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THE KHAZAR CAPITAL CITY OF ATIL

Last Updated: March 29, 2012

Atil, the capital city of the Khazar Empire from about 750 to 969, has been found! Dmitri Vasiliev and his team have located the remnants of the lost city in the newly-found 9th and 10th century layers at Samosdelka, including a triangular-shaped brick fortress and yurt-like huts.

Read Vasiliev's Russian article "Itil'-mechta (Na raskopkax drevnego tsentra Xazarskogo kaganata)" in Lekhaim, 10 (174), October 2006.

Also take a look at Valerii Zhuravliev's Russian article "Sensatsiya nashix dney: A vdrug eto legendarnii Itil'?" from the September 20, 2005 issue of Parlamentskaya gazeta, and a report released by the Regnum News Agency on August 12, 2005.

David Keys wrote an article about the Atil digs in BBC History Magazine's May 2008 issue which says they've found, among other things, turquoise-glazed ceramics from Persia, stone cauldrons from Uzbekistan, amber beads from the Baltic region, a dragon-adorned belt end from China, and a copper crucifix.

Further details:
Swedish article: "Återfunnen judisk huvudstad grävs ut" by Carl-Johan Bilkenroth and Bengt Jonsson (Svenska Dagbladet, May 18, 2008)
English article: "Russian archaeologists find long-lost Jewish capital" by Agence France-Presse (September 3, 2008)
English article: "Found: Ancient Capital of 'Jewish' Khazar Kingdom" by Ze'ev Ben-Yechiel (Arutz Sheva, September 4, 2008)
English article: "Scholar claims to find medieval Jewish capital" by Mansur Mirovalev (Associated Press, September 20, 2008) (illustrated)
English article: "Jewish city feared by Stalin is rediscovered" by Ben Leach (The Telegraph, September 24, 2008) (illustrated)
Russian article: "V astraxanskom gorodishche priznali stolitsu Xazarskogo kaganata" (Lenta.ru, September 2, 2008) (illustrated)
Russian article: "Propavshaya krepost' Itil'" by Yuliya Shtutina (Lenta.ru, September 2, 2008) (illustrated)
Russian article: "Arxeologi zayavlyayut, chto obnaruzhili stolitsu Xazarskogo kaganata" (RIA Novosti, September 2, 2008) (illustrated)
Russian article: "Otkrytie Itilya sravnimo s otkrytiem Novgoroda - initsiator raskopok" (RIA Novosti, September 3, 2008) (illustrated)
Russian article: "Arxeologi nashli stolitsu Xazarskogo kaganata" (Point.ru, September 2, 2008, based on RIA Novosti's September 2, 2008 report) (illustrated)
Russian article: "Arxeologi nashli v Astraxanskoy oblasty stolitsu Xazarskogo kaganata" (Vesti - Severnii Kavkaz, September 2, 2008, RIA Novosti's September 2, 2008 report, but with a different illustration)
Russian article: "Xazaram otkopali stolitsu" by Artyom Tuntsov (Gazeta.ru, September 2, 2008) (illustrated)
Chinese article: "E kaoguxuejia chen faxian zhongshiji youtairen shoudu" by Mansur Mirovalev (New San Cai, September 21, 2008) (illustrated)

Evidence in support the hypothesis that Atil was found in the lowest layers at Samosdelka includes:

1. The geographical location of Samosdelka, at the Volga River's delta near the northwestern corner of the Caspian Sea, southwest of modern Astrakhan, fits in with what we know about Atil from the written sources.

2. The layout of the city also conforms to the written sources. As reported by Norman Finkelshteyn, it was "a city bisected by riverbeds with a central island citadel of fired brick". The central portion of Samosdelka was located on an island between dried-up river beds. Old documents said that Atil's castle was located on an island in the center of the city.

3. The city at the site was large in size. Archaeologist Dmitriy Vasil'yev said the investigated area covered more than 2 square kilometers (= 0.77 square miles), and he suggested that the population numbered somewhere in the range of 50,000 to 60,000.

4. The fortress at Samosdelka, which had a triangular shape and was located in the 9th-10th century layers, was made from limestone bricks. It is known from written sources that the Khazar king had a monopoly on brick buildings, because he would not allow anyone else to create brick buildings. Bricks and brick fragments were found in all cultural layers except the lowest one, including many brick buildings in the Khazar-era layers, and it seems some of the bricks were reused over time (including for houses in the 11th-12th centuries). The archaeologists believe the Khazar king's palace was located in a large structure that they found remnants of within the fortress.

