© Copyright by Brian Howard Seibert
THE KHAZARS (Circa 831 AD)
“Concerning the king of the Khazars, whose title is Kagan,
he appears in public only once every four months.
They call him the Great Kagan. His deputy is called Kagan Bek;
he is the one who commands and supplies the armies,
manages the affairs of state, appears in public and leads in war.”
Ahmad Ibn-Fadlan (c.960).
Gotwar looked ancient. She had aged incredibly in the three years since Hraerik had razed the house of Westmar. Her skin had become a wrinkled patchwork of dry parchment and oily leather and her hair, stark white, was dishevelled and mangy. Her teeth were all but gone, and her nose was red and swollen and tracked with veins. She was a priestess of Odin transformed. A witch. Hraerik shuddered just to look upon her; he avoided the experience, but there was a problem. The Slavs had closed the Southern Way and the Khazars were behind it. And old Gotwar knew the Khazars.
Years earlier, when King Frodi had come of marriageable age his regents had cast about for a suitable match. Caught up in the grip of vice and decadence, young King Frodi foiled all proposals with claims of unsuitability, and when, at last, an equal had been found him in Hanund, daughter of King Hunn, Kagan Bek of the Khazars, he parried by reminding all that his father, King Fridleif, had always warned against alliances made afar and that neighbours made the best matches. Gotwar had been the one to convince him otherwise, and the developing Southern Way played no little part in the politics of it. King Frodi became determined that the Danes would be the first to seek an alliance with the Orient.
“I convinced young King Frodi to send an embassy to the Khazars,” old Gotwar began, gulping greedily of the fine wine Hraerik had offered her, “but when he asked me to accompany the mission I was aghast. It would be a dangerous proposal in a far off land. I was too old for it. Then he offered me gold,” and she pointed at the necklace young Gunwar was wearing, the one Hraerik had won off the old crony in their flygting contest. “I was torn between the wealth and the danger, so I asked that Westmar and my sons come along. They were the finest of champions,” she said bitterly, almost to herself, “none dispute that fact”.
She gulped her wine, passionately, and began her tale anew, as one driven, possessed. “The journey was long and hard, cold and bitter, and dark dangers were everywhere. The rivers steamed sorrows and the forests breathed death, but, finally, we came upon the great Asian plain with the oriental delights of Khazaria before us. The first tribe that we met were the Turkoi, westernmost of the seven Khazar tribes. They were dark skinned Turkic-speaking nomads. Dangerous people in a dangerous land, but trustworthy, and great horsemen. Then we met the Onogur, a lighter skinned tribe that was semi-nomadic and very peaceful. Finally, we came upon the Khazars, a most curious mix of people. The Kara-Khazars were as light as the Greeks and very noble looking. We travelled through lush gardens and vineyards, attended by civilized people that knew the meaning of hospitality and were eager at the opportunity for trade. They admired our furs most of all and they would happily trade a mark of silver for a squirrel pelt. They drank wine sweetened with honey and they ate meats cooked savoury with spices. A party of them took us to see the Kagan Bek in their capital city. Coming over a low rise, the capital lay spread out before us, a city the likes of which I have never seen. Covering both banks of the Volga River, this white brick city of towers and spires rose up into the sky, breaking the horizon into an array of bristling turrets and minarets.”
Gotwar had been famous for her brazen tongue, but Hraerik had never heard her spin a tale, and she wove her words surprisingly well. Princess Gunwar was at the edge of her seat as the old woman paused for a refill of her cup. It was a blustery spring evening outside, but the roaring hearth fires of Gunwar’s high seat hall kept the old woman flushed and her words began flowing again. “The western half of the city is called Kazaran and is connected to Atil, the eastern half, by a bridge of boats. Kazaran, itself, is surrounded by a high white wall with four gates, and within the walls are the palaces and courts of the Kagan and the Kagan Bek and the homes of the pure-bred Khazars. They are Jewish in religion and remain segregated from the Moslems of Atil. Only from the At-Khazars can a new Kagan be chosen. The Kagan Bek may come from any of the Khazar tribes, as has King Hunn from the tribe of Huns in the south of Khazaria.
“Now the Huns are a very dangerous tribe, brave and warlike, and they shape the heads of their warriors at birth to a point so that their skulls might resemble a helmet, though they wear none, and they shave themselves clean, leaving only a long lock hanging from the crest, a plume, as it were, on their helmed head. So fierce are their warriors, it is said they can strike an Arab dead with a glance, and the Kagan Bek usually rises to power from this tribe. All tribes fear the Huns, except the At-Khazars, who are very fine warriors in their own right, not so much as individuals, but in fighting as a group. When we arrived in Kazaran, the Kagan Bek threw a great feast for us and our Onogur guides. He was very receptive to talk of trade, for the Khazars tax all trade by a tenth, but we feared mention our true mission lest King Hunn take offence. We were far from our homeland and would only get back by the grace of our host.
“Grep and the rest of my sons made a name for themselves as champions during the days between feasting, and they defeated all who came before them in battle exercises,” Gotwar said proudly, “be they Arab, Hun or At-Khazar. Finally, on the third day of feasting, Princess Hanund graced us with her presence, for she was a fine raven-haired beauty. When Westmar alluded jestingly that our young King Frodi was single and in need of a wife, she replied haughtily that King Frodi was in greater need of fame, for she had never heard of him. Westmar went on, though, describing the attributes of our young king while I plied the young Princess with runes and love potions. Soon we had her swayed to the point where we might approach her father, so Westmar and my sons went to King Hunn, in the midst of the banqueting, and demanded his daughter’s hand in our king’s name. At first, King Hunn was reticent, but when Westmar drew his sword partway from its sheath and our sons did likewise and no eastern warriors came forth to meet this challenge, the King relented, saying he would like to hear Princess Hanund’s thoughts on the proposal. Much to his surprise, the young Princess agreed, and the match was made and the feasting resumed. That is how King Frodi got his first Queen.”
