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by Kevin Alan Brook

Last Updated: September 20, 2023

Atil, the capital city of the Khazar Empire from about 750 to 969, has possibly been found underneath either Samosdelka or Semibugry!
SAMOSDELKA is candidate #1 for possibly being Atil

Dmitri Vasiliev and his team believe they 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. Samosdelka is in the Kamyziak district (raion) in the Volga delta near the city of Astrakhan.

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.

Bruno Maçães provided a more up-to-date report in his article "On the trail of Europe's last 'lost city': A forgotten empire lies buried beneath the desert on Europe's easternmost border" released on the Politico website on December 26, 2015.

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)
Russian article: "Gorodishche v del'te Volgi" by Emma Zilivinskaya and Dmitriy Vasil'yev (Sarkel.ru, 2009) (illustrated)
Russian article: "Poezdka k arkheologam: ekskursiya ot khazarskogo Itilya k drevnemu Saksinu" by Stepan Podolyako (October 7, 2019) (illustrated)
Russian article: "Ob analogiyakh k sosudam pervoy gruppy lepnoy posudy Samosdel'skogo gorodishcha" by Yevgeniy V. Kruglov (Astrakhanskie krayevedcheskiye chteniya: sbornik statey vol. 13, 2021, pages 68-75)
Russian article: "Rezul'taty 20 lyet issledovaniy na Samosdel'skom gorodishche i novyye perspektivy" by Dmitriy V. Vasiliev (Arkheologiya yevraziyskikh stepey No. 5, 2022, pages 42-50)
Russian article: "Etnicheskaya struktura goroda i oblasti Saksin v XII veke" by Dmitriy V. Vasiliev (Ufimskiy arkheologicheskiy vestnik vol. 22, no. 2, 2022, pages 310-315)
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 and 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.

SEMIBUGRY is candidate #2 for possibly being Atil

Decades earlier, in his 1966 book Otkrytie Khazarii (The Discovery of Khazaria), the controversial Russian historian Lev Gumilyov (1912-1992) had proposed that the solid ground under Semibugry could be Atil's location. The Arab traveller Abu Khamid al-Garnati had written about the city of Saqsin, since he lived there in the 1130s and 1140s. Some researchers proposed that Saqsin was built on the site of Atil. Gumilyov wrote, "This is the Volga delta, and there is only one place in it that meets al-Garnati's description – the village of Semibugry, on the Tabola canal." But after 10 years of searching, Gumilyov gave up on the search for Atil, concluding instead that it might have become flooded by a rise in the Caspian Sea's level and therefore is currently underwater.

Some other researchers restarted the search!

In 2019, Russian archaeologists employed by the Astrakhan State United Historical-Architectural Museum-Reserve and those from the scientific organization Archeocenter and the regional branch of the Russian Geographical Society (Russkoye geograficheskoye obshchestvo) began to study a medieval site located in the vicinity of the modern village Semibugry which, like Samosdelka, is in the Kamyziak district (raion) in the Volga delta near the city of Astrakhan. Damir Solovyov (the deputy director of Archeocenter and the head of the section of Archeology and Ethnography of the Astrakhan branch of the Russian Geographical Society) is one of those involved in this quest.

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

1. The Semibugry site is huge, covering an area of around 150 hectares, equal to about 371 acres. That's like a typical large metropolitan city of that time.

2. Clusters of building bricks were found at the Semibugry site, compatible with what we know from written sources that the Khazar kagan's palace was one of the few Khazar buildings that was built from bricks. A wall made of unfired bricks about 4 meters wide, likely the city's fortress wall was also found there and it extends beyond the current excavation area.

3. The researchers think that a small district they found within the site, including two barrows, was the area within Atil where the kaganate's ruling elite lived.

4. Various artifacts dating from the 8th-10th centuries were also found there. These include household items, including numerous fragments of ceramic dishes that were characteristic of Khazaria's Saltovo-Mayaki culture. Ceramic slag and scrap were also found, showing that ceramic production occurred locally.

5. Befitting of a major trade center, coins dating to the 8th century were also found at the site. One is a silver dirham that was minted in the Arab caliphate's colony in Tunisia.

6. Also found at the site were metal products related to those from Kievan Rus' from Svyatoslav's time. One of them is a lyre-shaped belt buckle.

