Thursday, September 29, 2011

Khazars and Jews in the Middle Ages

The Khazars were a Medieval empire, peaking in the 9th century CE, in the region between the Black and Caspian Seas. Their maximum influence reached from the South Caucuses to Hungary and parts of Russia, though their core terrritory included the North Caucuses between the Black and Caspian seas, the Crimea and the Don river valley.

They are not well known, which is unfortunate because in many ways they, as much as the Franks, are responsible for the geographical divide between Christianity and Islam today. The Franks are credited with "saving" Europe from Islam (to take the Christian viewpoint usually taken in Western History). But the Khazars played the same role around the Caucuses, blocking the spread of Islam into what is now Russia.

The Khazars had a rich and interesting history that is not well studied. In the end they declined, as all Empires do, particularly ones founded by nomadic dynasties as I will discuss below, and were finally largely destroyed by the Rus. They then pretty much disappeared from history and are remembered now for only one thing: their odd religious gesture of defiance. In a world sharply divided between Islam and Christianity, the initially pagan Khazars chose to convert to Judaism. What this meant for modern Judaism became a hotly contested issue and is still used today to try and deny modern Jews a connection to the Middle East. It has been asserted that the Ashkenazim are descended not from Jews that originated in Israel in ancient times, but rather from the Khazars and have no ancestral link to the Middle East.

This hypothesis was based largely on an unanswered question. If one of the greatest and largest Medieval empires was an officially Jewish nation, what happened to all those Jews after the collapse of the empire? The Khazar Empire bordered on nations that later were part of the Ashkenazi world, so it was hypothesized that the defeated Khazars fled the Rus into Eastern and Central Europe and evolved into the Ashkenazim. This hypothesis originated in a very speculative and interesting book called The Thirteenth Tribe by Arthur Keostler, but the evidence in the book is very tentative and has largely been disproved by more recent data.

Koestler's original hypothesis was a legitimate hypothesis to make at the time. But I will argue that it is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of most empires in the Medieval and ancient world. Few empires (the Ottoman Turks later on were an exception) founded by a nomadic dynasty lasted very long and generally had only a small impact on the lands they conquered. I would argue the Khazars were similar and had little cultural and religious impact on the vast territories they controlled.

There was an old view of history wherein large migrations of peoples swept across the land and established nation states. Hence a large and culturally homogeneous Hunnic tribe swept from Asia into Europe driving ahead of them a large and culturally homogeneous Visigothic tribe which then knocked into the Roman Empire precipitating its decline. Other large and culturally homogeneous tribes like the Franks, the Vandals, the Ostrogoths, etc. also played a role in these mass migrations. Often the tribes from the furthest east, like the Huns, were connected by historians to other groups in Chinese records to give what seemed a coherent history of the movement of entire peoples from one end of Eurasia to the other en masse.

This view of history has largely been discredited. A newer version of it (which is well represented in books like Peter Heather's Empires and Barbarians: The Fall of Rome and the Birth of Europe and Anthony David's The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World) is making a comeback but one wherein the migrations of smaller groups of essentially noble clans (e.g. the Amals, the Longobardi, the Vanilli) and their war bands could attract to themselves followers from a wide range of ethnicities, linguistic groups and "tribes" to form new and transient groups largely in response to the economic and military power of the Roman Empire (or, in the East, China and India). Thus large, stable and economically wealthy empires would attract war bands and their leaders as raiders, mercenaries, and client kings, and these raiders, mercenaries and client kings could sometimes do damage or even destroy the empire they were supposedly subservient to. Rarely did any of the empires formed by the most successful war bands/noble clans last very long. The Amal clan was the basis of the Ostrogoths which eventually formed a nation within Italy. Similarly a related clan was the basis of the Visigothic state. The Longobardi (the Longbeards) were a clan that formed the Lombard state. The Vanilli became the basis of the Vandals who sacked Rome and moved on to North Africa. But none of these groups that formed the core of the political entities recorded in Roman records were numerically all that large and were seldom, if ever, homogeneous culturally, linguistically or religiously.

