Alternate History

Khazars (Byzantine Khazaria)

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Khaganate of Khazaria
Khazar Khaganate
Timeline: Byzantine Khazaria

OTL equivalent: Russia, Ukraine
KhazarFlagB No coa
Flag Coat of Arms
Anthem "None"
(and largest city)
Language Khazar
  others Byzantine Orthodoxy
Ethnic Groups
  others Russian
Government Khaganate

The Khazars were a semi-nomadic Turkic people from Central Asia who dominated the Pontic steppe and the North Caucasus from the 7th to the 10th century. The name "Khazar" seems to be tied to a Turkic verb form meaning "wandering".

In the 7th century, the Khazars founded an independent Khaganate in the Northern Caucasus along the Caspian Sea. Although the Khazars were initially Tengri shamanists, many converted to the Abrahamic faiths through interaction with the Byzantine Empire and successive Islamic caliphates; during the 8th or 9th century, the Khaganate adopted Judaism as the state religion. At their height, the Khazars and their tributaries controlled much of what is today southern Russia, western Kazakhstan, eastern Ukraine, Azerbaijan, large portions of the Northern Caucasus (Circassia, Dagestan), parts of Georgia, and the Crimea.


Early Khazar history is intimately tied with that of the Göktürk empire, founded when the Ashina clan overthrew the Juan Juan in 552 CE. It is known that in 515-516 Hunnic-savirs attacked Armenia. The widow of the Hunnic-Savir prince Bolakh Boariks concluded a peace with Byzantine in 527. Worth of notice is the fact that in 529 Prince Khosrau I of the Persian Empire fighting the social movement led by the Zoroastrian priest Mazdak forced numerous Jewish families that supported the movement to flee the country north of Caucasus Mountains. In 552 a western-Turkic khaganate is mentioned led by khagan Tumyn (or Tumen) out of the Ashina clan. There are some speculations that the Western portion of the Göktürk empire in the west became to be known as Avars. During that time there is mentioning of Savirs' and Khazars' attacks on Caucasus Albania.

The first significant appearance of the Khazars in history is their aid to the campaign of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) emperor Heraclius against the Sassanid Persians. The Khazar ruler Ziebel (sometimes identified as Tong Yabghu Khagan of the West Turks) aided the Byzantines in overrunning Georgia. A marriage was even contemplated between Ziebel's son and Heraclius' daughter, but never took place. During these campaigns, the Khazars may have been ruled by Bagha Shad and their forces may have been under the command of his son Buri-shad.

With the collapse of the Göktürk empire due to internal conflict in the 7th century, the western half of the Turkic empire split into a number of tribal confederations, among whom were the Bulgars, led by the Dulo clan, and the Khazars, led by the Ashina clan, the traditional rulers of the Göktürk empire. By 670, the Khazars had broken the Bulgar confederation, causing various tribal groups to migrate and leaving two remnants of Bulgar rule - Volga Bulgaria, and the Bulgarian khanate on the Danube River.

During the 7th and 8th centuries the Khazar fought a series of wars against the Umayyad Caliphate, which was attempting simultaneously to expand its influence into Transoxiana and the Caucasus. The first war was fought in the early 650 and ended with the defeat of an Arab force led by Abd ar-Rahman ibn Rabiah outside the Khazar town of Balanjar, after a battle in which both sides used siege engines on the others' troops.

A number of Russian sources give the name of a Khazar khagan, Irbis, from this period, and describe him as a scion of the Göktürk royal house, the Ashina. Whether Irbis ever existed is open to debate, as is the issue of whether he can be identified with one of the many Göktürk rulers of the same name. Several further conflicts erupted in the decades that followed, with Arab attacks and Khazar raids into Kurdistan and Iran. There is evidence from the account of al-Tabari that the Khazars formed a united front with the remnants of the Göktürks in Transoxiana.

