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The microbiology of early globalization

Pandemics and imperial entanglement in the 2nd to 8th centuries AD

Updated and translated extract from: Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, Jenseits von Rom und Karl dem Großen. Aspekte der globalen Verflechtung in der langen Spätantike, 300–800 n. Chr. Vienna 2018.

Research is discovering, based on new methods of paleobotany, archeozoology and genetics, an increasing number of "biological transfers" in ancient and early medieval times, the exchange of which intensified with the great empires and their networks. Biology uses the term "hemerochory" for the spread or displacement of species through human culture, including the distribution by domestic animals or species accompanying humans (such as the house rat or house mouse), called "zoochory". A distinction is also made between conscious and unwanted introduction of species. The extent to which these phenomena, which are hotly debated in the modern "globalized" world, affected various ecospheres in antiquity and in the Middle Ages will be the subject of further investigation, but we can assume that even then there were hardly any "untouched" landscapes that were not changed to different degrees by human activity, either intentionally or unknowingly (for example by accompanying "bio-invaders").

Major long-distance trade routes in Afro-Eurasia between AD 500 and 900 (map: J. Preiser-Kapeller, ÖAW, 2020; basemap: google earth)

The “uninvited passengers” of all of these organic transfers definitely included the “microbiomes”, that is, the totality of all microorganisms that colonize a human or other living being. These also included pathogens, some of which first had to adapt to new "living conditions", but which could then have a devastating effect on animals and humans. For example, in his most recent monograph, Kyle Harper speaks for the late ancient Mediterranean region of an “unwanted conspiracy with nature”, through which the Romans in their empire, from the subtropics to the Arctic Circle, “created a disease ecology that would reveal the hidden power of the evolution of pathogens”.

 

Climate change and the "Antonine plague" in the 2nd century AD

A close connection between the large epidemics and the climatic changes of this epoch can be observed. When the "Roman climate optimum" transformed around AD 150 in a much more volatile period, the so-called "Antonine plague" struck the Roman Empire between 165 and 180. According to reports by contemporaries, it had its origins in the looting of the Parthian capital Seleukia-Ctesiphon in what is now Iraq by Roman legionaries; the temple of Apollo was not spared, which had caused the revenge of God. The Roman soldiers were more likely to have been infected with a pathogen introduced into the Mesopotamian commercial center across the Indian Ocean; even before that, there were in ca. 160 AD reports of such an epidemic in today's Yemen. With the returning legionaries, the pathogen came into the Roman Empire and spread over sea and land routes throughout the Mediterranean. The description of the epidemic by contemporaries, including the famous doctor Galen (approx. 129–205), is most likely to suggest a pox disease caused by the orthopoxvirus variola, which is spread by droplet and smear infections and is highly contagious. In large cities like Rome there were thousands of deaths a day, and in total up to 20 percent of the population of the empire probably fell victim to the epidemic; Lucius Verus (ruled 161–169), son-in-law and co-emperor of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (ruled 161–180, hence the name “Antonine Plague”), died of it. These demographic losses had a dramatic impact on the economy and society of the empire, which entered a much more troubled period in its history. However, after surviving the disease, the survivors acquired lifelong immunity, so that after a few years the plague probably disappeared around 180 for the time being.

Emperor Marcus Aurelius (161-180) and his adoptive brother and co-emperor Lucius Verus (161-169), who probably both died in different waves of the "Antonine Plague" (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marcus_Aurelius_and_Lucius_Verus,_British_Museum_(11269159504).jpg)

 

The “Plague of Cyprian” in the 3rd century AD

However, around 249 AD, during the crisis of the 3rd century, which was also accompanied by climatic extremes, the so-called "Plague of Cyprian" broke out, named after the contemporary Christian author Cyprian (approx. 200–258), Bishop of Carthage in what is now Tunisia. According to him and other contemporaries, the plague was introduced into the empire from East Africa and via Egypt and reached Alexandria around 249 and Rome in 251; a second wave broke out around the year 260 and reached today's Romania, then still a Roman province. The various descriptions of the disease have led some researchers to suspect a new outbreak of smallpox, as immunity from previous generations would have been lost again, but this seems unlikely. Another theory targets influenza viruses, whose devastating potential at the end of the First World War illustrated the "Spanish flu" with 50 million deaths worldwide. However, according to Kyle Harper, an even more "promising" candidate is a hemorrhagic fever, which is accompanied by heavy bleeding, for which several pathogens of the families of the Bunya viruses, the arena viruses (including the Lassa virus) and the Filoviruses (including Ebola) can be considered. Rodents and domestic animals such as sheep and goats serve as their natural hosts, and transmission is often carried out by insects such as ticks, sand flies or mosquitoes, but also from person to person for the filoviruses. These viruses would have been less contagious than smallpox, but would have impacted increased mortality. In any case, the empire's crisis was exacerbated.

Electron microscope image of Ebola viruses, one of the possible causative agents of hemorrhagic fever (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebolafieber#/media/Datei:Ebola_Virus.jpg)

 

The "Justinianic Plague" in the 6th to 8th centuries

From the end of the 3rd century onwards, somewhat more stable climatic conditions followed in the Mediterranean, and there was no further major epidemic outbreak for more than 250 years; but then the so-called " Justinianic Plague" between 540 and 750 changed the late antique world forever. The causative agent of the plague is the bacterium Yersinia pestis, so named due to the discovery by Alexandre Yersin (1863–1943) during an outbreak in Hong Kong in 1894. Its primary host is rodents, the transmission between hosts being carried out by fleas; however, the disease can be passed from rodent populations to humans, and apart from transmission by fleas, it can then spread further between humans, occasionally even via the air. There is a long debate in research as to whether the pathogen identified in 1894 is identical to that of the plague epidemics of the 14th to 17th centuries ("Black Death") and the 6th to 8th centuries ("Justinianic Plague"). However, new results of DNA analyzes of pathogens in the remains of victims of the late medieval and late antique plagues have confirmed this identity. Grave fields in Aschheim and Altenerding in Germany (both in the Munich district) provided valuable information for the authoritative study by David M. Wagner and his colleagues in 2014 for the 6th century. The genetic features reconstructed there refer to a strain of Yersinia that emerged in the area of ​​today's PR China, more precisely probably on the Qinghai-Tibet plateau, between 1000 BC and 500 AD (most recently, Rudolf Pfister also argued for a description of the disease in Chinese medical treatises at least since the 5th century AD).

The particularly damp and cool conditions that prevailed in large parts of Afro-Eurasia after a cold period beginning in 536 (the so-called "Late Antique Little Ice Age", approx. 536-660) favored the transmission of the pathogen, which is endemic among the rodent populations in East Asia, on other rodents or on humans. The plague then spread over the trade routes to the west over the next few years to the Indian Ocean and reached about 540 AD Egypt via the Red Sea, whose neighboring countries such as Aksum (today's Eritrea and Ethiopia) and Himyar (today's Yemen) were also affected, probably in the port of Klysma (today's Suez). In 541 AD, the plague arrived in Pelusion (30 km southeast of today's Port Said) on the Mediterranean. Infected rats and humans traveled from Egypt with the annual grain fleets to supply the imperial capital to Constantinople, where the plague broke out in 542 AD during the reign of Justinian. On the still intact trade and traffic routes, the disease was spread throughout the Middle East, the Mediterranean and beyond to Ireland, with the unintended expansion of the domestic rat in the Roman Empire contributing to the "infrastructure" of the spread.

Map of the possible region of origin and route of diffusion of the plague epidemic of the 6th century AD (map: J. Preiser-Kapeller, ÖAW, 2020)

According to contemporary sources, the plague in Constantinople claimed 250,000 to 300,000 deaths among the 500,000 inhabitants and millions more victims across the Roman empire, in the Persian Empire and in the neighboring states. As the plague returned in regular waves until around 749 AD for the next 200 years, the population of western Afro-Eurasia was permanently decimated; For the eastern Mediterranean, a permanent reduction to half to one third of the population before the pandemic has been assumed before demography could recover from the late 8th century onwards. But was the impact of the "Justinianic Plague" really so devastating? A debate has flared up due to an article published shortly before Christmas 2019 by Lee Mordechai and his team, who call the "Justinianic plague" an "inconsequential pandemic". On the basis of a statistical analysis of the frequency of papyri, inscriptions and coins, but also of pollen data (on the intensity of agriculture), they doubt that the plague of the 6th century, like the "Black Death" of the late Middle Ages, accounted for 30 or even 50% population losses - and was more like the East Asian pandemic around 1900, which claimed millions of victims, but by no means depopulated large parts of China. Other researchers are strongly opposed to this scenario (several publication in response are in preparation now). Even if the lethality of the epidemic was lower than assumed, the social, economic and psychological consequences of the insecurity of the people and the disturbance of normal everyday life should also be taken into account. The latter argument seems understandable given the current situation around the corona virus, considering that the people of the 6th century were completely unclear about the cause and spread of the disease.

The bacterium Yersinia pestis under the microscope (from: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Yersinia_pestis?uselang=de#/media/File:Yersinia.jpg)

 

Epidemics in Late Antique China and Japan, 6th-10th century AD

Overall, the pathogens of the three epidemics in the 2nd, 3rd and 6th centuries, apparently introduced from far outside the Mediterranean via the long-distance trade networks, may have had a far more devastating effect on the "virgin" populations in the Roman Empire and in neighboring regions than in regions near to their "home areas". These may have been exposed to more frequent, but less violent, outbreaks as long as a pathogen did not develop significantly and thus at least partially neutralized existing immunities (the "immunological memory"). For example, information about pandemics comparable to the "Justinianic plague" or "Black Death" are less clear for the Chinese regions much closer to the endemic areas of Yersinia pestis before the great outbreak of the 19th century. An epidemic that may have been identified as plague is recorded in southern China for the year 549 AD, i.e. shortly after the epidemic occurred in the Mediterranean. In addition, however, China was repeatedly hit by (other) epidemics; a disease associated with high fever is said to have claimed millions of victims under Emperor Gaozu (r. 618–626). Another epidemic cost the lives of many people between 636 and 644 AD, and spread between the imperial capitals of Chang'an and Luoyang, each with hundreds of thousands of inhabitants, along the canals that the emperors had been building for hundreds of kilometers since the end of the 6th century in order to connect the north and south of their empire. As in the (post) Roman Mediterranean world, the networks of the imperial infrastructure also offered pathogens new ways of spreading. Until the end of the Tang Dynasty around 907, eighteen other major epidemics, including smallpox, were mentioned; some of the pathogens were apparently brought in from the newly developed subtropical regions of the south, others from the steppes of Central Asia, including animal diseases that decimated the imperial horse population.

