TALES ABOUT JEWISH KHAZARS IN THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE
RESOLVE AN OLD DEBATE.

 

 

During the past two centuries, one of the major controversies surrounding the kingdom of the Khazars was about the ultimate religion(s) and geographic destination(s) of its Jewish inhabitants.  Moses Shulvass, writing in The History of the Jewish People in 1982, indicated that the fate of the Khazarian Jews “basically remains an enigma.” (Shulvass 2:118)  Now, an exciting new discovery has at long last demonstrated the integration of specifically Jewish Khazars with other rabbinical Jews in an established Jewish community in a land outside of Khazaria itself.

 

Timothy S. Miller of Salisbury University (Salisbury, Maryland, U.S.A.) examined a set of miracle tales copied by Constantine Akropolites (c.1250-c.1324) in the early 14th century near the end of his version of the Life of Saint Zotikos (Vita Sancti Zotici).  He discovered that two of these tales describe Khazars who lived in Pera, a suburb of Constantinople in the Byzantine Empire, during the 11th century.  The tales allude to these Khazars’ intermarriage with other Jews of Pera, thus providing the first solid evidence of where Khazarian Jews settled after the destruction of the Khazar Empire in the 960s.  For some reason, Miller’s discovery was virtually ignored by scholars, both Jewish and non-Jewish, over the past decade and was not mentioned in any other publications about Khazars and Byzantine Jews.  One reason was that scholars had mistakenly thought that Akropolites’ texts represented “merely ornamented copies of earlier versions” and paid them no attention, but Miller found that they actually contain important new information about Saint Zotikos and his followers and that three of the miracle tales are not found anywhere else. (Miller [1994] 339-340)  According to Miller’s analysis, Akropolites probably copied these tales from an 11th century version of the Zotikos legend that is no longer in existence. (Miller [1994] 345)

 

Saint Zotikos lived during the early 4th century but was executed during the reign of Constantius II (337-361).  During his life he performed many compassionate deeds for lepers, such as saving many from the death penalty and providing them with food (including grains) and shelter.  He established a leprosarium (leper asylum) in Pera on the Galata Hill, on the opposite side of the Golden Horn from Constantinople, and it became a refuge where increasing numbers of lepers arrived to seek to be cured.  Akropolites’ Life of Saint Zotikos claims that people immediately cured themselves of leprosy by annointed their bodies with lamp oil in the Zotikos leprosarium or by accepting Christianity, neither of which is an actual medical cure.  But while the religiously-inspired storyline is not totally believable, the basic geographic and demographic circumstances are authentic.

 

Akropolites’ first Khazar-themed miracle tale tells about a man of Khazar ancestry who was suddenly struck with leprosy.  Seeking a cure, he visited the Zotikos leprosarium and recovered from his leprosy as soon as he annointed himself with the magic lamp oil from above Zotikos’ tomb. (Miller [1994] 365)  The second tale introduces this man’s sister, who is described as both a follower of Judaism and the wife of a Jew.  She, too, had contracted leprosy.  Her brother was at this time a Christian.  He urged her to convert to Christianity, but “she held the views of the Hebrews and clung to the pattern of the law, and rejected the law of grace and truth.” (Miller [1994] 365)  Despite her repeated resistance to Christianity, her brother never ceased reading Christian holy texts to her and trying to convince her of Christianity’s alleged truth.  Finally, he became so desperate that he kidnapped her and locked her in the holy enclosure of the brothers of Christ.  Over the coming days he indoctrinated her with Christianity, and eventually she was baptized in holy water, which allegedly restored her health “as though she was born again.” (Miller [1994] 367)

 

Miller explained that the Jewish quarter in Pera was near a church (the Church of Saint Panteleemon) that is mentioned in the third of the three new miracle tales as well as near the leprosarium where the Khazar man got cured. (Miller [1994] 376.  See note I.)  The Jews of Pera originally had lived within Constantinople proper, but were moved to this undesirable section of Pera during the 11th century by the Byzantine government. (Miller [1991])  According to Miller’s analysis: “Since most Khazars were Jewish, they had settled within the district around Constantinople reserved for Byzantine Jews.” (Miller [1991])  That Judaism was indeed the primary religion of the Khazars is confirmed by numerous independent sources. (Brook [2003] 1823-1827)

 

