Khazars Convert to Judaism

The Khazar kingdom in southern Russia dominated major worldwide trade routes from the eighth to the eleventh century. The conversion of a large part of the population to Judaism makes this little-known kingdom intriguing historically and of controversial significance to the issue of the Jewish Diaspora.

Summary of Event

Bulan Bulan , king (kagan) of Khazaria, had an important decision to make in 861. His people, the Khazars, controlled a vast area stretching from the Black and Caspian Seas to the Ural Mountains. This empire traversed important north-south and east-west trade routes affecting major world trading centers in the Islamic and Byzantine worlds from which goods as far away as China and India were shipped along the Silk Road. [kw]Khazars Convert to Judaism (740)
[kw]Judaism, Khazars Convert to (740)
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Cultural and intellectual history;740: Khazars Convert to Judaism[0630]
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Because the Silk Road Silk Road was blocked by Muslims, trade Trade;Khazars was directed through Khazaria. For more than a century, Muslim expansion into eastern Europe had been blocked by formidable Khazar military might. Bulan, however, needed an official religion for his expanding and strategically important kingdom.

As part of a confederation of Turkish tribes, which once were part of the Western Turkish Empire, the Khazars practiced shamanistic and animistic beliefs. The disintegration of the Western Turkish Empire led the Khazars to invade the Caucasus, where they gained control of southern Russia and the Ukraine. Conquest did not change the basic Khazar agricultural existence. Sheepherding and fishing supplemented a staple diet of barley, wheat, and rice. However, considerable wealth was generated from duties on trade (particularly with the Byzantine Empire) and taxes on subject peoples such as the eastern Slavs, Magyars, Bulgars, and Pechenegs. Control of the gold and silver mines in the Caucasus also contributed to Khazar wealth.

Khazar tax Taxation;Khazars money was channeled into the building of commercial and administrative cities. The earliest capital was Balanjar. A new capital, Samander, was built in 720 on the coast in the north Caucasus. Finally, Atil (Itil) was built in 750 on the Volga River and remained the Khazar capital for more than two centuries. Also a large fortress, Sarkel (834), was built of stone and brick along the Don River to control a major trade route.

Located between the ever-expanding Islamic world and the ever-shrinking but still economically important Byzantine Empire, the Khazars by 740 were a strong, major power. In a series of wars (the first from 642 to 652 and the second from 732 to 737), the Khazars proved successful in stopping Islamic expansion in southern Russia. By 740, the Khazars also received large numbers of Jewish immigrants fleeing Byzantine and Persian persecution and leaving disruptions in the Arab world for economic opportunities in Khazaria.

Historical sources designate 740 as the earliest possible date that the Khazars converted to Judaism as the major state religion. Other historians point to several dates during the first half of the ninth century. There is a strong probability that the process had been taking place for more than a century when the Byzantine missionaries Cyril Cyril, Saint and Methodius Methodius, Saint arrived in 860 to try to convert the remainder of the population to Orthodox Christianity. They had no success but may have convinced King Bulan to declare an official state religion.

In 861, King Bulan invited representatives from Christian, Islamic, and Jewish faiths to speak on the merits of their respective beliefs. The decision to select Judaism most likely was made to avoid political or religious control by either the Muslim caliphate in Baghdad, the Byzantine emperor in Constantinople, or the pope in Rome. Lacking anything resembling a power center, Judaism clearly guaranteed the kagan’s autonomy over Khazaria. Tradition says that when Bulan asked the Christian and Islamic representatives which religion they would accept after their own, they each identified Judaism. Bulan’s decision is described in a letter written by King Joseph Joseph (king of Khazaria) of Khazaria, a century after the event.

As the court religion, Judaism rapidly spread among the Khazar nobility and then among large numbers of common people. Under Bulan’s successor, King Obadiah Obadiah , synagogues and Jewish schools were established after the rabbinical form of Judaism was embraced. The Talmud, Torah, and Mishnah were well-received, along with Saturday worship, circumcision, and the following of major Jewish holidays. Biblical names such as Joseph and Aaron became common.

