Stuff You Won't Find in the History Books
Old Manuscripts Reveal A Lost Jewish Kingdom
The Rise and Fall of Khazaria Documented
The content here is a transcript of an newspaper page of uncertain age and origin. If you prefer, you can read the original photocopy here.|
Briefly, a Jewish scholar discovered a large collection of some 90,000 manuscript pages and fragments in Cairo, and was surprised to find that half a dozen of these were correspondence between a Jew living in Cordova and the then King of the ancient Khazars - who, by then, had converted to Judaism and went by the name of Joseph.
The manuscript provides a brief insight to the history of these Khazars, King "Joseph" himself confirming that his people's racial stock were European - Mongol, Uighur, Magyar - and totally unrelated to Semitic stock regardless of their conversion to Judaism.
The glimpses are fascinating in themselves, but sadly deal with the downfall of this savage tribe only briefly, relating that the Russians finally crushed them, drove them out of their lands and scattered them.
A nation of Jews that used a Russian king and his host of fighting men as catspaws for its own purpose, and sent them marching South against their will to fight the Byzantine Emperor at Constantinople, even as Russia has lately been suspected of sending thither the more willing armies of the Balkan States;|
A Jewish nation of fighting men, finally, who defeated and wrung tribute from those very Bulgars who have lately sprung into such prominence the world over as giant young fighters in the Near East.
It sounds like romance or an imanginative epic of some Hebrew Homer, a story spun of dreams and begotten of patriotic desire rather than the actual hard facts of history - the more so since history itself, and especially Jewish history, has heretofore been rather meagre in sources regarding this Jewish warrior kingdom and its power of the earth.
Vague, and none to plausible rumors thereof, it is true, had been brought from time to time from the Eastward to persecuted Jews of Western Europe, yearning for a return to Zion and the theme of a Jewish king; and, finally, discoveries were made that tended to corroborate the rumors and lend them a definiteness sufficient for their accpetance into the reckonings of history.
But it remained for a scholar and student of the present day to dig out of the dusty and forgotten literary rubbish heaps of the past, new corroboration of what had been heretofore taken with a skeptic grain of salt, and to contribute his share in reconstructing on the basis of actual written records of the time, the story of that lost kingdom of mediaeval Jews and their pride and power.
That work has been accomplished by Dr. Solomon Schechter, President of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in this (unnamed) city.
(One must also guess at) the number of years it will take properly to examine and interpret the finds.|
Among these 90,000 odd manuscripts, there was one, a fragment of four small pages - none of them much larger than the palm of a hand; all of them age-stained and eaten away by the ravages of time - which tells the story of the ancient Jewish kingdom of the Khazars, written by a man of Khazaria itself.
The Khazars (Chazars or Khozars) were a nation of Finnish origin, related to the Bulgars, the Avars, and the Ugurs or Hungarians. They had settled after the dissolution of the empire of the Huns on the frontier between Europe and Asia, founding a kingdom on the Volga (which they called the River Itil or Atil) near its mouth in the Caspian Sea, in the neighborhood of Astrakhan.
Their kings, known by the title of "Chakan" or "Khagan", led these warlike sons of the steppe from war to war and victory to victory. So great was the dread they inspired in the Persians that one Persian king, Chosroes, had a great wall built to block the passes between the Caucasus and the Sea.
But it did not long prove a barrier; after the fall of the Persian Empire the Khazars swept across the Caucasus, invaded Armenia, and conquered the Crimean peninsula, which long bore the name of Khazaria.
Just as the sudden growth of the young giants of the Balkans has in the present day inspired Constantinople with dread, so did the growth of the warlike Khazar nation in the eighth Century fill with dread the Byzantine Emperors, who, according to the historian Gratz, trembled at the name of the Khazars, flattered them, and contracted marital alliance with them in order to restrain their lust after the booty of Constantinople.
The Bulgarians and other tribes were the vassals of the Khazars, and the Russians of Kiev, on the Dnieper, were obliged to pay them as an annual tax a sword and a fine skin for every household. With the Arabs, whose near neighbors they gradually became, they carried on terrific wars.
Like their neighbors, the Bulgarians and the Russians, the Khazars professed a coarse religion, which combined sensuality with lewdness. Gradually they became acquainted with Christianity and Mohammedanism, through the Greeks and Arabs who came to the capital, Balanyiar, to trade their wares for fine furs.