All of the territories these groups conquered and turned into often eponymous states in ancient or Medieval history left almost no linguistic or cultural influence on those territories (the Lombards being a partial exception). The Gothic languages died out in a sea of Latin speakers. North Africa has little memory of the Vandals as a cultural force. The Arian Christian religion of most of these groups is long dead.

Why are these names, that we all know, so unimportant when it comes to the real flow of history and culture? The Huns are a perfect example.

No one knows the origin of the Huns, but they probably came from the the same Altaic/Turkic lands that so many nomadic groups came from. But our image of large groups of ethnically related tribes migrating together is false. Most people stayed put. Mostly it was people with enough influence to attract a war band around them who moved around looking for opportunities and fleeing when opportunities failed. The most successful leaders would attract other war bands and could eke out small or large political entities that the nearby empires would write down as a unified state. But they seldom were more than a collection of people following one man or family. By the times the Huns met the Goths, the Huns had dozens of ethnic and linguistic groups with them. Goths and the related Gepids by then probably made up most of the Hunnic horde even as these "Huns" were fighting other Goths, including the clans that eventually formed the seeds of the Visigoths and Ostrogoths. Some other Hunnic groups formed the opposition to the main Hunnic horde that was really more Goths and Gepids than actual Huns.

This is the nature of ethnicity on the ground. A cultural group that in writing seems unified is usually an amalgam of identities, some of which are only sullenly a part of the larger group. Within such entities, the dominant person or family may have a strong military role, but seldom has a strong influence on what language people speak, their religion or other cultural practices. The exceptions are particular status customs that are adopted from the dominant clan--e.g. head binding to elongate the skull was adopted by many non-Hunnic clans from the Huns. By contrast Gothic names were as prevalent if not more prevalent than Hunnic ones in the Hunnic horde, indicating either a numerical and/or a cultural superiority of Goths within the Hunnic horde despite the adoption of Hunnic head binding. For the most part, empires, like the Hunnic, set up by nomadic clans are ethnically, linguistically and culturally diverse, are marked by considerable cultural and religious tolerance, and are short lived, comprising the lifespan of one man or only a few generations. Some last longer, usually losing some or all of their nomadic character (e.g. the Visigoths) and often losing much of their tolerance as well as they adopt the local culture as their own (again, the Visigoths are an example). But even these are still at heart a culturally diverse empire whose ruling ethnicity is small and has little lasting impact on the culture of the region they found their empire on. Again, the Visigothic language and religion never took root despite generations of Visigothic rule. The foundations of a nomadic dynasty are not strong enough to have a lasting impact. The Ottoman Turks are a notable exception as I am reminded as I eat what I think of as "Ottoman" cuisine in Greek, Israeli, Egyptian, Lebanese, etc restaurants.

The Khazars have an origin very similar to the Huns and the Ottomans, coming from somewhere in the Altaic/Turkic homeland somewhere between East and West. And their trajectory was somewhere between that of the highly transient Huns (who, like the Khazars, largely disappeared from history after their collapse) and the Ottomans, whose influence on the modern world was very strong.

No one knows exactly where the Khazars originated. They really were very similar to the Huns: a pagan group with Shamanistic beliefs similar to what can be found in parts of Siberia (and which Shinto greatly resembles). The earliest records of the Khazars shows a typically Turkic division of the tribe between more noble "White" and less noble "Black" Khazars which may reflect an earlier amalgam of two other groups into what became called the "Khazars" or a division within a previously united clan.

Their early history was similar to any Turkic group that established a political presence in the West. They had a tolerant rule over a diverse population and were a small ruling ethnic minority in a sea of others. Their subjects were mostly a mix of pagans, Christians and Muslims with probably a smattering of Jews. Muslims and Christians and Shamanist pagans largely ruled themselves semi-independently under the over arching Khazar noble family's rule. Similar to the transient Mongol rule in China, the relationship between the Khazars and their subjects was ambivalent, with deliberate separation from the surrounding culture alternating with considerable loss of Khazar nomadic culture among a larger, sedentary population. Again, like Mongol rule in China there was an attempt by the Khazar noble family to maintain a semblance of nomadic existence which was often at odds with their desire to rule a strong, sedentary state.

