Mr. Finkel, thank you for agreeing to this interview. There are many gaps in the history of Judaism in Azerbaijan, and with your help, we would like to learn more about the arrival of first Jews in this region, from where and when they came here, what the role of the Khazar Khaganate was, what kind of state it was, its religions, cultural heritage, and so on.
Thank you for inviting me. Yes, this is a fascinating part of history, and the Khazar Khaganate is very interesting in itself. In its heyday, the Khaganate occupied part of the territory of modern Azerbaijan, the territory of modern Georgia and Armenia, the entire North Caucasus, southern regions of Russia, Ukraine, right up to Kyiv. It was an enormous Turkic state that fought throughout its entire existence with two main enemies, the Byzantine Empire and the Arabs. The Khazars were accomplished warriors, they defeated the Arabs many times. They were brilliant soldiers, fantastic horsemen and archers. It is worth noting that the Khazars were the first to introduce a double-edged saber, and the Khazar bow was the best, hitting targets from a distance of hundreds of meters. They used catapults, various types of weapons, and crushed the Arabs so badly that the Khazar cavalry even reached Mosul, which is only 150 km from Baghdad.
What religion did the Khazars practice at that time?
The Khazars had Tengrism. Tengri is the sky god, and his symbol is the color blue. The Khazars had a blue flag, and many Turkic states nowadays still have blue flags. And the religion was shamanism, Tengri was the god of the sky, the god of thunder, but he was not the only god. And although the Khazars did not make images of Tengri, and not a single picture, not a single statue of Tengri remains, they had other gods who competed with Tengri. At the turn of the 8th and 9th centuries, a young and strong khagan, Khagan Bulan, came to power in Khazaria. Having become the khagan, that is, the king, he declared that the pagan religion no longer suited him and had to be changed. The two empires with whom he was at war at the time already practiced monotheism: Islam and Christianity.
Documents of the Khazar-Judaic correspondence have survived: letters between Joseph, the last Khazar khagan, and Hasdai ibn Shaprut, a Jewish advisor to the Caliph of Cordoba. The Caliphate of Cordoba was very tolerant, Jews lived a very good life there. In this correspondence in Hebrew, Joseph gives an account of the entire history of Khazaria. He writes, “We are all descendants of Bulan, Bulanites,” as they began to call themselves. By the way, one of the beautiful lakes in Azerbaijan is named Khanbulan after Bulan. Joseph writes that an angel came to Bulan in a dream and told him, “The aspirations of your heart please God, but your actions do not. You need to find the right faith.” So, Bulan decides to organize a dispute, a well-known event described in many books, the “Khazar dispute”. Bulan invites representatives of Islam, Christianity, Judaism, and even various pagan faiths and arranges a dispute between them.
A large delegation of priests and theologians comes from Constantinople and from Arab countries. Jews are represented by the wise Rabbi Yitzhak ha-Sangari from Byzantium, the Greek city of Sangaros. The dispute continues for several days, but Bulan still cannot make a decision and resorts to a trick. He calls his advisor and tells him, “Approach in secret the representatives of each of the religions and tell them that I am almost ready to covert to their faith and ask them this tricky question: which of those two other faiths is closer to God?”
His messenger goes to the Christians and says that Bulan is almost ready to adopt their faith and be baptized, but tell me, he says, of those two other faiths, Islam and Judaism (because, paganism clearly does not count, as it is just not serious), which one is closer to God? The Christians say that Judaism is closer to God, because everything came from the Holy Land, the prophets were Jews, Jesus was a Jew, Christianity came out of Judaism, and so on. The second messenger goes to the Muslims and asks the same question. The Arabs say that Judaism is closer to God, whereas Christians have the Trinity, worship images and pray to their saints, which is almost like paganism, and Judaism is monotheism, all the prophets were Jews, and Isa was a Jew. Muhammad, the last prophet, is an Arab, but everyone else was Jewish, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s wives was Jewish, everything came from there, and so on. So, when Bulan hears this, he decides that Judaism is the religion the Khazars should adopt.