From the Jews who fled to Khazaria from the religious persecution of the Byzantine Emperor Leo in the year 723, and settled in communities throughout that hospitable land, the Khazars became acquainted also with Judaism; and it was through these Jews, who mingled among them as interpreters, merchants, physicians, or counselors, that a love of Judaism was instilled into one of the warlike Khazar kings, known to history as Bulan.
The precise manner in which Bulan was won over to Judaism has been known but indefinitely heretofore. According to the account of one of the later Khagans, named Joseph, Bulan conceived a horror of foul idolatry of his ancestors, and prohibited its exercise in his dominions, without, however, adopting any other form of religion.
He was encouraged by a dream in his endeavors to find a proper manner of worshipping God, and after winning a great victory over teh Arabs and conquering the Armenian fortress of Ardebil, determined to adopt the Jewish religion openly.
The Caliph and the Byzantine Emperor, however, desired to induce him to embrace their respective religions, and sent to him deputations with letters and gifts and men versed in religious matters. Bulan thereupon arranged for a disputation to be held before him by a Christian ecclesiastic, a Mohammedan sage, and a learned Jew.
Bulan was finally led to adopt Judaism, according to this account, by the fact that while all three disputants adhered to their religious difference and championed their particular creed, both the Christian and the Mohammedan champions were obliged to admit that the religion of their Jewish opponent was the foundation of their own and that it was admittedly an excellent religion, aside from what they considered the superiority of their own.
That was good enough for the King of the Khazars, and he decided in favor of Judaism, which the nobles of his kingdom, numbering nearly 4,000, thereupon adopted with him. Little by little it made its way among the people, so that most of the inhabitants of the towns of the Khazar kingdom presently became Jews; the army, however, was still composed of Mohammedan mercenaries.
The conversion of the Khazars at first, however, was apparently rather superficial, with little influence on their minds and manners. A successor of Bulan, who bore the Hebrew name of Obadiah, was the first to make serious efforts to further the Jewish religion. He invited sages to settle in his realm, rewarded them royally, founded synagogues and schools, caused instruction to be given to himself and his people in the Bible and Talmud, and introduced a divine service modeled on that of the ancient Jewish communities.
After Obadiah came a long series of Jewish Khazars, for, according to a fundamental law of the State, only Jewish rulers were permitted to ascend the throne.
For a long time the Jews, dispersed among other countries of the world, knew nothing of the conversion of this powerful nation to Judaism, and when at last vague rumors reached them it created among them a belief that Khazaria was a land peopled by a remant of the lost ten tribes. The land and its inhabitants remained, however, only a matter of legend and vague uncertain hope to them.
In the middle of the tenth century of the Christian era there lived at Cordova a noted and influential Jew, Abu-Yussuf Chasdai ben Isaac Ibn-Shaprut, a member of the noble family of Ibn-Ezra, who was a powerful and trusted minister of the court of Abdulrahman III., Caliph of Cordova, and who, despite his elevation at the hands of the Moslem ruler, had not fogotten to hold most dear his own faith and people and to make the task of protecting and furthering Judaism the chief purpose of his life.
His high position and wealth made him useful to all his brethren, and his earnest cultivation and patronage of Hebrew poetry and learning made his name known as a Prince of his people among Jews scattered afar in all lands.
The vague rumor of the existence of an independent kingdom of Jews in the land of the Khazars penetrating to Spain, roused his deep interest, and he never failed to inquire about such a Jewish kingdom from embassies that came to him from near or far. Once Ambassadors from Khorasan brought him news that there was indeed such a community and that a Jewish King was on the throne there.
Thereafter he was all the more eager to enter into communication with this Jewish kingdom and its ruler. After several vain attempts he succeeded in doing so, through a letter of eager yearning inquiry, written in beautiful Hebrew, and intrusted to two Jews, who had come to him as interpreters with an embassy from the Slavonic King of the Lower Danube.
Until the discovery of this correspondence, there had been scarcely any traces of the important event in Jewish history, reflected in mediaeval Jewish literature; and but for Rabbi Judah Halevi, the brilliant Jewish poet and philosopher of Old Castile, who, in the beginning of the twelfth century, wrote his famous 'Dialogue', known under the title of the "Book Kuzari", the very name Khazar would have disappeared from the pages of Jewish annals.|
But the "Kuzari" was so overwhelmingly theological in its contents that it was always regarded skeptically as historical data by students of history.
