Khazar Kingship

Khazaria had two monarchs, at least originally: a kagan (khagan) and a bek.

Peter Golden Presented "The Khazar Sacral Kingship"

Peter Benjamin Golden is a renowned scholar who taught history as a professor at campuses of Rutgers University in New Jersey, USA. One of his early books was Khazar Studies (1980). Later books included Nomads and Sedentary Societies in Medieval Eurasia (1999), Nomads and Their Neighbours in the Russian Steppe (2003), Turks and Khazars (2010), and Central Asia in World History (2011). He contributed two articles to The World of the Khazars. His works, always readable and thought-provoking, are frequently cited in history articles and books.

Golden presented a paper on "The Khazar Sacral Kingship" on November 2, 2002 at "Pre-Modern Russia and its World: A Symposium Honoring the Work of Thomas S. Noonan" at the University of Minnesota's Givens Conference Center in the Elmer L. Andersen Library.

The paper gives a detailed analysis of the reports of the Muslim historians and geographers about the Khazar sacral kingship. According to Golden, it is clear that the Khazar qaghanal institution derived from the Türk Ashina. The tabuization and sacralization of the Khazar Qaghan, however, is a departure from the earlier Türk tradition. Many aspects of this sacral rule resemble customs associated with Iranian monarchic traditions.

Golden suggests that the shift to a sacral ruler, largely removed from the daily governance of the realm, appears to have taken place in the 9th century - although at the present time it is impossible to determine a precise date. He also points out that it was not connected with the revolt of the Kabars nor is there any indication that it was associated with the Khazars' conversion to Judaism. Indeed, conversion to Judaism (or Christianity or Islam) would hardly have encouraged the creation of a sacral, semi-divine ruler. Rather, it seems to have been an internal development, perhaps the result of the longevity of the dynasty which, in the Türk tradition, had emphasized its possession of qut (heavenly good fortune, i.e. a heavenly mandate to rule). As András Róna-Tas has suggested, the longer a dynasty was associated with qut, the more removed it became from actual governance and the greater its sacral role as intercessor with the divine was emphasized.

Another possible source for this, Golden suggests, may have been the Khwarazmian guard (the Ors) of the Khazars. They would have been immediate bearers of Old Iranian monarchical concepts. In the 10th century, they controlled the vezirate in Itil and provided the standing army that accompanied the Qaghan.

Finally, Golden notes that sacral kingships, in general, develop in societies in which there is a layering of various ethnic groupings over which one clan/tribe/tribal union has imposed itself. Khazaria was such a society.

Vladimir Petrukhin Lectured on the Sacral Khagans of Khazaria

Vladimir Yakovlevich Petrukhin is part of the Medieval Section of the Institute of Slavonic Studies in the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, Russia. He has written many clear and concise academic articles about the Khazars, essays in the books Ocherki Khazarskoy Arkheologii and The World of the Khazars, as well as articles on other topics such as "The 'Holy Mountains', Kiev and Jerusalem in the Slavic Myth-Poetic Tradition" in Hierotopy which he co-authored with Olga Belova.

Petrukhin presented his paper "On the Sacral Status of the Khazarian Khagan: Tradition and Reality" at the Interdisciplinary Workshop on 'Rulership and Religion' on February 23, 2002 at Central European University-Budapest. It was read during "Session 10: Khazars, Lithuanians, Slavs, and Maya".

The institution of the khaganship was very old among the Turkic tribes. Initially, the khagan was a sacral king, considered to be divinely-appointed, who brought heavenly good fortune to his people.

Petrukhin referred to several historiographical traditions which are commonly found in 20th century scholarship:

1. The Khazars had a diarchy which separated powers between the khagan and the bek, the latter coming to serve as commander-in-chief. This sort of two-king system was Turkic in origin both in its structure and in the traditional ways of governance.

2. The roles and power-levels of the two kings allegedly became especially divergent after the bek converted to Judaism. According to this claim, the bek "drove off the khagan" as part of a "coup d'etat" in which control was seized from the khagan.

The Khazar khagan's power must have still been strong in the 830s -- that is, two centuries after Khazaria's founding -- because around 839 the Annales Bertiniani related how Rus (Rhos) princes used the title khagan (chacanus).

Petrukhin also mentioned some additional, paradoxical data in relation to the possibility that the Khazar khagan still had power in the 9th century:

1. In the 920s, the Arab chronicler Ibn Fadlan described the Rus prince (malik) as living like a sacral king, feasting with his concubines and his entourage in grand fashion in his castle, while the real power was said to be bestowed upon the commander-in-chief. According to Petrukhin: "This description does not correspond to the Russian historical reality: both vojevoda Oleg and prince Igor were very active rulers."

2. Ibn Fadlan, al-Istakhri, Ibn Haukal, and al-Masudi recorded an old custom among the Khazars wherein the khagan was regarded as a sacral king and could be sacrificed (murdered) by the bek if Khazaria was hit by a misfortune. Petrukhin regarded it as "very important" that "Al-Ma'sudi wrote that he did not know when this custom had appeared, but it was very old". In other words, what Petrukhin noticed is that these remarks from the Arab chroniclers do not correspond to the realities in Rus and Khazaria that would have existed during the late-Khazarian era. Petrukhin notes that the epic tradition's origins were in the Western Turkish Khaganate where the newly-installed khagans were asked to define the length of their rule at an initiation ceremony, so that the khagan would not die a natural death but would instead be killed before his time (Petrukhin calls this tradition "the Golden Bough motif"). The Arab chroniclers kept alive archaic references to discontinued traditions such as this.

Petrukhin noted that King Joseph, writing in the middle of the 10th century, did not mention the tradition that the khagan is ritually strangled nor that his term was predefined to be limited. Petrukhin adds that Judaism does not permit human sacrifice of any sort, and so this practice must have ended prior to the time of King Joseph's reign. Further, he mentioned that Joseph did not mention a diarchy in the government, so "the tendency to monarchy possibly had already won out by his time." If this is true, then the Khazars were ruled only by one king rather than two kings during the 10th century, and the Arab chroniclers were relying on outdated information about the nature of the Khazarian government. This comment is very interesting because until now historians have been divided on whether Joseph was a khagan or a bek; perhaps the answer is that the two titles had merged into one by his time.

"The Jews of Khazaria" contains discussion of the Khazar kingship and the recorded names and deeds of the kings.

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