At some point the Khazars converted to Judaism. How much of this was a personal decision within the ruling family for its own spiritual reasons and how much was a political decision to deliberately avoid being in either the Christian or Muslim sphere of influence can never be known...perhaps was even hard to tease out at the time. The official story of the conversion sounds too much like other conversion stories told elsewhere with other religions, so I suspect it is just myth. The bottom line is the royal family made a deliberate decision to become Jews. But this was within an existing system where pagans, Christians and Muslims had their own courts that were respected. Religious tolerance was the norm. So the conversion of the ruling dynasty in no way meant anyone else had to or were expected to convert. It was a system designed to allow and even encourage religious diversity. How much of even the nobility around the royal family converted is not clear. And there is little evidence of widespread conversion. The ruling family adopted Hebrew and so many records in Khazaria were then kept in Hebrew and focused a lot on Jewish religious practice, giving an impression of widespread adoption of Judaism. But on the ground there was probably little impact. The Khazar language, like the Gothic languages, died out once the Khazars were gone. Similarly, the Khazar religious influence, like the Gothic religious influences, never went deep in the lands they conquered. This is typical of an empire founded by a nomadic dynasty surrounded by an ethnically and religiously and linguistically diverse war band. In the end, though the Khazars lasted longer than the Huns and Ostrogoths, their overall impact was similar.

So the original unanswered question of what became of all those Jews from the huge Khazar empire after their collapse is probably easily answered: there never were many Jews in the highly tolerant, religiously diverse Khazaria in the first place. It was largely a personal religion of the ruling family and PERHAPS their closest allies. The Judaism of the Khazars may well have died out as solidly as the Arian Christianity of the Goths and Vandals making it a dead end in the history of Judaism. That is the most likely answer.

Is there any evidence for Khazar influence on the Ashkenazim? Not really. Some cite the religious clothing (kaftans) of some Ashkenazim as evidence of a Turkish connection to the Khazars. But the kaftan was in widespread use in the whole area. It is true the powerful Khzars might have part of why it took root in the area, but no one claims that the kaftans worn in the Russian orthodox church indicate anything more than a common Turkish influence throughout the area and not a direct descent from Khazaria.

Genetic analyses show little Turkish genetic influence among Ashkenazim. Ashkenazim have clear genetic links to the Middle East, particularly to Palestinians but also throughout the area from Israel/Palestine up to Iraq. There is also some genetic input from Western Europe, particularly among those who self-identify as Ashkenazi Levites who are unusual in not having any clear link to the Middle East but major links to Germany. No clear link to the Khazars is visible in modern Ashkenazim. Honestly I was disappointed in this. I always thought the descriptions of the red haired, blue eyed Khazars sounded a lot like my Grandmother's Jewish family from Latvia and I thought it would be rather cool to be descended from rampaging barbarian hordes. But there is no genetic evidence for this.

Some argue that some Karaites are descendants of the Khazars. This seems unlikely since Karaites reject Rabbinical Judaism and Khazar Judaism was Rabbincal. Other links to Khazars also have little actual evidence. There is little doubt that some Khazars, Jewish or not, blended into the general population, but they were always a small minority and so in the end would have little actual impact on the genetics, language and beliefs of the people they ruled. Again, this is typical of nomadic political entities, though there are exceptions. The Ottomans and Magyars nearby and somewhat later were political entities with nomadic origins that had far more lasting impacts. But the exceptions do not dispute the rule that most political entities founded by nomadic ruling clans were numerically too small to be anything but tolerant of diversity and unable to impose any kind of dominant culture on the native population. This is why the Khazar origin of the Ashkenazim is based on an out dated and mostly discredited view of history where ruling dynasties represented movements of entire peoples and so represented a dominant culture. That is not how most of history worked.

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