The Khazar Triada: Belts, Sabers, and Horse Harnesses

In the Khazar period, male burial complexes found in the western Eurasian steppes usually contained three major types of items: belts, sabers, and horse harnesses. These objects were frequently made of, or ornamented with silver in varying degrees of elaboration, and, as well as similar bronze fittings, decorated in the Saltovo style. In addition, personal jewelry, such as rings, earrings, bracelets, amulets and mirrors, are found in both male and female graves and were made from different metals but they rarely bear any artistic imagery. Although they are clearly important for the study of the material culture and ethnography of the Khazar period, they have very little relevance for a study of the Khazar artistic tradition. Some decorative bone objects, including reliquaries, bows and saddle attachments, are found as well but these have been properly researched and published by Flerova, and no significant new data can be currently added to her careful and thoughtful analysis.

Contemporary research on Khazar art of metalwork then should focus primarily on the data produced by the few major elements found in the male burials:

  1. Belt fragments, often made of silver, though occasionally of gold or gilded bronze. They usually consist of buckles, strap ends and a number of rounded shaped fittings;
  2. Fittings from iron saber scabbards made of gold, silver and gilded bronze, and including pommels, cross-guards, suspension attachments and scabbard appliques;
  3. Horse harness elements, including cone-shaped horse head finials made either from silver or gilded bronze and usually accompanied by rounded, flat appliques.

As we know from the Turkic runic writings of the Turkic Qaganate period, belts were the most important prestige items worn by nomadic warriors. During the period of the 6thand 7th centuries, the belts usually had geometric ornaments which were only later, in the beginning of the 8th century, replaced by openwork floral decorations. The Turkic belts indicates both tribal affiliation and the warrior’s achievements; the number of the fittings correlated to the number of enemies killed by its owner.

The ornamental style of the Saltovo belts was usually based on the image of the lotus, the flower of life, although in the mid-10th century the lily image became increasingly common. In addition, belts and buckles decorated with human and animal motifs made by artists of the Saltovo period, starting from mid-8th century. These figurative elements allow us to trace the self-image of the Khazars and to learn about their dress and hairstyles, patterns of behavior and hunting techniques. The animal combat images continue the old Eurasian tradition of "Animal Style" representation that comes from the nomadic art of the Scythian-Sarmatian period. Most images were borrowed from Sogdian art, such as Pegasus, lions and griffins; their direct sources can be seen in the decoration of silver vessels and silk costumes. A number of the belt strap end fragments show the motif of a hero fighting a lion, probably relating to the Biblical motif of Samson and lion. Only few images show the local steppe animals such as wolfs, saigaks, and camels, as well as also local birds.

The sabers of the Khazar period were a type of narrow, single-edged straight palash. The scabbards elements from the 8th to early 10th centuries were often decorated with three palmettos or lotus patterns very similar to those found on belt fittings. Animal images were rarely seen on the rounded pommels or suspended buterols. Recently, one example has been uncovered of a saber cross-guard decorated with silver inlays and depicted running animals, such as deer, dog and lion, and also eagle. Sometime in the middle of the 10th century, the niello inlay technique used on silver items spread, and floral ornaments based on the motif of a blooming plant were used to decorate saber scabbards. One such item was found near Volgograd; another similar example had square-shaped fittings decorated with horse images.

From the second part of the 10th century, a somewhat different type of saber is found with a slightly curved, wider and longer blade. The first sabers of this type were discovered in Kolosovka on Fars River in Kuban' area and are currently kept in the Maikop Museum in Adygee. All the scabbard fittings were carefully made using artistically cast, gilded bronze fittings, including a pommel and ending part with interlaced floral ornaments and suspended buterols with openwork lion figures. More sabers of this type have been found in private collections where the lion figures or single lion heads are shown on the pommels, guards, or buterols.

