November 16, 2019 — Historical sources describe how Varangian Rus’ (eastern Vikings) met betrayal, massacre, and death on the Caspian Sea — at the hands of the Khazars. But, who were they?
Included on Draugablíkk’s recently released EP, the song “To Særkland and Back Again” is inspired by real events that took place in the Eastern lands of Særkland in the Viking Age.
Long before the Mongols, a Eurasian Empire in the Far East that was almost as powerful as that of Genghis Khan ruled in what is now Mongolia. It was known as the Göktürk Kaganate (552-744 CE), and the Gökturks dominated and controlled the Silk Road as far west as the Black Sea. European historians rarely mention The Gökturk Empire, probably because the Göktürks (which means the Turquoise/Blue or Celestial Turks) had not reached western Europe directly, still, their influence on Central Asia was profound. The Gökturk Empire was destroyed by the Chinese Tang dynasty; the eastern part in 630 and the western half in 657.
The only surviving part of the Turkish Empire which the Chinese Tang state didn’t occupy, was the Khazars of southern Russia in the West. The Khazars dominated the steppe lands between the Black and Caspian seas.
The Turks (Turkish people), whose name was first used in history in the 500s century by China, are a society whose language belongs to the Turkic language family. According to Chinese records, Turks appeared in the political history of Asia with the Huns, a confederation of central Asian warrior nomads, including many Turks.
The Celestial Gökturks was one of many nomadic Turkic tribes that lived in Mongolia in the early Middle Ages. Their origins are not clear because the Chinese historical records describe conflicting myths. The Gökturks might have been a part of the Xiongnu, who in turn might have been the ancestors of the Huns. Many modern historians have suggested the Gökturks might have been Turkified Indo-Europeans. Whoever their origins were, the Gökturks (and the Khazars) were the first Turkic groups to call themselves Turks.
In the early 900s, Scandinavian Varangians ruled Kievan Rus’, the predecessor to modern Russia. People in the Viking Age knew the eastern Rus’ lands as “Garðaríki” (the Realm of Fortified Towns) and “Sviþjóð hin mikla” (Greater Sweden). The Varangians and the Rus’ primarily hailed from ancient Sviþjóð (Sweden), Eystra Gautland (Eastern Götaland, a “kingdom” separate from Sweden in the Viking Age), and the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea.
In 913, the Varangian Rus’ struck a deal with the Khazars of Sarkel (a fortified trading town on the lower Don River) that would allow a Rus’ fleet of 500 ships open passage to raid in the Caspian Sea. In exchange, the Khazars would receive half of all loot. It was not the first nor the last such arrangement. However, this particular “expedition” ended in betrayal and blood. When the Rus’ returned from the Caspian, Khazar mercenaries ambushed them at the Caspian-Volga delta entrance. The Rus’ found themselves defenseless, and almost all of them were massacred by Khazarian mercenary troops.
The real reasons behind the Khazar betrayal are unconfirmed, but unsurprisingly, history indicates tensions grew stronger between the Varangian Rus’ and the Khazars in the following decades. The rivalry culminated in the 960s, when a Kievan Rus’ ruler of Scandinavian ancestry, Sviatoslav I of Kyiv, attacked the Khazar capital known as Atil/Khazaran, leveling it to the ground (its ruins were discovered in 2008) while the fortified city of Sarkel was conquered and renamed to Belaya Vezha. Thus, Sviatoslav I of Kyiv methodically destroyed the Khazar Khaganate, ending its existence in the late 900s.
In a sense, Sviatoslav I of Kyiv avenged the Rus’ massacre of 913.