Contact with the Byzantine Empire

Khazar overlordship over most of the Crimea dates back to the late 7th century. In the mid-8th century the rebellious Crimean Goths were put down and their city, Doros (modern Mangup) occupied. A Khazar tudun was resident at Cherson in the 690s, despite the fact that this town was nominally subject to the Byzantine Empire.

They are also known to have been allied with the Byzantine Empire during at least part of the 8th century. In 704/705 Justinian II, exiled in Cherson, escaped into Khazar territory and married Theodora, the sister of the Khagan Busir. With the aid of his wife, he escaped from Busir, who was intriguing against him with the usurper Tiberius III, murdering two Khazar officials in the process. He fled to Bulgaria, whose Khan Tervel helped him regain the throne. The Khazars later provided aid to the rebel general Bardanes, who seized the throne in 711 as Emperor Philippicus.

The Byzantine emperor Leo III married his son Constantine (later Constantine V Kopronymous) to the Khazar princess Tzitzak (daughter of the Khagan Bihar) as part of the alliance between the two empires. Tzitzak, who was baptized as Irene, became famous for her wedding gown, which started a fashion craze in Constantinople for a type of robe (for men) called tzitzakion. Their son Leo (Leo IV) would be better known as "Leo the Khazar".

Decline and Brief Revival

Numerous wars between the Khazars and the Arab caliphs raged during the eighth century, but seemed to stabilize in 758, when the Abbasid Caliph Abdullah al-Mansur ordered Yazid ibn Usayd al-Sulami, one of his nobles and military governor of Armenia, to take a royal Khazar bride and make peace. Yazid took home a daughter of Khagan Baghatur, the Khazar leader. Unfortunately, the girl died inexplicably, possibly in childbirth. Her attendants returned home, convinced that some Arab faction had poisoned her, and her father was enraged. A Khazar general named Ras Tarkhan invaded what is now northwestern Iran, plundering and raiding for several months. Thereafter relations between the Khazars and the Abbasid Caliphate (whose foreign policies were generally less expansionist than its Umayyad predecessor) became increasingly cordial.

Wars with the Kievan Rus' eventually threw the Khazars into decline. By the 900's, the Kievan Rus' had restricted the Khazars to Ukraine and Crimea, all that remained of traditional Khazaria. The Arab caliphate had broken up by this point, and the Seljuk Turks were beginning their migrations westward.

The Rus' warlords Oleg and Sviatoslav I of Kiev launched several wars against the Khazar khaganate. The Schechter Letter relates the story of a campaign against Khazaria by HLGW (Oleg) around 941 (in which Oleg was defeated by the Khazar general Pesakh); this calls into question the timeline of the Primary Chronicle and other related works on the history of the Eastern Slavs. Sviatoslav finally attacked Ukraine in the 960's. The Khazars, however, hired Bulgar mercenaries and fought back, prompting their allies, the Norse of Novgorod, who had recently united into the Russian Principality of Novgorod.

The death of Sviatoslav in battle against the Khazars marked the fall of the Kievan Rus. Due to his death and the murder of his alleged heirs, the Kievan Rus' quickly broke apart, degenerating into minor states and kingdoms. Having achieved victory over the Rus', the Khazars returned to Khazaria.

Although weakened due to the attacks of both Vikings from Kievan Rus' and various Turkic tribes, the Khazars managed to survive more or less intact through the 1000's. The Seljuk Turks, meanwhile, reached the borders of the Byzantines, and attacked both Armenia and Georgia in 1064. They invaded the Byzantine Empire in 1068, from which the Turkmen annexed all of Armenia and eastern Anatolia; Alp Arslan's decisive victory at the Battle of Manzikert (in 1071) effectively neutralized the Byzantine threat to his claims.

The Byzantines, meanwhile, absorbed the Georgian states to better combat the Turks; for the first time in history, the Greeks shared a direct border with the Khazars.