Other than the "lion sabers", similar type of blades accompanied by the bronze gilded and silver scabbard mounts with interlaced floral ornaments have been found in Zmeyskaya in North Ossetia and also near Kolco-gora, in the Kislovodsk area. Another unique saber from the Mardjani collection contains two types of silver and also bronze gilded scabbard appliques that probably come from different workshops. The bronze gilded appliques depict pair of goats or deer figures lying next to the Tree of Life. Similar images appear on Sogdian silk textiles, while the silver appliques show lion and bird images in an animal style known from the Seljuk period and influenced by the Byzantine tradition. When these sabers were compared by scholars to the famous, so-called Charlemagne Saber, currently kept in the Vienna Museum, which has a medieval Hungarian provenance, it became clear that the sabers were made sometime during the late-10th or early 11th century in a North Caucasian workshop.

Gorelik speculates that this ornamental tradition of these sabers decoration was undertaken by the Kabars, the Khazar tribes who rebelled against the central government and joined the Magyars on their road to Pannonia in the late-890s. Bashir Muhammed has suggested that this particular type of sabers could have been used by Al-Arsiya, the warlike Muslim people of Khwarezmian origin who served as the Khazar royal guard in the 10th century. In my opinion, there is no need to limit the specific artistic tradition discovered in the North Caucasus to one particular group of Khazars either Kabar or Arsiya because the Old Rus' chronicle continues to call the people of this region Kozare (Khazars) throughout the whole 11th century. The unique ornamental patterns which appear in the metalwork of the period can therefore be explained by the close Khazar contacts with Vikings who established the Tmutarakan' Rus' principality on the northern shores of the Black Sea and Azov Sea.

The Vikings who settled in the Tmutarakan', the old Khazar city, brought with them artists who had the techniques and skills to create the highly artistic works made in the so-called "Borre style" and adopted into the decoration of local sabers and belts. A very similar artistic evolution can be seen on the elements of late-Khazar period horse harnesses, especially on the silver and also gilded bronze cone-shaped finials. With their long, rounded, elongated tubes and flat round-shaped bottomed parts, these would clearly have decorated the horse’s head. The lotus pattern on the early finials is practically identical to other examples of metalwork of the Saltovo period. Only one very artistically-made example is currently known, made in silver, with lovely engraved animal fighting scenes showing rabbits figures biting boars and birds. Later examples from North Caucasus are very different: they often show a female figure holding a cup with two hands. The first finial of this type, with a figure holding a cup, was found in Zmeyskaja. Another example, with horsemen figure holding axes in their hands, preserved in the Kolosovka burial ground. More finials have been discovered since and are now kept in private collections. One example depict a horseman, another - animals and birds in roundels on the bottom part of the finial.

The sources for the imagery used by the artists for these finials are highly debatable. Many Turkic stone statues depicting men figure holding cups are well known from Central Asian art dating from the period of the Turkic Qaganates, 6th-7th centuries. However, this early Turkic sculptural tradition was unknown in Western Eurasia during the whole Khazar period. Another possibility is that this figure represents Freyja, a Viking goddess associated with love, beauty, fertility, gold, war, and death. This suggests an even greater level of cultural relations between the Vikings and the Khazars in the late period, during the 11th century, when the Khazar forces were incorporated into the army of the Tmutarakan' Rus' princes. The finials were usually accompanied by hanging pendants, depicting human images such as horseman figure holding axes, or spears and sabers, or otherwise riding two horses. These images are not known from the metalwork objects of the previous period although in her detailed research, Korol tries to place the roots of this tradition in ancient Caucasian bronzes which themselves were influenced by the Luristan tradition of human representation. Another type of human figures in a "dancing pose" with raised hands is among the common subjects on these pendants, and is stylistically similar to the anthropomorphic votive bronze figures from North Caucasus usually dated to the 9th to 8th century BC. However, these items imagery may also be related to similar human images known on the silver belt fittings from the Saltovo period.

Although the style of the horseman representation seems to be a local innovation from the late-Khazar period, the style of the engraving of the animals and the birds as well as the human figures, such as acrobats, appears to be copied directly from known examples of the Byzantine bone carvings found in the North Black Sea region (for example, in Khersones in Crimea). It is an evidence of strengthening Byzantine cultural influence on the northeast shores of the Black Sea during the 11th century period when Khazar political power had declined. As allies and subjects of the Rus' from Tmutarakan', the Khazars found themselves under strong Byzantine influence.