The spread of an epidemic in China between 636 and 644 between the imperial capitals along the canal network (map: J. Preiser-Kapeller, ÖAW, 2020)

For comparatively isolated populations, the consequences of contact with new pathogens could be all the more fatal. Between 735 and 737 AD, a devastating smallpox epidemic in Japan, which is said to have been brought in by a ship from the Korean empire of Silla, caused a severe demographic, economic and political crisis, which, among other things, contributed to a stronger focus on Buddhism (also imported from Korea). Here too, both the strengthening of maritime connections and the consolidation of settlements in the form of the new imperial capitals such as Nara (near today's Osaka) had favored the spread of the epidemic. Until around 1200, smallpox returned a total of 28 times every 10 to 20 years on average and permanently inhibited a demographic recovery in the population of Japan.

The copper Buddha statue, over 15 meters high, in the old Japanese capital of Nara, completed in 749 shortly after the first major smallpox epidemic in the country (photo: J. Preiser-Kapeller, 2019)

 

So while monks and princesses smuggled silkworms from China to the west and caliphs had orange trees shipped from India to Iraq, much smaller biological stowaways on board humans and animals turned out to be the most powerful "profiteers" of the global entanglements of late antiquity. One of the unplanned consequences of the exchange between the regions of the world was the “microbiological unification” of Afro-Eurasia, against which even the greatest empires of the time were left powerless.

 

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Weiterlesen

Die Mikrobiologie der frühen Globalisierung

Pandemien und imperiale Verflechtungen im 2. bis 8. Jahrhundert n. Chr.

Aktualisierter Auszug aus dem Buch: Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, Jenseits von Rom und Karl dem Großen. Aspekte der globalen Verflechtung in der langen Spätantike, 300–800 n. Chr. Wien 2018.

Die Forschung entdeckt, auch auf Grundlage neuer Methoden der Paläobotanik, Archäozoologie und Genetik, eine steigende Anzahl von „biologischen Transfers“ in der Antike und Spätantike, deren Austausch sich mit den großen Imperien und ihren Netzwerken intensivierte. Die Biologie verwendet den Begriff der „Hemerochorie“ für die Ausbreitung oder Verschleppung von Arten durch die menschliche Kultur, wobei dazu auch die Verbreitung durch Haustiere oder den Menschen begleitende Gattungen (wie etwa die Hausratte oder die Hausmaus), genannt „Zoochorie“, zählt. Unterschieden wird auch zwischen bewusster und ungewollter Einführung von Arten. Wie sehr diese Phänomene, die in der modernen „globalisierten“ Welt heftig diskutiert werden, schon in der Antike und im Mittelalter verschiedene Ökosphären betrafen, wird Gegenstand weiterer Untersuchungen sein, doch dürfen wir vermuten, dass es schon damals gab es kaum mehr „unberührte“ Landschaften gab, die nicht in unterschiedlichem Ausmaß durch menschliche Aktivität willentlich oder unwissentlich (etwa durch mitgereiste „Bio-Invasoren“) verändert wurden.

Wichtige Fernhandelsrouten in Afro-Eurasien zwischen 500 und 900 n. Chr. (Karte: J. Preiser-Kapeller, ÖAW, 2020; basemap: google earth)

Zu den „ungebetenen Passagieren“ all dieser Bio-Tranfers gehörten in jedem Fall die „Mikrobiome“, also die jeweilige Gesamtheit aller einen Menschen oder andere Lebewesen besiedelnden Mikroorganismen. Diese umfassten auch Krankheitserreger, die sich teilweise erst an neue „Lebensumstände“ anpassen mussten, dann aber eine verheerende Wirkung bei Tier und Mensch entfalten konnten. Für den spätantiken Mittelmeerraum etwa spricht Kyle Harper in seiner jüngsten Monographie von einer „ungewollten Verschwörung mit der Natur“, durch die die Römer in ihrem Imperium von den Subtropen bis nahe an den Polarkreis „eine Krankheitsökologie schufen, die die verborgene Kraft der Evolution der Pathogene entfesselte“. 

 

Klimawandel und die „Antoninische Pest“ im 2. Jahrhunder n. Chr.

Dabei ist ein enger Zusammenhang zwischen den großen Seuchen und den klimatischen Veränderungen dieser Epoche zu beobachten; als das „Römische Klimaoptimum“ um 150 n. Chr. in einer deutlich unbeständigere Periode überging, suchte zwischen 165 und 180 die sogenannte „Antoninische Pest“ das Imperium Romanum heim. Ihren Ursprung hatte sie laut den Berichten der Zeitgenossen in der Plünderung der parthischen Hauptstadt Seleukia-Ktesiphon im heutigen Irak durch römische Legionäre, wobei auch der Tempel Apollos nicht verschont wurde, was die Rache des Gottes hervorgerufen habe. Eher hatten sich die römischen Soldaten jedoch mit einem über den Indischen Ozean in das mesopotamische Handelszentrum eingeschleppten Erreger infiziert; schon davor gibt es um 160 Berichte über eine solche Seuche im heutigen Jemen. Mit den heimkehrenden Legionären gelangte der Erreger ins römische Reich und verbreitete sich über See- und Landrouten im gesamten Mittelmeerraum. Die Beschreibung der Seuche durch Zeitgenossen, darunter den berühmten Arzt Galen (ca. 129–205), lassen am ehesten auf eine Pockenerkrankung schließen, die durch das Orthopoxvirus variola verursacht wird, das sich durch Tröpfchen- und Schmierinfektion verbreitet und hoch ansteckend ist. In Großstädten wie Rom gab es tausende Tote pro Tag, insgesamt fielen der Epidemie vielleicht bis zu zwanzig Prozent der Bevölkerung des Reichs zum Opfer; auch Lucius Verus (reg. 161–169), der Schwiegersohn und Mitkaiser des Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (reg. 161–180, deshalb auch die Bezeichnung „Antoninische Pest“), starb daran. Diese demographischen Verluste hatten dramatische Auswirkungen auf die Wirtschaft und Gesellschaft des Imperiums, das in eine deutlich unruhigere Periode seiner Geschichte eintrat. Nach überstandener Krankheit erwarben die Überlebenden allerdings lebenslange Immunität, sodass die Seuche nach einigen Jahren wohl um 180 vorerst verschwand.

Kaiser Marcus Aurelius (161-180) und sein Adoptivbruder und Mitkaiser Lucius Verus (161-169), die vermutlich beide in verschiedenen Wellen der „Antoninischen Pest“ umkamen (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Marcus_Aurelius_and_Lucius_Verus,_British_Museum_(11269159504).jpg)

 

Die „Pest des Cyprian“ im 3. Jahrhundert n. Chr.

Doch schon siebzig Jahre später brach um 249 in der ebenfalls durch klimatische Extreme begleiteten Krisenzeit des 3. Jahrhunderts die sogenannte „Pest des Cyprian“ aus, benannt nach dem zeitgenössischen christlichen Autor Cyprian (ca. 200–258), Bischof von Karthago im heutigen Tunesien. Laut ihm und anderen Zeitgenossen wurde die Seuche aus Ostafrika und über Ägypten ins Imperium eingeschleppt und erreichte um 249 Alexandria und im Jahr 251 Rom; eine zweite Welle brach um das Jahr 260 aus und gelangte bis ins heutige Rumänien, damals noch römische Provinz. Die verschiedenen Schilderungen der Krankheit ließen manche Forscher einen erneuten Ausbruch der Pocken vermuten, da auch die Immunität vorangegangener Generationen mittlerweile wieder verloren gegangen wäre, jedoch scheint dies wenig wahrscheinlich. Eine weitere Theorie nimmt Influenzaviren ins Visier, deren verheerendes Potential am Ende des Ersten Weltkriegs die „Spanische Grippe“ mit weltweit 50 Millionen Toten illustrierte. Als noch „aussichtsreicherer“ Kandidat gilt aber ein hämorrhagisches, also von starken Blutungen begleitetes Fieber, für das mehrere Erreger der Familien der Bunyaviren, der Arenaviren (darunter das Lassavirus) und der Filoviren (darunter Ebola) in Frage kommen. Als ihre natürlichen Wirte dienen Nagetiere und Haustiere wie Schafe und Ziegen, die Übertragung erfolgt oft durch Insekten wie Zecken, Sandfliegen oder Stechmücken, bei den letztgenannten Filoviren aber auch von Mensch zu Mensch. Diese Viren hätten weniger ansteckend als die Pocken gewirkt, aber eine höhere Mortalität verursacht. Auf jeden Fall wurde die Krise des Imperiums zusätzlich verschärft.

