One of the most intriguing peoples of the Middle Ages were the Khazars, a Turkic tribe of obscure origin who long dominated the regions above the Black and Caspian Seas. The Khazar Khaganate was a major power that jostled with the Empire of Constantinople and the Arab Empire for influence on the eastern end of the Mediterranean. In the web of international politics, the Khazars often sided with Constantinople against threats such as the Rus, the Bulgars and the encroachment of Muslim forces into the Anatolian and Caucasus region. The Khazar friendship with Constantinople was most evident in the 8th century, when the Khazars provided brides to Emperor Justinian II (r. 685-695, 705-711) and Constantine V (r. 741-775)—Constantine’s son was called Leo the Khazar (r. 775-780). Meanwhile, the Khazars had spent much of the 8th century in a state of hostility against the Umayyad and then the Abbasid Caliphates, raiding as far as Mosul in 730 but finally making peace with the Abbasids in 798. As interesting as Khazar foreign policy may be, the true uniqueness of the Khazars shows most in their religion, specifically the sudden adoption of Judaism among the Khazar elites by the end of the 8th century.
Under vague circumstances, the khagan (leader) of the Khazar Khaganate, as well as his administrative lieutenant and nearly every chieftain under the khagan’s influence, decided to convert of Judaism between 740 and 800. In the early 9th century, the Khazars took a further step to release a coin that praised Moses. Despite their adoption of Judaism, the Khazar leadership maintained some of their traditional customs, such as the existence of the khagan’s harem, which, according to the Abbasid diplomat Ibn Fadlān, numbered a total of twenty-five wives in the 10th century. As with their willingness to tolerate the harem, the Khazar leaders were also fairly lenient to the many subjects in their domain who did not adopt Judaism. Nevertheless, the Khazar leaders were known to take vengeance against any community that dared harm a synagogue in the Khazar Khaganate.
The downfall of the Khazar Khaganate occurred simultaneously with the rise of the Kievan Rus. The Rus appeared as an emerging power in the 9th century. They showed their boldness and strength by making direct assaults against Constantinople in 860, 907 and 941. Sviatoslav I, who became the Grand Prince or king of the Kievan Rus in the early 940s, would be the man to eventually topple the Khazar Khaganate. From 965-969, Sviatoslav relentlessly campaigned against the Khazars, invading deep into the khaganate, where he sacked the Khazar capital and demolished Khazar political influence in the region. Besides the Rus, the Ghuzz Turks and the Volga Bulgars also profited from the fall of the Khazar Khaganate.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Volga River trade negotiations between Rus and Khazars, painted by S. V. Ivanov (1864–1910), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- Risala by Ibn Fadlān, translated by Paul Lunde and Caroline Stone. New York, Penguin Classics, 2012.