Featured A very rare coin of the Khazars

Discussion in 'Ancient Coins' started by Parthicus, Jun 24, 2020.

  1. Parthicus

    Parthicus Well-Known Member

    Khazar Khaganate. AR dirham (26 mm, 3.93 g). No date, c. 880s-910s AD. Imitation of an Abbasid dirham with two "obverse" dies. Obverse: Slightly blundered first half of the Kalima, heavily blundered legend around. Reverse: Slightly blundered first half of the Kalima, heavily blundered legend around. Album K1481.1. This coin: Stephen Album Auction 36, lot 652 (January 23-25, 2020).

    The Khazars, although important in their time, are best remembered for their influences on neighboring cultures, and for a religious conversion whose extent has probably been exaggerated by later accounts. There has also been a great deal of poorly-supported speculation, and this, coupled with the shortage of reliable first-hand documents or archaeological evidence, has led to their near-invisibility even to most "amateur historians" (as I presume most readers of the CoinTalk Ancients board would call themselves). In this post, I will try to stick to well-supported facts to explain who the Khazars were, and what we know about their coinage.

    The Khazars were a semi-nomadic Turkic confederation, whose precise origins are obscure. By about 650 AD they had established themselves between the eastern shore of the Black Sea and the western shore of the Caspian, and they later expanded along the lower Volga and into the Crimea. From this position, they were able to control part of the Silk Road trade and the river routes that led to the Kievan Rus and Vikings in the north, becoming wealthy by taxing trade through their lands. They frequently interacted with the Byzantines to the south, and Emperor Leo IV (775-780) is called "Leo the Khazar" as his mother was a Khazar princess originally named Tzitzak (she converted to Christianity and was renamed Irene). Khazar armies stopped Islamic expansion through the Caucuses into Eastern Europe, and after 840 Khazar mercenaries were an important part of the Byzantine Imperial bodyguard. The Rus to the north eventually came into conflict with the Khazars, and in the 960s the Rus destroyed the main Khazar cities, effectively ending their state (although some outlying areas may have continued for a while). The Khazars then disappear from history shortly afterwards.

    Probably the most interesting thing known about the Khazars is their religious conversion. The leaders were originally "pagans", probably following a shamanistic Turkic religion focused on a sky-god called Tengri. At some point between about 740 and 920, the rulers and nobility appear to have converted to Judaism. One document claims that the Khazars invited leading Christian, Jewish, and Muslim scholars to come and present their best arguments to the Khazar leaders personally, in a public dispute, with the Khazars ultimately choosing Judaism for their new religion. Assuming this happened (there has been some dispute), this was a brilliant political move. If they had converted to Christianity or Islam, the most obvious choices, they would have been naturally more inclined to support either the Byzantines or the various Islamic states, respectively, thus upsetting the local balance of power. By choosing a religion that was not dominant anywhere locally, but which had a certain amount of prestige and respect from both Christians and Muslims, the Khazars were able to bolster their own relative stature without antagonizing either of their two most powerful neighbors.

    One controversial theory holds that, after the breakup of the Khazar empire, their population migrated to Eastern and Central Europe, settling down in their own communities, and eventually becoming the Ashkenazim (Eastern and Central European Jews). This theory had some popularity in the 19th century, and was revived in the 1970s by Arthur Koestler's book "The Thirteenth Tribe" (which I read many years ago and which was my introduction to the Khazars). However, most historians today dispute this theory, claiming that the historical record does not support any mass exodus of Khazars, and there is no clear cultural connection between the Ashkenazim and Khazars. Also, the conversion to Judaism was apparently only of the upper classes of Khazar society, and most of the population probably followed other religions, so it is not obvious why all the exiled Khazars would have now turned to Judaism. Finally, recent genetic studies do not support this claim of connection between the Khazars and modern Ashkenazim. While the "Khazar Hypothesis" is not generally accepted anymore, it has had some importance historically, so I felt compelled to mention it.