Elektronenmikroskopische Aufnahme von Ebolaviren, einem der möglichen Erreger hämorrhagischer Fieber (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ebolafieber#/media/Datei:Ebola_Virus.jpg)

 

Die „Justinianische Pest“ im 6. bis 8. Jahrhundert

Ab dem Ende des 3. Jahrhunderts folgten im Mittelmeerraum etwas stabilere klimatische Bedingungen, und für mehr als 250 Jahre gab es auch keinen weiteren großen Seuchenausbruch;  dann aber veränderte die sogenannte „Justinianische Pest“ zwischen 540 und 750 die spätantike Welt für immer. Der Erreger der Pest ist das Bakterium Yersinia pestis, so benannt aufgrund der Entdeckung durch Alexandre Yersin (1863–1943) während eines Ausbruchs in Hongkong 1894. Sein Primärwirt sind Nagetiere, wobei die Übertragung zwischen Wirten durch Flöhe erfolgt; jedoch ist ein Überspringen der Seuche von Nagetierpopulationen auf Menschen möglich, wobei dann neben der Übertragung durch Flöhe eine weitere Verbreitung zwischen Menschen, gelegentlich sogar über die Luft, erfolgen kann. In der Forschung gibt es eine lange Debatte, ob der 1894 identifizierte Erreger mit jenen der Pestepidemien des 14. bis 17. Jahrhunderts („Schwarzer Tod“) und des 6. bis 8. Jahrhunderts („Justinianische Pest“) identisch ist. Neue Ergebnisse der DNA-Analysen von Erregern in den Überresten von Opfern der spätmittelalterlichen und der spätantiken Pest haben aber diese Identität bestätigt. Für das 6. Jahrhundert lieferten Gräberfelder in Aschheim und in Altenerding in Deutschland (beide im Landkreis München) für die maßgebliche Studie von David M. Wagner und seinen Kollegen 2014 wertvolle Hinweise. Die dort rekonstruierten genetischen Merkmale verweisen auf einen Yersinia-Erregerstamm, der sich auf dem Gebiet der heutigen VR China, genauer vermutlich auf der Qinghai-Tibet-Hochebene, zwischen 1000 v. Chr. und 500 n. Chr. entwickelt hatte. Die besonders feucht-kühlen Bedingungen, die nach einer ab 536 einsetzenden Kaltperiode (die sogenannte „Spätantike Kleine Eiszeit“, ca. 536–660) in weiten Teilen Afro-Eurasiens vorherrschten, begünstigten das Überspringen des unter den Nagetierpopulationen in der ostasiatischen „Heimat“ endemischen Erregers auf andere Nagetiere bzw. auf den Menschen. Über die Handelswege nach Westen verbreitete sich die Pest dann in den nächsten Jahren bis zum Indischen Ozean und erreichte über das Rote Meer, dessen Anrainerstaaten wie Aksum (im heutigen Eritrea und Äthiopien) und Himyar (im heutigen Jemen) ebenfalls betroffen wurden, um 540 Ägypten, vermutlich im Hafen von Klysma (das heutige Suez). Im Jahr 541 traf die Seuche in Pelusion (30 km südöstlich des heutigen Port Said) am Mittelmeer ein. Von Ägypten reisten infizierte Ratten und Menschen mit den alljährlichen Getreideflotten für die Versorgung der Reichshauptstadt nach Konstantinopel, wo die Pest im Jahr 542 während der Regierungszeit des Kaisers Justinian ausbrach. Auf den immer noch intakten Handels- und Verkehrsrouten wurde die Krankheit im ganzen Nahen Osten, Mittelmeerraum und darüber hinaus bis nach Irland getragen, wobei die früher im Imperium Romanum erfolgte unbeabsichtigte Expansion der Hausratte zur „Infrastruktur“ der Ausbreitung beitrug. 

Karte der möglichen Ursprungsregion und Verbreitungswege der Pestepidemie des 6. Jahrhunderts n. Chr. (Karte: J. Preiser-Kapeller, ÖAW, 2020)

In Konstantinopel forderte die Pest nach zeitgenössischen Angaben 250 000 bis 300 000 Tote unter den 500 000 Einwohnern und weitere Millionen Opfer im ganzen Imperium, im Perserreich und in den angrenzenden Staaten. Da die Seuche für die nächsten 200 Jahre in regelmäßigen Wellen bis um 749 zurückkehrte, wurde die Bevölkerung des westlichen Afro-Eurasiens nachhaltig dezimiert; für den östlichen Mittelmeerraum geht man von einer dauerhaften Reduktion auf die Hälfte bis ein Drittel der Bevölkerungszahl vor der Pandemie aus, ehe sich die Demographie ab dem späteren 8. Jahrhundert wieder erholen konnte. Aber war die Wirkung der „Justinianischen Pest“ tatsächlich so verheerend? Darüber ist aufgrund eines kurz vor Weihnachten 2019 veröffentlichten Artikels von Lee Mordechai und seinem Team, die die „Justinianische Pest“ als „inconsequential pandemic“ bezeichnen, eine Debatte entbrannt. Auf der Grundlage einer statistischen Analyse der Frequenz von Papyri, Inschriften und Münzen, aber auch von Pollendaten (zur Intensität der Landwirtschaft) bezweifeln sie, dass die Seuche des 6. Jahrhunderts so wie der „Schwarze Tod“ des Spätmittelalters 30 oder gar 50 % der Bevölkerung das Leben kostete – und somit eher der ostasiatischen Pandemie um 1900 glich, die zwar Millionen Opfer forderte, aber keineswegs weite Teile Chinas entvölkerte. Andere Forscherinnen und Forscher erheben gegen dieses Szenario heftigen Widerspruch. Selbst wenn die Letalität der Seuche geringer war, als angenommen, dann seien auch die sozialen, ökonomischen und psychologischen Folgen der Verunsicherung der Menschen und der Störung des normalen Alltags zu berücksichtigen. Letzteres Argument scheint angesichts der aktuellen Situation um den Corona-Virus durchaus nachvollziehbar, wenn man noch dazu bedenkt, dass die Menschen des 6. Jahrhunderts über Ursache und Verbreitungswege der Krankheit völlig im Unklaren waren.

Das Bakterium Yersinia pestis unter dem Mikroskop (Quelle: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Yersinia_pestis?uselang=de#/media/File:Yersinia.jpg)

 

Epidemien im spätantiken China und Japan, 6.-10. Jahrhundert

Insgesamt mögen die offenbar von weit außerhalb des Mittelmeerraums über die Fernhandelsnetzwerke eingeschleppten Erreger der drei Epidemien im 2., 3. und 6. Jahrhundert auf die „jungfräulichen“ Populationen im Imperium Romanum und in angrenzenden Regionen weit verheerender gewirkt haben als in ihren „Heimatgebieten“ benachbarten Landstrichen. Diese waren vielleicht häufigeren, aber weniger heftigen Ausbrüchen ausgesetzt, solange ein Pathogen sich nicht erheblich weiterentwickelte und somit zumindest teilweise vorhandene Immunitäten (das „immunologische Gedächtnis“) wieder aushebelte. So sind die Informationen über mit der „Justinianischen Pest“ oder dem „Schwarzen Tod“ vergleichbare Pandemien für die viel näher an den endemischen Gebieten der Yersinia pestis gelegenen chinesischen Regionen vor dem großen Ausbruch des 19. Jahrhunderts weniger eindeutig. Eine möglicherweise als Pest zu identifizierten Epidemie wird immerhin für das Jahr 549, also zeitnah zum Auftreten der Seuche im Mittelmeerraum, im Süden Chinas verzeichnet. Darüber hinaus wurde China jedoch immer wieder von (anderen) Seuchen heimgesucht wurde; eine mit hohem Fieber verbundene Krankheit soll unter Kaiser Gaozu (reg. 618–626) Millionen Opfer gefordert haben. Eine weitere Epidemie kostete zwischen 636 und 644 vielen Menschen das Leben und verbreitete sich zwischen den kaiserlichen Hauptstädten Chang´an und Luoyang, die jeweils hunderttausende Einwohner hatten, entlang der Kanäle, das die Kaiser seit dem Ende des 6. Jahrhunderts über viele hundert Kilometer errichten hatten lassen, um den Norden und Süden ihres Reiches zu verbinden. So wie in der (post)römischen Mittelmeerwelt boten die Netzwerke der imperialen Infrastruktur auch den Pathogenen neue Verbreitungswege. Bis zum Ende der Tang-Dynastie um 907 werden achtzehn weitere größere Epidemien, darunter wohl auch die Pocken, erwähnt; einige der Erreger wurden offenbar aus den neuerschlossenen subtropischen Regionen des Südens eingeschleppt, andere aus den Steppen Zentralasiens, darunter auch Tierseuchen, die die kaiserlichen Pferdebestände dezimierten. 

Die Ausbreitung einer Epidemie in China zwischen 636 und 644 zwischen den kaiserlichen Hauptstädten entlang des Kanalnetzes (Karte: J. Preiser-Kapeller, ÖAW, 2020)

Für vergleichsweise isolierte Populationen konnten die Konsequenzen eines Kontakts mit neuen Pathogenen umso fataler sein. Zwischen 735 und 737 verursachte in Japan eine verheerende Pocken-Epidemie, die durch ein Schiff aus dem koreanischen Reich von Silla eingeschleppt worden sein soll, eine schwere demographische, wirtschaftliche und politische Krise, die unter anderem zu einer stärkeren Zuwendung zum (gleichfalls aus Korea importierten) Buddhismus führte. Auch hier hatte sowohl eine Verstärkung der maritimen Verbindungen als auch eine Verdichtung von Siedlung in Gestalt der neuen kaiserlichen Hauptstädte wie Nara (nahe dem heutigen Osaka) die Ausbreitung der Epidemie begünstigt. Bis um 1200 kehrten die Pocken insgesamt 28mal im Durchschnitt alle 10 bis 20 Jahre wieder und hemmten nachhaltig eine demographische Erholung der Bevölkerungszahl Japans.

