Jahrbücher für Geschichte Osteuropas

Im Auftrag des Instituts für Ost- und Südosteuropastudien Regensburg
herausgegeben von Martin Schulze Wessel und Dietmar Neutatz

Ausgabe: 64 (2016), 3, S. 468-470

Verfasst von: Jonathan Shepard


Boris Zhivkov: Khazaria in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries. Transl. by Daria Ma­no­va. Leiden, Boston, MA: Brill, 2015. XV, 335 S., 9 Ktn., 1 Tab. = East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450–1450, 30. ISBN: 978-90-04-29307-6 (print) / 978-90-04-29448-6 (e-book).

This book is the translation of a Bulgarian work published in Sofia in 2010. Although focused on the later stages of the Khazar polity, it looks back to the Khazars’ origins. In Boris Zhivkov’s words, Western historiography is dominated by studies in which the analysis is conducted almost entirely on the basis of written records (p. xi). This contrasts with the approach of Russian and Ukrainian scholarship, where archaeology has predominated. He reviews archaeological publications alongside the primary sources and reconsiders the main interpretations of Khazar history. He avows his interest in identifying Bulgar cultural traits and population groups in the Khazar dominions.

Of the five chapters, the first discusses the ideology of the Khazars in the ninth and tenth centuries and the difficult reconciliation of steppe traditions with Judaic monotheism. The Khazars’ origins are investigated, as are various rites and myths associated with them. Zhivkov argues for the importance to the Khazars and their subjects of the cult of the Great Goddess, which underpinned their sense of the ruler as sacred (p. 126). Conceding that our sources about the Khazar Khaganate do not mention her explicitly, Zhivkov seeks out clues. Some symbols of the Goddess, notably the world-tree, are associable with peoples like the Bulgars and the Alans, whose members came under the Khazars’ sway. Also adduced is the view of the archaeologist, S. P. Tolstov, who saw in the early tamgas of Khwarezm’s rulers the simplified image of a female figure with the tendency of turning into a tree (cited on p. 119).

The problem of the Pechenegs’ impact on the Khazars in the later ninth and the tenth centuries is the subject of Chapter Two. Zhivkov challenges the view that the Pechenegs devastated many settlements of what is known as the Saltovo (or Saltovo-Maiatskii) material culture in Khazaria’s western regions. He points out sites that were still occupied well into the tenth century. In his view, the Black Bulgars were the most prominent of the population groups in the region of the Don and the Donets, whether as subordinates or allies of the Khazars. Chapters Three and Four deal with trade and the Khazar economy, the former focusing on the routes that criss-crossed Khazaria, while the latter discusses nomadic societies’ capacity for self-sufficiency and organisational flexibility. Zhivkov concludes that agriculture combined with stock-breeding typified the Saltovo culture. Full-time pastoral nomadism was confined to regions unfavourable to agriculture, and many communities engaged in crafts and local trading. Thus Khazar leaders were not wholly dependent on revenues from long-distance trading. Chapter Five, The “internal” ethnic communities in Khazaria, emphasises Khazaria’s stability, despite conflicts liable to erupt between different ethnic groups and communities. Zhivkov argues for the basic validity of King Joseph’s outline of his dominions, in his letter to Hasdai ibn Shaprut in the mid-tenth century. In other words, they still reached from the Crimea and the Donets basin to Samandar on the Caspian coast.

In his Conclusion Zhivkov argues for a prosperous symbiosis of farmers and pastoralists, as also for the capacity of the latter to trade with urban communities and even supervise them. The trade in silver passing through Khazaria was lucrative but not indispensable: it was ideology that bound disparate communities together. Thus a sense of steppe statehood characterised the inhabitants of Khazaria, as of other empires stretching across the vast expanses of Eurasia (pp. 281, 283). Having ancient antecedents, their fundamentals of Weltanschauung were not effaced by the Khazar leadership’s espousal of Judaism. So Khazaria’s demise was due neither to centrifugal tendencies nor to any shift in long-distance trade-routes and loss of tolls. Rather, the Khaganate was destroyed when its central (inner) lands were subjected to attacks and destruction, their mixed economy being the provider of its key resources (p. 283).

