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The Khazars: 6th - 12th century

The Khazars are among the mystery peoples of world history. Probably Turkish nomads in origin, and first heard of in the 6th century, they occupy one of the great crossroads of world trade - the region north of the Caspian and Black Sea. Here the steppes are an easy link with the east. The rivers of Russia provide routes to the north. The two great inland seas to the south are both a safety barrier and a channel of communication.

The Khazars make much of these advantages. They dominate the neighbouring Slavs and Magyars. Rare among their contemporaries, they are strong enough to hold the Muslims at bay in the 8th century. Yet they have left few artefacts and no inscriptions. They are known only in the accounts of others.


The incident in Khazar history which most intrigues their contemporaries, being much commented upon, is the conversion of the Khazar ruler in about 740 to the Jewish faith. The ruling class of the Khazars follows his lead, in history's only known example of a mass conversion to Judaism. Henceforth this is in effect a Jewish kingdom - dealing on equal terms with Byzantium to the southwest and the Arab caliphate to the south.

In the 10th century a new power challenges Khazar control of the western steppes. The Russians of Kiev are flexing their muscles.


In about 965 Svyatoslav, the last pagan prince of Kiev, successfully invades Khazar territory north of the Black Sea. He is subsequently himself defeated by the Byzantine emperor. But two generations later the Byzantines and the Russians (now Christian) unite against the Khazars. In 1016 they occupy all the Khazar territory around the Crimea.

Occasional mention is made of the Khazars as late as the 12th century. But effectively they now fade from history, in a process as uncharted as their arrival five or six centuries previously.


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