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TopJewish History:  Khazaria: A Short History of the Khazars

A Short History of the Khazars

The following material is from
by Nathan Ausubel
Crown Publishers, Inc.
New York, NY, 1953.

"There is abundant historical evidence that by the time of the destructionof Jerusalem there were securely anchored Jewish communities in the Hellenistic kingdom of Bosporus in thearea where the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov flow together... the ancient Jews of the Crimea seem to haveled a close community life centered in the synagogue and in the practices of their religion. The population ofthe Crimean Jewish communities increased greatly with the centuries as a result of a long series of major and minorrevolts by the Jews against Roman rule, not only in Judea but in their far-flung settlements in Egypt, Syria, andAsia Minor. Thousands of Jewish refugees from those parts sought haven in the Bosporus settlements of Kerch, Theodosia,Taman, and Anapa. With the rise of the Christian empire of Byzantium the Bosporus settlements, too,fell under its sway. Because Constantinople, the capital of the empire, lay on the opposite shore ofthe Black Sea, the Crimean Jews carried on a lively trade with it. They prospered and attracted many other Jewsto Crimea from other parts of the empire." - page 129

"The Khazars, during the Byzantine era, were an aggregation of warliketribes who, it is conjectured, must have sprung from Hun or Turkish stock... With dramatic suddenness the Khazarsentered the orbit of Jewish life. One of their khagans (kings), called Bulan, was converted to Judaism about theyear 740 C.E. and with him went the Khazar tribes. There was a tradition, believed by the Khazars themselves,that Bulan decided to become a Jew after he had listened to a disputation participated in by an Arab mullah,a Christian priest, and a rabbi on the relative merits of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. A later khagan, Obadiah,who wanted to establish the Jewish faith on firmer doctrinal foundation, imported rabbis and Talmudic scholarsfrom either Babylonia or the Crimea. These founded synagogues and religious schools where they taught the Torahto the Khazar people. The noted Arab geographer and traveller, Ibn Khordadbeh, wrote, circa 850, concerningthe unusual linguistic abilities of the Jewish merchants of Khazaria, "that they speak Persian, Roumanian,Arabic, Frankish, Spanish, and Slavonic, and that they travel from the west to the east and from the east to thewest, sometimes by land, sometimes by sea. The great overland trade route from Persia led over the mountains ofthe Caucasus thru the country of the Slavs, near the capital of the Khazars... Practically all the little thatis known about the Khazars is derived from Arabic sources. The indefatigable traveller, Ibn Masudi, gave the followingreport in 954: "The population of the Khazar capital consists of Moslems, Christians, Jews, and pagans. The king,his court, and all members of the Khazar tribe profess the Jewish religion, which has been the dominant faithof the country since the time of the Caliph Haroun-al-Rashid. Many Jews who settled among the Khazars came fromall the cities of the Moslems and the lands of Byzantium, the reason being that the king of Byzantiumpersecuted the Jews of his empire in order to force them to adopt Christianity." It was about Ibn Masudi'stime that the power of this unique Jewish kingdom began showing signs of crumbling. This fact is revealed in the strangecorrespondence between the khagan Joseph, the last Jewish king of Khazaria, and Hasdai Ibn Shaprut,the celebrated Jewish vizier to the caliph in southern Spain. In his letter, Joseph informed his fellow Jewin Spain: "...I live at the mouth of the river [Volga] and with the help of the Almighty I guard its entrance and preventthe Russians who arrive in vessels from passing into the Caspian Sea for the purpose of making their way tothe Ishmaelites [Arabs]. In the same manner, I keep these enemies on land from approaching the gates of Bab-al-Abwab.Because of this, I am at war with them, and were I to let them pass but once, they would destroy thewhole land of the Ishmaelites as far as Bagdad." Apparently nothing the Jews of Khazaria did was sufficientto restrain the emerging power of the Russians. Only several years after the khagan Joseph had written his letter,the Russian princes succeeded in overrunning Ityl, the Khazar capital of the Volga. Under Prince Svyatoslavof Kiev, the Russians raged thru all the Jewish towns and cities on the Volga, ravaging and slaughtering theirhated enemies and overlords. In 969, the Khazars were driven out of the entire Caspian Sea region and retreatedinto the Bosporus region of the Black Sea where, in a smaller and more compact area, they were able to stem theadvance of the invaders. But even that limited power of Khazaria was fated not to endure for long. The Russians,with the help of Byzantium, finally crushed it in 1016 and thus the Jewish kingdom of Khazaria cameto an end. What happened to the Khazar Jews is an intriguing historic mystery. It is, however, certian that ofthose who remained in Khazaria most were baptized by force. The rest were dispersed: some of them fled into northernHungary where in time they, too, were absorbed by the local Christian population. To this very day thereare villages in northern Hungary that bear such names as Kozar and Kozardie. It is also widely believed that many KhazarJews, escaping from baptism, found their way into Poland. There, by inter-group blending, they soon becameindistinguishable from other Jews. It is also significant that Tshagataish, the language of the KhazarJews, a Turkish dialect, is still spoken in Poland, Hungary, and Lithuania by the Karaites, the Jewish sectarians whosehomeland was originally in the Crimea. Even more significant is the fact that Tshagataish is spoken bythe few surviving Jewish Krimtchaki of the Crimea." - pages 130 and 131