There are only a few other traces of the Khazar diaspora in medieval documentation.  In The Book of Tradition, composed in 1161, Rabbi Abraham ibn Daud stated that he and his acquaintances met rabbinical Khazarian Jewish students who studied Judaism in Toledo, Spain during the 12th century. (Ibn Daud 93.  See note II.)  It is noteworthy that these Khazars still knew their identity almost two centuries after the Rus’ conquest of Khazaria.  Unfortunately, Ibn Daud did not say where the Khazar students’ homes were located.  It is also known that Khazars lived at one time in the Kozare district of Kiev’s suburb of Podol, which existed by 945. (Golb and Pritsak 57-58)  However, it is uncertain whether or not they were Jews, even though it is likely that they were.  The rabbinical Jewish community of Kiev that in the early 10th century wrote the Kievan Letter, a Hebrew document with a single Turkic word, may have had some Khazars among their members. (Golb and Pritsak 26-27, 31-32)  However, Avraham Torpusman and Moshe Gil argued that the Kievan Letter was composed and signed not by Khazarian Jews but by Judean Jews who had adopted local Slavic and Turkic names.  We do not know the religion(s) of the Kabar tribe(s) of Khazars who moved to Hungary at the end of the 9th century.

 

As for other Khazars residing in the Byzantine Empire, some Khazars had served the Byzantine emperors Leo VI (ruled 886-912) and Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (ruled 913-959) as imperial bodyguards at the gates of the palace in Constantinople. (Brook [2002] 513)  These Khazars swore their allegiance to the Byzantine state and attended Byzantine feasts and ceremonies, many of which were Christian-themed.  Due to the consistent anti-Judaism attitudes of the emperors and repeated efforts to convert Byzantine Jews to Christianity, it is unlikely that the Khazar guards were devout Jews.  During the 930s and 940s, as recorded by al-Masudi, Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos actively persecuted Jews and many of those who refused to convert fled to Khazaria. (Dunlop 89)  The second miracle tale about the Khazar woman forced to convert to Christianity is an excellent illustration of the notorious intolerance of medieval Byzantium.  The tale’s author wrote that the woman’s Jewish beliefs indicated that her soul “was infected by a disease more terrible than leprosy.” (Miller [1994] 365)  A Patriarch of Constantinople, Nikolas I Mystikos, wrote a letter around 920 in which he called the Jewish Khazars “a deluded nation, so nearly ravished from the bosom of piety by the evil demon.” (Brook [2002] 513)  Despite the friction between Khazars and Byzantines, the two sides still had trading relations in the 10th century, and the Schechter Letter, a Hebrew letter written by an anonymous Khazarian Jew, was evidently written in Constantinople and given to Hasdai ibn Shaprut’s messengers there.  However, it is clear that the anonymous Jew’s permanent home was in Khazaria, as he referred to Khazar King Joseph as his “master.”  The 12th century traveller Benjamin of Tudela only referred vaguely to traders from “Khazaria” who were not part of the permanent Byzantine Jewish community.

 

Thanks to Miller’s research and translation of Akropolites’ version of the Life of Saint Zotikos, we now know one place where the Jewish Khazars lived after Khazaria was extinguished: the Byzantine Empire.  It is significant that we learned that these Khazars lived with and married other rabbinical Jews rather than Karaites.  There were already Karaites in Constantinople by the early 11th century but they lived in their own separate quarter, separated by a wall from the larger rabbinical Jewish community.  It remains to be demonstrated whether Jewish Khazars also moved to, and stayed in, such other countries and regions as Kievan Rus, Hungary, Poland, Spain, or Daghestan.  The suggestion that Khazars merged with Ashkenazi Jews has been raised repeatedly, such as by Léon Alhadeff, but direct proof is still lacking. (Alhadeff)  The hypothesis that Khazars merged with the Mountain Jews of the North Caucasus was asserted by, among others, Heiko Haumann, but again cannot be proved. (Haumann 6-7)  Others’ claims that the Jewish Khazars all converted to Christianity or Islam at the end of their history are equally speculative.

