Current Issues in Khazar Studies

Last Updated: February 6, 2010

With new discoveries and interpretations annually, the field of Khazar studies is a very dynamic one, full of controversy and intrigue. Here are some of the major issues that many scholars around the world are attempting to resolve at the present time.

1. What was the extent of Judaism in the Khazar Empire?

According to professors Bozena Werbart and Jonathan Shepard, the Tengri "sun-amulets" disappeared after the 830s from Khazarian graves, as did other shamanistic possessions, indicating a dramatic shift in religion in the Khazar kaganate.

There is also the opinion, most recently supported by Vladimir Petrukhin in his essay in Pletnyova's "Ocherki Khazarskoy Arkheologii" (1999), that the Chelarevo gravesite in present-day northern Serbia, with its broken bricks possessing images of the menorah, shofar, and Star of David, contains the bones of Judaized Khazarians.

These discoveries may turn out to be just as important as the Kievan Letter in terms of proving beyond all reasonable doubt that the Khazars converted to Judaism in large numbers.

2. When did the Khazars convert to Judaism: 8th or 9th century?

This is a highly controversial question, based upon contradictory information from various primary sources. The earliest possible date is Yehuda HaLevi's estimate of 740. Abd-al-Jabbar al-Hamdani and other Middle Eastern writers claim the conversion happened during the reign of the Abbasids. Al-Masudi would have us believe that the conversion took place sometime between 786 and 809.

But according to Constantine Zuckerman of the Collège de France (Paris), the Khazars' conversion to Judaism probably took place in the 9th century rather than in the 8th century. This argument has also been taken up by Jonathan Shepard and Kevin Brook, who state that the first record of Khazarian Judaism dates only to about the year 864, and that the Byzantine missionaries Cyril and Methodius upon their arrival in Khazaria in 860 approached and debated with a people whom had not yet adopted full Judaism. It used to be argued that the Khazars could not have sincerely adopted Judaism if they still had good relations with the Christian Byzantines even in the late 8th century. But historical analysis cancels this argument by showing that the decline in the Byzantine-Khazar relationship is tied directly to the time of the Khazar conversion to Judaism, and may be dated as occurring sometime during or after the 830s. A conversion date in the mid-to-late 830s is supported now also by the Moses coin (discussed below) which dates from 837-838, whereas just a few years earlier (around 834) the Khazars and Byzantines were cooperating on building Sarkel.

3. Did Khazarian coinage exist?

According to Omeljan Pritsak of Harvard University, the Khazars minted their own silver coins, called yarmaqs in Turkic and dirhams in Arabic, and their currency was based on international medieval standards governing weights and measures. See his "The Origins of the Old Rus' Weights and Monetary Systems: Two Studies in Western Eurasian Metrology and Numismatics in the Seventh to Eleventh Centuries" (1998), which has been reviewed by Thomas Noonan and Stephen Album. Another recent book is "Coins of the Khazar Empire" (2000) by Glen Shake. These authors support the notion that certain Arabic-lettered coins can be attributed to Khazar mints. Some numismatists, including Gert Rispling, and some historians, including Roman Kovalev, believe that the "Ard al-Khazar" (Land of the Khazars) coins, from the years 837-838, are authentic official Khazar coinage minted by the kaganate's Jewish kings. This contention is supported by the discovery of a related coin in the series (with a ficticious mintmark of "Madinat as-Salam 779-780", but actually dating from between about 830-839) which bears the inscription "Moses is the messenger of God", a Jewish version of the typical Islamic phrase "Muhammad is the messenger of God".

4. What was the nature of the Khazarian economy: nomadic or well-developed?

According to Thomas Noonan of the University of Minnesota, in his article "The Khazar Economy" [Archivum Eurasiae Medii Aevi 9 (1995-1997): 253-318], the Khazar civilization is rich in material remains, and contributed to the medieval world economy. Excavators continue to find artwork, pottery, and other artifacts produced by the Khazars. This evidence appears to contradict the opinions of Ananiasz Zajaczkowski, Douglas Dunlop, Francis Dvornik, and others that the Khazars were merely middlemen and not producers of quality goods.

5. Where is the site of Atil, the capital of Khazaria?

For many decades, archaeologists have been trying to find the Khazar capital, Atil, also known as Itil. Some archaeologists (Lev Gumilev, Hoichi Hirokawa, and others) proposed that Atil (including its walls) was underwater. On the other hand, Atil was actually found under land. The Russian archaeologist Emma Zilivinskaya, who works with Gennadii Afanasyev, has been exploring a site near the city of Samosdelka, 60 kilometers to the southwest of Astrakhan, in the Volga delta. The Samosdelka team's website,, was operated by Denis Logunov, but closed by the end of 2006. The Russian archaeologist Yevgenia Schneidstein has also proposed that a hill in Samosdelka, where red brick has been found, is Atil. After several years of excavations, Dmitry Vasiliev came to the conclusion that Samosdelka is the site of two cities: Saqsin in the upper layers and Atil in the lower layers. The layers which are thought to be from Atil were uncovered in 2005 and date to the 9th and 10th centuries and have Khazarian characteristics. As reported by AFP, the site has a brick fortress in a triangular shape, as well as yurt-like huts. This is consistent with descriptions of Atil.

Current English books about the Khazars
by Kevin A. Brook
Details about THE KUZARI
by Yehuda HaLevi

Recent articles about the Khazars Um novo livro a respeito dos judeus khazares by Ariel Finguerman, in Hebraica (Brazil)
Itil'-mechta (Na raskopkax drevnego tsentra Xazarskogo kaganata) by Dmitry Vasiliev, in Lekhaim (Israel)
Pervaya mezhdunarodnaya konferentsiya po problemam izucheniya istorii xazar by Albert Kaganovitch, in Tsentral'naya Aziya i Kavkaz (Russia)
Krupneyshey punkt (gorod) Khazarii by A. V. Kryganov, in Vostochnoevropeiskii arxeologicheskii zhurnal (Ukraine)
Khazarii. Real'nost' i Mify (Khazars: Reality and Myth) by Aleksandr Komarov with Vladimir Petrukhin, in Yevreyskie novosti (Russia)
Issledovaniya v Verkhnem Saltove v 1996 godu (Studies in Upper Saltov in 1996) by Vladimir V. Koloda, in Vostochnoevropeiskii arxeologicheskii zhurnal (Ukraine)
Novye materialy k probleme izucheniya slavyano-khazarskix otnosheniy (po pamyatnikam Severskogo Dontsa) by Vladimir V. Koloda, in Vostochnoevropeiskii arxeologicheskii zhurnal (Ukraine)
Obivatel'skaya blagodat' i grozy revolyutsii by Leonid Rokhlin, in Al'manax "Port-folio" (USA)
The Forgotten Jewish Empire (Ha-imperiya ha-yehudit ha-nishkakhat: Kazariya hi akhat ha-khidot ha-gdolot shel ha-historiya) by Meir Uziel, in Ma'ariv (Israel)
La Treizième tribu d'Israël? by Gaëlle Smet and K.V. Troth, in Regards: Revue du Centre communautaire laïc juif de Belgique (Belgium)
Le royaume juif des Khazars by Méïr ben David, in Arouts-7 (Israel)
Yevrey v Xazarskom Kaganate by Mark Shteynberg, in Yevreyskii Mir (USA)
El Reino Perdido de Khazaria by Israel Tzvi Goldvaser, in La Luz: La Revista Judia Independiente (Argentina)
Une pièce au puzzle kazhar by Olivier Truc, in Libération (France)
Scholar claims to find medieval Jewish capital by Mansur Mirovalev, Associated Press

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