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The Lost City of The Khazars
September 21, 2008 8:07 PM   Subscribe

The Khazars were semi-nomadic Turkic people, of which many apparently converted to Judaism. Some believe they are the ancestors of many East European Jews. The Khazars were the subject of Arthur Koestler's controversial 1972 book, The Thirteenth Tribe, as well as anti-Semitic lore. Now a Russian archaeologist says he found a gold-mine of evidence about this once-great nation. No Jewish artifacts yet, however.
posted by Yakuman (34 comments total) 26 users marked this as a favorite

 
They may have converted to Judaism, they may have converted to Islam, they may have converted to Christianity...who knows?
posted by UbuRoivas at 8:13 PM on September 21, 2008 [7 favorites]


What about the stone tablet from Chelarevo that has the menorah on it? /Pavic
posted by exlotuseater at 8:17 PM on September 21, 2008


All I know is if you travel to Xinjiang in the winter it looks like the set of the revival of Fiddler on the Roof and all the Uighurs are noshing un bagels and unleavened bread. Uighurs are semi-nomadic, Turkik peoples that live on the silk road in western China, and used to be Jews until they converted to Islam en masse, so feel free to extrapolate and make conclusions.
posted by Pollomacho at 8:21 PM on September 21, 2008


I've been interested in the Khazars for a while now, ever since I read Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road. It's great that archaeologists have finally found Itil. This might have slipped me by if not for this post. Thanks Yakuman!
posted by Kattullus at 8:25 PM on September 21, 2008


State-sponsored Buddhism and Manicheism in the three remnants of the Uighur Empire, but no, not much evidence of Judaism.

Mackerras, Colin. Ed. and trans. 1972. The Uighur Empire according to the T'ang Dynastic Histories: a study in Sino-Uyghur relations 744–840. University of South Carolina Press.

For the not insubstantial Buddhist literature in the language of Uighur, see:
Uygur Buddhist Literature (Silk Road Studies) by J. Elversko.g
posted by AArtaud at 8:40 PM on September 21, 2008



They may have converted to Judaism, they may have converted to Islam, they may have converted to Christianity...who knows?


That, incidentally, is a fantastic book.
posted by nasreddin at 8:45 PM on September 21, 2008


nasreddin, you are correct. It is beyond fantastic. I scoop up every hardcover version I can at bookstores, and give them as gifts to people that deserve it.
posted by exlotuseater at 8:48 PM on September 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Turkik peoples that live on the silk road in western China, and used to be Jews until they converted to Islam en masse

Can you give me a source for this? I know many peoples of the Tarim basin used to be Buddhist, but I've never heard of them being Jews.
posted by pravit at 8:53 PM on September 21, 2008


That, incidentally, is a fantastic book.

YOU KNOW IT. Sadly, I only have the female edition. I need the male one too!
posted by Powerful Religious Baby at 8:57 PM on September 21, 2008


This is the story I always remember about the Khazars.
posted by XMLicious at 9:10 PM on September 21, 2008


That, incidentally, is a fantastic book.

Absolutely, one of the very best.

Here's the only difference between the male & female versions, by the way.
posted by UbuRoivas at 9:27 PM on September 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Here's the only difference between the male & female versions, by the way.
Where did the pages come from? I must know.
posted by tellurian at 9:41 PM on September 21, 2008


Quite topical at the moment.

I found this article interesting...

Until about 1960 the complex origins of the Jewish people were more or less reluctantly acknowledged by Zionist historiography. But thereafter they were marginalised and finally erased from Israeli public memory. The Israeli forces who seized Jerusalem in 1967 believed themselves to be the direct descendents of the mythic kingdom of David rather than – God forbid – of Berber warriors or Khazar horsemen. The Jews claimed to constitute a specific ethnic group that had returned to Jerusalem, its capital, from 2,000 years of exile and wandering.

This monolithic, linear edifice is supposed to be supported by biology as well as history. Since the 1970s supposedly scientific research, carried out in Israel, has desperately striven to demonstrate that Jews throughout the world are closely genetically related.


... but this riposte even better.

Sand suggests that it was "the wave of decolonization of the 1950s and 1960s [that] led the molders of Israeli collective memory to shield themselves from the shadow of the Khazar past. There was a profound fear that, should the Jews now rebuilding their home in Israel learn that they are not direct descendants of the ?Children of Israel,' the very legitimacy of both the Zionist enterprise and the State of Israel's existence would be undermined."

With considerable trepidation, I returned to my yellowing copy of volume IV of the Mikhlal Encyclopedia. Could I perhaps have been mistaken and could it be that my teachers in the Socialist-Zionist city of Givatayim wanted to brainwash me with an ethno-biological perception of my parents' origin?

