THE KNIGHTS OF THE STEPPES AND FOOTHILLS

The Alans were the most easterly of the Sarmatian nations and the most durable, occupying the northern part of the lands between the Black Sea and the Caspian at least until the end of our period, subjugated in turn by the Huns, Khazars and Mongols, but always re-emerging. They differed from the other Sarmatians in being blonde instead of dark, and in that not all ever became armoured lancers. Arrian’s 2nd century AD “Order of Battle Against the Alans” assumes that all Alans will charge, but will be vulnerable to infantry missiles while doing so, which implies that most did not have horse armour. Some did, since it was reported later among Alans settled in Brittany. Elsewhere, Arrian says of Roman cavalry “some carry conti and charge in the Alan and Sarmatian fashion”. Alans were still charging desperately against the Catalan company in the 14th century, although by then certainly mostly light horse. Although not themselves especially aggressive as a nation, they frequently sent contingents to help others that were, leading to various short-lived settlements of conquerors or foederati scattered over the later Roman west and in due course absorbed by neighbouring cultures. They are typified by Claudian as the “restless Alans”.

The Magyars were a Finno-Ugrian race who moved west on to the steppes in the 5th century, becoming subject allies of the Khazars after 650. They became independent again early in the 8th century, but remained on friendly terms with their former overlords and continued to provide them with allied contingents until 896, when, as a result of incursions into their former territory by the Pechenegs and Danube Bulgars, the Magyars migrated to the plains of the middle Danube, where they settled down to rule a sedentary population of Slavs. They were joined in this migration by the Kavars – according to Konstantinos Porphyrogenitos comprising three rebel Khazar tribes of “the Khazars’ own race”. These subsequently provided the personal following of the Kende, the highest spiritual leader of the tribes, and the Gyula, the C-in-C of the combined armies. In 896 the Kende was Kurszan, but the real leader was the Gyula, Arpad. The Szekely, who served as the vanguard of the army and were later entrusted with the defence of the eastern border, may also have been Kavars, or may have been Avar remnants already in the area. The so-called Magyars themselves in fact comprised seven tribes, the Nyék, Megyeri, Kürtgyarmat, Tarjan, Jeno, Kér and Keszi, although some historians regard only the first two as Hungarian, considering the others to have been of “Bulgaro-Turkish” origin. Increasing prosperity saw the Magyar nobles joined by a new class of gentry. Very large Magyar armies raided far into Western Europe between 899 and their defeat at the Lechfeld in 955.

The Khazars were unusually devious even for nomads, and adopted Judaism in the 8th century as a political ploy to counterbalance their Christian and Moslem neighbours It has been suggested that they are the ancestors of the East European Sews providing the majority of modern Israelis. The Khaganate maintained a standing “Royal Army~’ of full time paid cavalry According to al-Masudi. most were armed with bow, but some with lance “like the Muslims” As al-Masudi wrote in the mid-luth century, the lancers were probably also armed with bow, like the ‘morasanian-Turkish ghulants then typical of Muslim armies. Ibn Hawkal says that there were 12,000 cavalry in the Royal Army. 4,000 of them Muslims Masudi says that the Muslims were refugees from Khwarisnn, and served on the condition that they were not obliged to fight against their co-religionists. This nucleus was supplemented for major campaigns with levies from the Ihaaars’ numerous subject tribes

Over time, a finely balanced status quo developed, providing stability and considerable prosperity across the western steppe. Its linchpin was a part of the Türk tribal grouping that had come to dominate the area north of the Black and Caspian Seas. The Khazars, as they were known, ruled the steppes north of the Black Sea and became increasingly prominent because of the military resistance they put up during the period of the great conquests in the decades following Muammad’s death. Their effectiveness against the Muslim armies won them the support of a constellation of other tribes who united under their leadership. It also caught the attention of the Roman emperors in Constantinople who understood that there were mutual benefits to be had from striking an alliance with the dominant force on the steppes. So important were the Khazars as allies that in the early eighth century two marriage alliances were arranged between the ruling houses of Khazaria and Byzantium – the name normally given to what remained of the Roman Empire in this period.

