Eurasian Politician
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The Eurasian Politician - Issue 2 (October 2000)

Summary: Antero Leitzinger writes about the early history of Eastern Europe, making many interesting points concerning the ignored nations of Europe’s past. The realms of several so-called "steppe peoples" once arrived to Europe, following the Goths and Slavs, and these peoples not only "wiped across Europe" as barbarians, but also established their polities and had impact in Europe of the Middle Ages. Hungarians and the various Slavs are still there, but what happened to the Pechenegs, the Khazars, the Avars, the Tatars...? Nowadays the Tatars still live across the former Soviet Union (see "The Idea of Idel-Ural" in the last issue of The Eurasian Politician), and the Avars still constitute the biggest ethnic group in today’s Dagestan. Other Turkic groups related to the Tatars (named after the ancient Tatar capital Bolgar) became Bulgars (who gave their name to present Bulgaria) and Balkars (in today’s North Caucasian Kabardino-Balkaria). The Khazars, however, belong to the most forgotten nations of the European history. This article provides some fascinating light to the dusk of forgotten past.

The Heritage of the Khazars in Europe

By Antero Leitzinger

(Translation: Anssi Kullberg)

This text of early history of Eastern Europe is based on three classics: Nestor’s Chronicle, Arthur Koestler’s "The Thirteenth Tribe" and Omeljan Pritsak’s "The Origin of the Rus".

According to Nestor’s Chronicle, the forefathers of the Slavs originated in the ancient Roman province of Noricum, which was located in the same place where the duchy of Bavaria was born in the sixth century. By the 900s, the lands that had belonged to Noricum were divided into the eastern margrave county (Ostmark, later Austria) and the duchy of Carinthia (Kärnten) that was split from Bavaria in 976. From Carinthia, in its turn, Steiermark was split as a margrave county. There is a lot of space for interpretations in the history of Bavaria, and there is not much unarguable information concerning the history of the areas bordering Bavaria. There has indeed been Slavonic settlement in the region, but it is placed to the time between the departure of the Langobards (in 568) and the arrival of the Hungarians (in 896). Then the region was ruled by the Avars up until early 800s. It is known that the Avar Empire was multinational like the Hun Empire, but the core of the Avar Empire was Turkic and pagan.

According to an Austrian chronicle, five pagan princes ruled the country during the years of Hungarian pagan rule (896-955), and these were preceded by as many as 22 Jewish princes with peculiar names: Sennan (45 years), Zippan (43 years), Lapton, Ma’alon, Raptan, Rabon, Effra, Sameck... The chronicle is from the 1300s, and it has been used as a source by Henricus Gundelfingus (in 1474), Anselm Schram (1702) and Mathias Mieses, upon whom Koestler’s references are based.

In the early Middle Ages there were no significant numbers of Jews and no Jews in leading positions in Western Europe, except perhaps Muslim Spain. Instead, there was the Turkic Khazar Empire in Eastern Europe, and the Khazar ruler converted into Judaism about in 740. (The rulers of both Khazars and Avars were called kagan, but I do not remember if it had any difference to the more general title of khan. As far as I remember, Koestler suggested that the Jewish clerical family of Cohen might have adopted their name from the title of kagan.) Some Khazars might have reached the Alps together with the Avars, but it is more probable that this would have happened only with the Hungarians in the early 900s. In that time the Hungarians for example destroyed the monastery of Sankt Gallen, and intervened in the internal power struggles of Italian cities.

Koestler refers to the study of Mieses, according to which Yiddish mainly resembles German spoken in Austria. Yiddish was spoken as the mother tongue by all the East European Jews, the Ashkenazies, whose biblical name was in the Middle Ages indeed connected with Germany. In fact the Ashkenazies were the majority of European Jews before the World War II, and according to Koestler, they all descend from Khazars, who adopted a dialect of German while in exile. This would, however, presuppose, that the Khazars did not escape the fall of their empire (that took place in 1016, according to the Byzantine chronicler Kedrenos) right into north-west, but instead they, or part of their leaders, would have spent some time in the Alps. Another researcher Abraham N. Poliak believes that Yiddish is based on Crimean Gothic. In this case it would be possible that the similarity of the Austrian dialects is due to the removal of the Italian Ostrogoths towards north after the mid-500s.