 

Despite the current lack of direct evidence connecting Ashkenazi Jews with Khazars, the new finding can be correlated with another known fact: that the 11th century Byzantine Jews of Constantinople had family, cultural, and theological ties with the Jews of Kiev.  For instance, some 11th-century Jews from Kievan Rus were participants in an anti-Karaite assembly held in either Thessalonica or Constantinople, most likely the former. (Pereswetoff-Morath 2:57)  Additionally, there is a record of a Slavic-speaking Jew of Kievan Rus who, evidently in the 11th century, travelled to Thessalonica to meet with a relative who served as a rabbi. (Pereswetoff-Morath 2:59-60)  Furthermore, the text of the Kievan Letter presents many similarities with the style of rhyming used in the liturgical poems of the Byzantine Jewish poet Eleazar ha-Qalir. (Golb and Pritsak 10-11)  The Slavic-speaking Jews of Kiev of the 10th-11th centuries, in turn, were probably some of the ancestors of the East Slavic-speaking Jews of eastern Europe of the 15th-17th centuries (who are documented in Beider Chapter 5) who subsequently mixed with Yiddish-speaking Jews to such an extent that they eventually lost their distinctive names and customs.  If we assume that both the medieval Byzantine Jewish and medieval Kievan Jewish communities were part-Khazar, and that distant descendants of these two communities later merged with Ashkenazim, then we can posit an unbroken connection between the Khazars and the modern Eastern European Jews for the first time.

 

Kevin Alan Brook

 

 

Notes

-I.            Historia by Michael Attaleiates is a source that indicates that the church was near the Jewish quarter.

-II.            Khazar King Joseph also wrote that his predecessor King Bulan learned the Talmud, implying that all other Khazarian Jews were also rabbinical.


Sources Cited

 

1. Alhadeff, Léon. “Les ethnies marginales du Judaïsme.”  Los Muestros No. 39 (June 2000).

2. Beider, Alexander.  A Dictionary of Ashkenazic Given Names: Their Origins, Structure, Pronunciation and Migrations.  Bergenfield, NJ: Avotaynu, 2001.

3. Brook, Kevin A.  “Khazar-Byzantine Relations.”  In: The Turks, vol. 1, eds. Hasan Celal Güzel, C. Cem Oguz, and Osman Karatay, pp. 509-515.  Ankara, Turkey: Yeni Türkiye, 2002.

4. Brook, Kevin A.  “Khazars and Judaism.”  In: The Encyclopaedia of Judaism, vol. 4, ed. Jacob Neusner, Alan J. Avery-Peck, and William Scott-Green, pp. 1821-1832.  Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2003.

5. Dunlop, Douglas M.  The History of the Jewish Khazars.  New York, NY: Schocken, 1967.

6. Golb, Norman, and Pritsak, Omeljan.  Khazarian Hebrew Documents of the Tenth Century.  Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1982.

7. Haumann, Heiko.  A History of East European Jews.  Budapest, Hungary: Central European University Press, 2002.

8. Ibn Daud, Abraham.  The Book of Tradition, ed. Gerson D. Cohen.  Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1967.

9. Miller, Timothy S.  "The Miracle Tales of Saint Zotikos, Khazars, and the Jews of Pera."  In: Seventeenth Annual Byzantine Studies Conference, 8-10 November 1991: Abstracts, pp. 17-18.  Brookline, MA: Hellenic College, Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, 1991.

10. Miller, Timothy S.  "The Legend of Saint Zotikos According to Constantine Akropolites."  Analecta Bollandiana 112 (1994): 339-376.

11.Pereswetoff-Morath, Alexander.  A Grin Without a Cat.  Volume 2: Jews and Christians in Medieval Russia – Assessing the Sources.  Lund, Sweden: Lund University, 2002.

12. Shulvass, Moses A.  The History of the Jewish People.  Volume 2: The Early Middle Ages.  Chicago, IL: Regnery Gateway, 1982.

 

 

About the Author:  Kevin Alan Brook is the author of The Jews of Khazaria (Jason Aronson Publishers, 1999) and contributed to The Encyclopaedia of Judaism Vol. 4 (Brill, 2003) and The Turks Vol. 1 (Yeni Türkiye, 2002).  His article "The Origins of East European Jews" appeared in volume 30 of the journal Russian History/Histoire Russe.  Since 1995, Brook has maintained the website of the American Center of Khazar Studies (Khazaria.com).  His report on the medieval Jewish community in Eghegis, Armenia appeared in the December 2001 issue (No. 45) of Los Muestros.

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