Sunday, November 18, 2012

OMG Khazars Part 2

What Up, Nerds?

So OMG Khazars Part 1 ended up on r/history the other day, which was nice.

In the comments, redditor kapsama left an answer to my question about what made the Khazar bigwigs decide to convert to Judaism. In his or her words, "... converting to Judaism was a political decision. Converting to Islam or (Orthodox) Christianity would have meant being second fiddle to the worldy and spiritual leaders of those religions in the form of the Caliph and Eastern Roman Emperor respectively. Judaism had no such leaders at the time."

That's a right good answer kapsama. But like any answer that's short enough to make a decent comment, that's only part of the story.

Let's see where these Khazars go, y'all.

It's the moment of the Khazars' conversion. Let's figure out just what is happening.

Just who converted?
Well, we don't really know, but we think it was probably the Khagan. Or the Bek. Or maybe it was one guy who held both offices. And probably most of his nobles converted too. Maybe. Could be some of the rest of the populace did too. We think. Um. The history ain't that clear.

Okay, I was looking for something a little more specific. Let's try again. When did it happen?
Geez, you're not gonna like this. Let's say... 700 AD. Plus or minus a century. A few folks say it was 740, but others say other dates, and none of them have very compelling arguments for being right.

No, specific. I said specific. Try telling me how it happened.
This is awkward. Because we don't know.

There are some folks who say there was one great man, Rabbi Yitzak Ha-Sangari, who went to the Khagan and preached to him. Rabbi Yitzak preached so well that the Khagan soon converted, and he decreed that his subjects must convert as well. But we have no really reliable reason to believe that was how it went down.

Another tradition says that the Khagan decided that Tengriism was holding the Khazars back internationally. It made the Romans and the Arabs look down on them. So he decided the Khazars would convert to one of the big new "modern" Abrahamic faiths. He invited representatives from Christianity, Islam, and Judaism to his capital at Itil. And then they debated whose religion was the best.

According to at least one witty cartoonist, the Jews won the Khazars over by saying that Judaism preached the doctrine of Hot Chicks. If the debate ever happened it was almost certainly staged. And it's even less likely that hot chicks would have been the deciding argument.

Of course some folks think it happened in other ways. Some say that the nobility converted in order to assert control over all the Jewish immigrants from Persia and the Eastern Roman Empire. Some say that it was a calculated political move that the Bek undertook in order to gain the loyalty of Jews still living in the Arab and Roman worlds. Some say that a man who was already Jewish got himself made Bek.

Who knows what truly happened?

You'd better know, if you're gonna write a history blog like this. So how about you answer your own damn question from last week. Why did they convert?
Fine. Politics. It was almost certainly politics.

There's something to be said for sincere religious conversion. One Khagan or Bek might have been convinced that Moses had his stuff together. But when a whole nobility converts en masse, you'd be amiss not to look for political motivations. When a head of state converts in the middle ages it absolutely must be politically expedient. No Khagan had the power to convert his whole nation on a whim.

So why did the Khazars forsake Tengri?

Simply put, they stopped needing him. Tengri was a sky god. When they lived as nomads on the open plains, the sky was the dominant feature of their worlds. The Asian steppes were just as much "big sky country" as the American West is today. So Tengriism came into being in a way that suited a nomadic life on horseback.

But the Khazars gave up their nomadic life. They built a settled agricultural style of life for themselves. Not only did they learn to farm but they also adopted a western-style feudal system. They were the first society in eastern Europe to adopt that social structure. And a nomadic religion just didn't teach the values that feudalism needed a religion to instill. It became irrelevant to Khazars' lives so they chose to embrace a more "indoor" kind of religion.

