The Khazars were a semi-nomadic Turkic people who created a powerful kingdom, Khazaria, 618-1048 CE, on the steppes of southern Russia, extending from the Crimean peninsula to Caucasus and northward to the foothills of the Urals. During the seventh- and eighth-centuries the Khazars allied themselves with Byzantium and fought a series of wars with the Umayyads and the Abbasids, but they always managed to maintain their independence. Nicely positioned at the crossroads of several important trade routes, Khazaria was one of greatest trading emporia of the medieval world. Many Khazars were pastoralists while others made good use of the abundance of fish in the Volga river or traded in sable skins, squirrel pelt, swords and honey. Another important commodity were slaves who were exported to the Arab caliphates. The Khazars had a centralized administration, a standing army, and exacted tribute from some thirty different tribes. The king was recruited from among the nobility in a ceremony in which he was asked how many years he wished to reign while simultaneously being throttled almost to death. At the end of his requested reign the king was killed.
Beginning in the eighth-century CE, the Khazar kings converted to Judaism while a majority of the population remained Tengrist, Christian or Muslims.[Read more: Tengrism] Some Jews who suffered from persecution elsewhere took their refuge in Khazaria and the kings saw themselves as defenders of Jews living outside of their own borders too. It could be that conversion to Judaism was a way to retain Khazar independence both from the Muslim caliphates and the Christians in Byzantium.
In the nineteenth-century, a few European scholars began arguing that the Jewish population of Europe are descendants of Khazarian Jews who had emigrated after the fall of their kingdom rather than descendants of Jews who originated in Palestine itself. The thesis which became widely known through Arthur Koestler’s book The Thirteenth Tribe, 1976, has been used in antisemitic propaganda and in order to undermine Israel’s claim to statehood. Yet the theory cannot possibly be true since not a sufficiently large portion of the Khazar population converted to Judaism and since not that many Khazars proceeded to emigrate to Europe.