Secular scholars offer another argument. Bulan did not want the Khazars to be ruled by either empire. If he had converted to Islam, he would have become a vassal of the Islamic world, he would have lost independence. If he had embraced Christianity, he would then have to live under Byzantium: the empire would have appointed governors to supervise him and he would have to obey. He would have had to follow the politics of either one empire or the other. Bulan chose the independent path—he chose Judaism.
Another surviving document is called the “Schechter Letter”. This amazing thing was found in Cairo, in the archives of an ancient synagogue, where a colossal number of ancient documents and correspondences was stored. It was found at the end of the 19th century by the famous scientist and historian Solomon Schechter. Dating back to the end of the 9th century—imagine that!—the letter was written by the special envoy of the Khazar Khagan to the representatives of the Caliphate of Cordoba, most likely to the very same Hasdai ibn Shaprut, who was trying to improve relations between the two countries. Interestingly, the letter describes horrible antisemitism in the neighboring countries, saying that many Jews flee to Khazaria, where they find hospitality and brotherhood. Turkic peoples maintained very good relations that were devoid of nationalism. The author of the letter also says that Bulan had mixed Jewish and Turkic roots. There is a hypothesis that his father was a Jew, whose parents fled from the Arab Caliphate, and his mother was Turkic, a noble Khazar woman from the family of a bey who was close to the khagan.
Be as it may, an interesting empire appeared, with Judaism as the dominant religion. However, there was no discrimination against any other religions. Mosques were open, so were churches and pagan temples. Bulan ordered that there would be different judicial systems. People were judged each according to their religion: Muslims were judged by their Qadis, Christians by Christians, pagans by pagans, Jews by Jews. No one was forced to believe. In fact, it resembled modern Azerbaijan: multiculturalism, tolerance, respect for everyone, no radicalism, no hatred of other people.
I can quote one of the letters of the great Jewish leader of Iraq, Saadia Gaon, a sage and a rabbi. He writes, “The descendants of Bulan wrote to me and invited scientists from Iraq to take the census of the people, because many people were illiterate.” Before the conversion to Judaism, the khagans of Khazaria used runes, the so-called runic script. After the conversion, the correspondence was in Hebrew, but the language was local, the Khazar language, which was very similar to modern Azerbaijani, a Turkic language. There are many monuments that confirm that the people of Khazaria spoke a Turkic language. So, they came to Khazaria, they were paid a salary, and when they arrived in Khazaria, they kissed the ground. This is described by Saadia Gaon—they kissed the ground. I will explain why.
There were bloody massacres in the Byzantine Empire at the time: that was how the Byzantine emperors tried to forcibly baptize the Jews. Emperor Romanos, Emperor Leo, Emperor Constantine, Emperor Basil… Scum of the earth. In one of the notorious massacres, they brought in a thousand Jews to the square in Constantinople, put boards on them, hammered nails into them and feasted on them for several days. They set fire to synagogues, smashed houses, killed people, did terrible, hideous things. Then this bloody legacy, unfortunately, was inculcated in and adopted by many clerics of Greek churches. Not by all, I must stress, not all of them had blood on their hands, but the Byzantine Empire was notorious for this.
If we look at the Arab Caliphate, there were no massacres, but there was religious discrimination. Jews and Christians there had to wear clothing of certain colors and had no right to build houses higher than those of Muslims, to testify in court against Muslims. In many places, they were to cross to the other side of the street if a Muslim came towards them. There were very, very serious discriminatory laws. No wonder Jews fled to Khazaria.