Die über 15 Meter hohe kupferne Buddha-Statue in der alten japanischen Hauptstadt Nara, fertiggestellt im Jahr 749 kurz nach der ersten großen Pockenepidemie im Land (Foto: J. Preiser-Kapeller, 2019)

 

Während also Mönche und Prinzessinnen Seidenraupen aus China nach Westen schmuggelten und Kalifen Orangenbäume verschiffen ließen, erwiesen sich noch viel kleinere biologische blinde Passagiere an Bord von Menschen und Tieren als die zumindest unmittelbar wirkmächtigsten „Profiteure“ der globalen Verflechtungen der langen Spätantike. Zu den ungeplanten Konsequenzen des Austauschs zwischen den Weltregionen gehörte auch die „mikrobielle Vereinigung“ Afro-Eurasiens, gegen die selbst die größten Imperien der Zeit machtlos blieben.

 

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Weiterlesen

A Jewish Empire?

Religion and Mission in the Khanate of the Khazars

1 Introduction

In 2005, the plan for a monumental statue of the Grand Prince Svjatoslav I (r. 959-972) of Kiev, which was to be built in the village of Cholki near Belgorod (approx. 700 km south of Moscow), caused some excitement in Russia. The artist, Vjačeslav Michajlovič Klykov (1939-2006), was considered an "expert" for such national monuments, but was himself close to the extreme nationalist right and was one of the signatories of the "Letter of the 500" in 2005, in which the Russian attorney general was called to investigate all Jewish organizations in Russia on suspicion of extremism. And so, according to the circulated draft, Svjatoslav, who, along with other neighboring peoples, had also subjugated the Khazars' empire, should be shown on horseback how he races an enemy warrior whose shield adorns a Star of David. Various organizations from home and abroad protested against such a representation of the triumph of the Russian national hero over the "Jewish" Khazars. The press office of the Belgorod regional administration then issued a statement that the monument had not yet been built and that its design would express respect for representatives of all nationalities and religions. In fact, the warrior's shield on the completed monument did not show the Star of David, but a different form of decoration. The debate made it clear, however, how much the existence of a medieval “Jewish” empire could arouse people's minds in Russia even a thousand years after its fall. [1]

Monument drafted by the sculptor Klykov (1939-2006) in the Belgorod region of Russia, showing Prince Svjatoslav of Kiev defeating a Khazar warrior (https://en.wikipedia.org)

In fact, the conversion of a people to Judaism in the Middle Ages is a very rare event. Even in the Khazar tradition, people were aware of the unusual nature of this process and dressed it in various legends. The story of a competition between the three major monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) at the court of the Khazar ruler has been handed down to us in several versions, whereby the representatives of Judaism would have won the dispute about the faith - a motive that we also find in the traditions on the the conversions of other peoples. However, the process of converting the Khazars to the Jewish faith is difficult to reconstruct precisely because of this legendary cloak.

 

2 The ancient religion of the Khazars

What is certain is that the Khazars, like other steppe peoples, originally adhered to the ancient Turkic-Mongolian religion, which centered around the veneration of the sky god Tengri, symbolized, among other things, by the sun. The most important animal of the equestrian nomads, the horse, was sacrificed to him. According to various sources, the Khazars also worshiped sacred trees; these stood for the world tree, which sits enthroned in the middle of the world and connects the underworld, human world and the sky. Elements of shamanism were equally widespread, and various practices were used to try to connect with the world of spirits and ancestors in ecstasy. One of the earliest descriptions of the Tengri religion in the Khazar Empire from a Christian point of view can be found in the historical work of Movses Kałankatwacʽi, who describes the missionary journey of Bishop Israyēl from Caucasian Albania (in modern-day Azerbaijan) to the “Huns” under Khazar sovereignty in today's Dagestan in 681 AD: “They offered horses as burnt sacrifices  and worshiped a gigantic wild beast, which they called  the god T‛angri χan (…). With a completely disorganized mind, they stumbled into every kind of misconception; (they) beat drums and whistled over corpses, (they) afflicted themselves bloody cuts with swords and daggers on their cheeks and limbs, and they did naked sword fights - oh hell! - at the graves, man against man and group against group, all unclothed for the battle. (...) They made sacrifices to the fire and the water and to certain gods of the paths, and to the moon and to all the creatures that they saw as remarkable in their eyes." [2]
For the Byzantine-Khazarian border area in the Crimea, the vita of Constantine-Cyril describes the veneration of a holy oak by the local population for around 860 AD (which the saint of course put an end to). This old belief remained with the Khazars after the conversion of the ruling group to Judaism, especially in the ordinary population.

The Central Asian sky god Tengri in a modern Mongolian representation (https://de.wikipedia.org)

3 Christianity in the Khazar Empire

As the journey of Bishop Israyēl shows, the Khazars became the target of Christian mission attempts early after the formation of their empire in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas (between 630 and 660 AD). In fact, we subsequently receive news about Christian communities in the Khazar Empire. The city of Samandar (today's Dagestan) is said to have been largely Christian in the 10th century, and archaeological finds also confirm the existence of Christian communities in towns on the coast of Dagestan. Contact with Christians took place both in the Caucasus and in the Crimea, where Christian cities came under Khazar rule. The former Muslim Abo from Tbilisi was even baptized as a refugee in the Khazar Empire around 782 AD; in his vita (in Georgian language) it is also reported that at this time the Khazar ruler and his entourage were still "pagans" (and therefore not yet Jews). Of course, the Byzantine Empire had a particular interest in the Christianization of the Khazars, which they regarded as valuable allies against the Arabs in the 7th and 8th centuries. In 732/733 AD, the Byzantine Crown Prince Constantine (V) married the daughter of the Khazar Khan. However, there emerged several conflict zone between Byzantium and the Khazars where the spheres of influence of the two empires collided, namely on the Crimean peninsula. Nevertheless, around 840 AD Emperor Theophilos complied with the Khazars' request for support in the construction of the fortress Sarkel at the river Don. And in 860 AD, the subsequent “Apostles of the Slavs” Cyril-Constantine and Methodius were sent to the Khazar court, where, according to their vita, a competition between the three religions took place - in fact at that time the leaders of the Khazars had already become Jews. This ultimate failure of the conversion attempts may have contributed to the estrangement between Byzantium and the Khazar Empire. In the 10th century we often find the two empires in conflict with each other (see below). However, larger Christian communities continued to exist in many places in the Khazar Empire, including the capital of Itil. As early as 855 AD, the Byzantine emperor sent Lazaros, a monk and painter from the Khazar people, as an envoy to Pope Benedict III. In a letter in 919/920 AD, Patriarch Nikolaos I Mystikos reports that he had sent the newly ordained archbishop for the city of Kherson (on the Crimea) to Chazaria because the Christians there had asked for a bishop in Constantinople in order to ordain priest . In a letter he wrote shortly thereafter, we learn that even a bishop should have been appointed for the Khazar community. Christian church life was also possible among Jewish Khazar rulers.

The Khazar Empire around 850 AD (www.geocities.com/ayatoles)

4 The Khazars and Islam

The Khazars also came into contact with Islam at an early stage. However, these relationships were initially primarily of a warlike nature: in the 7th and 8th centuries, the Khazars advanced several times over the Caucasus into the regions of Georgia and Armenia under Arab sovereignty and further south, while Caliphate troops tried unsuccessfully to also gain a foothold north of the large mountain ridge. These centuries-long wars in the Caucasus may have hampered the emergence of Muslim communities in the Khazar Empire. In 737 AD, however, the Khazars suffered a severe defeat against the Arab general Marwan ibn Muhammad; Muslim troops advanced far beyond the Caucasus and eventually even forced the Khan and his entourage to adopt Islam [3]. Although this conversion remained an episode, the Khans probably shifted their imperial center from Dagestan to the lower Volga river at this time, which the Khazars referred to as Itil ("Great River"). When relations relaxed at the end of the 8th century and trade between Mesopotamia, Persia and the north intensified, numerous Muslim traders brought their faith along with their goods. From the end of the 8th century onwards, Muslim mercenaries from the region of Khoresm in Central Asia played a special role. The Khazar rulers incorporated them into their army in large numbers (supposedly up to 7,000 men), and thus strengthened their position towards the contingents of the powerful of the Khazars and other tribes. These mercenaries were promised that they would never have to fight Muslims. The presence of numerous Muslims also led to the conversion of not a few Khazars to Islam; according to Arab reports, there were over 10,000 Muslims and 30 mosques in the Khazar capital of Itil in the 10th century [4].

The Volga Delta near Astrakhan, near which the Khazar capital Itil was probably located (https://de.wikipedia.org)

 

5 The conversion to Judaism and its dating

The conversion of the Khazars to Judaism was mainly reconstructed on the basis of three source texts in Hebrew from the 10th century: The first was the correspondence between the Jew Ḥasday ibn Šaprut and the Khazar prince Joseph from around 950 AD. Ḥasday ibn Šaprut was a doctor and vizier under the Umayyad caliphs' Abd ar-Rahman III. (reg. 911-961) and al-Hakam II. (reg. 961-976) on the Iberian peninsula. Through merchants he learned of the existence of a Jewish empire in the east. When a legation went from the Umayyad court in Cordoba to Constantinople, ibn Šaprut instructed the Jewish diplomat Isaak bar Nathan to travel from there to the Khazar Empire; this attempt failed. Another letter by Ibn Šaprut, however, reached its destination around 953 AD through the mediation of Jews in Central Europe by land; Ḥasday ibn Šaprut describes his motivation to seek contact with the Khazar ruler as follows:

We live in the diaspora and there is no power in our hands. They say to us every day: "All people have their kingdom, but you have no memory of it in all the countries." But when we heard from my lord the king about the power of his empire and his powerful army, we were amazed. We raised our heads, our spirits returned, our hands were strengthened, and my lord's kingdom was our defense response.[5]

Indeed, a short time later, Ḥasday ibn Šaprut received an answer in the form of a letter in Hebrew from the Khazar “King” (as he calls himself) Joseph, describing the Judaization of the Khazars and the situation in the empire [6]. In addition, there is another fragmentary letter found in the storage room (Genizah) of the Cairo Ben Ezra Synagogue, the "Schechter text" named after its discoverer Solomon Schechter (1847–1915). Its author also describes himself as the subject of King Joseph [7]. He was probably a Khazar who met the envoy of Ḥasday ibn Šaprut in Constantinople, to whom this earlier letter (probably dated around 949 AD) is also addressed. These texts are characterized by a legendary representation of the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism, which also contradicts itself in essential points, and are only preserved to us in copies of the 11th century, which show clear traces of revision.