Like kapsama said, Christianity and Islam were the two big imperial religions in town. Converting to Islam would mean adopting a worldview in which the Khazars should submit to the authority of Mohammed's successors and the dominion of the Caliphate. Christianity had no such early history of a unified church and central state. But in the Eastern Roman Empire the Emperor had spent centuries positioning himself as the Head of Christendom. He could make and unmake Partiarchs of Constantinople. He could persecute sects he disagreed with out of existence. Even in west Europe the idea of a Roman Emperor who led Christianity was strong--it manifested its self in Charlemagne's crowning as the Holy Roman Emperor.

 So adopting either Christianity or Islam would leave the Khazars "being second fiddle" to a more powerful empire.

But to keep the musical metaphor, choosing to play second fiddle with one of the empires would also preclude the Khazars from playing duets with the other empire.

The Khazars were situated in some prime real estate for trading. They were one one end of the trade routes that are collectively called the silk road. Chinese goods would flow west over central Asia and into Khazaria--where they flow out to the cities of the Roman Empire and the rest of the Mediterranean. And western goods and money would flow back east, passing through the hands and coin purses of the Khazar governors.

Additionally the Khazars were also on the eastern terminus of the great Northern Arc trade route. That trade network stretched from Ireland, across Scandinavia, to Khazaria and ultimately into the Arab world. The immense wealth of the viking Age flowed along this path. And as the trade passed through the Khazar domain the Khazar government took its cut. They grew rich on this trade between Muslims and vikings.

The trade routes, more or less. The Silk Road is in pink, the Northern Arc is in light blue.
If you look close you can actually see me getting less and less meticulous and detailed as the drawing progresses,

What would converting to Christianity or Islam have done to trade? It would be a little like declaring for the Russians or the Americans during the much more recent Cold War. If the Khazars became Christian, they might hold on to a little trade with the Muslims, but the Caliphate would still view them as the enemy.

And the Christians would mistrust and avoid the Khazars if they became Muslim. Like the Non-Aligned Movement in the Cold War, the Khazars didn't see how choosing sides would benefit them. So if the Khazars wanted to keep playing economic duets with both Christians and Muslims, they had to find a religion acceptable to everyone.

Therefore: Judaism.

Judaism has a reputation as a persecuted religion today. Now it was persecuted back then too, you'll remember how in OMG Khazars Part 1 lots of Jewish immigrants to Khazaria were actually fleeing Roman and Persian persecutions. But compared to most other religions of the time, Judaism was hardly persecuted at all. Jews might be forced to leave an empire occasionally. But other "pagan" religions were forced to either convert or be killed. Adherents of both Islam and Christianity are supposed to show respect for Jews, according to doctrine. So in they end they tended to begrudgingly tolerate them.

Meaning that if the Khazars became Jews then trade could continue with everybody.

And as kapsama also pointed out, there was no international head of Jewry. With no preeminent leadership, the Khazars could make themselves out to be the great protectors of the Jews. The Persian and Mizrahi Jews were particularly fond of the Khazars. They thought that the Khazars might one day come and sweep away their Muslim rulers, allowing them to return to Israel and end their "Second Babylonian Captivity." The Khazars sure raided the Muslims plenty. But they had no grand plans to sweep away the Caliphate.

Instead Khazar leadership of Judaism manifested its self in smaller ways. When a Synagogue was destroyed in Iran, the Khazar ruler symbolically "punished" the Muslims by tearing down the minaret on the mosque in his capital city, and then non-symbolically executing the muazzin. It wasn't enough to warrant a full scale invasion by the Caliphate. But it was enough to keep the Jews in the caliphate on his side. Subtle negotiation like this kept the Khazars at the head of the Jewish world for more than a century.

So the Khazars built the first feudal state in eastern Europe and stood astride the balance of power in Russia. As time marched on they subjugated almost all of the peoples who lived around them, and they grew wealthy on trade.

Greatest extent of the Khazar Khaganate in several shades of blue, with subjugated and tribute-paying nations in yellow.
~850 AD.

And they're about to come crashing down.

Come back next week to find out how it happened.

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

1 comment:

  1. In other words, there were three choices. 1 and 2 were already taken. Thus number 3. That was simple.