Archaeologist Finds Lost Jewish Capital

APAn 11th- or 12th-century house made of flamed bricks being excavated in what is believed to be the Khazar capital.
An Astrakhan archaeologist said he has found the lost capital of the Khazars, a powerful nation that adopted Judaism as its official religion more than 1,000 years ago, only to disappear leaving little trace of its culture.

Dmitry Vasilyev, a professor at Astrakhan State University, said his nine-year excavation near the Caspian Sea has finally unearthed the foundations of a triangular fortress of flamed brick, along with modest yurt-shaped dwellings, and he believes that these are part of what was once Itil, the Khazar capital.

By law, Khazars could use flamed bricks only in the capital, Vasilyev said. The general location of the city on the Silk Road has been confirmed in medieval chronicles by Arab, Jewish and European authors.

"The discovery of the capital of Eastern Europe's first feudal state is of great significance," he said in an interview. "We should view it as part of Russian history."

Kevin Brook, the U.S. author of "The Jews of Khazaria," said by e-mail that he has followed the Itil dig over the years, and even though it has yielded no Jewish artifacts, "Now I'm as confident as the archaeological team is that they've truly found the long-lost city."

The Khazars were a Turkic tribe that roamed the steppes from Northern China to the Black Sea. Between the seventh and 10th centuries they conquered huge swaths of what is now southern Russia and Ukraine, the Caucasus Mountains and Central Asia as far as the Aral Sea.

Itil, 1,300 kilometers south of Moscow, had a population of up to 60,000 and occupied 2.1 square kilometers of marshy plains southwest of the Caspian Sea port of Astrakhan, Vasilyev said.


Dmitry Vasilyev / AP
Twelfth-century clay kitchenware and a piece of lead that served as money.
It lay at a major junction of the Silk Road, the trade route between Europe and China, which "helped Khazars amass giant profits," he said.

The Khazar empire was once a regional superpower, and Vasilyev said his team has found "luxurious collections" of well-preserved ceramics that help identify cultural ties of the Khazar state with Europe, the Byzantine Empire and even Northern Africa. They also found armor, wooden kitchenware, glass lamps and cups, jewelry and vessels for transporting precious balms dating back to the eighth and ninth centuries, he said.

But a scholar in Israel, while calling the excavations interesting, said the challenge was to find Khazar inscriptions.

"If they found a few buildings, or remains of buildings, that's interesting but does not make a big difference," said Dr. Simon Kraiz, an expert on Eastern European Jewry at Haifa University. "If they found Khazar writings, that would be very important."

Vasilyev said no Jewish artifacts have been found at the site, and in general, most of what is known about the Khazars comes from chroniclers from other, sometimes competing cultures and empires.

"We know a lot about them, and yet we know almost nothing: Jews wrote about them, and so did Russians, Georgians and Armenians, to name a few," Kraiz said. "But from the Khazars themselves, we have nearly nothing."

The study of the Khazar empire was discouraged in the Soviet Union. Dictator Josef Stalin, in particular, detested the idea that a Jewish empire had come before Russia's own. He ordered references to Khazar history removed from textbooks because they "disproved his theory of Russian statehood," Satanovsky said.

Only now are Russian scholars free to explore Khazar culture. The Itil excavations have been sponsored by the Russian-Jewish Congress, a nonprofit organization that supports cultural projects in Russia.

"Khazar studies are just beginning," Satanovsky said.