The Thirteenth Tribe

arthur koestler


OUR knowledge of Khazar history is mainly derived from Arab, Byzantine, Russian and Hebrew sources, with corroborative evidence of Persian, Syriac, Armenian, Georgian and Turkish origin. I shall comment only on some of the major sources.

1. Arabic

The early Arabic historians differ from all others in the unique form of their compositions. Each event is related in the words of eye-witnesses or contemporaries, transmitted to the final narrator through a chain of intermediate reporters, each of whom passed on the original report to his successor. Often the same account is given in two or more slightly divergent forms, which have come down through different chains of reporters. Often, too, one event or one important detail is told in several ways on the basis of several contemporary statements transmitted to the final narrator through distinct lines of tradition.... The principle still is that what has been well said once need not be told again in other words. The writer, therefore, keeps as close as he can to the letter of his sources, so that quite a late writer often reproduces the very words of the first narrator....

Thus the two classic authorities in the field, H. A. R. Gibb and M.J. de Goeje, in their joint article on Arab historiography in earlier editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.1 It explains the excruciating difficulties in tracing an original source which as often as not is lost - through the successive versions of later historians, compilers and plagiarists. It makes it frequently impossible to put a date on an episode or a description of the state of affairs in a given country; and the uncertainty of dating may range over a whole century in passages where the author gives an account in the present tense without a clear indication that he is quoting some source in the distant past. Add to this the difficulties of identifying persons, tribes and places, owing to the confusion over spelling, plus the vagaries of copyists, and the result is a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing, others of extraneous origin thrown in, and only the bare outlines of the picture discernible. .The principal Arabic accounts of Khazaria, most frequently quoted in these pages, are by Ibn Fadlan, al-Istakhri, Ibn Hawkal and al-Masudi. But only a few of them can be called "primary" sources, such as Ibn Fadlan who speaks from first-hand experience. Ibn Hawkal's account, for instance, written circa 977, is based almost entirely on Istakhri's, written around 932; which in turn is supposed to be based on a lost work by the geographer el-Balkhi, who wrote around 921. .About the lives of these scholars, and the quality of their scholarship we know very little. Ibn Fadlan, the diplomat and astute observer, is the one who stands out most vividly. Nevertheless, as we move along the chain through the tenth century, we can observe successive stages in the evolution of the young science of historiography. El-Balkhi, the first in the chain, marks the beginning of the classical school of Arab Geography, in which the main emphasis is on maps, while the descriptive text is of secondary importance. Istakhri shows a marked improvement with a shift of emphasis from maps to text. (About his life nothing is known; and what survives of his writings is apparently only a synopsis of a larger work.) With Ibn Hawkal (about whom we only know that he was a travelling merchant and missionary) a decisive advance is reached: the text is no longer a commentary on the maps (as in Balkhi, and still partly in Istakhri), but becomes a narrative in its own right. .Lastly with Yakut (1179-1229) we reach, two centuries later, the age of the compilers and encyclopaedists. About him we know at least that he was born in Greece, and sold as a boy on the slave market in Baghdad to a merchant who treated him kindly and used him as a kind of commercial traveller. After his manumission he became an itinerant bookseller and eventually settled in Mossul, where he wrote his great encyclopaedia of geography and history. This important work includes both Istakhri's and Ibn Fadlan's account of the Khazars. But, alas, Yakut mistakenly attributes Istakhri's narrative also to Ibn Fadlan. As the two narratives differ on important points, their attribution to the same author produced various absurdities, with the result that Ibn Fadlan became somewhat discredited in the eyes of modern historians. .But events took a different turn with the discovery of the full text of Ibn Fadlan's report on an ancient manuscript in Meshhed, Persia. The discovery, which created a sensation among orientalists, was made in 1923 by Dr Zeki Validi Togan (about whom more below). It not only confirmed the authenticity of the sections of Ibn Fadlan's report on the Khazars quoted by Yakut, but also contained passages omitted by Yakut which were thus previously unknown. Moreover, after the confusion created by Yakut, Ibn Fadlan and Istakhri/Ibn Hawkal were now recognized as independent sources which mutually corroborated each other. .The same corroborative value attaches to the reports of Ibn Rusta, al-Bekri or Gardezi, which I had little occasion to quote precisely because their contents are essentially similar to the main sources. .Another, apparently independent source was al-Masudi (died circa 956), known as "the Arab Herodotus". He was a restless traveller, of insatiable curiosity, but modern Arab historians seem to take a rather jaundiced view of him. Thus the Encyclopaedia of Islam says that his travels were motivated "by a strong desire for knowledge. But this was superficial and not deep. He never went into original sources but contented himself with superficial enquiries and accepted tales and legends without criticism." .But this could just as well be said of other mediaeval historiographers, Christian or Arab.