"...Since Jews were needed by the Russian princes as traders andas intermediaries between East and West, they were tolerated in Kiev... Obviously, some manner of segregation was alsorequired for the outcase Jews; by the middle of the twelfth century, the Slavonian chroniclers of Kiev made passingnote of a "Jewish Gate" in the city... Under Tatar rule, the Jews of the Crimea found it possible to makeclose contact with the Jews of Russia, an intercourse which was culturally and religiously profitable to both regions.Together they intiiated a brisk trade between Moscow, Kiev, and Theodosia. Toward the end of the fourteenthcentury, the Jews of Crimea were invited by Grand Duke Witovt of Lithuania to settle in his domain forthe explicit purpose of developing its commerce. Communities of Jews were established in Lutzk and Troki, in thelatter place by the Karaite sectarians. And this is how the great Jewish community of Lithuania firstcame into being." - page 131

"The circumstances surrounding the beginnings of Jewish settlementin Poland remain nebulous, tho it is more than a surmise that the first Jews must have come from the Crimea. Afterthe fall of the Jewish kingdom of Khazaria, they continued to arrive, fleeing from the Russian boyars of Kievwho after several centuries of vassalage to the Jewish kings had finally risen in revolt and conqueredthem. In time, these Khazar Jews blended with the other Jewish elements in Poland and ultimately lost their ethnicgroup identity. After the Crusades and the massacres which followed the Black Death, thousands of Jewish refugeesfleeing Germany and Bohemia settled principally in the cities of Wroclaw (later named Breslau), Posen,Cracow, and Kalisz... (caption says, "Polish coins, 12th century, with Hebrew inscriptions. Believed tohave been minted by Khazar Jews employed by Polish rulers.") ...The religious animus against them among Christiansalmost everywhere was relatively weak [in Poland and Lithuania]. This was because, until the end of the 10th century,Poland was still pagan and Lithuania had not accepted Christianity until the time of King Yaghello(1386-1434), a pagan converted to Christianity, who forced the new religion on his subjects... With the 'massarrival' of Jews from Germany and Bohemia after the middle of the fourteenth century, the hitherto Slavoniccharacter of Polish-Jewish culture was rapidly transformed into a Yiddish-speaking one. Polish Jews adopted theAshkenazic rites, liturgy, and religious customs of the German Jews as well as their method of Torah and Talmud studyand the use of Yiddish as the language of oral translation and discussion. By the 16th century, exceptfor inevitable regional variations, a homogeneous Jewish culture had crystalized... {the Statute of Kalisz ismentioned as being issued by the Polish king Boleslaw the Pious to invite Jews to settle in Poland and protect theirproperty and lives. Information on page 134 discusses the creation of ghettos and the "identifying Jewishbadge" on outer garments} - page 133

"When, exactly, the Jews of Poland first began to build wooden synagoguesis unknown... There are many theories about the origins and the architectural influences that enteredinto their building... A third and more plausible conjecture is that the Middle Eastern refugees from the Jewishkingdom of Khazaria introduced them during the Middle Ages when they settled en masse in Poland. The Asiaticcharacteristics are obvious in the wooden synagogues. Byzantine elements are artfully mingled with Mongolian.The roofs, pagoda style, arranged one upon another and surmounted by vaulted ceilings and cupolas, sometimescreate the illusion that one is in central Asia rather than Poland." - page 138

"It is thought that ever since the fall of the Jewish kingdom ofKhazaria in 970 C.E., when the Jews from that country sought refuge in the north of Hungary, there has been an unbrokencontinuity of Jewish life in Hungary... During the Crusades and after the Black Death, there were [supposedly] manyemigrants to Hungary from Germany and Bohemia." - page 178

"There are some historians who even assert that during the eighthcentury C.E., Moldavia and Wallachia, which were then separate kingdoms but which later constituted Roumania, were vassalsof the Jewish kingdom of Khazaria. The history of the Jews in Roumania is indeed nebulous until thefifteenth century when the Turkish sultans became their overlords." - page 204

"Upon the collapse of the Jewish Kingdom of Khazaria during thetenth century C.E., many Jews fled for refuge to Bulgaria. When the latter country was absorbed by the Byzantine Empirein 967, there was an additional influx of new Jewish arrivals from the other parts of the empire... [by 1492, oneof the 'strains' in Bulgaria was 'Khazarian', along with Crimean, Austrian, German, Polish, Italian, French,Turkish, Russian, Crimean, Roumanian, Spanish, Bohemian, and Portuguese]. - pages 205 and 206

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