Fragment of a copy of the Hebrew letter from Hasday ibn Shaprut to the Khazar ruler from around 950, discovered in Cairo, today in Cambridge (https://www.lib.cam.ac.uk)

According to Joseph's letter, Judaism is said to have spread to the Khazar Empire for the first time through an army leader named Bulan (Turkic for "deer"), who called Jewish scholars into the country and also held a religious dispute between representatives of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. On the other hand, according to the Schechter text, Jews from Armenia fleeing from “idolaters” brought their religion to the country north of the Caucasus, where they lost all writing and could only preserve some external features of the faith such as circumcision and the Sabbath. Only then did a successful Jewish-born military leader initiate further Judaization; he called Jewish scholars into the country and organized a competition between the three religions. According to the letter of Joseph, Judaism was said to have been consolidated under the ruler Obadiah, who bore the name of an Old Testament prophet, who called rabbis into the country and set up synagogues and Talmud schools that ensured the interpretation of the Bible, Mishna, Talmud and the prayer books. The Schechter text has no report on this. The dating of these events in the texts is also not very reliable; in the letter of Joseph, the conversion of Bulan and the subsequent dispute of faith are set 340 years ago, which would correspond to the year 615 AD, but in which neither the Khazar Empire nor Islam existed. The great Spanish-Jewish scholar Yehuda ha-Levi (approx. 1075–1141 AD), who uses the religious dispute at the Khazar court as a framework for his work “Sefer ha-Kuzari”, dated the Judaization of the Khazars 400 years before his time, which is approximately the year 740 [8]. While some scholars advocated this date, others wanted to follow the Arab historian al-Mas‛ūdi, who wrote: "The king of the Khazars had already become a Jew at the time of the Caliphate of Harun al-Rashid [r. 786-809 AD], and to him Jews had come from all countries of Islam and from the land of the Greeks (= Byzantium).”[9] In 1995 Constantin Zuckerman finally identified the dispute of faith mentioned in the Hebrew letters with the one described in the Vita of Constantin-Cyril and therefore dated the conversion the Khazars to Judaism to around 860 AD. However, since 1999 AD, we have had a more secure terminus ante quem for the official conversion of the Khazar rulers to the Jewish faith; this is provided by Khazar imitations of Arab silver coins (dirhem) discovered on the island of Gotland, which bear the inscription "Moses [instead of Mohammed as with the Arab coins] is the messenger of God" (Mūsā rasūl Allāh). These coins date from around 837/838 AD, and at the same time document the importance that the Khazar Empire had at that time for trade between the Orient and Northern Europe [10].

Khazar silver coin based on the Arabic model with the legend "Moses is the Messenger of God", approx. 837/838 AD (found in Gotland in 1999, https://de.wikipedia.org)

 

In the Vita of Constantine-Cyril, too, it ultimately becomes clear that the missionary found himself at a Khazar court that was already dominated by the Jewish faith in 860 AD:

The Khan replied to him: "We all speak in the same way, only on this one point do we keep it differently, because you praise the Trinity, but we praise one God, whereby we interpret the Scriptures correctly. "(...) But the Jews who stood around him said to him: "Now say, how can a woman in her body embrace God whom she cannot even see, let alone give birth to". [11]

Therefore, we can now assume that at least the leading group of the Khazars converted to Judaism in the first decades of the 9th century. The exact circumstances of this process, however, remain unclear. Indeed, ancient Jewish communities, from which the faith could have been transmitted to the Khazars, existed both in Georgia and Armenia and on the Crimean peninsula. Until the end of the 6th century, considerable Jewish population groups can be found there. However, we only have more recent news from around 860, both in the Vita of Constantin-Cyril and in a letter from the Patriarch Photios to Archbishop Antonios of Bosporos, whom he congratulates on the conversion of Jews on the Crimea. As the Schechter text and other sources report, persecutions moved Jews to find their way from Byzantium to the Khazar sphere of power. In the Byzantine Empire, Emperor Herakleios (r. 610-641 AD) is said to have ordered the compulsory baptism of all Jews around 630 AD, although the source evidence is doubtful. A similar measure is attributed to Emperor Leon III (r. 717-741) for the year 721/722 AD. Even though Judaism may have spread into the Khazar Empire since then, there is no evidence for a conversion of large groups of the Khazars or the elite at this point. In the 8th century, contemporary sources still referred to them as “pagans”. In addition to the Jewish communities mentioned, as for the case of Islam, merchants, especially the so-called Rādhāniyya, whose trade network extended from the Atlantic to the Orient and China, may have played a role in the spread of the faith; according to Arabic sources, their activity extended to the Khazar Empire.

It is striking why in the two Hebrew versions Judaism is victorious in the dispute of faith: in the Schechter text, both the representative of Christianity and of Islam have to confirm the narration of the history of creation of the people of Israel, which the Jewish scholars based on the Tora,  since it is also the basis of their traditions. In the letter of King Joseph, the Khazar ruler separately asked the representatives of Christianity and Islam which of the other two religions they considered the better; both answered: Judaism. The Jewish faith thus appears as a "third way" to monotheism, which the Khazars integrated into the community of the bearers of a respected book religion. Their princes became rulers who, like the emperor in Constantinople and the caliph in Baghdad, could legitimize their royalty with the model of ancient Israel with the leading figures of David and Solomon, at the same time avoiding to increase the influence of one of the two powerful neighboring empires (Christian Byzantium and the Islamic Caliphate) in their realm. Peter B. Golden is also of this view and refers to the conversion of the Central Asian Uighurs to Manichaeism, also a persecuted, marginalized religion, in 762 AD, "a very public way of proclaiming their ideological independence from China and to sharpen distinctions with their rivals, the Qarluqs and Qirğiz, among whom Nestorian Christianity had made some headway ”.[12]

The contradicting sources on the conversion of the Khazars to Judaism still cause difficulties for research. Shaul Stampfer, an expert on modern Eastern European Judaism at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, therefore even doubted the entire historicity of this process in a recent article (2013). But that would mean "throwing the child out with the bath"; the contradictory nature of the various reports suggests that the various authors did not simply copy a common legendary source, but relied on various observers who encountered Judaism in the Khazar Empire.

The great Jewish scholar Solomon Schechter (1847-1915) in the Genizah (storage room) of the Cairo Ben Ezra Synagogue, in which he also discovered letters from the Khazar Empire (https://en.wikipedia.org)

6 Jewish religious life in the Khazar Empire

To what extend did the Khazars adopt Jewish traditions and laws? The description in the Hebrew letters of the 10th century to Ḥasday ibn Šaprut, according to which synagogues and schools were established and Jewish scholars were brought into the country, who interpreted the Bible, the Mishna, the Talmud and the prayer books, describes a complete religious infrastructure, as required by rabbinical Judaism at the time. Arab authors, in particular, confirm the picture of the Khazar contacts of Ḥasday ibn Šaprut. Ibn al-Faqīh al-Hamadānī, whose work can be dated around 1010 AD, wrote: “And they (the Khazars) took on the difficult obligations that the law imposed on the Torah, such as circumcision, the ritual ablutions, the ablution after the expulsion of the (male) semen, the ban on working on the Sabbath and during the feast days, the ban on (eating meat from) animals that are (prohibited) according to this religion, and so on.”[13] From the letter of King Joseph we also learn that the Khazars adopted the Jewish calendar. A further immigration of Jews in the 9th and 10th centuries mentioned in Arabic sources, for example from Mesopotamia, where Babylonia had been an important center of Jewish life for centuries, and from the Byzantine Empire may have strengthened the connection to the Jewish tradition.

To what extent, however, Judaism was widespread within the Khazars and other peoples under their sovereignty, the Arab historians make contradictory statements. Ibn al-Faqīh al-Hamadānī writes: “All Khazars are Jews. But they only recently became Jews,” and Ibn Fadlān, who traveled in the area around 922 AD, states: “The Khazars and their kings are all Jews” [14]. However, al-Mas‛ūdī describes the religious situation in the Khazar capital of Itil in more detail: “There are Muslims, Christians, Jews and pagans in this city. As for the Jews, these are the king, his entourage and the Khazars from his tribe.”[15] Al-Istahrī, who wrote about 950 AD, even notes: “The Khazars are Muslims, Christians and Jews, and among them are idolaters. The smallest group are the Jews, most of them are Muslims and Christians, with the exception of the king and his noblemen, (who) are Jews." And Ibn Rusta (10th century) also writes: "Their supreme leader is committed to Jewish belief, just as (...) the warlords and the nobles who are with him do; the rest of the Khazars have a religion similar to that of the Turks." [16]

Finding from the Khazar fortress of Sarkel at the river Don with Jewish symbols (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/9/94/Khazars-sarkel.jpg)

One document that was used to demonstrate the wider spread of Judaism in the Khazar sphere of power is the “Kiev Letter”, discovered in 1962. It is a letter in Hebrew from between 870 and 930 AD by a Jewish community in Kiev. The list of signatures includes two officials responsible for the welfare of the community (Parnas), as well as the surnames Kohen (which indicates the descent from the Aaron priestly family) and Levi (as a reference to the descent from the Levi tribe). The background of these community members is controversial in research: were they Jewish immigrants, descendants of Jewish-Khazar or Jewish-Slavic mixed marriages or even Slavic or Khazar converts, who adorned themselves with these venerable names? The Kiev letter therefore cannot be clearly seen as evidence of a wide spread of Judaism among the Khazar population.[17]

If we follow the above mentioned the Arabic sources, Judaism seems to have been limited to the Khazar elites, i.e. the ruler, his entourage, leading clans of the royal tribe and leading members of other tribes. A conversion of larger groups of the population, for example under duress, to Judaism was not attempted by the Khazar rulers. Rather, they took religious diversity into account and established two judges in Itil for Jews, Christians and Muslims and one for the "pagans", the followers of the old religion, as al-Mas alūdī reports to us.