    There are no known original coin designs struck by the Khazars, and thus it is sometimes claimed that there are no Khazar coins. However, coin hoards found in former Viking and Rus territory in Scandinavia and Eastern Europe often include, mixed with standard Islamic and northern European coins, small numbers of imitations of Islamic coins with altered or blundered legends. Experts have identified several of these as having been struck (probably unofficially) by the Khazars. Stephen Album's "Checklist of Islamic Coins", summarizing this work, lists three distinct types. Type J1481 is an imitation of an Abbasid dirham with an unusual mintmark that was first read as "Ard al-Khayr" (Land of the Good), but which seems to actually be "Ard al-Khazar" (Land of the Khazars). Type K1481.2 is an imitation of a dirham from the Samanids in Persia. Finally, type K1481.1, which includes this coin, is a heterogeneous type of imitations of Abbasid dirhams, often muling two obverse or two reverse dies (my coin has two "obverses") and with badly blundered inscriptions, often unreadable; the engraver was probably not literate in Arabic. While the attribution to the Khazars of K1481.1 is not quite as obvious as J1481, it is accepted by the leading scholars who have studied the matter, and I do not know of any plausible challenges to this attribution. (One should of course be cautious not to assume that every poorly-engraved Abbasid dirham is actually a hidden Khazar coin; but in this specific case, and given that I bought the coin from Stephen Album himself, I feel confident that this is actually a numismatic relic of the Khazars.) Album lists the type as rarity RR ("Very Rare. Seldom available. Collectors may have to wait years to locate one.")

    I hope you enjoyed reading about the forgotten Khazars. Please share any Khazar coins you have, or whatever else is relevant.
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  3. medoraman

    medoraman Supporter! Supporter

    There is a thin white book of Khazars I have floating around my library somewhere.

    Yeah, I always thought the story was made up after the fact. Politically, they couldn't be either Christian or Muslim, but chosing another religion "of the book" was brilliant. An important civilization, protecting Europe whether they knew it or not.
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  4. seth77

    seth77 Well-Known Member

    The hypothesis of Khazars being/becoming Ashkenazi Jews was (is) also intensely used as an "intellectual" argument of several antisemitic conspiracy theories, from blood libels to denying the actual ties that Eastern European Jews have with Judaism and Israel.
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  5. paschka

    paschka Well-Known Member

    Your coin is really very rare. The Khazars fought a lot with the Arab caliphate and they were rivals of Byzantium. Willows are right in the fact that, in religious terms, there was tolerance in the Khazar koganate. In general, it was a nomadic people and urban. Kiev was founded by the Khazars.
    But the main activity of the Khazars was trade and war.
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  6. Severus Alexander

    Severus Alexander Blame my mother. Supporter

    Oh geez, I really want one of those... great coin!!

    Here's a Leo IV, "The Khazar":
    Screen Shot 2020-06-25 at 1.13.31 AM.jpg
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  7. norenxaq

    norenxaq Active Member

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  8. svessien

    svessien Senior Member

    It’s always a learning experience to read your posts, @Parthicus Thank you for sharing.

    Coming from an area that was «uncivilized» but still highly influenced by the Roman and Byzantine empire, I find it very interesting to read about these numismatic imitations.

    It’s hard to imagine that the Mediterranian and Middle East was such an inspiration for the Scandinavian peoples already during the late Roman and early Byzantine era, but it was indeed. A couple of years ago, the local union of metal detector enthusiasts participated in a search in eastern Norway (horrible place), to assist an archeaological excavation there. More than 500 finds were collected, and the preliminary find list includes 32 dirham fragments, 40 weights, 27 metal ingots (two of these of silver). Here is a weight with pseudo-arabic inscription found:


    Western Norway has probably been earlier trading with the continent. Here is a wonderful lot dated 375-550 AD found 5 minutes walk from where I grew up. I think the metal work looks like that of the Gauls:


    The Vikings would still wait some hundrd years before they started to produce their own coinage, and when they did, it was the Anglo Saxon penny that would be the main inspiration. Coin week makes a good presentation here:

    The islamic silver dirhems were still very popular among the Vikings, and are the coins most often found in Norway and Sweden from the era. I have seen Scandinavian dirhem imitations here, but was unable to find an example online. I found this article with other imitations, however, among them a Khazan imitation:

    Finally, this Oriental inspiration is starting to cost me, Parthicus. I can’t just read about these coins, I need to feel them too. So I’m also waiting for a coin from the time and area, albeit a little later:

    Artuqids of Mardin, Nasir al-Din Artuq Arslan, 1200-1239. AE Dirhem Mardin(?) AH 618 = AD 1221.