The skepticism of some scholars continued even after the discovery of the corroborative data contained in the correspondence between Chasdai Ibn-Shaprut and King Joseph, but subsequent researches in ancient chronicles and books of travel, especially some of Arabic sources, revealed much material tending to confirm more or less the account brought to light by the discovery of Akrish. More conclusive and definite, however, is the latest discovery by Dr. Schechter.
The fragment of time-eaten and faded manuscript found by him measures 7 3/4 by 5 7/8 inches, and consists of one quire numbering two leaves of four pages. It is written in Hebrew in a beautiful hand, in square characters with a certain tendency toward cursive. Dr. Schechter estimates that his fragment dates from the twelfth century, if not earlier, and was written somewhere in the Orient.
Like the manuscript discovered by Akrish, it professes to be a letter. Who was the person to whom the letter was addressed, it is impossible to say with certainty, owing to the defective state of the manuscript. Dr. Schechter, however, thinks it probable that it was addressed to the same Ibn-Shaprut, since no other record of a Jew is left who showed such an interest in the Khazars or Khazaria as to send there a special expedition, and who had the means to do so.
The important new data furnished by Dr. Schechter's manuscript is the account of how, after the Jewish refugees into Khazaria had practically lapsed into indifference and irreligion, (i.e., "remained without at Torah,") observing only the covenant of Abraham, ("the Father of the Multitude") ansd in great danger of assimiliation through intermarriage with the natives, they were brought back to Judaism by one of their number, Prince Sabriel, the victorious Jewish General, who had himself been a Jewish immigrant or at least of Jewish descent and had lapsed into indifference with the rest, but who had been brought back to his Jewish consciousness and loyalty by his wife, Serah, a pious Jewess, and her father, a pious Jew.
This account is far more plausible, as well as far more truly romantic than the earlier version, with its use of the clap-trap machinery of dreams and omens to bring about the conversion of a heathen King to the Jewish faith.
"It was then, as it would seem," says Dr. Schechter, "that the work of proselytising among the people began, which provoked the jealousy of the Kings of Macedon (or Greece, i.e. Christians 1. 16); and the Kings of Arabia (i.e. Mohammedans; 1. 17) and it was thereupon that they had recourse to the disputation, which, as mentioned also in the letter of King Joseph to Ibn-Shaprut, resulted in favor of the Jews, and caused both the Jews as well as the new proselytes, or the men of Khazaria, to return in "perfect repentance". (1. 3) raising Judaism to the dignity of the established religion of the court and of the buld of the Khazar population, and resulting in the election of a new King."
Aaron, however, according to the manuscript, came out victorious, and followed his victory with a marital alliance, his son Joseph, marrying the daughter of the King of the Alani, and the latter making an oath of fealty to Aaron. From that day the dread of the Khazars "fell upon the nations that surrounded them". (1. 56-61)|
Of more importance still, however, are the complications of the Khazars in wars with Russia, which, according to Dr. Schechter's author, rendered the Russians "subdued under the hand of the Khazar.", after they had been sent out against Khazaria by "the wicked Romanus".
This is the only historical source for the persecutions of the Jews of Greece in the reign of Romanus I. In the writings of Byzantine chroniclers, who tell that the Russians invaded Constantinople in the reign of Romanus I, and that they were beaten off by means of "Greek fire" there is also a measure of corroboration of the strange, vicarious warfare which, according to Dr. Schechter's fragment, Khazaria later waged against Romanus by compelling the conquered Russians to fight him.
There are, however, certain discrepancies in the names and dates between the account given by Dr. Schechter's author and other historical authorities. This, Dr. Schechter indicates, may indeed lead one to think that our writer has drawn his information from secondary sources and confused names and dates.
There can hardly be any doubt, however, he thinks, that the Helgu mentioned in the fragment is identical with Oleg, the famous chieftain with whom the Russian nation makes its first appearance on the stage of history, and concerning whom, as well as other early Russian heroes, history has depende entirely heretofore on the Chronicle of Nestor.
The spelling of the name in Dr. Schechter's fragment, so near the Scandinavian form (Helgi) instead of Oleg or Olig, as in the Chronicle of Nestor, would tend to corroborate the theory held by modern scholars and long combated by pan-Slavic Russian students of history, that their early heroes and the founders of their nation were really of Norse origin.
