drive back the invading Persians. He succeeded. The Western Turks also stayed in close contact with Tang China. They might have even married into the Tang royal family. While the alliance lasted it brought a lot of prestige and some amazing trading opportunities for the Turks. Being friends with the two biggest empires in the world had benefits.

But eventually that close connection with the Tang Chinese went bad. In the year 657 the reigning Khagan fell afoul of the emperor and a Chinese army was promptly dispatched.  The invaders easily conquered the eastern half of the West Göktürk empire. Since the Tang Emperor had already conquered the eastern Göktürks, he had himself proclaimed the new Khagan of the Göktürks.

Poor Ashina. There goes their legacy.

The Chinese dominion over central Asia didn't really last. The resurgent Uyghurs broke Chinese power, and then the Uyghurs fell to the Turks again. But the Chinese conquest did what we needed it to do for this story--it broke up the great Göktürk Empire.

So what happened to that half of the Western Göktürk Empire that the Tang didn't conquer? The far west remained free, and a member of a small branch of the original Ashina clan was still the Khagan. By then those Turks who remained there had a new name for themselves. They called themselves the Khazars.

At least that's where we think the Khazars came from. The Khazars didn't write any of this down. So we have to rely on the records of the Eastern Roman Empire and the Tang Chinese Empire.

And you know how these sorts of things go. When a huge horde first invades they all look the same, they look like one massive military juggernaut. But then they settle down in the neighborhood and take a break from invading you. And then you notice things about your neighbors. And you realize the horde is made up of many separate and interesting groups. Who knows where they originally came from? Who knows precisely who they first were? What I am telling you is that we don't know the origins of the Khazars for sure. Maybe they were just associated with the main body of Göktürks. But a good chunk of the literature suggests the true story is probably what I just told you.

Whatever happened, the Khazars were a big presence in southern Russia by the second half of the 600's AD. They soon clashed with the Bulgar Khaganate of Old Great Bulgaria. By 670 they had whooped the Bulgars, whose whole society split up. Half went south and settled in modern Bulgaria. The other half went north and settled around the middle Volga river. The northerners formed Volga Bulgaria under the domination of the nearby Khazars.

The Khazar Khaganate before conquering the Bulgars (650 AD) in the darkest blue, and after the conquest (750 AD) in medium-dark blue. Old Great Bulgaria is showed grayed out, in the area of modern Ukraine. The other great powers also labeled.
The lightest grey-blue will be the Khazar Khaganate at its height.

While this was going on there were at least three other important developments.

The first development was political. Unlike in the Göktürk imperial system, the Khagan of the Khazars was not the supreme leader. The Khagan was the supreme spiritual and religious leader, a holy symbol of the glorious Ashina past. But the political and especially the military power rested with the Bek. The Bek was officially a co-king with the Ashina Khagan, but in practice he was more. A good comparison might be with the Japanese Shogunate system. The divine favor rested with the Ashina monarchs, but the warlord Bek would take as much power as he could.

The second development was the beginning of a whole series of wars against the Muslims. The Islamic Caliphate had swept to prominence in the mid 600's and its northern border fell along the Caucasus mountains. That was the border because that was where the Khazar armies put a hard stop to Muslim expansion. Khazar history is filled with victorious battles over the Arabs. It's the Khazars who stopped the early expansion of Islam to the north. There are some interesting stories, but the borders never really changed.

The third important development was religious. Like all Turks the Khazars had originally been polytheists. Their particular form of worship centered around the sky god Tengri. He was at the center of their pantheon, but the practical side of Tengriism was adapted from some Buddhist and Chinese practices. Specifically, the Turks believed in the Mandate of Heaven. According to the Turkish version of the Mandate of Heaven, the Ashina clan was specially chosen to rule and that they enjoyed Tengri's favor. But if Tengri revoked that favor from an individual and that person failed in their royal duties then that individual could be executed. It had happened in the past. So being a Göktürk Khagan was a risky job.

But the Khazars weren't exclusive Terngriists. They didn't mind foreiners bringing their own gods in. Tengriists, Christians, Muslims, Jews, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Ancestor Worshipers and others were all welcomed as long as they brought prosperity. But by the late 600's the number of Jews in the Khazar Khaganate had grown disproportionately.

Khazaria wasn't unique in having Jewish citizens, but there were just a lot more Jewish immigrants in the Khazar Khaganate then there were elsewhere. The Khagan and Bek welcomed refugees from anti-Jewish persecutions in the Eastern Roman and Persian Empires. They welcomed immigrants who could bring wealth with them, and who could be good Khazar citizens. Large Jewish communities came to dominate certain places in Khazar society. Especially in the Greek settlements along the northern shore of the black sea. And just like any large ethnic or religious community, the Jewish community attracted more Jews still.

Found in excavations at Khazar archeological sites.
(Pic via Wiki)

So the Khazar Khaganate hosted an ever-growing population of Jews.

Time marched on and the Khazars looked after themselves. Things seemed good. Two Khazar princesses married Eastern Roman emperors. The Khazars invaded the Caliphate, were invaded by the Caliphate, followed a woman named Parsbit to expel the invaders, and went right back to their traditional raiding of northern Persia.

And then sometime in the late 700's or early 800's, the Khazar nobles converted to Judaism en masse.

What made the bigwigs decide to switch?

Come back next week to find out.

Britannica Online Encyclopedia
Larry Gonick's  Cartoon History Series
and of course, Wikipedia

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