However, the Khazars also exhibited extreme tolerance for all religions among the many different peoples populating the Crimea. Consequently, while establishing a Jewish state, the Khazars were open to the extensive practice of other religions. In Atil, a supreme court of seven members was established to represent religious diversity. Two Jewish, two Christian, two Islamic, and one pagan judge sat on the court. Khazaria established a reputation of tolerance in the Arab and Christian world, attracting merchants across Eurasia. Also, to signal a ready acceptance of diversity, Khazar nobles sent their sons to study in the scholastically advanced academies in Islamic Spain. Religion;Khazars

Khazaria’s prosperity was affected first by Viking raids and then by wars by the Bulgars and Pechenegs who struck at the Khazar’s Magyar allies. Ultimately the Magyars were pushed into the area that is now Hungary. The Viking reorganization of the Kievan state hit hard at Khazar power. Military threats caused a change in Khazar government. The kagan became a spiritual and figurehead leader while power was transferred to the hands of the bek, a civilian in command of military forces.

In 965, the prince of Kiev Kievan Rus , Svyatoslav I Svyatoslav I (r. 945-972), defeated a Khazar force and was able to capture the major Khazar fortress of Sarkel. By 987, Prince Vladimir I Vladimir I of Kiev (r. 980-1015), who had married Anna, the sister of the Byzantine emperor, Anna, Princess of the Byzantine Empire converted both himself and the people of Rus to Orthodox Christianity in the late tenth century. In 1016, a joint Russian-Byzantine force defeated the Khazars in a major battle. From this point, Khazaria entered into rapid decline and ultimate disintegration. The correspondence of King Joseph of Khazaria around 960 with Caliph ՙAbd al-Raḥmān III al-Nāir ՙAbd al-Raḥmān III al-Nāṣir (r. 912-961) of Córdoba (Muslim Spain) sheds important light on this period as well as general Khazar history. Domination of lucrative trade routes would henceforth be in the hands of the princes of Kievan Rus.


From the eighth to the eleventh century, the Khazars played a critical role in early Russian national development and world trade. As a strong military state, Khazaria was instrumental in blocking the spread of Islam north of the Caucasus Mountains. Juxtaposed between the conflicting Islamic and Christian worlds, the Khazars introduced a third force into the power struggle. Moreover, by the mid-ninth century, they had established the only Jewish state between the biblical kingdoms of Israel and Judah and the modern nation of Israel. Along with places such as Andalusia (Muslim Spain), Khazaria still stands as a model of religious tolerance.

Finally, the relationship of the Khazars in the evolution of Jewish populations in Europe remains a source of considerable contemporary controversy because it calls into question the relationship of many contemporary Jews of European ancestry to the Jews of biblical times. Many ethnologists believe that the Khazars are very much a part of the gene pool of Russian and East European Jews.

Further Reading

  • Brook, Kevin Alan. The Jews of Khazaria. Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1999. A well-written study that includes reference to recent archaeological finds. Contains a bibliography, footnotes, time lines, and maps.
  • Christian, David Gilbert. Inner Eurasia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire. Vol. 1 in A History of Russia, Central Asia, and Mongolia. Oxford, England: Blackwell, 1998. Chapter 11 offers an excellent account of the broader perspective of the early development of Russia. Bibliography, footnotes, and chronologies.
  • Franklin, Simon, and Jonathan Shepard. The Emergence of Rus, 750-1200. London: Longman, 1996. Provides strong background material and a good analysis of the historical role of the Khazars. Bibliography, footnotes.
  • Koestler, Arthur. The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and Its Heritage. New York: Random House, 1976. A landmark study in popularizing the Khazars and bringing to the forefront the issue of the social heritage of modern Jewry. Informational footnotes and bibliography.
  • Soteri, Nicholas. “Khazaria: A Forgotten Jewish Empire.” History Today 45, no. 4 (April, 1995): 10-12. An excellent introduction to the “forgotten” history of the Khazars.