Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


The Khazars were a semi-nomadic people from Central Asia who adopted Judaism and whose descendants might now be spread over the world. They founded the independent Khazar kingdom in the 7th century C.E. in the southeastern part of today's Europe, near the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus. In addition to western Kazakhstan, the Khazar kingdom also included territory in what is now eastern Ukraine, southern Russia, and Crimea. The name 'Khazar' itself seems to be tied to a Turkic verb meaning "wandering."

Khazar history is intimately tied with that of the Gokturk empire, founded when the Asena clan overthrew the Juan Juan in AD 552. With the collapse of the Gokturk empire/tribal confederation due to internal conflict in the seventh century, the western half of the Turk empire itself split into two confederations, the Bulgars, led by the Dulo clan, and the Khazars, led by the Asena clan, the traditional rulers of the Gok Turk empire. By 670, the Khazars had broken the Bulgar confederation, leaving the three Bulgar remnants on the Volga, the Black Sea and the Danube.

Their first significant appearance in history is their aid to the campaign of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius against the Persians. During the 7th and 8th centuries they fought a series of wars against the Islamic Arab Empire. Although they stopped the Arab expansion into Eastern Europe for some time after these wars, they were forced to withdraw behind the Caucasus, as well. Afterwards they extended their territories from the Caspian Sea in the east to the north of Black Sea in the west. Early Russian sources called Khazaran, their city, Khvalisy and the Khazar sea (Caspian) Khvaliskoye after the Khwarezmians.

Originally, the Khazars practiced traditional Turkic shamanism, focused on the sky god Tengri, but were heavily influenced by Confucian ideas imported from China, notably that of the Mandate of Heaven. The Asena clan were considered to be the chosen of Tengri and the qaghan was the incarnation of the favor the sky-god bestowed on the Turks. A qaghan who failed had clearly lost the god's favor and was typically ritually executed.

Historians have sometimes wondered, only half in jest, if the Khazar tendency to occasionally execute their rulers on religious grounds led those rulers to seek out other religions.

At some point in the 8th century, the Khazar royalty and nobility adopted Judaism, and later part of the general population followed. In the 8th or 9th century, their king, Bulan, was converted to Judaism. A later king, Obadiah, strengthened Judaism, inviting rabbis into the kingdom and building synagogues. His supreme court consisted of two Jews, two Christians, two Muslims, and a heathen. Religious toleration was maintained for the kingdom's three hundred plus years. By the year 950 Judaism had become a widespread faith.

In the 10th century the empire began to decline due to the attacks of both Kievan Rus and other Turkic tribes, and their political significance greatly diminished toward the end of the 12th century.

To what extent, if any, East European Jews (Ashkenazi) of today are descendants of the Khazars is the subject of debate; however, some historians, onomasticians, and geneticists have stated that the Khazars are not the dominant population element. However, this has not stopped many writers of the extreme right from continuing to claim just that, since the claim that "those Jews aren't even Jewish" fits very nicely into their world-view.

Serbian author Milorad Pavich's first novel, 'Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel' is centered on the "Khazar question."

The word 'Khazar' is theorised to be the root of several other words, including cossack, hussar and 'ketzer' (an derogatory German term for a heretic), although the latter is more probably derived from the medieval Cathari gnostics. Some theories also consider Khazars to be ancestors of Terek cossacks.

External links and references