MOSCOW: A Russian archaeologist says he has found the lost capital of the Khazars, a powerful nation that adopted Judaism as its official religion more than 1,000 years ago, only to disappear leaving little trace of its culture. Dmitry Vasilyev, a professor at Astrakhan State University, said his nine-year excavation near the Caspian Sea has finally unearthed the foundations of a triangular fortress of flamed brick, along with modest yurt-shaped dwellings, and he believes these are part of what was once Itil, the Khazar capital.
By law, Khazars could use flamed bricks only in the capital, said Mr. Vasilyev. The general location of the city on the Silk Road was confirmed in medieval chronicles by Arab, Jewish and European authors. “The discovery of the capital of Eastern Europe’s first feudal state is of great significance,” he said, adding: “We should view it as part of Russian history.”
The Khazars were a Turkic tribe that roamed the steppes from Northern China to the Black Sea. Between the 7th and 10th centuries they conquered huge swaths of what is now southern Russia and Ukraine, the Caucasus Mountains and Central Asia as far as the Aral Sea.
Itil, about 1,287 km south of Moscow, had a population of up to 60,000 and occupied 2.1 square km of marshy plains southwest of the Russian Caspian Sea port of Astrakhan, said Mr. Vasilyev. It lay at a major junction of the Silk Road, the trade route between Europe and China, which “helped Khazars amass giant profits,” he added. The Khazar Empire was once a regional superpower, and Mr. Vasilyev said his team has found “luxurious collections” of well-preserved ceramics that help identify cultural ties of the Khazar state with Europe, the Byzantine Empire and even North Africa. They also found armour, wooden kitchenware, glass lamps and cups, jewellery and vessels for transporting precious balms dating back to the 8th and 9th centuries.
The Khazar dynasty and nobility converted to Judaism sometime in the 8th or 9th centuries. Mr. Vasilyev said the limited number of religious artefacts such as mezuzahs and Stars of David found at other Khazar sites prove that ordinary Khazars preferred traditional beliefs such as shamanism, or newly introduced religions, including Islam.
The Khazars succeeded in holding off the Arabs, but an expanding Russian state vanquished their empire in the 10th century. Medieval Russian epic poems mention Russian warriors fighting the “Jewish Giant.” “In many ways, Russia is a successor of the Khazar state,” said Mr. Vasilyev. The dig revealed traces of a large fire that was probably caused by the Russian conquest. He said Itil was rebuilt after Khazars were slowly assimilated by Turkic-speaking tribes, Tatars and Mongols, who inhabited the city until it was flooded by the Caspian Sea around the 14th century. — AP
6 months ago