Reading this statement, and assuming that it was the Rus under Sviatoslav who dealt the mortal blows to Khazaria’s central lands, one is left wondering why these attacks were quite so deadly, even if the author has highlighted the Rus’ striking power and ability to crush the Danubian Bulgars, too. No less problematic is his preoccupation with the thought-world of the Khazars when, as he acknowledges (p. 101), we lack any explicit contemporary account of their pantheon. This makes his attempt to delineate their belief-system speculative and begs the question whether a single system existed, even at elite level. After all, our written sources of Khazar origin are scanty and, to judge from King Joseph’s letter and the Cambridge Document, their notions of past history and the nature of Khazar rulership contained discrepancies. Yet Chapter One takes up a third of the book. The overall effect is to blunt the impact of some of the more telling comparisons with other societies and polities, such as Khwarezm. Zhivkov might have done better to concentrate on the ninth- and tenth-century sources in support of his thesis that sacral kingship was then flourishing, along with Khazaria itself. As he recognises, notions about rulership probably varied amongst the population groups, while the balance of power between nominal rulers and top commanders may have oscillated over time. Zhivkov could also have amplified the points that the Khazars’ rulers were, in the ninth and tenth centuries, members of a charismatic clan; and that a sense of allegiance to them seems to have overridden ethnic and geographical divides among their subject-populations. Analogies in other steppe empires, such as the Mongols, are not hard to find. The religious belief-systems in play in ruling circles may have been of secondary significance. This is an implication of the debate held at the khagan’s court in 861, judging by the Life of Constantine-Cyril, composed soon afterwards. Moreover, everyday advantages could well have reinforced respect for the ruling clan, in the sense that its political order yielded opportunities for trading as well as for tilling fertile land. The material benefits which the Khaganate brought may have been as potent in binding its communities together as their sense of the rulers’ charismatic qualities: economic self-interest and acceptance of a locus of sacral authority were closely interwoven.

To its credit, this book offers a thorough survey of Khazaria’s economic conditions. Zhivkov brings out the prosperity of the unfortified settlements and fortresses along the Donets, arguing that they were not simply a border fortification line (p. 198); in fact, the lower reaches of the Don mark the centre of a vast economic region (p. 196). His survey of the archaeological data is accompanied by an assessment of soils and micro­climates. No less valuable is his refutation of the view that trading between the Middle Volga and Khazaria ceased from the late ninth century onwards, with the Khaganate’s revenues dwindling. Zhivkov’s case would have been even stronger, had he used numismatic data of the sort provided by Roman Kovalev’s study on the tenth-century production of dirhams in Iran’s Caspian provinces (Archivum Eurasiae medii aevi 19 (2012), pp. 133–184). Other studies published since the Bulgarian original of this book support its broad thrust. For example, nomadic leaders’ interest in towns emerges from excavations at Djankent, whose fortifications seemingly arose under the direction of the Turkic Oghuz (I. A. Arzhantseva [et al.]: Early medieval urbanization and state formation east of the Aral Sea, in: The European Archaeologist 37 (2012), pp. 14–20). And the quantities of glass-beads that reached the northern forest-zones alongside dirhams are a recurrent feature of the work edited by Nikolai Makarov: Rus’ v IX–X vekakh: arkheologicheskaia panorama. Moskva 2012. The route they took northwards is suggested by, for example, the silver hoards and weights for scales found along the upper reaches of the Don. Such indications of involvement in commerce by a broad stratum of the population point to commerce’s role as a binding-force in the pax Khazarica.

Overall, this book offers an admirable collation of archaeological data with literary sources and some sound historical judgements, for all its over-lengthy treatment of ideology. Its information will be enlightening to students of early Rus and the interrelationship between agricultural and nomadic societies, as well as of Khazaria itself.

Jonathan Shepard, Oxford

Zitierweise: Jonathan Shepard über: Boris Zhivkov: Khazaria in the Ninth and Tenth Centuries. Transl. by Daria Manova. Leiden, Boston, MA: Brill, 2015. XV, 335 S., 9 Ktn., 1 Tab. = East Central and Eastern Europe in the Middle Ages, 450–1450, 30. ISBN: 978-90-04-29307-6 (print) / 978-90-04-29448-6 (e-book), http://www.dokumente.ios-regensburg.de/JGO/Rez/Shepard_Zhivkov_Khazaria_in_the_Ninth_and_Tenth_Centuries.html (Datum des Seitenbesuchs)

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