Arab historians, such as Ibn Fadlan and many others, write about Khazaria, describing it as a very powerful, belligerent Turkic-Jewish state in which there were a lot of Turks and a lot of Jews. As for the adoption of Judaism and why this subject was hushed up…. Well, that was Comrade Stalin’s order. Khazarologist Artamonov and other scholars had special orders not to touch this subject. The capital of the Khaganate Atil was flooded—deliberately blown up and flooded, and there were a lot of artifacts there. They did not want to talk about the Khazar influence on Russia. Although the Byzantine Empire defeated Khazaria later with the help of Russia, that influence was still colossal. But let’s go back. Bulan created this empire and began to expand it. Worth mentioning is the Great Silk Road, which passed through this territory, and Khazaria was the center of business that connected China and Eurasia. An enormous number of merchants lived and traded in Khazaria. There were freedoms. Khazaria had amazing laws—10 percent tax.
Today, in the European Union only Switzerland has a 10 percent tax, and it is lauded as very nearly the greatest achievement of European civilization. But more than a thousand years ago, the Khazars had a tax of only 10 percent and this tax could also be expressed in commodity terms, that is, furs, spices, and other types of goods. They had a very liberal taxation system. We all grew up in the Soviet Union, and we all know Pushkin, the great poet who was a great-grandson of Hannibal, an African Jew, on the one hand, and a product of the Russian Orthodox system and the antisemitic world that existed in tsarist Russia, on the other.
He wrote this verse in his famous poem: “The wise Prince Oleg has set out to repay / Foolhardy Khazars with a vengeance; / For pillage, their dwellings and pastures as prey / To fire and sword the prince pledges.” Why foolhardy? Because they did not adopt Christianity. That was their foolhardiness. If they had adopted Christianity, they would have been considered reasonable, but since they stuck to Judaism, what reason is there to talk about? This is something that must be understood and seen as well. The image of Khazars as villains was created through Russian epics. If we look at The Tale of Bygone Years (or Primary Chronicle) and the epics of the Russian peoples, there is always an evil Khazar there, as a symbol of absolute evil. Those epics say the Khazars invaded and wreaked havoc, whereas it was actually completely different. There were vassal, adjacent territories/kingdoms, which the Khazars taxed (that 10 percent tax) and protected from enemies. For example, Alania—present-day Ossetia. Ossetians are Alans and most Alans converted to Judaism, which is also described in many documents.
About 65 percent of the Khazars converted to Judaism. How do we know this? Soviet Khazarology taught us that only the elite had adopted Judaism but the rest had not. This is not the case. We are studying this issue in Israel quite seriously, and numerous artifacts testify to something else. For example, a Khazar coin was found in 2000. The Khazars minted it, by the way, in the Arab Caliphate, because they most likely had no established minting business, and all inscriptions on the coin were in Arabic, but the formula of faith was different: “There is no God but God, and Moses is His messenger.”
“Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu….”
Yes, exactly. And it was an official government coin. In various settlements, burial mounds, we find artifacts, stones with depictions of menorahs, six-pointed stars, we see some classical Jewish patterns and ornaments. However, it is important to understand why so few Jewish artifacts have survived—Khazaria was mainly a nomadic state, people mostly lived in yurts, classic Turkic felt yurts. There were, roughly speaking, two seasons, one when there is grass and the other when there is no grass. If there was no grass, people drove their cattle to the pastures where there was grass. Life depended on this movement of the herds. People lived mostly in poverty, in yurts, and hardly anything could remain of felt. Only rich people had wooden houses. Only very rich people had stone houses. This is described by many Arab and Jewish travelers who visited in Khazaria. Only the rich and the aristocracy had stone houses.
And the synagogues.
Synagogues were also either yurts or wooden houses. Besides, the rabbi who studied and then brought Judaism to Khazaria believed, like all Jews of that time, that one could not make images of people. Judaism only allowed it a few hundred years ago. Before that, it was considered if not idolatry then something akin to it. There was a similar period in Islam, when making images of people was believed to be haram—
Was and still is. In Christianity as well: “You shall not make for yourself an idol.”
Yes, yes. So, there were no portraits, no statues, only some primitive ornaments and that was it. Architecturally, there was nothing special either. When it became necessary to build fortresses, fortresses and architects had to be ordered from the Byzantines, and there were many such cases. The same goes for shipbuilding. There was a time when they had quite peaceful relations with the Byzantine Empire, their ships were Byzantine.