When I reread the entry on the Khazars, my mind was put at rest. It was not the Zionist education to which I, as an Israeli teenager, was exposed that tried to make me forget the fact that the members of gentile tribes converted to Judaism in the Khazar Kingdom; instead, it is the author of this book about the "invention of the Jewish people" who has invented an ethno-biological Zionist historiography.

posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:04 PM on September 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


pravit: There is no evidence that the Uighurs or any other large ethnic group in the Tarim Basin were Jews. There is one letter in what is called Judeo-Persian from Dunhuang, just that one letter.

It's published in Stein's book, Ancient Khotan, volume I. It's in Appendix C.

That's the only evidence of what might have been possible Jewish traders in that area that I'm aware of. And I study Buddhism from that area somewhat professionally so I find it unlikely that the any substantial number of Uighurs, if any, were Jewish.
posted by AArtaud at 10:27 PM on September 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


Oh, and you can read it online at:
http://dsr.nii.ac.jp/toyobunko/VIII-5-B2-7/V-1/page/0666.html.en
posted by AArtaud at 10:27 PM on September 21, 2008


Everything I know about the Khazars I learned from the Kuzari.
posted by daniel_charms at 11:43 PM on September 21, 2008


DNA?
posted by Postroad at 2:07 AM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


There was a profound fear that, should the Jews now rebuilding their home in Israel learn that they are not direct descendants of the ?Children of Israel,' the very legitimacy of both the Zionist enterprise and the State of Israel's existence would be undermined."

People actually think like this?

*shakes head in despair*
posted by three blind mice at 2:13 AM on September 22, 2008


Related: Chinese Jews and the Silk Road. Maps.
posted by nickyskye at 4:27 AM on September 22, 2008


That, incidentally, is a fantastic book.

Absolutely, one of the very best.


I really hate being a party pooper, since it is a very enjoyable book, but Pavic is an extreme Serbian nationalist and the book is (among other things) a rather unpleasant political allegory (see my earlier comment for more). I don't mind people enjoying the book, but they should know what it is they're enjoying; one can admire Triumph of the Will as a work of cinematic art, but it's important to know the context. Also, just to belabor the obvious, it's a novel, and has the same relation to actual history as, say, Shakespeare's history plays.

Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road, on the other hand, is not only a terrific read but ideologically acceptable: win-win!
posted by languagehat at 7:31 AM on September 22, 2008


I was just reading the Pavic book last night after years of not looking at it, so this is a little spooky.
posted by gubo at 7:32 AM on September 22, 2008


Forgot a couple things: the Koestler book is extremely silly (he seems to have seriously thought that if he could just convince people that Jews weren't really Semites, anti-Semitism would vanish), and I'm thrilled about the discovery of Itil. Thanks for the post!
posted by languagehat at 7:32 AM on September 22, 2008


I really hate being a party pooper, since it is a very enjoyable book, but Pavic is an extreme Serbian nationalist and the book is (among other things) a rather unpleasant political allegory (see my earlier comment for more).

I don't think it's fair to compare it to Triumph of the Will. The political allegory wasn't clear to me, or, I'd wager, most of the book's Western readers, until I read your comment (admittedly I'm pretty thick about these things). So unlike Triumph of the Will (where the film is literally meaningless without the ideological reference points) the political point it's making is clearly not an essential or inalienable part of the narrative. Even if that was his intention, he didn't succeed, at least outside of the Balkans. It's analogous to The Chronicles of Narnia, I think. I was pretty immersed in those stories as a wee lad, totally oblivious to the Christian proselytizing. They made a great yarn regardless, and they still do.
posted by nasreddin at 7:55 AM on September 22, 2008


I don't think it's fair to compare it to Triumph of the Will.

I do, and I think the reason you don't is that, as you say, the political allegory wasn't clear to you. If you showed Triumph of the Will to an audience that knew nothing about Nazism or twentieth-century history, they'd enjoy the great cinematography and impressive scenes and it would never enter their heads that it might be somehow offensive. I think the political point Pavic is making is an essential part of the narrative; in fact, I think it's the reason he wrote the book. And I didn't retroactively change my opinion of the book after reading and enjoying it because I found out about Pavic's politics; it became clear to me as I read that it was really about the Serbs, just because I knew a fair amount about the history of Yugoslavia and Serb nationalism. It's straight-up allegory, but of course if you don't know the background you miss the allegory.
posted by languagehat at 8:10 AM on September 22, 2008


Or look at the Cantos, for another example. It's impossible to disentangle the anti-Semitic anti-usury weirdness from the overall epic story he's telling, no matter how much we might like to do so. But I think as a whole, the poem actually becomes stronger because of the way his economics play into the cycle of ascent and decline. He puts it to great use as a motif, and it adds a particular kind of resonance that would not otherwise be accessible.

