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Top: Jewish History: Khazaria: Khazars and Karaims

Khazars and Karaims

Khazars were a Turkish group of tribes and nations, who ruled an empireextending east and west of the Capian Sea, from the sixth or seventh to the tenth or eleventh centuries. Theyengaged in the eighth century in a bloody struggle with the last Umayyad khalif. Around 965 they were decisively defeatedby Russian settlers. Their enmity to their Muslim and Christian neighbours caused their ruler, partof the nobility and apparently also of the people, to adopt Judaism around 740. The Karaite version has usually beenthat what they adopted was, in fact, Karaism. One of the main propagandists of this theory was A. Firkovich,which has given it so bad a name in academc circles that for a long time most scholars would not touch it. Butin recent years some have come around to a more affirmative view. Some elements do exist which could indicatea linkage between Khazar and Karaite history:

Karaism originated partly in Iran, near the borders of the Khazar empireat the time (or very soon after) part of the Khazars converted to Judaism. Some early contacts could have been establishedthen.

Petahia of Regensburg described around 1180 Jewish sectarians who donot lighten Sabbath candies, nor had heard of the Talmud in the "Land of Kedar", apparently north ofthe Caucasus. This sounds already like Karaites, or sinfilar sectarians.

What strikes any student of Judaism regarding the description of theKaraites in the Crimea and (somewhat less so) in all of Eastern Europe, is how "unjewish" they are madeto appear. They were mostly farmers, specializing in the growing of tobacco and cucumbers. They served as soldiers and officersin pre-Zionist times, when this was an unheard-of occupation for Jews. Their relations with their neighbourswere mostly excellent. They intermarried with them and many of them even had the Turkish cast of faceand the appearance of their neighbours. Their interest in commerce and matters of the spirit was minimal.They were a conservative lot, uninterested in innovation, be they political or religious. If they werenot ethnic Jews, were they perhaps descendants of the Khazars?

The Crimean Karaites did not speak any of the usual Jewish dialects,such as Jiddish or Ladino, but such Turkish dialects as Karaim, similar to those of their neighbours, which they laterbrought with them to Poland and Lithuania.

Their ties to their neighbours in the Crimea were of the closest. Theywere regarded sometimes as part of the local aristocracy. The Nazi attitude to them in World War 11 stemmed, partly,from the wish of the Germans to utilize the local Tartars for their political and military purposes. Byharming the Karaites they were afraid of losing the goodwill of the Tartars. The situation elsewhere in Europe wasusually the very opposite: by their virulent antiseniitism the GerTnans usually gained the goodwill of the localpopulations.

These points make out a strong case for a Khazar - Karaite linkage, butfar from a complete one. There are still several arguments against it:

A complete lack of interest in the Khazars in contemporary Karaite records.Z. Ankori has written (Byzantium, 79) "In neither of these records can an allusion to an allegedly Karaitepersuasion of the Khazar people be dedected. Not even at the peak of messianic excitement was an attempt madeto equate the expected Khazar saviors with the forces of Karaism. Such a situation would not only be inconceivableif there were any truth to the allegation of the Khazars' affiliation with the Karaite synagogue, butit actually stands in glaring contrast to the historic alliance of sectarianism and messianism in the early centuriesof Jewish experience under Islam. Hence the relevant lesson which evolves from a survey of the early Karaiteliterature with reference to Khazaria is this: tenth and eleventh century Karaism in the East, and even more soin Byzantium, was completely unaware of any special Karaite affinity with Khazaria ... Against this backgroundthe derogatory remarks of some Karaite authors regarding the Khazars - remarks whose defamatory nature has no peerin Rabbanite literature - gain even more significance.

So far no archeological remains have been found to support a KaraiteKhazar linkage, but recent excavations have shown a wider Jewish diffusion among the Khazars than previously assumed.

No final comparison has yet been made between the dialect of the CrimeanKaraites and what is known of the language of the Khazars.

The "unjewishness" of the Karaites of the Crimea and (to alesser extent) of Eastern Europe, can be explained not only by ethnic linkage, but by their "ability to take on the colouringof the wider society. (It) was evident when they described themselves as Jews if they lived among Jews, as Turkswhen in Turkey, as Russians when in Russia and as Poles when in Poland" (E. Trevisan-Semi, Nazi and Vichy,82).

There remains thus a gray area, which is only slowly being penetratedby present-day research. Still, an anthropologist like E. Trevisan-Senii does not hesitate to regard the Karaitesof Eastern Europe as of a different ethnic background from the Karaites of the Middle East, who are clearlyof Jewish stock. Both sides were conscious enough of this gulf often not to intermarry.

At present it seems that some sort of linkage between Khazars and Karaiteshas much to recommend it, but has not been proven.

Bibliography: Petahia of Regensburg, Sibuv, Altona 1770, 2; T. Kowalski,Karaimsche Texte im Dialekt von Troki, Krakow 1929, XI,. D.M. Dunlop, The History of the Jewish Khazars,Princeton 1954 (with detailed bibliography); E. Trevisan-Semi, Ebrei Caraiti, 60; idem, Nazi and Vichy,82; Peter B. Golden, Khazar Studies, Budapest 1980, 2 vols; N. Golb and 0. Pritsak, Khazarian Hebrew Documentsof the Tenth Century, Ithaca-London, 1982; Vsevold L Vikhnovich, From the Jordan to the Dniepr,Jewish Studies, 31, 1991, 15-24; for support of the theory see also A. Zajaczkowsky, Karaism in Poland, Warsay1961; and S. Szysztnan, Le Karaisme; for opposition see Z Ankori, Byzantium, 65-67, 79; and M. Balaban,On the History of the Karaites in Poland, Hatekufa XVI, 192213, 294-297.

(The) Mandeglis (or Medgelis) Document

This is an early manuscript which was allegedly discovered by AbrahamFirkovich in the wall of the synagogue of Mandeglis (or Medgelis) in the Caucasus in 1840/1. The document, 58 x 15,5cm, was published by the (proFirkovich) Orientalist D.A. Chwolson in 1863. It mentions a visit ofthe Kievan ambassador to the Crimean Khazar ruler, to consult him about which religion to adopt. A.Y. Harkavyclaimed that it was a forgery, after it disappeared conveniently in 1876 from the St Petersburg library of whichHarkavy himself was in charge. This event contributed to the bad name Firkovich and his publications got inacademic circles. But, surprisingly, the Mandeglis document was recently rediscovered (by V.V. Lebedev) in the sameSt Petersburg library, from which it was supposed to have disappeared.

New archeological discoveries have caused Vsevold L. Vikhnovich and othersto assume that there is at least a nucleus of historical truth in the story told in it. This episode raises,however, some interesting questions regarding A.Y. Harkavy's reliability and trustworthiness.


This is the name of the upper social stratum, to which most of the Karaitesof the Crimea belonged since medieval times. As such they often did not have to pay taxes, and had freeaccess to the Khan's palace. This information is also from Karaite Encyclopedia of Nathan Schur.

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