In Spain, the Sephardic Jews correspondingly adopted the dialect of Ladino. The Jews had changed their language already in the ancient times, from Hebrew into Caldean (in the Babylon exile), into Aramean (by the time of Jesus), and into Greek (in Alexandria), so that changing language per se was not a totally strange phenomenon.

Would it be possible that Nestor has exaggerated the prehistory of the Slavs by adopting stories actually concerning the history of Jews?

When was the Jewish settlement of imperial Russia born, and where was actually its centre? According to the census of 1897, the proportion of Jews exceeded 19 per cent at least in the gubernaments of Grodno (Hrodna), Kaunas and Minsk. (There was no exact numbers from the gubernament of Vilnius available for me, but the proportion would seem to have remained somewhat lower, although Vilnius would be the natural centre of the mentioned gubernaments.) This would suggest that the kingdom of Poland got its Jews from the grand-duchy of Lithuania and not the other way. In the regions belonging to Poland-Lithuania the proportion of Jews in total was 10-14 per cent.

In the historical documents, after the destruction of the Khazar Empire, individual Jews are mentioned in Hungary (1154), Kiev (about 1160) and Chernigov (1181). About in this time the Jews had been expelled from England (in 1096), and in Germany they only lived in the cities along the Rhine, in Magdeburg and Merseburg on the Elbe (from the 900s on), and in the Bavarian city of Regensburg. Although Merseburg had some importance in populating Bohemia, and the Magdeburg court ruled in many Polish cities from the 1200s onwards, the Jews would not seem to have had such a role and settlement that it would explain the massive Jewish settlement in Poland-Lithuania. As Koestler has pointed out, there was an anxiously large vacuum between the West European Sephards and the East European Ashkenazies, considering Jewish immigration.

However, in late 1100s a town called Judenburg was founded in Steiermark, and also many other place names of that region refer to Jews. The region also appears that strongly in "Parzival", written by Wolfram von Eschenbach about in 1200, that Wolfram is supposed to have lived there. Nevertheless, he refers to Jews only in reference to Toledo. One of the other versions of the stories describing the quest for the Holy Grail is the information by Robert de Boron about a Jewish family constituting the first guards of the Grail. The family would have been descended from Joseph the Arimatean. Also the most famous king of the Khazars was called Joseph - who, however, lived only in the 900s.

The last attack by the Avars into Bavaria in the region of Carinthia took place in 741-742. After vanquishing Bavaria and having heard that the Avars possessed legendary treasures, Charlemagne started his devastating campaigns against the Avars from Regensburg in summer 791. After that the Franks repeatedly attacked the Avars up until 21st September 805, when the Kagan Abraham accepted to be baptised. The Avars quickly disappeared from history, as once having adopted the Christian faith, part of them was assimilated to the German and Slav populations. The border between the bishoprics of Salzburg and Aquileia was on the river Drau - missionary work was being done from the both directions. It must have been aimed at the heretic Areians, too. The Areians (Langobards and the remaining Ostrogoths) were wiped out from Northern Italy last, by the end of the 600s. The Areians and the Jews were everywhere so close to each other that the annihilation of Areians was followed by persecution of Jews. In Spain, the Areian heritage contributed to the relatively easy Islamisation of the population in the 700s. Could the vicinity of these faiths also have caused the conversion into Judaism by those Areians who were ruled by the Avars? Had the Catholic opponents possibly tendency to call the Areians Jews or vice versa? After all, the same heretic ideas had been earlier presented by the Jewish Christians of the Middle East.

Virgilius, Bishop of Salzburg, initiated mass converting in Carinthia probably as early as in 757. (There is a motive to re-read the travel story of Aethicus Istricus, who was most apparently Bishop Virgilius writing under a pseudonym.)