From the point of view of Constantinople, Byzantium’s capital, imperial marriages with foreigners were rare; alliances with steppe nomads were all but unprecedented. The development is a clear indication of how important the Khazars had become in Byzantine diplomatic and military thinking at a time when pressure on the empire’s eastern frontier in Asia Minor from the Muslims was acute. The rewards and prestige given to the Khazar leader, the khagan, had a significant impact on Khazar society, strengthening the position of the supreme ruler and paving the way for stratification across the tribe as gifts and status were handed down through the tribe to chosen elites. It had the further effect of encouraging other tribes to become tributaries, paying tribute in return for protection and rewards. According to Ibn Falān, the khagan had twenty-five wives, each a member of a different tribe and each the daughter of its ruler. A source written in Hebrew in the ninth century likewise talks of tribes that were subject to the Khazars, with the author uncertain if there were twenty-five or twenty-eight tributaries. Peoples like the Poliane, Radmichi and Severliane were among those who recognised the overlordship of the Khazars, enabling the latter to strengthen their position and become the dominant force on the western steppe in what is now Ukraine and southern Russia.

Rising levels of trade and long periods of stability and peace triggered profound transformation within Khazar society. The way the leadership of the tribe functioned underwent a change, with the role of the khagan becoming increasingly removed from day-to-day affairs and his position evolving into a sacral kingship. Lifestyles also changed. With strong demand in neighbouring regions for the produce grown, managed and produced by the Khazars and their tributaries, as well as for the fruits of long-distance commerce, settlements began to spring up that eventually developed into towns.

By the early tenth century, the bustling city of Atil served as a capital, and permanent home to the khagan. Straddling the Lower Volga, it was home to a cosmopolitan set of inhabitants. So sophisticated was the city that there were separate courts to resolve disputes according to different customary laws, presided over by judges who would rule on disputes between Muslims, between Christians or even between pagans – while there was also a mechanism in place for how to resolve the matter if the judge was unable to reach a verdict.

Atil, with its felt dwellings, warehouses and royal palace, was just one of the settlements that changed how the nomads lived. Other towns grew up in Khazar territory as a result of rising commercial activity, such as Samandar, where wood buildings were characterised by their domed roofs that were presumably modelled on traditional yurts. By the early ninth century, there were sufficient numbers of Christians across Khazaria to merit the appointment not only of a bishop but of a metropolitan – effectively an archbishop – to minister to the faithful. Evidently there were also substantial Muslim populations in Samandar and Atil as well as elsewhere, something that is clear from reports in the Arabic sources of large numbers of mosques built across the region.

The Khazars themselves did not adopt Islam, but they did take on new religious beliefs: in the middle of the ninth century, they decided to become Jewish. Envoys from Khazaria arrived in Constantinople around 860 and asked for preachers to be sent to explain the fundamentals of Christianity. ‘From time immemorial,’ they said, ‘we have known only one god [that is, Tengri], who rules over everything . . . Now the Jews are urging us to accept their religions and customs, while on the other hand the Arabs draw us to their faith, promising us peace and many gifts.’

A delegation was therefore dispatched with the aim of converting the Khazars. It was led by Constantine, best known by his Slavonic name Cyril and for the creation of the eponymous alphabet he devised for the Slavs – Cyrillic. A formidable scholar like his brother Methodius, Constantine stopped on his way east to spend the winter learning Hebrew and familiarising himself with the Torah in order to debate with Jewish scholars also heading to the khagan’s court. When they arrived in the Khazar capital, the envoys took part in a highly charged series of debates against rivals who had been invited to present Islam and Judaism. Constantine’s erudition carried all before him – or so it seems from the account of his life which drew heavily on his writings. In fact, despite Constantine’s brilliance – he was told by the khagan that his comments about scripture were as ‘sweet as honey’ – the embassy did not have the desired effect, for the Khazar leader decided that Judaism was the right religion for his people.

A similar version of this story was being told a century later. News of the Khazar conversion had been received by astonished Jewish communities thousands of miles west, who eagerly tried to find out more about who the Khazars were and how they came to be Jewish. There was speculation that they might be one of the lost tribes of ancient Israel. The polymath asdai b. Shaprū, who was based in Córdoba in al-Andalus – that is, Muslim Spain – finally managed to make contact with the tribe. His endeavours to establish whether the Khazars were indeed Jewish or whether this was simply a tall tale put out by those wanting to win his favour had hitherto drawn a blank. When he finally received confirmation that it was indeed true that the Khazars were Jewish and, moreover, that they were wealthy and were ‘very powerful and maintain numerous armies’, he felt compelled to bow down and adore the God of heaven. ‘I pray for the health of my lord the King,’ he wrote to the khagan, ‘of his family, and of his house, and that his throne may be established forever. Let his days and his sons’ days be prolonged in the midst of Israel!’