Peaceful Fall

By the time Alexios I of Byzantium had ascended the throne, the Seljuks had taken most of eastern Asia Minor. Alexius was able to secure much of the other Anatolian regions by campaigning a series of defensive movements against the Turks, but was unable to recover any lost territory. As early as 1090, Alexios had taken reconciliatory measures towards the Papacy, with the intention of seeking western support against the Seljuks. In 1095 his ambassadors appeared before Pope Urban II at the Council of Piacenza. The help which he wanted from the West was simply mercenary forces and not the immense hosts which arrived, to his consternation and embarrassment, after the pope preached the First Crusade at the Council of Clermont later that same year. Not quite ready to supply this number of people as they traversed his territories, the emperor saw his Balkan possessions subjected to further pillage at the hands of his own allies. Alexios dealt with the first disorganized group of Crusaders, led by the preacher Peter the Hermit, by sending them on to Cilicia, where they were massacred by the Turks in 1096.

ByzantineKhazaria 6

Although the fall of the Khazars is generally remembered as a peaceful annexation, some engagements did take place. In the above picture, the last Khazar Khagan is depicted with loyalist Khazars attempting to break the Byzantine siege of his final stronghold.

The second and much more formidable host of crusaders gradually made its way to Constantinople, led by the Holy Roman emperor and other important members of the German nobility. Many of the other Western medieval kingdoms were at the time paralyzed by various expansionist wars and unwilling to send troops. Alexios used the opportunity of meeting the crusader leaders separately as they arrived and extracting from them oaths of homage and the promise to turn over conquered lands to the Byzantine Empire. Transferring each contingent into Asia, Alexios promised to supply them with provisions in return for their oaths of homage. The crusade was a notable disappointment for Byzantium, as the Turks were able to destroy it and capture the German emperor.

Checked by the failure of the Crusade, the Byzantines turned their attention away from the Turks and, with the Crusading spirit in Western Europe broken, began focusing their attention elsewhere. First, Alexios used a considerable amount of diplomatic and military pressure to stabilize his western borders. He then turned his attention to the Khazars.

The conquest of Khazaria was done swiftly and with an impressive amount of little bloodshed. Crimea was the first to be completely absorbed, as the Khazar governor was bribed by the Greeks to join them and cede Crimea to them. As a reward, he was appointed Duke of Crimea. In the following years, all of the Khazar commanders in Ukraine had received offers to join the Byzantine ranks for considerable amounts of gold, corrupting the military and crippling the Khazars' ability to resist Byzantine conquest, accomplished through diplomacy instead of warfare.

With Crimea in Byzantine hands, the last Khazar Khagan attempted to raise his army to retake the region but was unsuccessful. Instead, finding his generals deserting him, he retreated to a castle in eastern Ukraine and refused to come out. After a week of siege, the Byzantines convinced the Khagan he could only profit by surrender. Indeed, the Khagan was allowed to retain control of Khazaria as a Byzantine-appointed governor. Thus, by 1114, the Khazars had quietly ceased to be as an independent nation.


The Khazars remained content under Byzantine rule, but the Eastern Orthodox Church began a series of religious reforms across Khazaria, bringing in Greek clergymen from Georgia to help convert the population. The Khagan was the force behind several plots against Alexios, however, ensuring his downfall. Frustrated with his growing unwillingness to cooperate with Constantinople, the emperor stripped him of his command and committed the ultimate insult: Turning over the title and office of governor to a common Black Khazar.

The would-be Khagan was then sent to fight a Bulgar tribe in the north, where he was taken prisoner. Alexios refused to pay the demanded ransom and the last of the Khazar rulers was executed by a Bulgar Khan as a warning to future Byzantine incursions into their territory.

Khazaria was rich in wax, honey, and animal hides, which the Khazars traded in Constantinople for glass, spices, and silks. The Khazars were favored for their tough and skilled horsemen, many of which were trained by the Byzantines in Crimea to police Khazaria's borders with the Bulgars. Depending mainly on local militia troops, the Byzantines were able to hold Khazaria without fear of overextending themselves.

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