Further details:
Russian article: "Arkheologi nashli pod Astrakhan'yu razgromlennuyu Svyatoslavom stolitsu Khazarskogo kaganata" (Gazeta Kul'tura, June 7, 2020) (illustrated)
Russian article: "Astrakhanskiy muzey zayavil ob otkrytii stolitsy Khazarii" by Yegor Antonov (Nauka i zhizn', June 10, 2020) (illustrated)
Russian article: "Astrakhanskiye arkheologi nashli material'nyye sledy khazarskogo goroda Itil'" (Astrakhanskaya Oblast', June 9, 2020) (illustrated)
Russian article: "Drevniy gorod Itil' nayden arkheologami na Astrakhanskoy zemlye" (Astrakhan.su, June 9, 2020) (illustrated)
Russian article: "Na poroge grandioznogo otkrytiya: arkheologi nachinayut raskopki legendarnoy stolitsy Khazarskogo kaganata" (Russkoye geograficheskoye obshchestvo, June 11, 2020) (illustrated)
Russian article: "Astrakhanskoye selo Semibugry stanovitsya novym istoricheskim mestom Rossii" (Agentstvo novostey, August 16, 2020) (illustrated)
English article: "On the Threshold of the Great Discovery: Archaeologists Begin Excavations of the Legendary Capital of the Khazar Khaganate" (Russkoye geograficheskoye obshchestvo, June 15, 2020) (illustrated) (translation of above)
Turkish article: "Hazar Kağanlığı'nın Başkenti Bulundu" by Banu Nagashbek (Bilimdili, June 11, 2020) (illustrated)

Additional, larger-scale excavations began on July 15, 2020 at the Semibugry archaeological site at both the settlement zone and its nearby burial ground. Students and volunteers also participated in these digs.

The next digging season occurred in July-September 2021. Participants this season included researchers from Moscow State University, Donetsk Republican Archaeological Museum, and Astrakhan State United Historical-Architectural Museum-Reserve. They continued excavating Semibugry but also confirmed that the archaeological complex continues across the Bolda River near the village of Baraniy Bugor. The team found artifacts, including rings, on both sides of the complex. Also found on the Baraniy Bugor side was a residential building with Byzantine bricks with lime mortar.

By the end of July 2022, the archaeologists had found a mysterious round, hollow molded clay object with numerous small holes and three legs. By August 2022, they did more excavations at Baraniy Bugor and found tens of thousands of Khazar-era artifacts and artifact fragments, including ceramics (including imported Crimean amphoras) and metal items for belts. They also continued work at Semibugry and found a second fortress brick wall there that is about 3-4 meters thick.

In early September 2022, the museum researcher Eduard Kravchenko announced that finds at Semibugry and Baraniy Bugor include an incense burner; glass vessels, beads, and bracelet fragments; East Slavic stucco pots; a coin from the Türgesh Kaganate of 8th-century Central Asia; Caucasian, Crimean, and Taman ceramics, such as jugs and amphorae; and locally-produced ceramic items (jugs, pots, etc.).

The Israeli journalist Itamar Eichner misinterpreted a standard Turkic tamga symbol inscribed into clay as a Jewish menorah.

Researchers plan to continue their work during 2023.

Further details:
Russian article: "Pod Astrakhan'yu obnaruzhili vozmozhnuyu stolitsu Khazarskogo kaganata" by Natal'ya Korotchenko (Rodina, September 1, 2021) (illustrated)
Russian article: "Volzhskaya Atlantida" by Maya Gavasheli interviewing Damir Solovyov (Lenta.ru, December 22, 2021) (illustrated)
Russian article: "V del'te Volgi nashli drevniy gorod, kotoryy mozhet okazat'sya stolitsey Khazarskogo kaganata - Itilem. Chto izvestno o raskopkakh pod Astrakhan'yu?" by Aleksey Sinyakov interviewing Damir Solovyov (Snob, July 29, 2022) (illustrated)
Russian article: "'Itil' ili ne Itil'?' Arkheologi natknulis' na stenu v poiskakh stolitsy Khazarskogo kaganata" by Oksana Romanova interviewing Damir Solovyov (Tatar-inform, August 18, 2022) (illustrated)
Russian article: "Arkheologi iz DNR i RF nashli v del'te Volgi pod Astrakhan'yu ostatki kul'tur VIII-X vekov" (Donetskoye agentstvo novostey, September 7, 2022) (illustrated)
Russian article: "V Astrakhanskoy oblasti nayden nekropolis epokhi Khazarskogo kaganata" by Nikolay Grishchenko (Rodina, August 7, 2023) (illustrated)
Russian article: "V Astrakhanskoy oblasti obnaruzhili yazicheskie zakhoroneniya epokhi Khazarskogo kaganata" (TASS, August 20, 2023)
English article: "Archeology of the Khazar capital, found near the Russian city of Astrakhan" by Peter Blunt (AsumeTech, August 28, 2022)
English article: "Russian archeologists claim uncovered medieval 'Jewish' Khazar kingdom's capital" by Itamar Eichner (Ynetnews, September 8, 2022) (illustrated)
Hebrew article: "Haim sof sof nitgalta ha-bira ha-agadit shel mamlekhet ha-Kuzarim ha-yehudit?" by Ehud Ya'ari (N12, August 3, 2022) (illustrated)
Hebrew article: "Archeologim Rusim: matzanu et habira ha-avuda shel mamlekhet ha-Kuzarim ha-Yehudit" by Itamar Eichner (Ynet, September 4, 2022) (illustrated)

Further results will be presented at the Russian Geographical Society's website and on the Instagram account Astrakhan Archaeology.

"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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