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Khazars

The Khazars were a semi-nomadic people from Central Asia who adopted Judaism and whose descendants might now be spread over the world. They founded the independent Khazar kingdom in the 7th century C.E. in the southeastern part of today's Europe, near the Caspian Sea and the Caucasus. In addition to western Kazakhstan, the Khazar kingdom also included territory in what is now eastern Ukraine, southern Russia, and Crimea.

Their first significant appearance in history is their aid to the campaign of the Byzantine emperor Heraclius against the Persians. During the 7th and 8th centuries they fought a series of wars against the Islamic Arab Empire. Although they stopped the Arab expansion into Eastern Europe for some time after these wars, they were forced to withdraw behind the Caucasus, as well. Afterwards they extended their territories from the Caspian Sea in the east to the north of Black Sea in the west.

The Khazar royalty and nobility adopted Judaism, and later part of the general population followed. In the 8th or 9th century, their king, Bulan, was converted to Judaism. A later king, Obadiah, strengthened Judaism, inviting rabbis into the kingdom and building synagogues. His supreme court consisted of two Jews, two Christians, two Muslims, and a heathen. Religious toleration was maintained for the kingdom's three hundred plus years. By the year 950 Judaism had become a widespread faith.

In the 10th century the empire began to decline due to the attacks of both the Russians and other Turkic tribes, and their political significance greatly diminished toward the end of the 12th century.

To what extent, if any, East European Jews of today are descendants of the Khazars is the subject of debate; however, historians, onomasticians, and geneticists have demonstrated that the Khazars are not the dominant population element.

References:

Kevin Alan Brook, The Jews of Khazaria, 1st ed., Northvale, N.J.: Jason Aronson, 1999
Douglas M. Dunlop, The History of the Jewish Khazars, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1954
Arthur Koestler, The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and Its Heritage, New York: Random House, 1976

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