Adventures in Khazaria

Khazaria floats on the outer edges of our literary and historical consciousness, if we know it at all.

Most of us have a general idea of the histories of the Christian, Islamic and Jewish worlds, but Khazaria belongs to none of them; and we think we know Europe, Asia and the Middle East, but Khazaria is peripheral to all three; and we have a fair idea about the ancient and modern worlds, but Khazaria existed only in the Dark Ages between them.

Its semi-mythical existence is a gift to writers, who can make of it what they will.

Khazaria in the imagination

All the Horses of Iceland

All the Horses of Iceland (Tor, 2022) is a beautiful novella by Sarah Tolmie. As a poet, novelist and mediaevalist she is almost uniquely qualified to write about a ninth-century Icelandic trader’s journey to Central Asia and back.

She frames it as an account written by an Icelandic monk a couple of generations after the events took place, so that its world-view can remain  true to the period. It is a world of Vikings, semi-nomadic herders on the steppes, and continual warfare between small nation states.

Eyvind’s three-year journey, in the early ninth century, takes him across Scandinavia and up-river through Rus territory and Khazaria to tribal lands, perhaps in present-day Kazakhstan. There he encounters a ghost, learns more about himself from a shaman, and makes his fortune before returning home through warring kingdoms.

The line we draw between ‘natural’ and ‘supernatural’ hardly exists in the ninth century. Rather, there is a line between certain and uncertain, knowable and unknowable. And it is placed differently; for instance, everyone from Iceland to Kazakhstan accepts without question that ghosts are real and that some people can see them and converse with them.

I was tempted to say, “The supernatural intrudes constantly on daily life,” but that puts it in our terms, a mistake Tolmie neatly (and silently) avoids. The difference it makes to the reader is subtle but important: it makes All the Horses of Iceland historical fiction, not fantasy.

The Dictionary of the Khazars

The Dictionary of the Khazars is a work of fiction by Milorad Pavic, novel length but not a conventional novel. In Can a Dictionary Be a Novel? Ted Gioa introduces it thus:

At times, the progressive spirits of 20th century fiction seemed determined to turn the novel into something other than fiction.  … Serbian writer Milorad Pavić may have taken the most extreme step of all in his attempt to turn the novel into a dictionary.

Or, rather, three dictionaries. His 1984 work Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel takes the guise of three conflicting reference works devoted to a historical event from the late 8th century. At that time, the Khazars, a Turkic people at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, decided to give up their traditional religion and embrace a new faith. The specifics of their conversion are clouded in the mists of time, and the Khazars themselves didn’t stay around to tell their own version of the story. …

Pavić takes the historical moment of the Khazars’ conversion as the focal point of his book. He relates that the Khazar ruler first made the decision to convert before he had decided which new religion to embrace. To settle matters, he invited representatives of Islam, Christianity and Judaism to come to his court, where each would be given the opportunity to present the reasons why he and his nation should accept their creed. …

The Dictionary reflects on the way culture shapes language and language, in turn, shapes thought. Its real subject, however, is the persistence of ethnic misunderstandings and hatreds. It was written, and I first read it, during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia after the death of Tito in 1980. Pavic transcends all particulars by writing about Khazaria but loses none of the power of his lament, and I found it unbearably sad at the time. Here’s Gioia again:

What happens when different cultures try to appropriate the same historical narrative? How is personal and national identity shaped by allegiances to different brands of metaphysics? Above all, how do conflicts between belief systems manage to defy the law of entropy and maintain their heat (and, often, attendant violence) century after century?

In the spirirt of Pavic’s work, I will leave my readers with an orthogonal perspective on the Dictionary by Swetha S on Howzzat!

Gentlemen of the Road

cover of Gentlemen of the Road Michael Chabon’s Gentlemen of the Road (Sceptre, 2007) is a tale of two wandering bladesmen accidentally rescuing the fugitive heir to a kingdom and, against all odds, toppling the brutal usurper.

It is set in the mediaeval kingdom of Khazaria on the shores of the Caspian Sea, with the Byzantine Empire looming in the west and the Vikings trading and raiding down the River Volga from the north.

Chabon does so little to ground his story in historical fact that the book reads like standard fantasy (swords-and-sorcery without the sorcery) and there are enough swords and battle-axes, duels, assaults on walled cities, and hairsbreadth escapes for any fan of the genre. Purely in these terms, Gentlemen of the Road is good but not extraordinary, earning points for mordant wit and non-stop action but losing some for over-stylised language and formulaic plotting.

Michael Chabon has a great reputation for contemporary naturalistic fiction, so what is he doing here? One of his preoccupations is Jewish identity and a Jewish-ruled kingdom with a mixed Muslim-Jewish population gives him a unique opportunity to explore it. He doesn’t make much use of it, however, so perhaps he really has just ‘gone off in search of a little adventure’, as he claims in his Afterword.

Khazaria in history

Ibn Fadlan was one of the few travellers to leave us an eye-witness account of Khazaria. We have nothing from Europeans: this was the time of the earliest written stories in the Northern European world, the Norse sagas and myths, and the Anglo-Saxon literature which shaped Tolkien.

Wikipedia does its usual good job in assembling the history of Khazaria at, but that may be more than we need here.

In brief: the Khazars were semi-nomadic pastoralists, like the Mongols to their East, who established a commercial empire at the Western end of the Silk Road, between the Black and Caspian Seas, around 650 C.E. It lasted until their neighbours turned on them around 960 C.E., then vanished so completely that even the exact location of their capital, Atil, is now uncertain.

Their religion was animist and shamanist before the (apparently genuine) conversion debate mentioned above, and the reach of the conversion is unknown. It is likely that most citizens remained true to their heritage in spite of the change at the top.

• My mini-review of Gentlemen of the Road appeared in a somewhat different form in the Townsville Bulletin in 2007.

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