 

7 Responses to Conversion to Judaism by Contemporaries

While Arab historians described the Khazars' Judaism, contemporary Byzantine sources keep completely silent about the conversion; the same applies to the texts of the other Christian neighboring peoples of the Georgians and Armenians - in contrast to the Latin West. The French monk Christian of Stavelot is even one of the oldest observers of the conversion of the Khazars; around 864 AD, he wrote that "one tribes of the Huns called Gazari is circumcised and adheres to Judaism".[18] On the Byzantine side, we may have a Byzantine commentary on the religious situation in a letter from Patriarch Nikolaos I to the Archbishop of Cherson active in the Khazar country in 920 AD; we read: “We greatly appreciate your zeal for this deceived people, who have almost been taken from the womb of piety by the evil demon, and we exhort (you) to show all possible strength for the care and commitment for their salvation whose aptitude to Christ our God and salvation will be fully restored.”[19] The implied hardship of the Khazar Christians in the midst of this“ deceived people” may indicate the special situation of this community, which lived in an empire ruled by a Jewish elite.

All in all, the failure of Constantine-Cyril's mission from Constantinople, where mission and foreign policy were always closely linked and where otherwise one could celebrate great successes with the Slavic neighboring peoples and the Bulgarians during this time, had caused disappointment. Constantin Zuckerman states: "This act (…) was perceived by the Byzantines as a slap in the face and, of course, as a theological challenge."[20] Perhaps as a compensation, Emperor Basil I (r. 867-886 AD) in ca. 868 issued a decree according to which the Jews in the Byzantine Empire should present the evidence of their belief in disputations or recognize Christ as the head of the law and the prophets. These measures may not have improved the relationship between Constantinople and Itil and may have led to further emigrations of Jews to the Khazar Empire. The latter phenomenon is found in connection with another anti-Jewish measure by a Byzantine emperor. Romanos I Lakapenos (r. 920-944) is said to have ordered in ca. 932 AD to baptize all Jews; al-Mas‛ūdī writes: “Some Jews joined him (the king of the Khazars), who arrived there from various Muslim cities and from Rūm (= the Byzantine Empire). This happened because the King of Rūm, in our time (943) it is Armanūs (Romanos I Lakapenos) who converted the Jews who were in his empire to the Christian faith, exerting coercion on them. “ From the Schechter text we learn that retaliation measures against the Christians on Khazar Empire soil were therefore also carried out without this being specified in more detail.[21]

Copper coin of the Byzantine Emperor Romanos I Lakapenos (r. 920-944; https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Romanos_I.#/media/Datei:Romanus1.jpg)

 

Overall, relations between the Khazars and Byzantium deteriorated significantly in the 10th century. In his work “De administrando imperio” Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos around 950 AD even gave instructions to his son Romanos “about the country of the Khazars and how to fight it” with the help of its neighbours. The emperor names the Oguz Turks, the Bulgarians (perhaps the Volga Bulgarians) and the Alans (in the northwestern Caucasus) as peoples that could be mobilized against the Khazars [22]. The latter, formerly under Khazar sovereignty, became a target of a Byzantine mission in the 10th century. The Alans actually went to war against the Khazars, but suffered a defeat in 931/932 against Aaron, Joseph's predecessor, which led to the temporary expulsion of the bishop and Christian priests from the Alans and the restoration of good relations with the Khazars.

The Volga Bulgarians also attempted to free themselves from Khazar sovereignty at this time (around 922 AD), but with the help of the Caliph of Baghdad; they converted to Islam. The destruction of a synagogue on Muslim territory, to which the Khazar ruler responded by demolishing the minaret of a mosque in Itil, also led to a temporary clouding of relations with the Muslims. While various vassal peoples tried to gain independence with the help of the neighboring great powers, the Varangian Rus in the north became another expansive opponent, who was also mobilized against Itil by Byzantine diplomacy. While these attacks under Aaron and Joseph could still be fended off in the first half of the 10th century, the weakened Khazar Empire finally succumbed to the attacks of the Rus under Svjatoslav von Kiev, who conquered and looted Sarkel and Itil in 963–965 AD.

Aerial view of the excavations in the Khazar fortress Sarkel at the river Don in the 1930s
(https://de.wikipedia.org)

 

8 The thirteenth tribe? The Khazar Empire in the 20th and 21st centuries

Of course, the Khazars did not disappear without a trace after the fall of their empire, remains of the Khazar population were documented until the 13th century, and the name "Khazaria" even became established for the Crimean peninsula in the late Middle Ages. The memory of the “Jewish” empire on the Volga also remained alive in medieval Jewish literature, for example in the already mentioned work “Sefer ha-Kusari” by the important Sephardic philosopher and poet Yehuda ha-Levi. However, the continued existence of Khazarian Judaism and its role in the emergence of Judaism in Eastern Europe are questionable. As mentioned, Judaism was probably mainly spread among the Khazar elite, while the majority of the population was attached to the old religion, Christianity and, especially after the defeat in 965/969, Islam. Also, the source evidence hardly allows for the construction of a continuity of Judaism in Eastern Europe from the Khazars to the Ashkenazim, who emigrated to Eastern Europe especially from France and Germany in the late Middle Ages. Nevertheless, various authors, such as the Hungarian-Jewish author Arthur Koestler (1905–1983) in his book “The Thirteenth Tribe”, published in 1976, attempted to postulate the Khazars as ancestors of the Ashkenazim and thus as the ancestors of a large part of today's Jewish population. Recently, methods of modern genetics have also been used, but - in contrast to the claims of a small number of scholars - the majority of studies, especially also the most recent ones, do not document any genetic link of Ashkenazi Jews and earlier populations from the Khazar-ruled territories.[23]

Cover page of the book “The thirteenth Tribe” by Arthur Koestler, published in 1976

 

The existence of a medieval Jewish empire in Eastern Europe was also exploited by anti-Semitic circles and the Nazis, considering the Soviet Union as the product of "Jewish Bolshevism", the heir to this "Jewish-barbaric Eastern Empire" and Russia as the "true home of Judaism" . The book “Attila's grandson on David's throne” by Erwin Soratroi from 1992 bumps into a similar horn; he wants to see "Eastern Jewry" in its entirety as the descendants of the "Hunnic" Khazars in order to de-legitimize the existence of the state of Israel: "This clarification about the ethnic origin of the Eastern Jews is of enormous importance, because currently the Semitic Jews are only 10 Percent, but the eastern Jewish Khazar descendants make up 90 percent of the world's Jewish population and also in what is now Israel. But this also destroys the basis of most of today's Israelis for their claim to the land of the Arabs and Jerusalem.”[24] Because of its also otherwise anti-Semitic statements, Soratroi's book was banned in Germany.

Russian and Soviet historiography also attempted to downplay the role of the Khazars in the founding of Kiev or the foundation of medieval Russia [25]; rather, the Jewish Khazars were seen as the forerunners of the "Tatar (Muslim) yoke" that the Mongols would have brought from the steppes over the Eastern Slavs. When Mikhail Ilarionovič Artamonov (1898–1972), the excavator of Sarkel, wanted to demonstrate the significance of the Khazars in a book, he was condemned in 1951 by the Communist party newspaper “Pravda”. According to official Soviet historiography, the resistance of the Eastern Slavs against the "capitalist Jewish exploiters" in Itil led to the unification under the throne of Kiev and the emergence of the Russian state. Today's Russian historiography also struggles with the Khazars and a fair assessment of their historical importance. In Russian nationalist circles, the Khazar Empire, interpreted as the beginning of a Jewish conspiracy against Russia that continues to this day, has even become a central issue. This also makes the context of the above-mentioned debate about the Svjatoslav monument clearer. [26] Nevertheless, there is also a significant number of Russian scholars and archaeologists doing most important work on the Khazar heritage.

It is probably the relative uniqueness of the Khazar Empire as a large medieval state with a Jewish elite that makes its instrumentalization for various ideologies so tempting to the present day. This often obscures the objective view on one of the most exciting episodes in Europe's medieval history.

Johannes Preiser-Kapeller

Note: This is the English translation of a paper published in German in the journal Religionen unterwegs 22/1 (March 2016), see: www.academia.edu/23552485/The_Religion_of_the_Khazars_-_a_Jewish_Empire_in_German_

 

Endnotes

1 https://www.fjc.ru/news/newsArticle.asp?AID=329123 and https://www.xeno.sova-center.ru/6BA2468/6BB4208/706B4D8?print=on

2 Movses Kałankatwacʽi II, 40: 240–241; transl. Dowsett 156

3 Wasserstein, The Khazars and the World of Islam 375–376; Howard-Johnston, Byzantine Sources for Khazar History 167; Golden, Khazar Studies I, 62–64; ders., The Conversion of the Khazars to Judaism 137; Shapira, Armenian and Georgian Sources on the Khazars 308–309, 349.

4 Noonan, Some Observations on the Economy of the Khazar Chaganate 211.

5 An English translation in: J. Marcus, The Jews in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook, 315–1791. New York 1938, 227–232; cf. also Brook, The Jews of Khazaria 98–100.