2. Byzantine

Among Byzantine sources, by far the most valuable is Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus's De Adnimistrando Imperio, written about 950. It is important not only because of the information it contains about the Khazars themselves (and particularly about their relationship with the Magyars), but because of the data it provides on the Rus and the people of the northern steppes. Constantine (904-59) the scholar-emperor was a fascinating character - no wonder Arnold Toynbee confessed to have "lost his heart" to him2 - a love-affair with the past that started in his undergraduate days. The eventual result was Toynbee's monumental Constantine Porphyrogenitus and his World, published in 1973, when the author was eighty-four. As the title indicates, the emphasis is as much on Constantine's personality and work as on the conditions of the world in which he - and the Khazars - lived. .Yet Toynbee's admiration for Constantine did not make him overlook the Emperor's limitations as a scholar: "The information assembled in the De Administrando Imperio has been gathered at different dates from different sources, and the product is not a book in which the materials have been digested and co-ordinated by an author; it is a collection of files which have been edited only perfunctorily."3 And later on: "De Administrando Imperio and De Caeromoniis, in the state in which Constantine bequeathed them to posterity, will strike most readers as being in lamentable confusion."4 (Constantine himself was touchingly convinced that De Caeromoniis was a "technical masterpiece" besides being "a monument of exact scholarship and a labour of love"5.) Similar criticisms had been voiced earlier by Bury,6 and by Macartney, trying to sort out Constantine's contradictory statements about the Magyar migrations:."...We shall do well to remember the composition of the De Administrando Imperio - a series of notes from the most various sources, often duplicating one another, often contradicting one another, and tacked together with the roughest of editing."7 .But we must beware of bathwaterism - throwing the baby away with the water, as scholarly critics are sometimes apt to do. Constantine was privileged as no other historian to explore the Imperial archives and to receive first-hand reports from his officials and envoys returning from missions abroad. When handled with caution, and in conjunction with other sources, De Administrando throws much valuable light on that dark period.

3. Russian

Apart from orally transmitted folklore, legends and songs (such as the "Lay of Igor's Host"), the earliest written source in Russian is the Povezt Vremennikh Let, literally "Tale of Bygone Years", variously referred to by different authors as The Russian Primary Chronicle, The Old Russian Chronicle, The Russian Chronicle, Pseudo-Nestor, or The Book of Annals. It is a compilation, made in the first half of the twelfth century, of the edited versions of earlier chronicles dating back to the beginning of the eleventh, but incorporating even earlier traditions and records. It may therefore, as Vernadsky8 says, "contain fragments of authentic information even with regard to the period from the seventh to the tenth century" - a period vital to Khazar history. The principal compiler and editor of the work was probably the learned monk Nestor (b. 1056) in the Monastery of the Crypt in Kiev, though this is a matter of controversy among experts (hence "Pesudo-Nestor"). Questions of authorship apart, the Povezt is an invaluable (though not infallible) guide for the period that it covers. Unfortunately, it stops with the year 1112, just at the beginning of the Khazars' mysterious vanishing act. .The mediaeval Hebrew sources on Khazaria will be discussed in Appendix III.


It would be presumptuous to comment on the modern historians of repute quoted in these pages, such as Toynbee or Bury, Vernadsky, Baron, Macartney, etc. - who have written on some aspect of Khazar history. The following remarks are confmed to those authors whose writings are of central importance to the problem, but who are known only to a specially interested part of the public. .Foremost among these are the late Professor Paul F. Kahle, and his former pupil, Douglas Morton Dunlop, at the time of writing Professor of Middle Eastern History at Columbia University. .Paul Eric Kahle (1875-1965) was one of Europe's leading orientalists and masoretic scholars. He was born in East Prussia, was ordained a Lutheran Minister, and spent six years as a Pastor in Cairo. He subsequently taught at various German universities and in 1923 became Director of the famous Oriental Seminar in the University of Bonn, an international centre of study which attracted orientalists from all over the world. "There can be no doubt", Kahle wrote,9 "that the international character of the Seminar, its staff, its students and its visitors, was the best protection against Nazi influence and enabled us to go on with our work undisturbed during nearly six years of Nazi regime in Germany.... I was for years the only Professor in Germany who had a Jew, a Polish Rabbi, as assistant." .No wonder that, in spite of his impeccable Aryan descent, Kahle was finally forced to emigrate in 1938. He settled in Oxford, where he received two additional doctorates (in philosophy and theology). In 1963 he returned to his beloved Bonn, where he died in 1965. The British Museum catalogue has twenty-seven titles to his credit, among them The Cairo Geniza and Studies of the Dead Sea Scrolls. .Among Kahle's students before the war in Bonn was the young orientalist D. M. Dunlop. .Kahle was deeply interested in Khazar history. When the Belgian historian Professor Henri Grgoire published an article in 1937 questioning the authenticity of the "Khazar Correspondence",10 Kahle took him to task: "I indicated to Grgoire a number of points in which he could not be right, and I had the chance of discussing all the problems with him when he visited me in Bonn in December 1937. We decided to make a great joint publication - but political developments made the plan impracticable. So I proposed to a former Bonn pupil of mine, D. M. Dunlop, that he should take over the work instead. He was a scholar able to deal both with Hebrew and Arabic sources, knew many other languages and had the critical training for so difficult a task."11 The result of this scholarly transaction was Dunlop's The History of the Jewish Khazars, published in 1954 by the Princeton University Press. Apart from being an invaluable sourcebook on Khazar history, it provides new evidence for the authenticity of the Correspondence (see Appendix III), which Kahle fully endorsed.12 Incidentally, Professor Dunlop, born in 1909, is the son of a Scottish divine, and his hobbies are listed in Who's Who as "hill-walking and Scottish history". Thus the two principal apologists of Khazar Judaism in our times were good Protestants with an ecclesiastic, Nordic background. .Another pupil of Kahle's with a totally different background, was Ahmed Zeki Validi Togan, the discoverer of the Meshhed manuscript of Ibn Fadlan's journey around Khazaria. To do justice to this picturesque character, I can do no better than to quote from Kahle's memoirs:13

