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Question 13.4:
Who were the Khazars? Are Ashkenazi Jews descended from the Khazars?


The Khazars were a Turkic tribe that migrated to the steppes of what is today southern Russia and eastern Ukraine by the 5th century. They established a powerful kingdom that existed from the mid-7th century until the early-11th century. The Khazars had a two-king system, consisting of a military king (bek) and a sacral king (khaqan). The Khazar army, which took orders from the bek and the military commander (tarkhan), included tens of thousands of professional soldiers.

The Khazars were a potent military force in eastern Europe till about the middle of the 11th century, their last power base being the Crimean peninsula. In the 7th and 8th centuries, they defeated the Eastern Caliphate in several key battles, thus halting the spread of Islam north of the Caucasus mountain range, much the same as what the Carolingian rulers did to the Western Caliphate at the Pyrenees. (Ironically, these Jewish converts made Eastern Europe safe for Christianity.) The Khazars gained control over major waterways such as the Caspian Sea, the Volga River, and the Dnieper River. The Khazar kings collected tribute from many of the East Slavic tribes as well as from traders traversing their country. Large garrisons were stationed at hill-forts located at strategic points throughout the kingdom (e.g., Kiev by the Dnieper, Sarkel by the Don, Samandar by the Caspian) to guard against enemy invaders such as the Rus.

The king of the Khazars learned the Torah with the assistance of the Jewish preacher Isaac Sangari, whose existence has recently been verified (by the discovery of poems authored by Sangari in the Firkovitch collection of manuscripts). In the 9th century, the Khazarian kings and nobles officially converted to Judaism. Surrounded by the Islamic Eastern Caliphate of Persia and the Christian Byzantine Empire, the Khazars may have chosen Judaism as their state religion to avoid being religiously (and hence politically) dominated by either empire, so that they could avoid being labelled as heathens while at the same time remaining independent of their powerful neighbors. By the start of the 10th century, Judaism gained a stronghold among the common Khazar people, and the Hebrew script came into use in Khazaria. However, most of the soldiers in the Khazar army were Muslims, and the non-Khazar ethnic groups within the Khazar Empire (such as the Slavs, Bulgars, and Goths) did not adopt Judaism but rather remained pagans, Muslims, and Christians.

Arab travelogues provide useful contemporary details about the life of the Khazars. Armenian, Slavic, and Hebrew sources also form the core of our knowledge about the Khazar people. Important Hebrew primary sources are:

  1. The Khazar Correspondence between Khaqan Joseph and Hasdai ibn Shaprut of Spain, now known to be authentic.

  2. The Schechter Letter, found in the Cairo Genizah, an account of the conversion of Khazars to Judaism, the migration of Jews to Khazaria, and the military victories of the Khazars.

  3. The Kievan Letter, found in the Cairo Genizah, written by the Khazar Jews of Kiev in the early 10th century.

Within the past few decades, archaeological excavations in Russia and Ukraine have unearthed Khazar jewelry, pottery, gravesites, and tombstones containing engraved menorahs and Turkic tribe symbols. One of the most famous sites was Sarkel, which in 1952 was flooded for a dam by the Soviet government and is not available for further research. Other major Khazarian archaeological sites include Verkhneye Chiryurt (Balanjar, in Daghestan), Verkhneye Saltovo and Mayaki hill-fort (near the Don and Donets rivers), and Kerch and Sudak (on the Crimea). For several years, archaeologists have been trying to locate the precise site of the Khazar capital of Itil; some believe the wall which surrounded Itil has been found underwater, while others associate Itil with a hill in the Volga delta region called Samosdelka (south of Astrakhan).

Secondary sources include:

Are Ashkenazi Jews descended from the Khazars? Some believe that they are, at least to a certain extent. An important Khazar community remained in Kiev, and family oral traditions indicate the persistence of Khazar Jewish communities in Hungary, Transylvania, Lithuania, and central Ukraine. Some Jews have features that might be considered almost Mongolian or Oriental. However, there is no remnant of Khazar custom among Ashkenazi Jews, and there are only a few Ashkenazi surnames (e.g., Balaban) that derive from Turkic. It is sometimes suggested that the surname Kogan derives from Khaqan, but the more likely derivation is from Kohen (meaning "Israelite priest"); the Ukrainians and Belarusians use the letter h, but in Russian h becomes g, as may be seen in such examples as Grodno-Hrodna and Girsch-Hirsch.

It seems that after the fall of their kingdom, the Khazars adopted the Cyrillic script in place of Hebrew and began to speak East Slavic (sometimes called "Canaanic" because Benjamin of Tudela called Kievan Rus the "Land of Canaan"). These Slavic-speaking Jews are documented to have lived in Kievan Rus during the 11th-13th centuries. However, Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from the west (especially Germany, Bohemia, and other areas of Central Europe) soon began to flood into Eastern Europe, and it is believed that these newer immigrants eventually outnumbered the Khazars. Thus, Eastern European Jews predominantly have ancestors who came from Central Europe rather than from the Khazar kingdom. The two groups (eastern and western Jews) intermarried over the centuries.

Are the Ashkenazi Jews direct descendants of the Israelites? Genetic tests seem to indicate some ancestry from the regions known today as Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Iran, and Iraq. Mediterranean Fever, for example, is found among some Ashkenazi Jews as well as Armenians and Anatolian Turks. It is now asserted that many Ashkenazi men who belong to the priestly caste (Kohenim) possess a "Kohen" marker on the Y-chromosome. However, note that this provides no evidence of Khazar ancestry. Common genetic markers in people from these regions is expected for the following reasons, which alone could account for the common markers occurring in some Jews as well as non-Jews in Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, Iran, and Iraq:

  1. Archaeological evidence suggests that the some of the earliest ancestors of the ancient Levantine and Mesopotamian civilzations originated in the region of Armenia and moved southwards.

  2. The Tanach records extensive evidence of intermarriage between Jews and ancient peoples who originated in eastern Anatolia, viz. the Hittites and Hurrians (including the Jebusites of Jerusalem). The Edomites who were of mixed Hebrew and Hurrian ancestry were also absorbed into the Jewish people.

  3. The Armenians and Kurds are the descendants of people who remained in Eastern Anatolia / Armenia / Kurdistan and intermarried with the Turks and neighbouring peoples.

Some descendants of the Khazars may still live in the north Caucasus among the Kumuks and the Balkars. These descendents include Crimean Jews called Krymchaks and Mountain Jews (a mix of Khazars and Iranian Caucasian Jews). Many Muslim Khazars settled in Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan and may have intermarried with Oghuz and Kipchak Turks.

If you are interested in the subject of Khazar Jews, you can visit the Khazaria Information Center at <>. Note that the question really doesn't make much of a difference, for whether by birth or by conversion, a Jew is a Jew. If the Khazaris became Jews by conversion long ago in the past, that makes their descendents no less Jewish today.

The FAQ is a collection of documents that is an attempt to answer questions that are continually asked on the soc.culture.jewish family of newsgroups. It was written by cooperating laypeople from the various Judaic movements. You should not make any assumption as to accuracy and/or authoritativeness of the answers provided herein. In all cases, it is always best to consult a competent authority--your local rabbi is a good place to start.

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