What Is Khazar Art?

The Khazar Qaganate was the first stable state created by the semi-nomadic Turkic tribes in the western Eurasian steppes during the early medieval period. The Khazars replaced the Bulgar tribes in their role as the masters of the region sometime during the second part of the 7th century, and succeeded in controlling enormous territories until the rise of the Old Rus' state in the mid-10th century. Their earliest center in the 8th century, during the period of the Khazar-Arab wars, was somewhere in the Don-Volga-Kuban steppes, between the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. Only later, when the peaceful relations were established with the Muslim World, the Khazars capital moved to the city of Atil' on the Volga River, the major trading hub of Eurasia, from where the Khazar government controlled the vast steppe territories north of the Caucasus from the Balkans in the west to the Urals in the east. According to the Old Rus' Chronicler, the Khazars still played a part in the political events that took place in the north Black Sea area until the early 1080s, while some scholars believe that they continued to exist independently until the time of the Mongol invasion in 1220s.

The special interest in modern historiography regarding the history and culture of the Turkic Khazars relates to the conversion of the Khazar king and ruling elite to the Jewish religion that happened sometime in the first part of the 8th century or, according to some scholars, as late as 9th century, in around 860. It was a unique event in the religious history of Eurasia. The possible genetic relation of Khazar Jewish descendants to the late-medieval Jewish communities, both Ashkenazic and Non-Ashkenazic, that appeared in its territory during the latter period has been widely discussed. For many, Khazar Jewishness became a matter of great praise and a brilliant example of Jewish statehood experience in the diaspora, while others considered it as the main reason for the state’s failure. The famous Soviet historian, Lev Gumilev, who dedicated many years of research to studying the archaeological remains of the Khazar fortresses in northern Dagestan, addressed the question of the "total absence of decorative Khazar Art in excavations"; he wrote in his book "The Discovery of Khazaria": "Nothing is left of Khazar Art…Khazar pottery has no ornaments, Khazar fortresses were built haphazardly, and human images are totally absent… Is it a natural phenomenon or were the archaeological digs unsuccessful? No examples of decorative art can be found from the 9th to 10th century in Khazaria because there were no customers to order them and to pay for the work of the artist... The Khazar government was composed of people who in principle denied decorative art as such… Ancient Jewish art could only be an abstract art."

This ignorant anti-Semitic approach to the peculiarities of the Khazar art tradition became widely accepted during the Soviet times. When artistic objects related to the Khazar period were occasionally found in excavations they were usually assigned to any of the cultures of the Khazars’ subjects, Bulgars, Alans, Goths, or Slavs, but never to the Khazars themselves! The fact that the cultures and also artistic traditions of these tribes from the 5th to late-7th centuries were clearly different from these created in the Khazar period was largely ignored. The artists who created metalwork in the mid-7th century, the so-called Pereshepina period, knew the techniques of stone inlays, filigree and granulation and used geometric ornaments. Gold was the best material to make prestigious objects, such as sword scabbards and belts. It is only sometime in the beginning of the 8th century that it was replaced by silver used to create the most elaborate personal objects belonging to the new nomadic elites of Khazaria. Not only the decorative floral patterns in nomadic metalwork became widespread, based on the motif of the lotus blossom, but also animal and human images frequently appears on belts, buckles, sabers, and horse harnesses, as well as on saddles and bows' bone appliques.

Archaeologists called the Khazar-period culture “Saltovo” or "Saltovo-Majackaja" after the name of the site excavated on the Donets River near Saltovo, in Kharkov area, and another settlement discovered on the upper streams of the Don River, near Voronezh, at the beginning of the 20th century. Soviet scholars were already suggesting in the 1920s that the findings of the Saltovo revealed the remains of a material culture left by the Alanic tribes. Later, Pletneva proposed that the Saltovo culture was created by the descendants of the Alans who were moved by the Khazars from the North Caucasus and subsequently resettled in the Donets River sometime in the late 730s, during the period of the Khazar-Arab wars. This approach ignored the fact that the Caucasian Alans previously used a polychrome style for the decoration of their metalwork which is significantly different from the Saltovo style.

Only in the recent years have scholars (Pletneva, Flerova, and Fonyakova) began recognizing the Saltovo culture that flourished in the territories of western Eurasia during the 8th-10th centuries period as the culture of the Khazar Qaganate with no particular ethnic affiliation. In order to identify the certain types of the burial structures with ethnic groups known from the written sources, most scholars suggested that the so-called catacomb-type burials must have belonged to the Alans, and the pit-type burials to the Bulgars, and thus the kurgans with their surrounding square-shaped trails could be related to the "ethnic Khazars." Besides, many rich burials found both in the Kuban' and the Donets areas may contain remains of fire-purification rituals at which the sabers were broken and placed in a fire. Nevertheless, regardless of the nature of the burial rite, all the graves discovered from the Khazar period contain similar burial items with little variety. Male graves contain sabers, belts, horse harnesses, saddles, and fragments of quivers. Women’s graves hold jewelry, mirrors, glass and ceramic vessels, and perfume bottles. The walls of the now ruined Khazar fortresses excavated on the Don, Donets, and Kuban' rivers, as well as silver vessels, ceramic objects and bone pieces, show a very specific Turkic Runic writing that became known only upon the arrival of the Khazars. Thus, it seems that the population that remained under the control of the Khazar Qaganate during the 8th to 10th centuries, regardless of their ethnic origin, used similar items produced in the workshops in its territory. Their leading artists created "Khazar imperial fashion" according to the demands of the new Khazar elite.

Apart from the large decentralization of archaeological research in the post-Soviet period, the main obstacle to the study of the Khazars is the limitations of the database holding the results of official excavations after publication. Due to the very modest financial support for official archaeological excavations in the last twenty years, scholars have had to base their research on the published objects of Khazar art and material culture preserved in the known collections of Russian and Ukrainian museums. However, in the same period a large number of chance finds have occurred in the former Soviet republics, and even more revealed during unofficial digs have been conducted by locals using metal detectors. All these allows to add a significant quantity of elaborate examples of artistic metalwork related to the Khazar period. These items have entered the art market and have been sold to museums and also private collectors all over the world. While some items have been published and exhibited in public museums in recent years (see, for example, the Furusiyya Foundation Collection, published in 2008 in the catalogue “The Arts of the Muslim Knight”; the Satanovsky Collection, donated in 2008 to the Historical Museum of Moscow; the Mardjani Foundation Collection, exhibited in the Hermitage Museum Center in Kazan' in 2016, and also published in Moscow in the catalogue “Ibn Fadlan's Travels: The Volga Journey from Baghdad to Bulgar”), other items still remain unpublished and unknown. It is the main goal of the current project to make as many images of these objects as possible available online to the public and to art historians.