Several very prominent Orientals belonged to the staff of the [Bonn] Seminar. Among them I may mention Dr Zeki Validi, a special protégé of Sir Aurel Stein, a Bashkir who had made his studies at Kazan University, and already before the first War had been engaged in research work at the Petersburg Academy. During the War and after he had been active as leader of the Bashkir-Armee [allied to the Bolshevists], which had been largely created by him. He had been a member of the Russian Duma, and had belonged for some time to the Committee of Six, among whom there were Lenin, Stalin and Trotzki. Later he came into conflict with the Bolshevists and escaped to Persia. As an expert on Turkish - Bashkirian being a Turkish language - he became in 1924 adviser to Mustafa Kemal's Ministry of Education in Ankara, and later Professor of Turkish in Stambul University. After seven years, when asked, with the other Professors in Stambul, to teach that all civilisation in the world comes from the Turks, he resigned, went to Vienna and studied Mediaeval History under Professor Dopsch. After two years he got his doctor degree with an excellent thesis on Ibn Fadlan's journey to the Northern Bulgars, Turks and Khazars, the Arabic text of which he had discovered in a MS. in Meshhed. I later published his book in the "Abhandlungen fr die Kunde des Morgenlandes". From Vienna I engaged him as Lecturer and later Honorar Professor for Bonn. He was a real scholar, a man of wide knowledge, always ready to learn, and collaboration with him was very fruitful. In 1938 he went back to Turkey and again became Professor of Turkish in Stambul University.

Yet another impressive figure in a different way, was Hugo Freiherr von Kutschera (1847-1910), one of the early propounders of the theory of the Khazar origin of Eastern Jewry. The son of a high-ranking Austrian civil servant, he was destined to a diplomatic career, and studied at the Oriental Academy in Vienna, where he became an expert linguist, mastering Turkish, Arabic, Persian and other Eastern languages. After serving as an attach at the Austro-Hungarian Embassy in Constantinople, he became in 1882 Director of Administration in Sarajevo of the provinces of Bosnia-Hercegovina, recently occupied by Austro-Hungary. His familiarity with oriental ways of life made him a popular figure among the Muslims of Bosnia and contributed to the (relative) pacification of the province. He was rewarded with the title of Freiherr (Baron) and various other honours. .After his retirement, in 1909, he devoted his days to his lifelong hobby, the connection between European Jewry and the Khazars. Already as a young man he had been struck by the contrast between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews in Turkey and in the Balkans; his study of the ancient sources on the history of the Khazars led to a growing conviction that they provided at least a partial answer to the problem. He was an amateur historian (though a quasi-professional linguist), but his erudition was remarkable; there is hardly an Arabic source, known before 1910, missing from his book. Unfortunately he died before he had time to provide the bibliography and references to it; Die Chasaren - Historische Studie was published posthumously in 1910. Although it soon went into a second edition, it is rarely mentioned by historians. .Abraham N. Poliak was born in 1910 in Kiev; he came with his family to Palestine in 1923. He occupied the Chair of Mediaeval Jewish History at Tel Aviv University and is the author of numerous books in Hebrew, among them a History of the Arabs; Feudalism in Egypt 1250-1900; Geopolitics of Israel and the Middle East, etc. His essay on "The Khazar Conversion to Judaism" appeared in 1941 in the Hebrew periodical Zion and led to lively controversies; his book Khazaria even more so. It was published in 1944 in Tel Aviv (in Hebrew) and was received with - perhaps understandable - hostility, as an attempt to undermine the sacred tradition concerning the descent of modern Jewry from the Biblical Tribe. His theory is not mentioned in the Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971-2 printing. .Mathias Mieses, however, whose views on the origin of Eastern Jewry and the Yiddish language I have quoted, is held in high academic esteem. Born 1885 in Galicia, he studied linguistics and became a pioneer of Yiddish philology (though he wrote mostly in German, Polish and Hebrew). He was an outstanding figure at the First Conference on the Yiddish Language, Czernovitz, 1908, and his two books: Die Entstehungsursache der jdischen Dialekte (1924) and Die Jiddische Sprache (1924) are considered as classics in their field. .Mieses spent his last years in Cracow, was deported in 1944 with destination Auschwitz, and died on the journey.

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