You can admire the way a politically-inflected thematic element functions in a work without, strictly speaking, agreeing with it. (And of course you can agree with a work's politics without liking the way they're used--I feel that way about Zola's work, for instance.) Which is what separates a gifted anti-Semite like Celine from a bad anti-Semite like Hitler. In Pavic's case, I think the misunderstood-downtrodden-Serbs element really contributes to the pathos of the book.

Similar themes, incidentally, are at work in a lot of great Russian literature as well.
posted by nasreddin at 8:14 AM on September 22, 2008




Koestler's book was also a response to his own background, having been raised in Budapest and identiying throughout his life as a Hungarian Jew. The post WWI period in Hungary was marked by antisemitism, and Hungarian nationalists - to this day - bristle at the idea that the Magyars had spent several centuries as vassals of the Jewish Khazars. During the 1930s one of the most widely quoted antisemitic books in Hungary was entitled "In Khazar Land" - a snark at purported Jewish domination. The theme is still very much alive in Hungarian right wing circles, and makes historical discussions a rather tricky indulgence around here (I live in Budapest.)

On the other hand, Jewish scholarship tends to dismiss the Khazars and any discussion of their continuity as predecessors of the Ashkenazic population out of hand. Part of the reason is exactly as Koestler surmised: if the Turkic Khazars play a role in Ashkenazic DNA, then a major pillar of political Zionism (and Koestler was a strong Zionist) gets rather shakey. As far as religious Jews are concerned, Khazar blood collides with the idea that being born Jewish is a genetic link to chosen-peopleness. Better the Khazars dissappear as a footnote to history than as the reason that Grandma and Grandpa were red haired and tall.

As all Central Asian Turkic confederations did, the descendants of the Khazars melded into the next confederation... some became Ghuzz Turks, some eventually became Ogur or Cumans or Tatars over the periods of history. The Turkic speaking Crimean Karaim claim Khazar descent, but that may well be a response to a long and tragic history political manipulation.

Some Khazars may have held on to a Jewish identity and settled in East Europe, as did the Kabar branch who became one of the Hungarian confederation tribes. Hungary's first king, Istvan, treated Jews well and had several in his court (well before anybody talked about Ashkenazim.) We have a village named "Kazar Church" in Tolna county. But Koestler - to political manipulation. typical for a Hungarian essayist - did not provide footnotes or sources for many of his claims.
posted by zaelic at 12:23 PM on September 22, 2008


Oops. Brain fart... That last sentence should have been: But Koestler - typical for a Hungarian essayist - did not provide footnotes or sources for many of his claims
posted by zaelic at 12:26 PM on September 22, 2008


lh: "Michael Chabon's Gentlemen of the Road, on the other hand, is not only a terrific read but ideologically acceptable"

That's kind of a scary thing to read coming from you, languagehat.
posted by Baby_Balrog at 2:01 PM on September 22, 2008


It was pretty much a joke. I just meant you didn't have to swallow any vicious nationalism to enjoy it.
posted by languagehat at 2:29 PM on September 22, 2008


Pavic is an extreme Serbian nationalist and the book is (among other things) a rather unpleasant political allegory (see my earlier comment for more). I don't mind people enjoying the book, but they should know what it is they're enjoying; one can admire Triumph of the Will as a work of cinematic art, but it's important to know the context.

Well, thanks to the famous "death of the author", Pavic's own personality & political intentions didn't come into my reading of the book at all, which I read as a rich, layered, Borges-like historical mystery.

Then again, I'm also a bit partial to the very brutal kinds of works that came out of the Balkans as the former Yugoslavia was splitting at the seams. The film Cabaret Balkan is another big favourite. Underground, especially amongst Kusturica's movies, has a very bleak subtext, too.

Also, just to belabor the obvious, it's a novel, and has the same relation to actual history as, say, Shakespeare's history plays.

No way! I refuse to believe that there weren't actual dream hunters, or men who ate salt only on thursdays & grew their moustaches only on one side in order to catch the afternoon wind, because the morning breeze is the breath of Satan.
posted by UbuRoivas at 2:30 PM on September 22, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, all that stuff was true, of course.

And yeah, I like Balkan bleakness too (though not as much as Russian bleakness); I just think awareness is a good thing. (It pisses me off that Rebecca West fell so hard for the Serbs' self-mythologizing that she mocked the people they oppressed and celebrated uncritically pretty much everything they did; it seriously mars Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, another wonderful, compulsively readable book, for me.)
posted by languagehat at 2:51 PM on September 22, 2008


Actually, the dark humour and almost absurdist violence that permeates a lot of the recent Balkan works reminds me a lot of the Russian writer, Daniel Kharms.
posted by UbuRoivas at 4:19 PM on September 22, 2008


I like it for the pictures.






Oh, and the hypertextual postmodern ergodic text that only makes sense after the fifth read through.
posted by exlotuseater at 10:25 PM on September 22, 2008


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