V.S. Flyorov. «Towns» and «castles» in the Khazar kaganate archeological reality

The term «town»: what does it mean?

The term «город/town» (the words городить, ограждать деревянной крепостной стеною, which mean to fence, surround with a wooden fortress wall) has a very vague meaning in Russian. It is used for historical settlements with fortifications or without them. It does not reflect the chronology, the size, the economy, the composition of the population and other characteristics of a settlement.

The term «город» has become firmly established in archaeological and historical literature for the description of the sites of ancient settlements of the Khazar kaganate. To what degree is it substantiated by the excavation materials? In the book the author comes to a negative answer: there were no towns in the Khazar kaganate.

V.S. Flyorov sees the solution of the problem of a town in Khazaria in a thorough research of the archaeological material of the kaganate monuments which may seem to have the status of a town. Generally the program of the study is formulated as follows: a town or something else. For Khazaria it can be done on the basis of settlement plans, the types of structures, the sizes of fortifications, and the presence of artisan production.

The problem of a "Khazar town" was introduced into the khazar studies by S.A. Pletneva in the book «От кочевий к городам / From the nomads’ camps to towns» (Плетнёва С.А., 1967). The title reflects the straight forwardness of the scheme of the kaganate development. Pletneva has considered as towns Itil, Sarkel, Semikarakory, Semender and "others that have not been studied" (Плетнёва С.А., 1967, с. 44—48). Later the list was changed, and Semikarakory was excluded (Плетнёва С.А., 1987, 2002). Her terminology is not stable: town, a provincial border small town, a steppe town, etc.

V.S. Flyorov mainly considers the sites of ancient settlements — a stone and brick fortification of Don — Seversky Donets basin, where the culture of the Khazar kaganate, that is Saltovo-Mayatsky culture, had formed and developed in its pure shape. Exactly for this region the question of Khazaria "towns" must be solved. The monuments of the Crimea, Dagestan, and Chechnia are also used, for which one may come across the definition "a town of Khazaria".

In the quest of khazar towns two features are taken into account:

1. The architectural and planning aspect. It archaeologically (up to visualization) distinguishes a town from a village/hamlet. The social structure of the urban population, its composition and organization is reflected in it. After all the character of the settlement as that of a town (not a village!) was determined neither by the houses of the nobility/aristocracy, nor by cult buildings, but by the type of the houses of the ordinary populace with its way of life and occupations.

2. The structure. The feature is not simple. It is not clear what must be included into the composition of a "town" only the sites or the adjoining open settlements together with them. Some authors are beginning to toy with the term «посадл/suburb.

The Don — Seversky Donets basin

The sites that have been studied, which earlier were called "towns" or "castles" are not such: Sarkel — Belaya Vezha, Semikarakory, Pravobe-rezhnoye Tsymlyanskoye, Mayatskoye, Verghni Olshan, Verchneye Saltovo, Mayaki. There are ordinary houses, semi-dugouts or yurt-type ones at all of them, there is no street planning, and agriculture prevails. There are no archaeological features of a town. Here are some examples.

Sarkel (III.1, 2). As a rule M.I. Artamonov called Sarkel a fortress and not a town (Артамонов М.И., 1958). S.A. Pletneva called Sarkel a town or a small town, and then caravanserai. Sarkel (the Levoberezhnoye Tsymlyanskoye site) is a tiny brick fort, 178.6×117.8 m along the inner perimeter. The houses have no characteristics distinguishing them from those known from rural settlements. The material culture, too, has nothing special about it. The brick rooms inside the fort are hardly suitable to live in, especially in winter. Most probably they are store-houses for provisions in case of a siege and arsenals.

The excavations have given no reason to suppose that the main function of Sarkel was "commercial and customs activity", which S.A. Pletneva ascribed to it.

Semikarakory (III. 3,4) is a fortress made of adobe with structures of baked brick. Probably, it was the residence of the kagans (Флёров В.С., 2001, 2009а, 2009б). The considerable part of the fortress is not built.

Verhnee Saltovo (III. 17). D.T. Berezovets (Археология УРСР, 1975, С. 422) was one of the first to have written about it as a "town" later A.V. Kryganov (2001а, с. 102) tried to prove it. His description is an unreliable supposition with the predominance of emotion. He called the monument an "administrative and commercial centre" in the north-west of kaganate (Крыганов А.В., 1997, с. 57). V.S. Flyorov considers the site to have been an ordinary fortress with adjoining settlements. It is badly explored. The size of the settlements and the burial ground are not known.

About the term "prototown". The question about it was put forward by V.V. Koloda (2009); he admitted that the existence of towns in the Khazar kaganate was open to question. According to Koloda, Verkhni Saltov, Chuguevskoye, Mokhnach, Korobovy Khutora, Sukhaya Gomolsha, Sidorovskoye, Mayaki, Yutanovskoye, Mayatskoye were prototowns. V.S. Flyorov thinks it to be a "game of terms". There is no sense to raise the question about the "prototowns" in the Khazar kaganate, because not a single one of the listed places had become a town.

