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The Possible Reasons for the Arab-Khazar Wars
By Gerald Mako
Archivum Eurasiae Medii Aevi, Vol. 17 (2010)
Introduction: From the middle of the 7th century until the second half of the 8th century, the Arab-Khazar wars were fought by the Umayyad, and later by the Abassid Caliphate against the regional power, the Khazar Khaganate. These conflicts can basically be divided into five mayor chapters. In the course of the Muslim expansion, Armenia was of outstanding importance for Byzantium, because of its strategic position and its potential for military supplies. After its defeat by the Muslims and the occupation of the southern part of the Caucasus, the first serious clash took place in 652, when the Arabs besieged the Khazar capital, Balangar. However, here they suffered a catastrophic defeat. Following this, in consequence of the defeat, the civil war inside the Caliphate, and the participation of the Arab forces in other theaters of war, no further major Arab attack occurred up to the beginning of the 8th century, although there were a series of minor incursions by both sides.
The skirmishes became more intensive in the first half of the 8th century, and in 722 the Arab forces, under the leadership of al-Garrah ibn Abdallah al-Hakami successfully seized Balangar. The outcome of this was that the Khagan was forced to set up his new capital on the lower reaches of the River Volga. In 730, the Khazars assumed the incentive, and available sources claim that a Khazar army of some 300,000 men, (clearly heavily exaggerated) invaded Azerbaijan, and the Caliph’s forces, led by Said ibn Amr al-Harasi, resisted the Khazars who had reached Mosul. The Arab forces, commanded by Maslama ibn Abd al-Malik, then launched a successful counterattack.
The last large-scale clash between the two sides, which was so far the most successful Arab attack against the Khazar Khaganate, took place in 737. The campaign was directed by the later caliph, Marwan ibn Muhammed, who badly misled the Khagan and the Khazar elite, to such an extent that, when they finally realized the direction and the scope of the attack, the Arabs had already invaded deep into their territories. The Khagan had no time to mobilize his armies, and as a result he was compelled to leave his capital and flee to the region of the lower Volga. Here however, the Arabs defeated the last remaining Khazar forces, and forced the Khagan and his retinue to take up Islam. In this sense, the Khagan acknowledged the Caliph’s rule, and paid a yearly tax. The Khazar Khaganate thus formally became a country subordinated to the Umayyad Caliphate. Nonetheless as Marwan was not in a position to be able to leave a more considerable garrison in the area, Khazaria virtually remained an independent state, but it paid a symbolic tax to the Caliphate for a further three years. Significant battles did not occur between the two states after the events of 737, though there were small-scale skirmishes, and Khazar raids in the second half of the century.