6 P. K. Kokovcov, Evrejsko-chazarskaja perepiska v X v. Leningrad 1932

7 N. Golb – O. Pritsak, Khazarian Hebrew Documents of the Tenth Century. London 1982.

8 Zuckerman, On the Date of the Khazars‛ Conversion to Judaism 246; Brook, The Jews of Khazaria 94–107.

9 Zuckerman, On the Date of the Khazars‛ Conversion to Judaism 246.

10 Golden, The Conversion of the Khazars to Judaism 156; Noonan, Some Observations on the Economy of the Khazar Chaganate 233–240; Brook, The Jews of Khazaria 107–108.

11 Vita Constantini IX (ed. Grives – Tomšič; transl. Bujnoch 73–74).

12 Golden, The Conversion of the Khazars to Judaism 130

13 Cited after Brook, The Jews of Khazaria 94–95.

14 Golden, The Conversion of the Khazars to Judaism 142 and 142; Brook, The Jews of Khazaria 110.

15 Golden, The Conversion of the Khazars to Judaism 144; Brook, The Jews of Khazaria 110.

16 Cited after Golden, Khazar Studies I, 97.

17 N. Golb – O. Pritsak, Khazarian Hebrew Documents of the Tenth Century. London 1982; cf. also Brook, The Jews of Khazaria 103–106.

18 Patrologia Latina 106, col. 1456; Zuckerman, On the Date of the Khazars‛ Conversion to Judaism 245, fn. 31; Golden, The Conversion of the Khazars to Judaism 139; Brook, The Jews of Khazaria 96.

19 Nicholas I,  Patriarch of Constantinople, Letters (ed. Jenkins –Westerink), Nr. 106, 14–19 (p. 390).

20 Zuckerman, The Khazars and Byzantium 400; Zuckerman, On the Date of the Khazars‛ Conversion to Judaism 255

21 Dölger – Müller – Beihammer, Regesten Nr. 624; al-Mas‛ūdī cited after Golden, The Conversion of the Khazars to Judaism 144; Zuckerman, The Khazars and Byzantium 400; Zuckerman, On the Date of the Khazars‛ Conversion to Judaism 255; Brook, The Jews of Khazaria 90–91, 110; Roth, Chasaren 169.

22 Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De administrando imperio (ed. Moravcsik – Jenkins), c. 10–12: 62–64; Soustal – Belke, Die Byzantiner und ihre Nachbarn 86–88.

23 A. Koestler, Der dreizehnte Stamm. Das Reich der Khasaren und sein Erbe. Bergisch Gladbach 1989, 126–184; Golden, Khazar Studies: Achievements and Perspectives 9; Brook, The Jews of Khazaria 197–246. For an update on Genetic data see (with many thanks to Kevin Brook for the information): www.khazaria.com/genetics/medieval/khazars.html

24 E. Soratroi, Attilas Enkel auf Davids Thron. Chasaren, Ostjuden, Israeliten. Tübingen 1992, 56; cf. Also Roth, Chasaren 204–205; Th. Schirrmacher, Die osteuropäischen Juden – Nachfahren der mittelalterlichen Khasaren? Martin Buber Seminar Texte 23 (2004), see https://www.contra-mundum.org/schirrmacher/ mbstexte023.pdf. 

25 Th. S. Noonan, The Khazar Qaghanate and its Impact on the Early Rus' State: The translatio imperii from Itil to Kiev, in: A. M. Khazanow – A. Wink (eds.), Nomads in the Sedentary World. Richmond 2001, 76–102.

26 Golden, Khazar Studies: Achievements and Perspectives 8, 19–28; V. A. Shnirelman, The Story of a Euphemism: The Khazars in Russian Nationalist Literature, in: P. B. Golden – H. Ben-Shammai – A. Róna-Tas (eds.), The World of the Khazars. New Perspectives. Leiden – Boston 2007, 353–372; Roth, Chasaren 205–208.

 

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D. J. Wasserstein, The Khazars and the World of Islam, in: P. B. Golden – H. Ben-Shammai – A. Róna-Tas (eds.), The World of the Khazars. New Perspectives. Leiden – Boston 2007, 373–386.

C. Zuckerman, On the Date of the Khazars‛ Conversion to Judaism and the Chronology of the Kings of the Rus Oleg and Igor. A Study of the Anonymous Khazar Letter from the Genizah of Cairo. Revue des Études Byzantines 53 (1995) 237–270.

C. Zuckerman, The Khazars and Byzantium – the first Encounter, in: P. B. Golden – H. Ben-Shammai – A. Róna-Tas (eds.), The World of the Khazars. New Perspectives. Leiden – Boston 2007, 399–432.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Globalisierung, Pandemie, Klimawandel und die Verwandlung der „alten Welt“, ca. 1200-1500

Im 13. Jahrhundert erlebte die „alte Welt“ in Asien, Afrika und Europa eine Intensivierung der überregionalen Verbindungen des Handels und der Mobilität durch die Schaffung eines gewaltigen neuen politischen Raumes infolge der mongolischen Eroberungen. Ab der Mitte des 13. Jahrhunderts setzte aber auch ein Klimawandel von der „Mittelalterlichen Klima-Anomalie“ zur „Kleinen Eiszeit“ ein, der insbesondere ab dem frühen 14. Jahrhundert von einer Häufung von Witterungsextremen, Missernten und Hungersnot begleitetet wurde. Dramatischer Höhepunkt dieser Entwicklung war der Ausbruch der Pest-Pandemie ab den 1340er Jahren, der Verbreitung durch die stärkere Verflechtung der Weltregionen noch begünstigt wurden. Diese Ereignisse und ihre kurz- und langfristigen gesellschaftlichen Auswirkungen werden im Vortrag auf der Grundlage neuer Daten und aktueller Forschungsdebatten diskutiert.

Der Vortrag ist auf zwei Videos aufgeteilt und wurde auf Initiative von Dr. Egmont Schmidt ursprünglich im Rahmen einer Fortbildungsveranstaltung für Geschichtslehrer an der Pädagogischen Hochschule Oberösterreich in Linz am 5. Februar 2020 gehalten. 

Teil 1: youtu.be/QeX8nMr9Q7s

Teil 2: youtu.be/YTy_Sq7PMiU

 

Zur Forschung von Johannes Preiser-Kapeller (Institut für Mittelalterforschung/Abt. Byzanzforschung, Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften) siehe auch https://www.dasanderemittelalter.net/ und https://johannespreiserkapeller.academia.edu/research

 

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"Black Death" or just the flu?

The "Justinianic plague" also struck the area of modern-day Austria in the 6th century CE; but how bad was the disease?

During this time there was a disease that almost destroyed all of humanity. (...) It is impossible to express an explanation in words unless it is related to God. Because (the plague) not only came about certain people in one part of the world, nor was it restricted to any season (...). It encompassed the entire world and annihilated the lives of all people, even though they differed from one another, and took no account of gender or age. ” Thus, as an eyewitness, the historian Procopius described the outbreak of an epidemic in AD 542 in the Eastern Roman capital of Constantinople ( today's Istanbul), where, according to him, half of the 500,000 inhabitants fell victim to it. Even the then Emperor Justinian I (after whom research names the plague today) fell ill, but recovered again. The epidemic on the Bosporus was introduced via the grain fleet arriving from Egypt. It then spread along the water and land trade routes from the Mediterranean all the way to Ireland. The Roman Empire had collapsed in Western Europe 70 years earlier, but the cross-regional networks were strong enough to allow it to spread. Until the middle of the 8th century, the plague returned in waves.

The Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (now Istanbul), which was inaugurated in 537 a few years before the "Justinianic Plague" broke out (source: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hagia_Sophia#/media/Datei:Hagia_Sophia_Mars_2013.jpg)

 

Tracking down the pathogen in the Danube region

The epidemic also hit the Danube region, where in skeletons in the burial ground of Aschheim (north of Munich) the pathogen was first identified by palaeo-geneticists in 2013. It was a strain of the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which was also responsible for the epidemics of the late Middle Ages in Europe (the "Black Death") and the pandemic in East Asia around 1900. If untreated, the mortality rate for sick people was 50-60%; the transmission took place through the bite of infected fleas upon contact with animals (such as rats) or humans affected by fleas. The researchers were also able to determine the genetic relationship of the pathogen of the 6th century with plague bacteria still endemic in rodent populations in eastern Central Asia. A climatic cold period from 536/540 CE onwards gave this region more rainfall, which favored the multiplication of rodents, fleas and bacteria, which increased the risk of the jumping of the disease onto humans. From there, the plague spread to India, from where Roman Egypt imported spices such as pepper, but also semi-precious stones such as garnet, by sea. The latter can be found alongside other “exotic” imports in early medieval burial grounds such as in Aschheim, but also in Upper Austria.

The bacterium Yersinia pestis under the microscope (source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Yersinia_pestis?uselang=de#/media/File:Yersinia.jpg)

 

Globalization and the impact of an epidemic then and now

The early "globalization" thus facilitated the spread of the disease worldwide. But how devastating was its impact? Can we believe the numbers given by Prokop and other historians of the time, or did they spread "fake news"? A debate has flared up due to an article published shortly before Christmas 2019 by Lee Mordechai and his team, who call the "Justinian plague" an "inconsequential pandemic" (see https://www.pnas.org/content/116/ 51/25546). On the basis of a statistical analysis of the frequency of papyri, inscriptions and coins, but also of pollen data (on the intensity of agriculture), they doubt that the plague of the 6th century, like the "Black Death" of the late Middle Ages, caused death for 30 or even 50% of the population – and was thus more like the East Asian pandemic around 1900, which claimed millions of victims, but by no means depopulated large parts of China. Other researchers are strongly opposed to this scenario. Even if the lethality of the epidemic was lower than assumed, the social, economic and psychological consequences of the insecurity of the people and the disruption of normal everyday life should also be taken into account. The latter argument seems understandable given the current situation around the corona virus, considering that the people of the 6th century were completely unclear about the cause and ways of diffusion of the disease.

