The Thirteenth Tribe

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

ph_0111207093-Koestler.jpg Arthur Koestler Published by Salem Press, Inc.

In The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and Its Heritage, Arthur Koestler has again, as with his book, The Midwife Toad, undertaken an exciting and fascinating study of a plausible but quite unsubstantiated theme. The Thirteenth Tribe attempts to demonstrate that most Ashkenazic Jews are descendants of the tribe of Khazars that dominated the area now known as south central Russia in the period between the seventh and the tenth centuries A.D. Thus, most Ashkenazic Jews, in Koestler’s view, are not Semites, but Khazars. The author develops this thesis through his analysis of the rise and fall of the Khazar Empire and his interpretation of the Khazar heritage.

Khazaria, whose inhabitants were of Turkish origin, lay between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, stretching from the Caucasus on the South to Kiev on the north and from the Volga on the east to the Dnieper on the west, and it served as a buffer separating Byzantium, the barbarian tribes of the steppes (Bulgars, Magyars, and eventually Vikings or Russians) and the Muslims to the south and east. Khazaria protected Byzantium from barbarian attacks and in the seventh and eighth centuries prevented the Arab conquest and conversion of the southern steppes. Curiously, around 740, the Khazars converted en masse to Judaism. But what happened to the Khazars in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, after the destruction of Khazaria, remains a mystery for which Koestler claims to provide the answer. He contends that the Khazars migrated to eastern Europe, settled in Russia, Poland, Hungary, and Lithuania, and came to make up the bulk of Ashkenazic Jews.

The Khazars developed a fairly high level of civilization during the four centuries of the height of their empire. Starting as a group of fierce nomadic tribes, they settled into cities and became farmers, cattle raisers, traders, and craftsmen. They established lines of frontier fortifications that permitted for a time a stable development of the interior of Khazaria. The Khazars established hegemony over such tribes as the Bulgars, Magyars, Ghuzz, and the northwestern Slavonic tribes. Khazar armies raided Georgia to the south and the Arab Empire.

Their origin is believed to be Hun and they are spoken of as “Turks.” Koestler was convinced that they were of Turkish origin and in the fifth century A.D. emerged from the Asian steppes. The earliest accounts indicate that they were under the sovereignty, with other tribes, of Attila, and, following his death, became the major power in the region, subduing such tribes as the Sabirs, the Saragurs, the Samandars, the Balanjars, and the Bulgars. By the middle of the seventh century they controlled what the Byzantines referred to as the “Kingdom of the North.”

The major kingdoms of the region were Khazaria, Christian Byzantium, and the Muslim Caliphate. Alliances were made especially between Byzantium and Khazaria to prevent Arab conquest of eastern Europe. The Khazars bore the brunt of the Arab attacks and saved eastern Europe from the Arabs at about the same time that Charles Martel stopped the Arab thrust to conquer western Europe. From their efforts against the Muslims, the Khazars extended their domination into the Crimea and the Ukraine. By the early eighth century Khazaria was a powerful empire ruled by its Kagan (King) and able to muster armies of 100,000 and even 300,000, according to Arab sources.

Not only did the Khazars play the crucial role in the containment of the Arabs in the east, but they also were significantly involved in political struggles and intrigues within the Byzantine Empire, supporting some and opposing other Emperors or would-be Emperors. The Khazars also served as a conduit to spread Persian and Byzantine arts and crafts among the uncivilized tribes, and developed on their own a comparatively high level of civilization. Although their art and culture were derivative, they were of high quality, and the Khazars enjoyed the cosmopolitanism of urban living, focused first on the fortress of Balanjar, later on the city of Samandar, and finally on the city of Itil.

The Khazars were a fiercely independent tribe and Koestler argues that their conversion to Judaism was the result of that desire to remain independent from their Muslim and Christian neighbors. Khazaria, equaling the Byzantine and the Islamic empires in stature and military prowess, recognized that acceptance either of Christianity or of Islam would mean subordination to the authority either of the Byzantine Empire or the Caliph of Baghdad. In the midst of this dilemma they settled on a religion that would preserve Khazar independence—Judaism.

The choice in behalf of Judaism did not take place at once. As a cosmopolitan society, Khazaria contained Christians, Arabs, and Jews. There had, in fact, been a constant stream of Jewish refugees who had fled wave after wave of Byzantine persecution and torture in every century from the sixth through the tenth. Only in Khazaria could Jews find a refuge and the toleration that was lacking everywhere in the Christian world. They in turn, brought the culture and crafts of the Christian world to Khazaria and reinforced the atmosphere of toleration that existed there and that aroused the admiration of Arab visitors. In turn, the Jews of Khazaria apparently lived exemplary lives so that they were admirable models and served as an inducement for conversion.

The conversion apparently took place in two steps. The first was to a rudimentary Judaism primarily involving the Kagan, King Bulan, and the Court. Some generations after the...

(The entire section is 2298 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 19)

Atlantic. CCXXXVIII, September, 1976, p. 97.

Saturday Review. III, August 21, 1976, p. 40.

Spectator. CCXXVI, April 10, 1976, p. 19.

Time. CVIII, August 23, 1976, p. 60.

Times Literary Supplement. June 11, 1976, p. 696.

Wall Street Journal. CLXXXVIII, August 11, 1976, p. 12.