Khazar Khaganate

The Khazar Empire is an interesting and largely overlooked Turkic tribal Empire which was established in the late 6th Century. The Khaganate encompassed large areas of steppe in southern Russia, the Ukraine stretching as far east as modern Kazakhstan and south to parts of Georgia. They would finally be assimilated into the Mongol Empire of the Golden Horde.

The exact racial mix of the Khazars is unclear but they are normally classified as a Turkic tribe possibly made up of several tribes with a language closely related to ancient Bulgarian, the word Khazar is thought to mean wandering.  The 9th century saw the height of their power sometimes know as Pax Khazarica with dominance over the Pontic steppe but by the 10th century the Empire was under attack by various enemies including the Vikings and Rus as well as other steppe tribes. By the end of the Empire's decline the Khazars had ceased to be recognised as a separate identity

Arab –Khazar wars

During the 7th and 8th centuries the Khazars fought a series of wars in opposition to the expansion of the Umayyad Caliphate into the Caucasus. The first major war for the Khazars was in early 650 AD where they fought and defeated an Arab force led by Abd ar-Rahman ibn Rabiah near the town of Balanjar (thought to have been in modern Daghestan). The battle is noteworthy as both forces used siege engines on each other's forces. 

Raids between the rival powers restarted again around 710 but these were small scale with few battles. The city of Balanjar came under attack by Arab forces again in 722 (or possibly 723). The Umayyad soldiers were led by al-Djarrah ibn Abdullah but faced a robust defence by the Khazars who surrounded the town fortress with a barricade of 3,000 wagons.  The Arab troops were victorious and slaughtered most of the inhabitants taking much booty. The town was eventually rebuilt after the war and remained of great importance to the Khaganate but eventually declined and vanished from records around 1100 AD.

730 saw a Khazar force led by Prince Barjik invade northern Iran and defeat the Arab forces at the battle of Ardabil, killing the Arab commander and briefly holding the town. In 731 the Arab forces went on the offensive and defeated the Khazars at Mosul where Prince Barjik was killed. Umayyad forces then made steady progress across the Caucasus over the next few years, defeating another Khazar army led by Hazer Tarkhan in 737 and occupying the Khazar capital but due to domestic instability the Arab armies had to withdraw and Khazar regained its independence.

758 saw the last battle in the Arab-Khazar wars after a Khazar force under Ras Tarkhan invaded parts of Azerbaijan.  Tarkhan is thought to mean “general of the Alans” and possibly indicates a role as an auxiliary or mercenary commander. An interesting result of the Arab wars was that the Khazars replaced their traditional Tengri faith with Judaism as the state religion with much of the nobility and royalty converting

Khazar relations with the Byzantine Empire

The Khaganate had close ties with Byzantium and their troops often fought along side each other against Arabian and Sassanid Persian forces during the 7th century.  During this campaign they aided Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in overrunning Georgia and a marriage to Heraclius’s daughter was even considered for a Khazar prince.

By the late 7th century the Khazars ruled over most of the Crimea with a rebellion by Crimean Goths being put down in the 8th century. Throughout the 8th century the Khanagate was allied to various Byzantine rulers and at times help various rebels including General Bardanes who became Emperor Philippicus in 711. Byzantine Emperor Leo III even married his son to a Khazar princess whose famous wedding gown started a craze in Constantinople while their son (Leo IV Emperor 775-780) was known as 'Leo the Khazar'

By the 10th century the alliance with Byzantium had begun to fracture with Khazar forces clashing in the Crimea.  The mid 9th century saw the Byzantines forging alliances with the Rus and Pechenegs, traditional enemies of the Khazars and Emperor Constantine VII openly discussing ways in which the Khazars could be weakened and destroyed.

Kabar Rebellion

During the 9th century a group called the Kabars made up of 3 Khazar tribes rebelled, possibly as part of a rejection of the conversion to Judaism by the royalty, although the Khazars many faiths throughout the population. The Kabars were defeated and joined the Magyar confederacy. As the 9th century came to a close the Khazars allied with Oghuz to attack the Pecheneg Tribe driving this tribe westward where they displaced the Magyars who had been vassals of the Khaganate. The Magyars under their chief Lebedias fled west and settled in modern day Hungary. With the Magyars gone the Khazars lost control of the Northern Steppes of the Black Sea

Wars against the Rus

Rus and various Norse factions were originally allies of the Khazars and some Rus tribes were heavily influenced by the Khazars as they often traveled through the Khaganate to raid areas around the Caspian and Black Seas. These raids were profitable to the Khazars as they often demanded half the booty in return for granting safe passage to the Rus. The Rus also used the trade route along the Volga with Khazar consent but the raids on Muslim lands by Varangian Rus led to unrest by the Muslim population of the khaganate so the Khazar Ruler Joseph closed down access to the route for the north men provoking a war against the Rus in 960AD. Joseph is thought to have said “I have to wage war with them, for if I would give them any chance at all they would lay waste the whole land of the Muslims as far as Baghdad”

With the unofficial support of the Byzantines who were beginning to see the Khaganate as a threat the Rus launched several attacks on the Khazars finally destroying the power of the Khaganate by the late 960s with the Khazar limestone fortresses of Sarkel and Tamatarkha falling in 965 and the Empire's capital Atil being destroyed around 969, so complete was the loot of the city by the Rus that a contemporary wrote “no grape or raisin remained, not a leaf on a branch”

Khazar military system

The armies of the Khaganate were led by a Bek with lesser generals known as tarkhans. A typical force is illustrated by the force which invaded Armenia in 758. This force included Muslim auxiliary forces known as Arsiyah possibly of Alan decent but it is unclear whether these mercenaries were made up of one or several tribes. Interestingly these Muslim forces were exempt from fighting against fellow Muslims.

The Bek could call upon a mainly cavalry standing army which was swelled by tribal levies and auxiliaries from subject nations of the empire (mainly steppe tribes). Khazar mercenaries could also be found serving the armies of the Caliphate and other Islamic states as well as serving the Byzantine Empire as well forming a company in the Imperial Hetaireia bodyguard

How to cite this article: Dugdale-Pointon, T. (14 June 2011), Khazar Khaganate,

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