Hraerik thanked Gotwar for the tale and allowed her to remain for supper, which pleased Gunwar. The old woman had kept her word when Hraerik had spared her against Hraelauger’s wishes, and she served her young princess faithfully. Hraerik saw very little of the old woman, so it was not too taxing having her about.
“Concerning the emperor of the Khazars,
whose title is Caesar,
he appears in public only once every four months.
They call him Caesar Porphyrogenitus.
His deputy is called Caesar Ordinarius;
he is the one who commands and supplies the armies,
manages the affairs of state,
appears in public and leads in war.”
Porphyrogenitus. Born of the purple. Born of the blood of the Roman Emperor. It came to Hraerik in a dream. Valerian was at the head of an army of Twelve Legions. Seventy thousand men….foot soldiers mostly and a few thousand light cavalry. Against him was Shapur, King of Persia, with fifty thousand heavy cavalry lancers and another ten thousand mounted archers. It was the middle of the third century of the Christian Era as the two armies melded into one thrashing mass of soldiery, and the battle raged for hours before the Romans began to fall back before the mass of the heavy horse. Both sides suffered equally under the hot eastern sun. The Legions kept their formations as they worked their way back to a high bluff around which they settled and held their ground. Heavy cavalry swept around the square of shields and attacked then retreated at will, for the Emperor’s light horse were gone by now, all dead or captured. And Shapur’s mounted archers circled at a safe distance and fired their arrows into the square knot of linked shields, the darts biting bone, finding gaps in the legionary armour. Supplies were dwindling as the day wore on, with no sign of either side breaking. When supplies were gone. That would determine who had won. And most of the Roman baggage train remained in the valley below with the Persian train beside it, resupplying the mounted archers when they’d expended all their arrows. And pouring water over the sweating horse of Shapur’s heavy cavalry.
In a break in the fighting, Valerian rode forth with a group under the white flag of truce and requested terms. He was immediately surrounded by heavy horse and they swept his party of light horse away with them to the painted pavilions of the Persian king. Valerian looked back at his Legions still in formation and watched in astonishment as a Persian supply troop left wagon barrels of water just outside of the shield walls for the parched foreign troops.
“We do not want to kill any more Romans than we absolutely have to,” Shapur stated, as Valerian was led into the main pavilion. “I have a job for them.”
He was half Valerian’s age with dark eyes and black flowing hair. His white tunic still bore the marks of armour that had recently been stripped off him. Valerian’s armour was covered in dust and sweat and a bit of blood and a bit of his short cropped grey hair tufted out of his helmet across his steel grey eyes.
“We are not here to work. We are here to fight,” the Roman emperor protested weakly.
“Had you worked harder at fighting, perhaps it would be I who was seeking terms from you. But that is supposition. What I am going to offer you is choices. You may fight on and, believe me, you will die. Or you can live and your corps of Roman engineers and men can build my new capital for me.”
Hraerik had been given knowledge of all things the nine days he had been in a coma at Hraegunarstead, his nine days upon the tree Ygdrasil, and it told him that south of Susa, Shapur had built his new capital, and he called it Bishapur, and south of that was a small construction town he called Kazaran, Home of Caesar.
Valerian was the first Roman emperor captured in battle, and was likely the only Roman emperor to build a city, not in a day, just as Rome was not, but over a period of three years. His men worked hard for their lives and, when the job was done, they were given the opportunity to work even harder for their freedom. So they built Shapur a dam, and Shapur, the ever eloquent host, called it Band-E Qaisar, or, Caesar’s Dam. The Roman engineering that went into that dam was so good that the dam works was still operating in Hraerik’s time.
“I have always found it puzzling that you spared me,” Valerian started. “I can understand you sparing my men and, particularly my engineers, but to spare an old leader like me and to now give us all our freedom….it dumbfounds me.”
“In Rome, they say I use you as a foot stool to get upon my horse. You are the second most important man in Persia. I am a king and you are my guest, an emperor. Even my Prime Minister is not of high enough station to order your death. By holding you in high station, I ensure that my people hold me in even higher station. Conversely, you Romans turn on your own so often, it is impossible to know who will next be ascending to the throne of Rome. By protecting you, I protect myself; that is what the Persian kings have learned over the centuries since the time of the Greeks. It is a thing Alexander and the Ptolomies learned from us. But I digress. As regards your freedom, I cannot let you return to Rome. You may have suspected as much all along, but I was going to chance it, chance having a friend in Rome rather than an enemy. We have worked well together over the years, my friend.” And Valerian nodded in agreement. “But I have bad news for you from Rome. Your son, Emperor Gallienus, has been assassinated. If I return you to Rome, you shall share his fate.”
But Shapur kept his word and gave Valerian and his men their freedom and lands north of the Caspian Sea, across the Volga River from a city called Atil. And the Romans built their own city there and Valerian called it Kazaran. Hraerik’s dream told him the city was so prosperous that the surrounding lands became known as Khazaria…Land of Caesar. In an ironic twist, the city across from Kazaran, Atil, was the birth place of Atilla, the scourge of the Roman Empire.