    Obverse: Bare-headed and draped bust facing slightly l.; name and titles of Nasir al-Din Artuq Arslan around.

    Reverse: Name and titles citing the Abbasid caliph "al-Nasir" and the Ayyubid sultan "al-'Adil"; Artuqid tamgha flanked by stars above.

    Reference: Album 1830.4. S/S 40. Butak 44. (Must be checked with date)

    Weight: 5.70g Diameter: 23mm Conservation: Very Fine
  9. paschka

    paschka Well-Known Member

    Is this coin also a Khazar imitation?
  10. svessien

    svessien Senior Member

    If directed to me; no. It’s independent Artuqid coinage.
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  11. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    This thread involves the intersection of my two primary pastimes: the study of Jewish history and genealogy (including genetic genealogy), and the study and collection of coins and antiquities. I've been reluctant to participate in this thread because -- even though my knowledge of the Khazars is limited to the first of those two fields -- it's a controversial topic (to say the least), and I could write about it for hours, if I included citations.

    So I'll limit myself to some basic observations.

    First, nobody should rely for anything on Koestler's book. I'm afraid that my inclination is to completely disregard any work that even cites it. As much as I admire Darkness At Noon and his book Scum of the Earth about his experiences in France in 1940, Arthur Koestler was not a historian. His ulterior motive in writing the book in the 1950s, and thereby reviving the old Khazar story, was his idea that if he could establish that the Ashkenazi Jews of the 20th century were descended from the Khazars, and were not connected historically or by descent to the Jews living in the Holy Land at the time of the Christian Bible, what he saw as the basis of anti-Semitism (the Christ-killer accusation) would disappear, and nobody would hate the Jews anymore. His purpose was noble, but in fact he did nothing to end anti-Semitism; all he accomplished was to give hardline anti-Zionists like Shlomo Sand (not an expert on Jewish history himself) another supposed basis for denying the existence of a connection between the Jews of Israel and the Land of Israel. And that's all I'll say about the political aspects of this subject.

    Second, the contention that the Ashkenazi Jews (primarily the Jews of Eastern Europe but also the Jews of Germany, Alsace, etc.) are descended in whole or in part from the Khazars has been repeatedly and convincingly refuted on multiple occasions. (I have a long list of articles and studies comprising such refutations saved to my hard drive!) There is absolutely zero evidence -- whether genetic, historical, archaeological, onomastic, or linguistic -- to support it.

    As a fundamental historical matter, the notion that any substantial group of Turkic people (and although not much is known about the Khazars' language or ethnicity, there is general agreement from what is known that that's what they were) could have somehow migrated west to and through Eastern and Central Europe from the land of the Khazars in the 800s or 900s without leaving a trace, or anybody taking notice of their presence, is ludicrous to begin with, genetics aside. Especially given that there were already Jewish communities in Northern France, the Rhineland, and today's Czech lands -- i.e., the future Ashkenazi Jews -- before the fall of the Khazar kingdom and the supposed subsequent migrations. And given that the vernacular languages those communities spoke did not have one single word of Turkic origin in them; nor did Western Yiddish (or, later, Eastern Yiddish), to which those vernacular languages were the percursor. There is precisely one geneticist working today who continues to try to prove the Khazar theory of Ashkenazi descent; I won't dignify him by naming him, but I can provide citations to various refutations of his arguments to anyone interested. (One of his many errors -- essentially, a sleight of hand -- is to use today's Kurds, Armenians, etc. as a proxy for the Khazars, assuming without any basis that they are the Khazars' descendants, and then trying to establish a genetic connection between Ashkenazi Jews and Kurds, Armenians, etc., as his evidence that the Ashkenazim are descended from the Khazars.)

