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March 29, 2015 3:22 pm

Kings of the Jews: Himyar, Khazaria, & Ethiopia

avatar by Brandon Marlon


Historical knowledge regarding Jewish rulers outside of the Land of Israel remains impoverished in comparison with the Jewish kingdoms established in the homeland. What is certain is that over the millennia a number of polities well beyond the borders of the Holy Land were ruled by Jews, either by virtue of the fact that their ruling houses converted to Judaism—as in Himyar and Khazaria—or because a Jewish community in the Diaspora achieved sovereignty over a distinct region—as in Ethiopia. Scattered references about these kingdoms and their monarchs derive from numerous sources including Syriac letters, the fanciful diary of the merchant traveler Eldad Ha-Dani (800s C.E.), Muslim accounts such as Al-Masudi’s The Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems (947 C.E.) and Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah (in Greek, Prolegomena, 1377 C.E.), Khazarian letters such as the long and short versions of the Reply of Joseph first published in Isaac Akrish’s Kol Mevasser (1577 C.E.), and the Responsa of the Spanish Talmudist and Kabbalist Radbaz (Rabbi David Ben Solomon Ibn Zimra, 1479-1573 or 1589 C.E.).

Judaism had spread to Yemen, formerly Himyar (and originally Sheba), at least as early as the 3rd century C.E. Among the Jewish Himyarite rulers, the Tuba’a and Abu Kariba dynasties became prominent, and are noted especially for their longstanding struggle for independence against the Christian Ethiopians led by a negus and centered at Axum. The Himyarite capital Zafar lay in the fertile southern highlands, and Sabaic and Greek inscriptions attest to the kingdom’s synagogues and Jewish cemeteries. A number of Jewish Himyarites were buried in Bet She’arim in Israel. Long before and long after the kingdom of Himyar flourished for 250 years between the 3rd and 6th centuries C.E., Jews resided in both northern and southern Arabia. The Jews of Yemen survived as a community into the modern era.

The Khazars were a semi-nomadic Turkic tribe of the Caucasus region along the Caspian Sea who were autonomous and sovereign in Eastern Europe between the 7th and 10th centuries C.E. For part of this time the royal line and leading Khazars, as well as a segment of the Khazar citizenry, renounced their Tengri animism and observed Judaism. The Khazars were ruled by a khagan who reigned for a maximum of 40 years and was never seen in public, as well as a viceroy known as a bek who commanded the army. Between 641-750 C.E. there were various Khazar-Arab wars, but the Khazars were soon focused on a new threat, the Vikings (Rus), who captured Kiev in 862 C.E. The Khazars were greatly reduced by Georgius Tzul, a Christian Russian, in 1016 C.E, but they survived into the 13th century until their kingdom was wiped out in 1224 C.E. by Mongol hordes under Genghis Khan. Remnants of the Judaized population retreated into the Caucasian mountains.

The Jews of Ethiopia, an ancient and enduring community, have been known by several names: Ayhud, Falashas, Beta Israel. They inhabited the interior highlands of Ethiopia around Lake Tana, in such areas as Semien, Wagara, Sallamt, Sagade, and Dambeya. In the 1400s, several princes of the provinces of Semien and Sallamt abandoned Christianity in favor of Judaism. The Beta Israel attained the peak of their prosperity between 1468-1625 C.E., and utilized their Hebraic heritage as a means of maintaining independence from the dominant central state and Christian church. In the aftermath of a failed rebellion against the Christian state in 1624, some groups of Beta Israel were spared on the condition that they convert to Christianity. The Jews of Ethiopia survived as a community into the present day.

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What follows, then, is a précis of most of what can be gleaned from the myriad and disparate sources concerning the Jewish kings of Himyar, Khazaria, and Ethiopia:

  1. Yassirum Yohre’am, a.k.a. Jasirum Juhanim (r. circa 270-281 C.E.) – The king of Sheba and Dhu Raidan, who embraced Judaism in 270 C.E.
  2. Shamar Juharish (r. 281-300 C.E.) – The son of Yassirum Yohre’am, who ruled Sheba, Dhu Raidan, Hadramaut, and Jomanat. His descendant Hassan Tuba fought against Constantine.
  3. Amr-Shlomo (r. 325-330 C.E.) – The son of one David and grandson of Asad I. He lost his father early on and died young himself. He was married to Bilqis, the daughter of Kudkud Hadhad, prince of Tuhama or Hamdan and founder of the Abu Kariba dynasty. Bilqis, as widow of Amr-Shlomo, may have reigned upon the death of her husband.
  4. Juhamin Malki Kariba (r. 378-385 C.E.) – The son of Kudkud Hadhad and the brother of Bilqis, who became the first Judaized king of the Abu Kariba dynasty.
  5. Abu Kariba Asad, a.k.a. Asad Kariba (r. 390-420 C.E.) – A descendant of Juhanim. His son Deeray Amara Aiman ruled briefly in 420 C.E. before another son, Sharahbi il-Jafur, assumed the throne and enjoyed a lengthy reign between 420-455 C.E.
  6. Yusuf Dhu Nuwas (r. 515-525 C.E.) – A Jewish king under whose rule Himyarite Judaism peaked. Dhu Nuwas may have had ambitions to unite Arabia’s southern Jews in Himyar with its northern Jews in the Hijaz (of Yathrib, Khaybar, etc.). He figures in numerous Arabic, Greek, and Ethiopian accounts as a zealot who persecuted Christians, though it is probable that he led the resistance against Ethiopian encroachments and domination. His attempt to secure Persian aid against Ethiopia was unsuccessful. When a revolt took place in the city of Najran in 523 C.E., Dhu Nuwas slaughtered its Christian residents and quelled the rebellion. He died in battle against the invading Christian Ethiopians and thereafter Christianity took hold for a time in Yemen. A descendant of Dhu Nuwas, Sayf Dhu Yazan, led a revolt and overthrew the Ethiopians’ client kings, with Persian assistance. Yemen, however, soon became a Persian vassal until the advent of Islam. In Muslim tradition, Dhu Nuwas is looked upon favorably and is considered a monotheistic forerunner of Muhammad.
  7. Bulan (r. 8th century) – Khazar khagan who converted to Judaism circa 740 C.E. and abolished the diviners and idolaters in his lands. It was said that the Lord appeared in a dream to Bulan, promising him strength and glory. Encouraged, Bulan won great victories over the Arabs. In 730 C.E., a tabernacle based on the biblical model was erected from the spoils of a Khazar attack on Ardabil (Adarbel), south of the Caucasus. Thereafter, the Byzantine emperor and the Muslim caliph sent Bulan envoys bearing presents and wise men to convert him to their respective religions. Bulan also invited sages of Israel, and proceeded to examine all of the representatives. Bulan separately questioned the Christians and Muslims as to which of the other two religions they considered to be better; both preferred Judaism, therefore the khagan perceived that it must be the superior religion and decided to adopt it. Thus Bulan and the Khazar grandees, together with a sizable portion of their heathen populace, embraced the Jewish faith and were circumcised. The fascinating tale of Bulan’s conversion to Judaism served as the basis for Rabbi Judah Halevi’s renowned philosophical dialogue, The Kuzari. If Bulan (a Turkic name) is identical with Sabriel (a Hebrew name, and a figure to whom the Khazars’ conversion is sometimes ascribed), then his wife was the Jewess named Serakh.
  8. Obadiah (r. 8th century) – Khazar khagan, a grandson of Bulan who, around 800 C.E., reformed religious practice by inviting Jewish scholars to settle in his domain and teach the inhabitants. Obadiah founded Jewish schools and synagogues in which familiarity with the Torah, Talmud, and prayer liturgy were enhanced. Under Obadiah Khazarian Jews practiced rabbinical Judaism. He is sometimes identified as Sabriel, and was succeeded by his son Hezekiah then his grandson Menashe.
  9. Joseph b. Aaron b. Benjamin (r. 10th century) – Khazar khagan, a descendant of Obadiah and Bulan, who in the year 960 C.E. replied to a letter sent to him from Hasdai ibn Shaprut (915-970 C.E.), the Jewish foreign minister of Sultan Abd Al-Rahman III in Cordoba, Spain, conveyed to him via a German Jew, Yitzchak ben Eliezer. Joseph related that Khazaria was a land won by the Khazars from the Bulgars. He married a princess of the Alans, and his royal palace was the only brick building in the capital of Atil (Itil), all the other structures being mud huts or felt tents. He further depicted Khazaria as a land receiving little rain but possessing many rivers full of fish and many springs, with fertile fields, vineyards, gardens, and orchards irrigated by the rivers. Fruit trees of all kinds were abundant. Contact was maintained between the Jews of Spain and the Khazars, some of whom eventually appeared in Toledo according to Abraham ibn Daud (1100s).
  10. Gideon, a.k.a. Gedwon (r. ?-1624 C.E.) – A courageous warrior who formed an alliance with other rulers and led the revolt against the Christian monarch Susenyos (Socinus), who crushed the rebellion and ordered all Beta Israel men killed, with their wives and children sold into slavery. Gideon fell in battle in 1624 C.E., and for his brave leadership his memory is cherished to this day by the Beta Israel.

The majority of Yemenite Jewry, almost 50,000 people, was airlifted to Israel in Operation Magic Carpet (1949-1950). Only 200-300 Jews remain in Yemen today. Operation Moses (1984-1985) airlifted about 8,000 Beta Israel from Sudan refugee camps to Israel and Operation Solomon (1991) brought another 14,000 directly from Ethiopia. Although there are scant artifacts of the Khazars, remains of the Khazarian capital of Atil, next to the Volga River, are believed to have been discovered during excavations between 2003-2005 in southern Russia.

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