Khazaria was a thorn in everyone’s side. It stood there as this huge buffer, and both the Byzantines and the Arab Caliphate wanted to destroy it to clash with each other again later, which they did all the time, before, during and after Khazaria. Like giant predatory fishes who have to devour each other eventually. Such is the world of humans.
Did Caucasian Albania exist at the same time as Khazaria?
And were the territories of Caucasian Albania and Georgia part of Khazaria? Caucasian Albania wasn’t, was it?
Georgia and Armenia were. And so was most of modern Azerbaijan. But they were annexed later. It was not during the reign of Khagan Bulan, from 800 to 864. And taking a closer look, we can see how unique the relations between the Azerbaijani and Jewish peoples are. Why is it so? Why has there never been a single Jewish massacre in the territory of Azerbaijan. Why has there never been any discriminatory policy?
I have a version. We have great respect for people who know how to make money. And Jews are smart and good at making money. Therefore, Jews are always good for the state.
This is an interesting version, but it seems to me that this is also because we had and still have a common history, and we see that it was in your blessed land that we found salvation. There are many artifacts in the territory of Azerbaijan that speak of Jewish history. And I would like to recall a very important point that few people realize. There was a whole period of the Arab-Khazar wars, lasting over a hundred years. And it was the Khazars, the Turks, who stopped the waves of Arab expansion. The Arab armies crashed against the Khazar defense in the Caucasus. If Khazaria had not been this buffer, they would have crossed the Caucasus, first the South, then the North, and the history would be completely different, the world would be different now. I don’t know if it would be better or worse, but Khazaria played this important role in history.
What kind of Jews were there at that time? I may be wrong, forgive me if I am, but now there are Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Bukharan, Mountain Jews, etc. Our Mountain Jews did not come here all at once, there were several waves of migration. They originally spoke Aramaic, so when did they switch to Tat/Farsi?
Well, look, the history of the Mountain Jews is the history of the Persian Jews. They are basically a sub-ethnic group that broke away from the Persian Jews. There was the Sassanid Empire, and before it, there was the Parthian Empire, Darius’s Achaemenid Persia, and so on. Jews have lived in the territory of Persia for three thousand years, this is well-documented. They have lived there since the time of the First Temple in Jerusalem, since the Solomon time. And it so happened that when the borders changed in one direction or another, some Jewish communities that lived in the Persian Empire broke away from it, like a piece of ice breaks off an iceberg, and they became part of the Caucasian khanates that appeared there.
Sometime an emir or a ruler asked the Persian king to give them artisans or doctors, and the kings sent people. This, for example, was the case with the Bukharan Jews, when a number of Jews were sent to Bukhara from Persia. As for the language, they spoke Hebrew at first, then Aramaic, then Farsi, and it was from Farsi that the language of the Mountain Jews was formed, it is essentially a derivative of Farsi.
Of course, Jews were different then. Such group as Ashkenazi Jews was only beginning to form at the time. The first place in Europe where Jews began to settle was Italy, the Roman Empire, after the three wars that we had with Rome. They begin to live in Italy in the 1st century CE. The second community appeared in Germany, in the 3rd century CE. From Germany they moved on to France, and so on. But this sub-ethnic group, the Ashkenazi, formed later.
Would you say that our Mountain Jews are closer to the Jews led by Moses through the desert than the Ashkenazi?
I would not say so, because they all have been influenced by the countries in which they lived. By Persia, by the culture of the East. The Jews who lived in the desert were different, they were not influenced by the Persian culture. But they were a product of Egyptian culture. Even every generation is a product of its time and country where it lives.
Apropos the artifacts, for example, Jewish cemeteries… To be honest, the oldest cemetery I know is the cemetery in Gyrmyzy Gasaba, Red Village, in Quba District. But there must be something older. If we look at the cemeteries of the pre-Islamic period, and there are many of those in the territory of Azerbaijan, is it possible that the tombstones with Albanian inscriptions are in fact Jewish cemeteries, just with Albanian script?