5. Inside the Khazarian fortress at Samosdelka, in the 9th-10th century layers, archaeologists found round huts that resemble Turkic yurts and yurt-like dwellings of the Khazar era. This fits in with our knowledge of Atil as a place where formerly nomadic families came to permanently settle for at least part of every year.

6. Traces of a widespread fire were found at Samosdelka in an Atil layer. The fire was probably set during the conquest of Atil by Kievan Rus' prince Svyatoslav in the second half of the 960s, an event recorded in the Russian Chronicle.

7. The Arab traveller al-Garnati wrote that the city of Saksin was built over the ruins of Atil, and indeed just such a city was found above the Atil layers, with the expected cultural mix (Oghuz and Bulgar - al-Garnati had written that Saqsin was a "city of Oghuzes and Bulgars"). Radio carbon dating showed that the Atil layers dated to the 8th-10th centuries, and the Saksin layers dated to the 11th-13th centuries. And above Saksin the archaeologists had found a small Golden Horde settlement from the 14th century, inhabited by Mongols and Tatars. This settlement was abandoned due to flooding by the rising of the Caspian Sea, and nobody lived there again. The archaeologists had to dig about 3.5 meters to get to the bottom of the Atil layers.

8. Evidence shows that this had been a trading center with links to the Silk Road, and it is well-attested in the medieval documents that Atil was a major trading center of its time. Imported goods found at Samosdelka include the aforementioned Persian ceramics, stone cauldrons, amber beads, and Chinese belt buckle. As Bilkenroth and Jonsson noted, coins from Central Asia, the Muslim Middle East, and the Byzantine Empire were found there. In Mansur Mirovalev's article, Dmitriy Vasil'yev observed that the trading activity at Atil "helped Khazars amass giant profits".

9. The city was also multicultural, just as the written sources related about Atil. The cruficix I mentioned about above is an example of that and it confirms what the documents said about Christians living in Atil. It is well-known that the Khazar kings, though Jewish, did not prohibit members of other religions from living in Khazaria. Bilkenroth and Jonsson wrote that the stoneware appears to come from the Bulgar and Oghuz peoples.

The daily lives and indigenous material culture of the inhabitants of Atil come to life through the materials found in the Khazar-era layers.

Here are excerpts from the article by Bilkenroth & Jonsson, translated for us by Conrad Johansson from Swedish:
"...in the foundations of the dwellings, archaeologists have unearthed fragments of ornaments in amber and copper, beautiful glass bracelets and pearls as well as ceramics in Central Asian style. The excavation have also given evidence for what they ate: millet, water melons, peaches, plums, beef, and fish. The city was also full of artisans, such as potters, smiths, and glass blowers. The archaeologists have found both elegant dishware and coarse utensils such as pans, cauldrons, and kettles. ..."

Mansur Mirovalev's article says:
"The Khazar empire was once a regional superpower, and Vasilyev said his team has found 'luxurious collections' of well-preserved ceramics that help identify cultural ties of the Khazar state with Europe, the Byzantine Empire and even Northern Africa. They also found armor, wooden kitchenware, glass lamps and cups, jewelry and vessels for transporting precious balms dating back to the eighth and ninth centuries, he said."

Atil had a mixed population and Muslims seem to have outnumbered Jews. Specialists in Khazar studies say that some of these Muslims had been invited by the Khazar king to serve as his personal guards, and they seem to have included Oghuzes. Pagans and Christians also lived there according to contemporary chroniclers. No Jewish artifacts have been found at Samosdelka, and Vasil'yev thinks most Khazars did not practice Judaism.


"The Jews of Khazaria" by Kevin Brook contains information on Atil.


  • An Introduction to the History of Khazaria
  • Khazaria Image Gallery
  • The Khazar Fortress of Sarkel
  • Khazar Burial Mounds at Chastiye Kurgany
  • Khazar-Era Fortress of Golden Hills (Zolotiye Gorki)
  • Bibliography of Khazar Studies, 1901-Present
  • Medieval Quotes About Khazar Judaism
  • Current Issues in Khazar Studies
  • Are Russian Jews Descended from the Khazars?

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