    Third, there is serious doubt among many scholars that the underlying conversion of the Khazars to Judaism ever occurred in the first place. Even the proponents of the historicity of that conversion concede that it applied, at most, to the royal family and aristocracy, and not to the population in general. But, to the best of my knowledge, there is no archaeological evidence for any conversion; the royal and wealthy graves of Khazars that have been excavated bear no trace of Judaic practices or objects. It has also been argued that the correspondence between the King of the Khazars and established Jewish communities (for which the originals, if any, no longer exist), often cited as the most conclusive evidence of the conversion, were a fictional construct. If anyone has access to academic articles, the best presentation of the "anti-conversion" arguments is in a 2013 article by Shaul Stampfer, a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, available at https://muse.jhu.edu/article/547127. You can also listen to the hour-long audio of his 2017 lecture on the Khazars at YIVO; see https://yivo.org/The-Myth-of-the-Khazar-Conversion . His arguments seem persuasive to me, but it doesn't really matter much one way or the other whether he's correct, since even if the conversion did take place, there's no evidence of any historical or genetic connection between Ashkenazi Jewry and any Jewish Khazars.
    Last edited: Jun 26, 2020
  12. paschka

    paschka Well-Known Member

    DonnaML. You are very interesting here all wrote. But I will allow myself to express my opinion: the Khazar Khaganate was an alliance of very many tribes and the rulers of this Khaganate spitefully or contrary to Byzantium and the Arab caliphate adopted Judaism as the state religion. In Crimea, there are entire Jewish cemeteries of 7-8 centuries. And archaeological Jewish objects of that time are also found. But there was religious tolerance in this cohonate. And in Khazaria there were many religions.
    Ashkenazi is not the Khazars. But they mixed with them in marital unions. There was no Khazar-Jewish movement in Western Europe.
    But in to ancient territories modern Poland and Lithuania, perhaps, after the adoption of Christianity by ancient Russia and the beginning of the persecution of Jews by Russian princes
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  13. TuckHard

    TuckHard Well-Known Member

    This thread has been really interesting and eye-opening for me, I don't know much about Central Asia but the period during the Silk Road trade between Tang China and the Abbasid Caliphate is really interesting.

    As a similar show of Arab influence into foreign markets through coinage, here is a tin dirham imitation.
    Crude Kalima Type Kenny Ong 1 Combined.png
    Ex. Kenny Ong​

    The coin is from Sumatra and the time period is not known, but it was discovered with a handful of other similar Arabic influenced tin imitations along with one legitimate silver Abbasid dirham dated to 801 AD. In my research I've found maybe a dozen or less different types of local Sumatran imitations of Arabic dirhams, many with only a unique example surviving like the one above. This coin shows an even cruder Kalima on either side with an odd double line border circling it.
  14. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    As I'm sure you're aware, many of the supposedly ancient and early medieval Jewish inscriptions (including tombstone epitaphs) from the Crimea have been proven to be forgeries, in which the Karaite Abraham Firkowicz was almost certainly involved, in the 1840s. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Firkovich. See also https://books.google.com/books?id=M5oNKrvYWZAC&pg=PA160&lpg=PA160&dq=Jewish+"firkowicz"+crimea+forgeries&source=bl&ots=jB2BMFpBDO&sig=ACfU3U1uWP-9SztyWvZgZr1hyvbLwhupqg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiZg56umaDqAhVsl3IEHQ2mDDkQ6AEwB3oECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=Jewish "firkowicz" crimea forgeries&f=false and https://books.google.com/books?id=suJTBQAAQBAJ&pg=PA163&lpg=PA163&dq=Jewish+tombstones+crimea+forgeries&source=bl&ots=D9b1Q108lJ&sig=ACfU3U3o0KWmEbsUY5H1g918Xi-fjvnGqQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiU7-X7l6DqAhXtl3IEHcUYAKIQ6AEwBXoECAoQAQ#v=onepage&q=Jewish tombstones crimea forgeries&f=false. (Although there were, in fact, Jews living in the Crimea in classical times, and Byzantine Jews also later settled there.)