Yes, it is possible, it certainly is possible. And we have to understand one very important thing. Burial and cemetery planning were completely different back then. Burial mounds were widespread among the Khazars and among Turks in general. There were no gravestones, in our modern understanding, with photographs. Take the Khazars before they converted to Abrahamic religions: when some important person died, his slaves, wives, horses, cattle were put to death as well. Many valuable things were put into the grave. If it was a man, then in went his weapon, his chain mail. Stones were piled on the grave, and the custom demanded that everyone should put a stone on the mound. These burial mounds were often dug up and raided by robbers, everyone knew that there were valuables down there. So many graves disappeared this way. We know that some of the nobility settled in the Caliphate of Córdoba after the collapse of the Khazar Khaganate. The library was also moved there, and this move was facilitated by the very influential Jewish community in the Caliphate.
Another thing about cemeteries: we have this interesting tradition of hiding burial sites. For example, this is how the grave of Khagan Bulan was hidden. Why was this done? The people were primitive and tended to deify people, so to stop the people from worshiping Bulan as a god, his grave was hidden. There is information that his grave is located somewhere in the North Caucasus. By the way, the grave of Moses is also hidden. There were idiots who tried to make a human god out of Moses, and pray to him. The graves of the prophet Aaron and their sister Maryam are hidden as well.
Both Turkic and Jewish burials were made by the same principle, in the form of mounds. After a while, these stone mounds would collapse and nothing but a flat surface would remain. There was even a philosophical school in Judaism that quoted a verse from the Torah: “You are dust and unto dust you shall return” and believed that nothing should remain.
Let me tell you one interesting, somewhat obscure story. In his letter, Joseph, the last Khagan of Khazaria, a distant descendant of Khagan Bulan, tells the following. God sends a messenger to Khagan Bulan and says to him, “Build a temple for me.” And this temple has to be an exact copy of the tabernacle that Moses had in the desert. And he does it, writes the Khagan. He builds this tabernacle, with a golden seven-branched menorah, with a golden ark of the covenant with two cherubs. There are no tablets inside, but still. He builds a golden cabinet for the bread to be baked there, and a brass washstand for the priests. There was a special faucet for the priests to wash their hands before the service. He makes a special altar inside for burning incense on the coals. He makes special golden spoons and forks to burn incense. He builds an altar for sacrifices, and service begins there. Now, this is forbidden outside Jerusalem but God says that he is allowed to do it, as an exception. So, services are held there, with priests and everything, like Moses had in the Sinai desert! And they offer sacrifices all this time. When the khaganate fell, they hid it all somewhere. So, I talk to people who know about this, and they tell me that it is hidden somewhere, buried somewhere in the Caucasus. It is an interesting story.
Yes, very interesting. I wish it all could be found. So, can we basically say that Khazaria was the second Jewish state?
Of course. Absolutely. The most powerful one. But not the only one. There were ten Jewish states, outside of Israel, very few people know about this. One of the largest was Adiabene, in Asia Minor, they converted to Judaism in the 1st century CE; there was Mauritania, the Berber Kingdom, in the time of Queen Kahina, 5th century CE. There were kingdoms in Ethiopia, for example, the kingdom of the Queen of Sheba, African states, but the Khazar Khaganate was the most powerful, the largest. This was the second Israel outside Israel. And since then, Jews and Turks have developed very good relations in everything. The long and completely unreligious Arab-Israeli conflict did not affect our relations with the Turkic world in any way. Everything has always been well between Jews and Turks. There has always been mutual understanding, friendship, mutual support and assistance, no nationalism, no hatred. The Khazar Khaganate brought our peoples so close together that there is still a strong connection between our peoples even 1,200 years later.
And, most importantly, it keeps getting even stronger.
It does. After all, it is not just our past that unites us, but also our common strategic, mutually beneficial present and future.
Translated from travel2baku.com