"Castles" or something else

In her book "From nomads’ camps to towns" S.A. Pletneva expressed an opinion that six settlements with earthen ramparts — "these big fenced settlements can be considered to be one of the primary forms of the "feudal nomadic castles" (Плетнева С.А., 1967, с. 24) as well as 12 fortresses of white stones, including the Pravoberezhnaya Tsymlyanskaya one. However, these monuments have nothing to indicate the presence of the feudal class. Some have not been excavated at all. The burial grounds of the kaganate are the evidence of very inconsiderable property stratification. The notion "castle" (das Schloß in German) has entered our country’s historiography from West European studies of the Middle Ages, but it should be taken into account that social processes have gone along a different way in Europe.


It remains unclear where Itil was. The author has tried to reconstruct how it looked on the basis of the sources of the "Caspian code" by

B.N. Zakhoder. It has turned out that it is impossible to calculate its sizes, the number of the population, including the Christians, Moslems and Jews. There is no initial data to reconstruct the "palace". If an attempt is to be made to recreate a model of Itil in a verbal or graphic way it will hardly be possible to get anything integral on the basis of contradictory and fragmentary information. The conclusion made half a century ago still remains valid: "Many essential questions of the topography and history of Itil cannot be solved even in the form of a hypothesis, and it is not known whether the materials necessary for solving them will ever be found" (Заходер Б.Н., 1963, с. 198). Zakhoders remark is correct: Itil is a large populated place with the beginnings (not more!) of urban life and the predominance of agriculture. The remains of Itil are claimed by the site of Samosdelka in the Volga Delta.

Samosdelka. The author has used nearly all publications about the site (Васильев Д.В., Гречкина Т.Ю., Зиливинская Э.Д., 2003, с. 106; Зиливинская Э.Д., 2007, 2010; Зиливинская Э.Д, Васильев Д.В., 2008,2009) and has come to the following conclusion: it has not been studied sufficiently to draw any conclusions. There are no statistics about the size of bricks to compare them with the bricks of Sarkel. The date of founding is not established. The methods of excavations are not satisfactory, and the ceramics is not treated.


It is the biggest fortress of the Khazar kaganate (III.20—22). Khumara could be considered a town, but the nearly complete lack of the study of the inner space is an obstacle to it. There is no data about the remains of solid structures, and the few ones that are excavated are ordinary semi-dugouts.


Belendjer and Semender have not yet been found. Probably, they were "large populated places" with simple dwellings and a rural population.

Verkhni Chir-Yurt (III.24). The site is not explored. The purpose of the stone wall was dam the valley of the Sulak River.

Andrey-aul (III.25). An open settlement founded in the beginning of the common era adjoins the site. Compared with the total area of the monument the explored parts are microscopic (Атаев Д.М., Магомедов М.Г., 1974). There is no information about either the structure of the site on the whole, or about the purpose of its separate parts. The planning and the density of construction are not known.

Today it is difficult to determine which fortresses of Dagestan were built in the Khazar time after all, for the dating stratigraphic scale of the ceramics is not worked out for them.

Taman and the Crimea

Were the towns of Tamatarkha, Phanagoria, Bospor — Korchev, Sugdea (III. 26—32) the Khazar ones as S.A. Pletneva believed (1967, с. 47—49)? They were founded in the ancient time. Having included these towns into the sphere of their interests for some time the Khazars did not exert any essential influence on the character of the local provincial Byzantine culture. In the cultural layers the artefacts of the Saltovo-Mayatsky culture are represented in small numbers. The Khazars have left no traces in the house-building and fortification of these towns. The role of the Khazar kaganate in the history of the Crimea is exaggerated.

Opus spicatum

In the Russian literature this kind of masonry is called «ёлочка»/а fur-tree that is herring-bone work. S.A. Pletneva and then T.I. Makarova and A.I. Aybabin after her linked its appearance in the towns of the Northern Black Sea area with coming of the Khazars from Dagestan. However, the spreading of the opus spicatum in the Taman and the Crimea only coincided with the Bulgar-Khazar expansion, but was not its result. What is important is the fact that in the vast basin of the Don dwellings with foundations of the opus spicatum type are not found. The connection of the Khazars with the opus spicatum masonry is denied by S.B. Sorochan in well-reasoned way (Сорочан С.Б., 20046).

