The Thirteenth Tribe
By Arthur Koestler
Published in 1976
Thibault’s Score: 4/5
The Thirteenth Tribe is a fascinating history about the Jewish Khazar Khaganate which existed from roughly 800 AD until 1000 AD, with some remnants surviving into the 1200s. The book covers the fascinating, and incredibly confusing, origins of the Ashkenazi Jews of Eastern Europe.
The Khazar Khaganate was a Turkish tribe that lived in the northern regions of modern Azerbaijan and Georgia and controlled parts of modern day Russia and Ukraine as well. The Khazar Khaganate was located along the Silk Road, facilitating trade inbetween the Muslim Persians and the Christian Byzantines. This caused a serious problem when the Muslims and Christian Byzantines went to war. In order to remain neutral, the Khazars converted to Judaism.
Only a tiny percentage of the Khazar population ever converted to Judaisim, and those that did tended to adopt the heretical Karaite sect of Judaism. Most of the Khazars who converted were tied to the royal family. Roughly a century after their conversion to Judaism, the Khazar Khaganate collapsed, forcing the minority of converted Jews to immigrate into Eastern Europe.
Modern genetic studies have partially confirmed the Khazar hypothesis. It is now known that roughly 10% of Ashkenazi Jewish males have Y chromosomes associated with Khazar ancestry.
The history of the Khazar Khaganate is fascinating because it paints a different story of Jews during the Middle Ages. Pop culture depicts Jews as oppressed creatures living in the shadow of a stronger and tyrannical medieval society. The existence of the Khazar Khaganate’s steppe warriors challenges this view by showing another, more martial, side of medieval Judaism.
Some anti-semites have attempted to use the Khazar Khaganate to challenge the Jewish claim to Israel. They make the case that if Jews come from a Turkish tribe then they have no place in the holy land. Anyone who uses medieval history to make nationalist or anti-nationalist claims in modern times fundamentally misunderstands the chaotic, decentralized nature of the middle ages. Israel was continuously inhabited by some Jews from the time of the first diaspora, through the Islamic conquest, the crusades, the colonial era, and into the present.
The anti-semetic use of the Khazar Khaganate has caused some Jewish extremists to overreact, altogether labeling anyone who studies the Khazars as anti-semetic because they assume that the only reason to study the Khazars is to challenge the existence of the state of Israel. This is ironic, because the Khazars should instead be celebrated as another fascinating tile in the mosaic that makes up Jewish history.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to learn more about Jewish history.
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