Evidently at the time the fragment was written Russian heroes were still called by their Norse names. We may expect that Russian historians will avail themselves of this new Hebrew source for their earliest history, and will lead to hot discussions among the learned.
The last lines of the manuscript are geographical and differ entirely from the geographical description given by King Joseph in his letter to Ibn-Shaprut.
Translated approximately into modern geographical terms, the boundaries of the land of the Khazars, according to the description, as shown on the accompanying historical map of Europe as it appeared in the year 960, would be about as follows:
It occupied territory lying beneath the forty-first and fifty-seventh parallels of North latitude and the thirty-fifth and fiftieth degrees of East longitude. It was bounded on the South by the Caucasus Mountains and the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov; on the Southeast by the Caspian Sea, long called the "Mare Hyrcanum", and later the Khazar Sea.
The River Volga formed its Eastern boundary from its mouth in the Caspian Northward to about the fifty-second parallel of latitude. Thence the boundary ran Northwest on the River Oka, following that river Northwest past what was then called by some the Desert of Moscow.
Thence it cut Northeast to the Volga River near its source. The Western boundary dropped from this point Southward to Orel, and thence South by West along the Vorskla River to the River Dnieper, about 200 miles Southeast of Kiev.
It followed the Dnieper to its mouth in the Black Sea. The River Don flowed through the center of Khazaria, from its source to its mouth in the Sea of Azov.
An idea of the relative position of modern Russian cities to the kingdom of the Jewish Khazars can be gained from the following facts:
Odessa is less than 150 miles West of the Southwestern extremity of Khazaria. Kishineff, that other city fraught with ever fresh memories of oppression and butchery, for modern Jews, was less than 200 miles distant from the ancient kingdom.
Kerson was less than 100 miles from its Southwestern tip, and Ekaterinoslav lay just across the Dnieper from Khazaria. The sites of the modern Russian cities of Kharkov, Stavropol, Sebastopol, and Balaklava, were within its borders.
What became of this vast Jewish kingdom and its power among great nations of the earth? When King Joseph wrote his letter to Ibn-Shaprut, he could boast of the peaceful state of his kingdom. But circumstances changed in a few years. One of the descendants of the Russian Rurik, Prince Sviatislav of Kiev, formerly almost a subject of the Khazars, made a formidable attack upon the country and captured the fortress of Sarkel in the year 965.
The conqueror grew more powerful, and a few years later, in 969, he took the capital and also Semender, the second city of the Khazars. The Khazars took to flight, some going to an island in the Caspian Sea, others to Derbend, and yet others to the Crimea, in which many members of the same race had lived and which henceforth received the name of "the land of the Khazars".
This much history records, in little out-of-the-way pages of its chronicles of great nations. But the full story of the Khazars, of their rise to power, and their attainment of a belief in monotheism under Judaism, as well as the story of their sudden decline and the disappearance of this great Jewish nation from the face of the earth - all that remains a matter still to be brought to light.
Only long and deep and patient studies and research in the hidden literatures and chronicles of many lands and tongues - especially perhaps, in Arabian and ancient Russian writings - can shed light upon the fate of this interesting vanished kingdom and its people.
Dr. Schechter cherishes the hope that once the Jews of the present day learn about this picturesque page of brief but powerful grandeur of their past, some great Maecenas of Jewish learning may offer the necessary incentive and means for carrying on the long and arduous task of delving into this wiedly scattered literature of many tongues, and discovering more about this ancient warrior kingdom.
Meanwhile in the Seminary on Morningside Heights, where, together with the learned Faculty of that institution, he is training young men for the ministry and teaching them to labor in the Torah and to aspire to high ideals, the venerable scholar continues quietly, but with all the eagerness and tireless zeal of yout, to explore, interpret, and revivify, one by one, those many musty old manuscripts he found in the Genizah at Cairo, from which new light and new life is constantly emanating.
Unlike the earlier letter to Ibn-Shaprut, however, this one makes no claim to have been written by royalty. The writer is a mere subject of King Joseph, who he describes as "my Lord". The fragment contains ninety-two lines, some of which are incomplete. With certain doubtful or missing words, supplied in parentheses, the fragment, translated line for line from the Hebrew, reads:
(Editor's Note: we have removed the numbered line fragments and combined them into sentences for ease of reading. The content has not changed.