Remarkably, a copy of the khagan’s reply to this letter survives, with the Khazar ruler explaining his tribe’s conversion to Judaism. The decision to convert, wrote the khagan, was the result of the great wisdom of one of his predecessors, who had brought delegations representing different faiths to present the case for each. Having pondered how best to establish the facts, the ruler had asked the Christians whether Islam or Judaism was the better faith; when they replied that the former was certainly worse than the latter, he asked the Muslims whether Christianity or Judaism was preferable. When they lambasted Christianity and also replied that Judaism was the less bad of the two, the Khazar ruler announced that he had reached a conclusion: both had admitted that ‘the religion of the Israelites is better’, he declared, so ‘trusting in the mercies of God and the power of the Almighty, I choose the religion of Israel, that is, the religion of Abraham’. With that, he sent the delegations home, circumcised himself and then ordered his servants, his attendants and all his people to do the same.

Judaism had made considerable inroads into Khazar society by the middle of the ninth century. Apart from references in Arabic sources to proselytisation by Jews in the decades before the arrival of the delegations at the khagan’s court and the fact that burial practices underwent a transformation during this period too, the recent discovery of a series of coins minted in Khazaria provides strong evidence that Judaism had been formally adopted as a state religion in the 830s. These coins bore a legend that provided a fine example of how faith could be packaged to appeal to disparate populations. The coins championed the greatest of the Old Testament prophets with the phrase Mūsā rasūl allāh: Moses is the messenger of God.

This was perhaps less provocative than it sounds, since the Qurān after all explicitly teaches that there should be no distinction between the prophets and that the message brought by all of them should be followed.48 Moses was accepted and revered in Islamic teaching, so praising him was in some ways uncontroversial. On the other hand, however, the evocation of Muammad’s special status as God’s messenger was a central element in the adhān, the call to prayer made from mosques five times a day. As such having Moses’ name on the currency was a defiant statement that the Khazars had an identity of their own that was independent of the Islamic world. As with the confrontation between the Roman Empire and the Muslim world in the late seventh century, battles were fought not just between armies, but also over ideology, language and even the imagery on coins.

In fact, the exposure of Khazars to Judaism had come about through two sources. First, there were long-standing Jewish communities that had settled in the Caucasus in antiquity which must have been galvanised by the economic development of the steppe.49 According to one tenth-century writer, many more were encouraged to emigrate to Khazaria ‘from Muslim and Christian cities’ after it became known that the religion was not only tolerated and officially sanctioned but practised by much of the elite. The correspondence between the Khazar ruler and asdai in Córdoba in the tenth century reports that rabbis were actively recruited, while schools and synagogues were built to ensure that Judaism was taught properly – with many chroniclers noting religious buildings dotted across the towns of Khazaria, as well as courts where decisions were reached after consultation with the Torah.

The second trigger for the rise in interest in Judaism came from traders who were drawn in from much further away, attracted by the emergence of Khazaria as a major international trade emporium – not only between the steppe and the Islamic world, but between east and west. As numerous sources attest, Jewish merchants were highly active in long-distance trade, playing much the same role that the Sogdians had played when connecting China and Persia around the time of the rise of Islam.

Jewish merchants were highly adept linguists, fluent in ‘Arabic, Persian, Latin, Frankish, Andalusian and Slavic’ according to one contemporary source. Based in the Mediterranean, they appear to have travelled regularly to India and China, returning with musk, aloe wood, camphor, cinnamon ‘and other eastern products’ which they traded along a chain of ports and towns that serviced markets in Mecca, Medina and Constantinople, as well as towns on the Tigris and the Euphrates. They also used overland routes, heading through Central Asia to China either via Baghdad and Persia or passing through Khazar territory on their way to Balkh and east of the Oxus river. One of the most important points on this axis was Rayy, just to the south of the Caspian (modern Iran), a city that handled goods coming from the Caucasus, from the east, from Khazaria and other locations on the steppe. It appears that these were first cleared through the town of Jurjān (Gorgan in northern Iran), presumably where customs duties were collected, before being taken to Rayy. ‘The most amazing thing’, wrote one Arabic author in the tenth century, ‘is that this is the emporium of the world.’

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