Saturday, April 14, 2012

White Fortress of the Khazar: Sarkel

In the 830's, the Khazar Khaganate, one of the most powerful and widespread feudal eastern European states, sought out to secure their northwestern border.  In order to do so, they sought out the guidance of their ally the Byzantine Empire, who provided engineers and architects to help design a grand fortress.

Built upon the Don river, the fortress was christened Sarkel.  Sar-kel, means in the Turkish language as "White Fortress", and was named this because the fortress' bricks were made of white limestone (Brook).  Much of the bricks were directed with symbols of warriors and their horses, as the Khazars were formed from a conglomeration of tribal nomads.

 Quite interesting artwork.  I do ponder who did such work, and exactly how much of the walls of the fortress were covered in them.  Furthermore, were they used to recount stories of great warriors, battles, or legends?

Sarkel served more than just a military fortification for the Khazars however.  It's position along the fabled "Silk Road" route that caravans used to transport goods to and forth from Europe and Asia ensured that Sarkel quickly became a vibrant economic center.  Due to this, structures were constructed to accommodate these travelers.

" In fact the remains of Sarkel caravanserais have been identified, each consisting of (1) rooms for visitors, (2) an area for holding cattle, and (3) a courtyard where the caravans were kept overnight" (Brook)

Residential areas were also present.  Examination of the homes of civilians indicated an interesting indication of renovation of one the most principle parts of a home, the fireplace.

"The houses in Sarkel originally had an open hearth in the center, but by the 10th century many of the houses had more advanced stoves and they were located in a corner rather than in the center" ().

This indicates how the once nomadic people of this city were able to settle down and live more productively thanks to the trade route, which brought about new ideals form far away.

Now, regarding who lived in Sarkel.  Besides the typical Turkish garrison of 300 troops, the city was home to people of all religious faiths.  Contrary to most European states stirred to wars of religious frenzy at this time, the Khazars were more tolerant, establishing a state that accepted Christians, Jews, Muslims, and even paganists.  As such, Sarkel was home to a melting pot of cultures.  This is what fascinates me the most about the Khazars.  One could say they were even more tolerant than countries today.

The artifacts that the residents left behind, as told by Kevin Brooks, author of The Jews of Khazaria, were widely varied, and further cement the site as a center place of trade.
"Many productive activities took place in the vicinity of Sarkel. The remains of forges and potter's workshops were identified by archaeologists. Thus, much of the kitchenware, jewelry (bracelets, rings, earrings), belt-buckles, and pottery used by the residents of Sarkel was produced locally. However, a substantial amount of non-local goods was imported into Sarkel, both from other Khazarian industrial centers (e.g., the Crimean and Taman peninsulas) and foreign countries (e.g., the Byzantine Empire)" (Brooks).

This is an illustration that highlights the layout of Serkel.  I would like to point out the corner tower that seems to appear over the river.  To me, that appears to be the observation post for defending the riverfront.  Surely one of the cannons would be placed there, and it is also likely that this was the signal point for boats moving up and down the river.

An interesting note about the burial remains.
"The human remains were mostly European types, but some Mongolian types also were found. Animal bones (for example, those of dogs and horses) were also found" (Brook).
It seems that the mixing pot of Serkel extended to the burial sites as well.  I do wonder how the burials were conducted.  Were they done in accordance to the deceased's religious views, or were they conducted in a universial fashion.  Furthermore, were the animal remains signs of the paganists' rituals, or of warrior customs, like the burying of a horse by its master?

Eventually, the city was destroyed by invading Rus forces, who rebuilt it to serve yet again as a vibrant trading outpost.  Soviet archaeologists explored the ruins up until 1952, when the city was completely submerged due to the construction of the Tsimlyansky Reservoir.  Sadly, the city was never completely studied, and further efforts are no longer possible.  As such, Serkel is an unfortunate case for archaeologists, one filled with untold histories and unanswerable questions.

Brook, Kevin.  "The Khazar Fortress of Sarkel." 2006. 4 April. 2012.


  1. A very interesting site indeed. I am not surprised by the fact that this was a melting pot type of location especially along the silk trade route. On a relative note many of my Polish ancestors were mingled among the Mongols because of their many bands of fighters that roamed Easter Europe and northern Asia.

  2. Wow, Sarkel sounds like all kinds of awesome, a melting pot of religions more tolerant than cities or even societies today, a glittering fortress of carved white limestone, top that off with a trading ally of the Byzantine Empire. I wonder if the people living there realized that they were part of a society that would be admired by strangers’ generations later. Of course the propaganda would have stated as such, but I wonder if they believed it.

    I wonder what happened to the fortress over time, was it ever taken, was it ravaged by plague, or was it simply abandoned, like some of the Mayan/Incan cities? I must say this is a very nice post, informative, thought provoking, with good use of images. I am curious if Sarkel was ever blatantly or subtly the inspiration for legends, myths, or other such fantasy stories. A fortress of white limestone reminds me of Minas Tirith, the white city, from the Lord of the Rings. Although I don’t think Tolkien would have been aware of the site, it might have inspired stories that have not been recovered yet.