"This is a hugely important discovery."

A team of archaeologists claims to have discovered remnants of the legendary Khazar kingdom in southern Russia, according to a recent report. If the excavation site proves to be indeed the long-lost capital of the ancient 'Jewish Kingdom', the discovery would represent a major breakthrough for archaeologists and historians. 

Map of the Khazar kingdom and surrounding regions, including Israel

"This is a hugely important discovery," said the leader of the Russian expedition, Dmitry Vasilyev, in a report by the French agency AFP. Vasilyev, from Astrakhan State University, made the comments after returning from the excavation site, located near the Russian village of Samosdelka just north of the Caspian Sea. The location of the site corresponds roughly to the area in which historians believe the empire may have existed.

"We can now shed light on one of the most intriguing mysteries of that period - how the Khazars actually lived,” he added. “We know very little about the Khazars - about their traditions, their funerary rites, their culture.”

The Jewish University in Moscow and the Russian Jewish Congress helped finance the excavations, which took place during the summer in various locations throughout the region in which the discovery was made. The project, overseen by a number of university professors, included some 50 students who assisted in the digs. 

The Khazars were known to be a semi-nomadic Turkic people who dominated the Pontic steppe and the North Caucasus regions from the 7th-10th centuries CE. The origin of the Khazars and their apparent conversion to Judaism is the subject of major dispute among modern historians.

In the 7th century CE, the Khazars founded an independent khaganate, or kingdom, in the Northern Caucasus along the Caspian Sea. It is believed that during the 8th or 9th century, around the height of their kingdom, the state religion became Judaism at the order of the king. At this point, the Khazar khaganate and its tributaries controlled much of what is today southern Russia, western Kazakhstan, eastern Ukraine, Azerbaijan, large portions of the Caucasus (including Circassia, Dagestan, Chechnya, and parts of Georgia), and the Crimea.

The first Jewish Khazar king was named Bulan, which means "elk", though some sources give him the Hebrew name Sabriel. A later king, Obadiah, strengthened Judaism, inviting rabbis into the kingdom and building synagogues.

References to a Jewish kingdom of Khazars are numerous in rabbinic literature from the Middle Ages and later. Among them is the famous tale by Rabbi Yehuda HaLevy, related in his celebrated 12th-century work The Kuzari. The book recounts a lengthy conversation between a certain Khazar king and an unnamed Jewish "wise man", where the latter's brilliant exposition on the essence of Torah compels the king to join the Jewish people.

Among other Jewish sources supporting the Jewish identity of the Khazars is a letter written by the medieval Jewish writer Avraham ibn Daud, who reported meeting rabbinical students from Khazar in Toledo, Spain in the mid-12th century. The well-renowned Schechter Letter recounts a different version of the conversion of the Khazar king, and mentions Benjamin ben Menachem as a Khazar king. Saadia Gaon, considered by many to be the greatest rabbi of his generation in the 10th century, also spoke favorably of the Khazars in his writings. 

References to a Jewish Khazar kingdom appears in non-Jewish literature as well.  Classical Muslim sources describing such a kingdom are often cited by modern Muslim scholars in their attempts to prove that the historical homeland of the Jews is not in present-day Israel.

The Khazar city that Prof. Vasileyev believes to have found was referred to as "Itil" in Arab chronicles. The archeologist said the name may actually be an Arabic reference to the Volga River, the great waterway on which the city was founded, to to the river's delta region. 

Various sources describe Itil as a city of unusual ethnic and religious tolerance and diversity. Travelers to the city noted that there were separate houses of worship and judges for Christians, Jews, Muslims and pagans.

Until now, however, remains of the city had never been identified, and many believed that in the intervening millennium since the demise of the Khazar empire in the 10th century, all signs of the city were washed away into the Caspian Sea.

Although archaeologists have been excavating in the area of Samosdelka for the past nine years, only now has Vasileyev’s team been able to claim findings conclusive enough to identify the site of the capital.  Among the discoveries his team has unearthed are the remains of an ancient brick fortress.

"Within the fortress, we have found huts similar to yurts, which are characteristics of Khazar cities,” said the researcher.  “The fortress had a triangular shape and was made with bricks. It's another argument that this was no ordinary city."