Jews of Khazaria

A review of The Jews of Khazaria by Kevin Alan Brook

Soon after the Persian Empire fell to the Companions of Prophet Muhammad (saws), the armies of the Caliphate reached to the Door of Doors, the fortress of Durbent which closes the narrow gap between the Caucasus Mountains and the Caspian Sea, the fortress believed to have been built by Iskandar Dhul-Qarnayn (Alexander the Great) to keep out the hordes of the Juj and Majuj (Gog and Magog).  Crossing that threshold, they encountered the Khazars.

From the north side of the Caucasus stretching to Kiev in the West and the Volga River to the East they were a mighty nation of Turkic pagans who repulsed the muslim armies in a series of wars from 642 AD.  This nation was pressed to the west by the Byzantine Christians, to the east by the Muslims, and to the north by pagan pre-Russian peoples who warred constantly with the Khazars. Then, somewhere in the early 800s, the Khazar kingdom converted to Judaism.

A Rabbi, a Priest and an Imam walk into a court…

According to legend, the Khazar King Bulan invited delegates from the Jews, Christians and Muslims to his court to make the pitch for their faith.  Undecided after all three, King Bulan asked the Christian and Muslim privately which of the other two faiths was better.  Without hesitation, the priest and the imam both answered: the Jews.  With that, King Bulan converted to Judaism.

That story is apocryphal.  But the conversion of the Khazar nation to Rabbinical Judaism is a historical fact.  There are lots of things we don’t know – they don’t call it the Dark Ages for nothing – but what can be established is utterly fascinating.

  1. There was a fair amount of existing Jewish presence in the region who were responsible for introducing the religion to the Khazars and who likely intermarried with them.  The sources of those Jews are from all over: Greek Jews expelled by the Byzantines, Jews of the Muslim world who traveled north, and Radhanite Jews who ran the Silk Road trade since early Roman times.  Brook casually mentions along the way that 10% of the Roman Empire was Jewish, which dropped my jaw to the floor, but considering how solid the rest of the book seems, I’ll take that as the truth till I read otherwise.
  2. Judaism was not just a court religion but was broadly adopted by the ethnic Khazar population although they were perhaps only a plurality of the multi-ethnic, multi-religious country.
  3. Khazaria existed as a Jewish kingdom in some form for two hundred years, until they were overwhelmed by the proto-Russians.

Where did the Khazars go?  The region was conquered by the proto-Russians, and then two hundred years later the region was crushed by the Mongols.  The Jews of Khazaria were scattered, and over time adopted slavic languages.  Those slavic-speaking, ethnically turkic Jews in turn were absorbed by the central European yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi Jews who pushed east.  The only real question is how large the turkic contribution to the population of present-day Ashkenazim is.  Zionists would like it to be zero, anti-semites would like it be 100% but the only possible answer is it is somewhere in between.  Brook provides a round-up of Jewish intermarriage, conversion and the emerging results from DNA testing to demonstrate that there have been intermittent conversions to Judaism at various times in history and that virtually all diaspora Jewish populations intermarried with local populations to some degree.  The details all get a little dense but the upshot is Jewish diaspora men commonly took gentile wives.

The Jews of Khazaria was not a thrilling book.  It plodded through reams of very obscure academic work that I hardly had the background to keep up with. The author is also not a professional academic and seemed unable to synthesize some of the divergent opinions of the experts. But if in the end I learned less than I had hoped it is because Khazaria itself has dissolved into the unknowable past.

The Personal Angle

On two of the very few occasions I met Mawlana Shaykh Muhammad Nazim Adil Al-Qubrusi Al-Haqqani (q), he struck my chest with the palm of his hand, spoke to me in Turkish and laughed.  When I asked a murid of his what that was about (Mawlana Shaykh could speak English, after all), he shrugged and said, “maybe you’re Khazar.”  My mother’s side of the family is in fact Russian Jew, and the incident led me to read Arthur Koestler’s The Thirteenth Tribe some 20 years ago.  Koestler suggested a very large if not total Khazar contribution to European Jewry. Brook shows how certain aspects of Koestler’s arguments were overstated or have come to be disproved by later evidence.  Khazars are unlikely to be the major ethnic component of modern Ashkenazim. I must confess a bit of disappointment now that my ancestral roots are unlikely to be as exotic as all that.  Still, when I look at some old photographs of my great-grandparents, I do still wonder.  Maybe one day I’ll take the Genographic Project test just for kicks.

The Malaysian Angle?

Surely not.  Surely there is no way an obscure Turkic tribe from the last millennium touches not only the Russian Jewish side of the family but my Malay relatives right here in Sarawak.  Folks, one bit of evidence of Khazar ancestry among eastern European Jews is the Turkic vocabulary found in Yiddish but not in German or Slavic languages. One of those Turkic words is Laksa.  One of Malaysia’s more popular dishes, it is a sour fish soup served over noodles.  The word laksa means noodle, from the Turkic laqsha which became loksh in Yiddish.

Laksa penang
Laksa Penang, photo credit


[Post title is a quote from al-Maqaddasi, ca. 985 AD]


Published by bingregory

Official organ of an American Muslim in Malaysian Borneo, featuring plants, pantuns and pictures from the Malay archipelago. Oversharing since 2002.

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