    And yes, there's a contention that the Krymchaks -- Jews of Turkic origin living in Crimea -- and/or the Crimean Karaites (also of Turkic origin) are descended from the Khazars. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Krymchaks. As you said, that has nothing to do with the Ashkenazim. In any event, as the Wikipedia article indicates, a Khazar origin certainly isn't necessary to explain the presence of Turkic Jews in Crimea, and their presence doesn't prove anything about the Khazars. Also, I hold to my position that (to the best of my knowledge) no Judaic objects or other evidence of Judaism have been discovered in known Khazar graves or in other Khazar archaeological excavations. Findings in Crimea are irrelevant.

    I think we've gotten very far afield from the original topic, and that there's probably not much point continuing the discussion. I've said what I have to say, and, to be honest, the issue of the origin of the various Crimean Jews, while certainly interesting, isn't that important to me one way or the other!
    Last edited: Jun 26, 2020
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  15. Alegandron

    Alegandron "ΤΩΙ ΚΡΑΤΙΣΤΩΙ..." ΜΕΓΑΣ ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΣ, June 323 BCE Supporter

    This whole thread is cool! Thanks for everyone's input, and thanks @Parthicus for your original post. Nice.

    And, now, cuz everyone is talking about the migrations out of Central Asia, I am still fascinated with a migration to EAST Asia... Celts:

    I have no religious or political issues. Just my ancestral background is high in Celts, Germans, and Finns (yeah, these guys were originally from East Asia).

    My point is the amazing migrations across Central Asia and the impact it made on civilizations. Lastly, the odd anomaly of VERY European Celts showing up in Eastern Eurasia. Interesting for me.

    [EDIT] I did not, nor do I, mean to hijack the thread. It is all so interesting, and it started my creative juices flowing regarding migrations.

    https://celticlifeintl.com/the-chinese-celts/#:~:text=The Chinese Celts The discovery of European corpses,long nose, full lips and a ginger beard.

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  16. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    What I find interesting is that 99% of the migrations of peoples in the last 5,000-10,000 years, as discovered from archaeological and genetic findings, seem to have been from East to West and from North to South. All those "hordes" (hordes of people, not hoards of coins!) thundering towards Europe out of the Central Asian steppes, and towards China out of Mongolia. How come nobody ever thundered East or North? (And I'm not counting the original migrations out of Africa, long before.)
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  17. svessien

    svessien Senior Member

    A Norwegian satirical writer took on this subject. His claim was that those migrating north did so out of a feeling of security, as they got scared when the ice and snow from the ice age melted, and decided to follow the homely ice. Most people did not, of course, as sun and warm weather was a much better climate to live in. Only those that felt that this change was too much too handle followed the ice north, and became Norwegians.
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  18. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    I always assumed that they were following the mammoths!
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  19. paschka

    paschka Well-Known Member

    Many Jewish cemeteries were found after measuring this honest and great scientist Firkowicz. An article from Wikipedia deals with finds of Jewish graves of the 9th century AD, although Ferkovich argued that the Karaites were there before Christ. The famous necropolis, which opened Ferkovich 14th century. What it gave him to study the life of Jews in Crimea in antiquity is not clear to me. This Wikipedia article is illogical.
    By the way, in 2019, archaeologists found in Crimea exactly the ancient Jewish burial. And coins in the territory of Crimea and Little Russia in antiquity and the early Middle Ages have always been an imitation of Byzantium or the Arab Caliphate
    Last edited: Jun 26, 2020
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  20. norenxaq

    norenxaq Active Member

    from what I've read the main controversy re conversion is when, not whether. as to why it might not have spread as much as some might expect was due to the khazar's leadership being tolerant of different beliefs
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  21. DonnaML

    DonnaML Supporter! Supporter

    I hope you're being facetious, because you can't possibly be serious. It's been proven rather conclusively that he was a fraud. Don't limit yourself to Wikipedia; read the other links I provided.

    Also, I would appreciate your providing a link to an explanation of what exactly it is that archaeologists found in Crimea in 2019. If it's not in English, I can use Google translate or DeepL.

    I assure you that "whether," and, if so, "to what extent," is just as subject to controversy as "when."
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