All the Avars did not convert into Christianity at all, but the resisters fled over the Tisza to the Bulgars or to the protection of the Moravian Empire, named after the river Morava (in German March, ‘border river’). Moravia is mentioned from 822 onwards - in the very same year the Avars were mentioned last time. (However, I found somewhere also years 832 and 871/873, but these are probably false.) The Bohemians are mentioned before that, when their Duke Lecho fell in a battle against the Franks in 805.

According to Polish tradition, the nation was named after the mythical King Lech. Was he identical with the above-mentioned Czech duke? The Poles also tell that the new ruling dynasty was founded about in 840 by Piast, who ruled half a century. Besides, it is told that before reaching the point of Piast, the throne was offered to a Jew, Abraham Prokownik, who nevertheless refused from the honour! (Koestler refers to the study of Poliak as the source.)

If there were Jews, of Khazar origin but linguistically Germanised, among the Avars, they could well have fled via Moravia to Poland in the 800s. It is more difficult to say anything about Lithuania, because the Lithuanians are not mentioned in history before 1008. The Spanish Jewish tradesman Ibrahim ibn Jakub at-Turtushi described the Bohemians as having dark hair, when he visited Prague in 965 or 966.

The Friesian saint legends, the stories of King Arthur, the Scandinavian sagas and the "Danish history" of Saxo Grammaticus all tell about "Huns" on the coasts of the Baltic Sea, for instance in the lower Väinä River (now Daugava). Could they have been Avars? Were there Jews in the Baltic countries already before Poland’s conversion into Christianity, and before the invasion of the Teutonic Order and founding both the city of Riga and the grand-duchy of Lithuania?

There were both Turkic Jews of the Karaite sect (Karaims) and Muslims (Tatars) who either fled or were taken as prisoners of war into Lithuania latest in the 1300s, from the area of the Golden Horde (Golden Orda). The Karaims of Trakai are from 1388, and there were Muslim soldiers in Lithuania as early as in 1324. The numbers of Jews and Muslims nevertheless remained in a couple of thousands - in the late 1800s there were about ten thousand descendants of these Karaims and the same amount of descendants of these Tatars. As they were mainly men, the linguistic assimilation to the local population was quick among the Tatars, who became Polonised apparently by the end of 1500s. However, Lithuania stayed as the last pagan empire of Europe after Denmark, Poland, Kiev’s Russia, Sweden, Norway, Hungary and Iceland had adopted Christianity in late 900s. The tolerant reputation of Lithuania was preserved up to the 1500s.

According to Koestler’s estimation about half million Khazars moved to Poland-Lithuania, which amount would about correspond the estimated size of the Jewish population in the area. If the Jews, however, came remarkably earlier, the population had longer time to grow up. The Khazar Empire was destroyed 200-500 years before the Golden Horde, and the Avar Empire yet 200 years earlier.

An even more daring theory could be that the Khazars inherited the empire of the Huns, and that they imported also Judaism to the shores of the Baltic Sea as early as in the 700s. In that case the Swedish moves in the 800s would appear as a power political scissors move by the Franks in order to cut off the supportive connections of the Central European Jewish Empire (the Avars and the Moravians) from the Khazar Empire. Driving the Jews into ghettos and to the remote ends of Lithuania would then have been contemporary "ethnic cleansing", Slavification that was disguised as Christian mission.

According to Koestler the Khazars originally converted into Judaism in order to get a religion of their own, to remain impartial in the competition between Byzantine Christianity and Arabic Islam. The initiative came from refugees and included adopting of the Hebrew alphabets. (The political symbol value of alphabets has been preserved up to our days.) In the early times the Khazar Judaism was not orthodox, but it was probably dominated by the Karaite sect, some kind of Jewish Protestants. The Arab writer al-Bakri claimed (in the 1000s) that the Khazar kagan would have originally been Christian. Were the influences after all moving from west to east, and thus, did the Khazars first convert to Christian Areianism, inspired by European refugees?


Revised Dec 1th, 2000

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