Byzantine, Sasanian or Sogdian?
Soon after first examples of Khazar period metalwork were discovered in the Saltovo graveyard and published by Babenko in 1905, scholars began lengthy discussions about the possible sources of Khazar art. Both Arne and Smirnov, after carefully analyzing the imagery on the belt buckles and fittings that spread across western Eurasia in the 8thto 10th centuries and the few examples of peculiar silver vessels, decided that the items were locally produced under a very strong Sasanian influence. They placed them in a so-called "post-Sasanian" Eastern European artistic tradition. Later, in his groundbreaking book "Sogdian Silver," published in 1971, Marshak developed the meaning of an "artistic school" and suggested that many decorative silver vessels found in the Sub-Urals and the Kama River area in fact belong to the Sogdian artistic school that existed in the 5th to early 8th century in Central Asia. When these vessels reached the remote northern lands through the hands of traders in exchange for furs, their imagery was copied by local Khazar artists onto belts and horse harness fittings, spreading Sogdian motifs into the Khazar art tradition.
This theory was generally accepted by Darkevich who, in his book "The Artistic Metalwork of the East in the VIII-XIII centuries" published in 1976, agreed with the idea of Central Asian sources for Khazar art. However he also noted the striking Turkic steppe elements in the formation of the Khazar decorative artistic tradition. The idea of the Sogdian sources supremacy for the origin of the Khazar art was accepted by Flerova in her book "The Images and Topics of Khazarian Mythology" published in 2001. When studying the engraved bone saddle appliques found in Shilovskoe kurgan on Volga, she also suggested that some Khazar art objects might have been made to order by Sogdian artists rather than influenced by their works. Most recently, Fonyakova produced a comprehensive research on almost all Khazar metalwork items found in different museum collections for her 2010 dissertation "The Applied Arts of Khazaria in the Second Half of the 8th to 10th Centuries, Based on Objects of Artistic Metalwork." She pointed out the importance of the lotus flower motif in the formation of the Khazar ornamental tradition, and agreed with the idea of a Volga-Urals center for the human and animal imagery on the belts.
On the other hand, most recently, a Ukrainian scholar Komar has stressed the importance of a Byzantine artistic influence on the formation of early Khazar metalwork. He noted the particular shapes of the belt buckles, especially those found in Crimea, the area of the closest Byzantine-Khazar encounters, as well as some floral motifs, such as the recurrence of grapes. However, it must be pointed out that although Crimea has remained under Khazar control since the end of the 7th century it has had very little influence on the rest of the Khazar territories. While the ornaments on the early Khazar belts from Crimea are indeed similar with Byzantine examples, the human and animal images that frequently appear on belts from mid-8th century are only rarely seen in Crimea. The idea of a Sogdian artistic tradition as the main source for Khazar period metalwork still remains the most relevant theory.
Silver or Silk?
Although the imagery on Sogdian silver vessels that arrived in the Urals during the Khazar period may have influenced the formation of Khazar artistic traditions, it is difficult to justify its unique role for both chronological and geographical reasons. It is usually accepted that the Khazar capital, Atil, was located somewhere in the Lower Volga streams and became the main trading hub of the western Eurasian territories only as late as the second part of the 9th century. The richly decorated Khazar belts and saber fittings, however, are found in many burial complexes dated as early as the second part of the 8th century, in the Don, Donets, Laba and Kuban' Rivers areas. All of these regions were located far from the Central Asian-Volga-Urals "Furs route." With the exception of a few Sasanian vessels found in the North Caucasus, almost no silver vessels either Sasanian or Sogdian have ever reached the Khazar lands.
However, it is well known that the Khazars became the major intermediary in the cross-Eurasian silk trade as early as the 8th century when they controlled and secured the trading routes that passed through their lands connecting China and Byzantium. The Sogdian traders, the so-called "Phoenicians of medieval times", supported by the Turkic political and military powers, played a central role in this profitable trade. Modern research has shown convincingly that the artistically decorated silk textiles that reached Byzantium and Western Europe in the 8th and 9th centuries through the Khazars intermediary were made in the Sogdian lands of Central Asia rather than in China itself or the post-Sasanian silk-weaving centers to the south of Caspian Sea. The motifs on the silks demonstrate a very large variety of subjects: animals, birds and fantastic creatures, as well as hunting scenes depicted on rounded medallions accompanied by a characteristic pearl design on the borders of these medallions. Not only do such motifs frequently appear in a very similar manner on different Khazar period metalwork items depicting animal and human images, but even the motif of the lotus flower itself that became the most common element of Saltovo metalwork decoration in the mid- 8th century are first found on Sogdian silks.
For obvious reasons, organic materials rarely survive in regular Turkic nomadic archaeological complexes, but many textiles have been found in the burials made in the rock-cut vaults of North Caucasus area, in what is today Karachaevo-Cherkessia. Probably, the most famous graveyard was found in Moscevaja Balka on Laba River, and its finds are now exhibited in the Hermitage, but a number of decorated silk objects were uncovered in other similar places on the northern Caucasian Silk route. A few complete silk robes have been discovered as well as hundreds of Sogdian silk fragments decorated with images of deer, eagles, ducks, lions, Pegasus, horseman figures and hunting scenes. Recently, a large number of artistically made examples of the Khazar art of metalwork were found in the North Caucasus, especially in the Khumarinskaja fortress area on the Kuban' River, and in the Barakaevskaja area on the Laba River. Therefore, it can be suggested that some of the earliest examples of the artistic imagery found on the Khazar belts, sabers and horse harness from the North Caucasus were primarily influenced by the motifs found on Sogdian silks.