The Khazars are one of the most mysterious populations of the Old World whose abrupt disappearance from the history pages has tantalized scientists for years. Who were these Eurasian warriors? Were they Giants, Amazons, Turks, or Mongols? What happened to them? Were they enslaved by their conquerors or were they absorbed into a different population? Where can we find their DNA residues?
To answer these questions we launched the Khazar DNA Project.
The purpose of the project is to develop theories, tools, and knowledge concerning the Khazars through the study of modern and ancient populations that reside in historical Khazaria including Ashkenazic and non-Ashkenazic Jews. Using powerful biogeographical tools we can map the origin of DNA pieces to different regions and populations in an attempt to reconstruct the genetic makeup of Eurasia and learn more of the Khazars. Sounds like searching for a needle in a sack of hay? It’s somewhat similar, but imagine that you have a magnet!
What can DNA tell us? Our DNA is like an diary. It holds the stories of our forebears from the first animals who walked on the earth to YOU. Different DNA mutations can tell us whether your ancestors interbred with Neanderthals, while other DNA mutations tell us about the paths that your ancestors took . It all depends on what you want to know and your ability to interpret the genetic data. In our case, we are interested in identifying populations around the world the carry signature of past populations. Because Caucasus people remained largely confined in the Caucasus, finding populations who carry their genetic signature is the first step in relating them to the Khazars.
Why Khazars? Why now? Unlike the famous Greek, Roman, and Persian Empires, the history of the Khazarian Empire remained a mystery, known only to very few people. The main reason was that the study of Khazaria was forbidden in the Soviet Union where the major sites reside. Dr. Satanovsky, director of the Middle Eastern Institute in Moscow, said that Josef Stalin 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.” Only now Russian scholars are free to explore the Khazar culture and they are doing a tremendous job. The Itil excavations, for example, sponsored by the Russian-Jewish Congress, recently revealed one of the three Khazar capital cities. While archaeologists and historians are making their contribution to our knowledge of the Khazars, so should geneticists. Unfortunately, Stalin was not the only one terrified of 1000 years old ghosts. The very notion of the Khazars is still terrifying many people, most of whom can be considered right-minded, at least until the Khazars are mentioned. This is because the Khazar Elite converted to Judaism in the 8th century. It remains unclear whether the remaining populations converted as well, but this single event immortalized the Khazars in the history books, unlike many other nameless populations that are called after their archaeological artefacts (at best). The idea that the Khazars contributed their essense to European Jews is not new at all, but seem to bother people who imagined that they descent from Biblical figures of a Levantine origin. Using genetic data we can unravel some of the mystery around these people who built their Empire of the basis of harmony and peace, adopted the Jewish faith, and perhaps contributed to Eastern European Jewish culture.
Our knowledge of the ancient Khazars is based almost entirely on the writings of educated, wealthy, elite men who often contradict one another. The Soviet Union did its share of spreading fear and prejudice around about the Khazars that still prevails among many people and hinders studies in the field. It’s time to change our approach to Khazar history by harnessing genetics and combining it with archaeological and historical knowledge.
The possibility to reveal the genetic background of these mysterious people through genetic data is one of the most exciting ventures now available with modern and ancient DNA.
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