Camp and aul

In the study of the problem of a "town in the Khazar kaganate" a comparison with the First Bulgar kingdom is expedient. The author has used the works of R. Rashev (Р. Рашев 1982) and other Bulgarian researchers. They divide the defensive structures on the Danube River into two kinds:1. A camp (лагер), an earthen rampart, mostly rectangular. According to its purpose it is a fortress with a closed rampart along the perimeter. The largest camp was Nikulets (Никулец), 48.3 sq.km in area, with a number of inner fortifications (III.33). The camp was the outside fortification of Pliska (Плиска). 2. Aul (аул), a fortification with the walls of grit stone (a kind of sandstone). According to Rashev: The old Bulgar aul is not only a palace, a court, a complex of court structures of various purposes, but it is first of all a fortified palace. The surrounding of the khan’s residence with a fortress wall is the most typical feature of the aul. The first one among the auls was the stony capital Pliska (III. 34—36). Preslav (Преслав) (III. 38) was a khans aul that developed into a second Bulgar capital. There were no towns proper in the First Bulgar kingdom, which is analogous to the situation in the Khazar kaganate. V.S. Flyorov considers the Bulgar camps and auls to be the analogy of the Khazar fortresses, including also Itil taking into account the peculiarities of the technology of fortress construction in Khazaria.

Old and new problems

About the feudalism in Khazaria. The problem of town is inseparably linked with the appraisal of the degree of "feudalization" of the kaganate. S.A. Pletneva has written about an early feudalism and even developed feudalism, about the feudal land ownership (1982, с. 10). But written sources do not confirm this. M.I. Artamonov admitted that "little is known about the forms of social and economic relations in Khazaria" (1962, с. 400). It is necessary to admit that historians and archaeologists are unable to give a distinct picture of social relations in the Khazar kaganate. Only some incomplete facts have reached us about the multicolored mosaic of its inner life. The vagueness in the character of the social-economic relations in the Khazar kaganate has full right to exist. The absence of data is not to be replaced by the introduction of well-known clichés, in this case "feudalism", "a feudal town".

Migration or nomadic life. However paradoxical it may be, despite the great number of works mentioning the nomadic life in the Khazar kaganate it is exactly the stage of the nomadic life in it that is studied worst of all. Today it is becoming more and more apparent that from the very beginning the kaganate was not a nomadic "steppe state" as it is characterized by S.A. Pletneva. It is more correct to speak about migration and the quick development of a new territory with the subsequent construction of fortifications in the form of ramparts and moats and then fortresses of white stone and bricks. In Eastern Europe the kaganate’s population got a new homeland as did the Hungarians for whom we use the formula of "getting a homeland". The pro-Bulgars of Asparukh (Isperikh), too, found a new homeland in the Lower Danube, where they, not without the Slavs’ influence, soon passed to a settled way of life. The question about its stage of the nomadic life and its duration in the kaganate requires a radical revision.

The kaganate economy

Why has it become necessary to turn to the problem of nomadic life and the nomads’ camps in a book about fortresses and large settlements? From the position of archaeology they mark the beginning of the Khazar history. The Khazar kaganate emerges as a settled formation of a relatively early state type without the stage of a long nomadic way of life, and by the end of its history it creates a self-sufficient economy and an advanced material culture, but does not after all form high-type settlements — towns. That is its peculiarity: the high development had not necessarily brought about the appearance of towns, although, as it may seem, there were all the preconditions for the appearance of the "khazar towns". The following is its cause. The plenitude of resources, the provision with the products of handicraft and agriculture combined with good natural conditions had brought to an opposite effect: the Khazar kaganate has stopped at the attained level that satisfied the needs of not too stratified society. The issue of a coin of its own did not develop or had declarative purposes; natural exchange prevailed, to which the kagans gafol (polyudye — going round and gathering taxes, products, etc.) corresponded.

Extra stimuli were needed in the sphere of the superstructure, the political ones, to activate money relations and inner commodity circulation, which in its turn would have created conditions for improvements in the handicrafts, which could have been followed by the transformation of some large settlements into towns, and on the whole by the general improvements in the country. The centralization of the state and the suppression of independent chiefs were necessary for this.


The question about Khazar kaganate's statehood is solved differently by archaeology and history. The archaeological culture of the kaganat can be recognized as that of a "state" since its main manifestations, first of all the ceramics, had spread literally all over the territory of the kaganate. Besides, the Saltovo-Mayatsky culture was outside of being only ethnic.

If we speak about the state of the "Khazar kaganate" and its structure we shall have to consider other categories — the institutions of power, its forms and prerogatives in the centre and in the provinces, the degree of centralization or, on the contrary, the weakness of power. For the Khazar kaganate we do not know the forming of a state that is the supplanting of the customary law by the legal norms fixed in law documents. We have not progressed much in the solving of the question about the essence of the Khazar kaganate’s statehood. Regardless of the choice of an answer there can be no doubt about the link between the statehood and urbanization.

The Khazar kaganate had very quickly passed through the "stage of nomads’ camps", the stage of "getting a homeland" but it did not come to "towns". It did not have enough time for this given by History.

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