Map of the possible region of origin and routes of diffusion of the plague epidemic of the 6th century CE (source: J. Preiser-Kapeller, ÖAW, 2020)

 

Johannes Preiser-Kapeller is a historian at the Division for Byzantine Research of the Institute for Medieval Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences and conducts research on the global entanglements and environmental history of the medieval world. His lastest book „Jenseits von Rom und Karl dem Großen“ was published in 2018. Website: https://www.dasanderemittelalter.net/.

 

 

 

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In the shadow of the crusades: An Austrian-Armenian Christmas 1212

Yev Tiroj hreshtaky yerevats’ nrants’“ (“Then the angel of the Lord came to them“),  it says in Armenian in the Christmas gospel of Luke. These strange words were heard in January 1212 by the Austrian ambassadors, who had traveled to the court of the King of the Armenians on behalf of the Babenberger Duke Leopold VI.

The Babenberger Leopold VI (1176-1230) is considered the most successful representative of his family. His plans included the detachment of Austria from the Diocese of Passau. For this he needed the support of the Pope, whom he wanted to impress with his special zeal for the Christian faith. In 1207, the Duke promised the participation in a crusade, but postponed his departure. But he was particularly interested in the Orient, also for family reasons. For example, his wife Theodora was a princess from Byzantium.

In 1211 the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Otto IV, received diplomats from one of the most important allies of the crusaders in the Orient who had come under pressure, i.e. the Armenian King Leon I. He ruled over Cilicia at the Mediterranean (in modern-day Southeastern Turkey), where an Armenian polity had emerged in the 11th century, and had established alliances with the Crusaders as well as a formal union between the Armenian church and the Papacy.

Fig. 1: View from the fortress of Sis (today Kozan in Turkey), where the Austrian envoys celebrated Christmas with the Armenian King Leon on January 6, 1212 (source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8b/2Walls_View%2C_Kozan_Castle_02.JPG)

After the diplomats of Leon arrived at Otto's court, the emperor sent an embassy to the east. This also included Wilbrand von Oldenburg, capitular in Hildesheim, who became the chronicler of the trip. Also some "honorable men" of the Duke Leopold VI. from Austria belonged to this travel company. By sending his own confidants, Leopold probably also wanted to probe the terrain in the Orient in advance of a possible crusade. The legation arrived in Akkon on August 25, 1211 after several weeks of sea voyage and traveled north from there. In December they met King Leon in Tarsos. The king is said to have received the "envoys of the Duke of Austria" in a particularly honorable manner.

Fig. 2: Map with those places (marked in red) that were visited by the embassy from Austria in 1211/1212 (source: J. Preiser-Kapeller, ÖAW, 2019)

The envoys celebrated Christmas with the king at Leon's court in Sis in the highlands on January 6, 1212. The choice of the Armenian and not the Catholic date (on December 25th) may not have been too unusual for Austrian visitors, since the feast of epiphany was also celebrated in the West on January 6th. The church service of the Armenians, however, had developed differently, both linguistically and liturgically, than in the Latin West. However, the priest Wilbrand also saw no problem in celebrating Christmas with the Armenians. These celebrations lasted for eight days and included the water consecration festival, which is also important in other Eastern Churches and commemorated Christ's baptism in the Jordan. Water was sanctified by a cross and consecrated oil (myron). The believers then took this water home.

The ambassadors stayed at Leon's court for several weeks before returning home over the Mediterranean via Cyprus in the spring of 1212. In 1217, Duke Leopold actually started a crusade, which was ultimately unsuccessful militarily. After all, he was recorded as Duke "Tōstrič" in an Armenian chronicle, the first mention of Austria in this language. This was also a reverberation of the 1212 Christmas, a peaceful episode in the otherwise bloody history of the Crusades.

Fig. 3: Christmas liturgy in the Armenian Apostolic Patriarchate in Echmiadzin in Armenia today (source: https://massispost.com/2016/01/armenian-apostolic-church-celebrates-christmas/)

German version of this blog entry published on: https://www.derstandard.at/wissenschaft/wissensblogs/blog-geschichte-oesterreichs

Dr. Johannes Preiser-Kapeller is a historian at the Division for Byzantine Research Department of the Institute for Medieval Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences and conducts research on the global entanglements and environmental history of the medieval world. His lastest book Jenseits von Rom und Karl dem Großen was published in 2018 . Website: https://www.dasanderemittelalter.net/.

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Climate change: Flexibility allowed societies to benefit

English translation of the APA Science Press release from 13 December 2019: https://science.apa.at/rubrik/kultur_und_gesellschaft/Klimawandel_Flexibilitaet_liess_Gesellschaften_profitieren/SCI_20191213_SCI39351351652190844

People were already faced with climate change in the Middle Ages: Between 1200 and 1350 there was "the greatest climatic change in the last 1,000 years before the current warming", according to the Viennese historian Johannes Preiser-Kapeller. He has studied the consequences of this "Little Ice Age" for empires in the eastern Mediterranean and showed that flexibility allowed societies to benefit.

Preiser-Kapeller and his colleague Ekaterini Mitsiou from the Institute for Medieval Research at the Austrian Academy of Sciences (ÖAW) used historical sources and scientific data for their contribution in the anthology "The Crisis of the 14th Century" to reconstruct temperatures and rainfall. They found that the reports of contemporaries and scientific data from the analysis of tree growth rings or dripstones coincide very well. "At that time, average temperatures in some regions cooled by up to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and the frequency of drastic weather events in the reports increased accordingly," Preiser-Kapeller said in a press release.

Climate change affected regions differently: "We see increasingly long and pronounced droughts in the eastern Mediterranean from the middle of the 13th century. In the Nile Valley, too, famines occurred due to precipitation changes occurred in the source area of ​​the Nile in East Africa, leading to too high or too low  Nile floods, " said the historian. Central Asia was also getting wetter and cooler. This allowed the rodents and flees, which transmitted the plague to multiply there. The disease then spread along the trade routes to Europe in the 1340s.

An eruption of the volcano Samalas / Rinjani on the island of Lombok in what is now Indonesia in 1257 AD affected the global climate. This was also noticeable in Europe and offered an "overture" for the more sustainable transition to the "Little Ice Age" in the 13th to 14th centuries (the volcanic eruption shown took place in 1994). © Wikimedia

Effects on different societies are not uniform

The effects on different societies were not uniform. The Ottoman Empire was able to expand from 1350 onwards at the expense of Byzantium. "The Byzantine Empire was an established power and had a correspondingly large apparatus and elites to be cared for. When the plague and the climatic conditions led to a decline in population, these elites continued to try to get the same amount of taxes from a shrinking  population, " said Preiser-Kapeller to APA. This has led to unrest and in part to a greater willingness to join other powers.

"The Ottomans could benefit from this," said the historian. Whole villages changed sides "because the Ottomans had a better offer, with a lower tax burden". This relatively new state structure was not yet so heavily dependent on structures and processes that had been developed over a long period of time and "probably found it easier to adapt to the changes".

But it only took around 250 years for the high point of the "Little Ice Age" to end the boom period of the Ottoman Empire. As Preiser-Kapeller showed in a publication last year, after extreme periods of cold and drought, "the Ottomans hit what had hit the Byzantines before: the Ottoman Empire was an established superpower with an appropriate apparatus and not as flexible as before – they now got into a severe crisis," said the historian.

It is clear to Preiser-Kapeller that long-term crises triggered by climate change are changing societies. "They do it either voluntarily, by adapting, or involuntarily because of social unrest and social upheavals."

In summer 1315 crop failures and famines occurred in large parts of Europe and the Middle East. While western and central Europe were hit by unusual cold and rainfall, many Mediterranean areas suffered from extreme drought © https://drought.memphis.edu/OWDA/

Media coverage on the paper Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, Ekaterini Mitsiou (2019). The Little Ice Age and Byzantium within the Eastern Mediterranean, ca. 1200–1350: An Essay on Old Debates and New Scenarios. In Martin Bauch, Gerrit Jasper Schenk (Eds.), The Crisis of the 14th Century: Teleconnections between Environmental and Societal Change? (pp. 190–220). Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter. https://doi.org/10.1515/9783110660784-010

Abstract: This paper discusses written historical documentation and paleoenvironmental evidence in order to explore connections between climatic and socio-economic change. It focuses thereby on the Byzantine Empire and the eastern Mediterranean more generally in the period between the collapse and “restoration” of Byzantine rule in Constantinople (1204-1261) and the beginning of Ottoman expansion in the Balkans in 1352, which roughly coincided with the outbreak of the first wave of the “Black Death” in 1347. The paper entails juxtaposing various older scenarios of “fatal” social and political developments in Byzantine history with new studies based on proxy data from regions across the Balkans and Asia Minor and comparing these events with developments in other polities of the region during the transformation from the “Medieval Climate Anomaly” to the “Little Ice Age.”

Open access-download: https://www.degruyter.com/view/books/9783110660784/9783110660784-010/9783110660784-010.xml

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"Silent Night" and the volcano. The climate history of a Christmas carol

The online encyclopedia Wikipedia describes "Silent Night, Holy Night" as the "world's most famous Christmas carol". Translated into more than 300 languages, it symbolizes the peace of the Christmas season for many people in all countries. The assistant pastor Joseph Franz Mohr (1792-1848), however, wrote the text of the song in the winter of 1816 in Mariapfarr in the Lungau area in Salzburg against the background of bitter need. Hunger and misery did not only affect the people in the surroundings of Mohr, but also in many regions of Europe and the world.

More than a year earlier, in April 1815, this global crisis had been triggered by the tremendous eruption of the Tambora volcano on the island of Sumbawa in present-day Indonesia. Already in the years before several volcanoes had erupted in the region (so the Awu on the Indonesian island of Sangihe Besar in 1812 or the Mayon on the Philippines in 1814). However, with a magnitude of 7 on the Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI), the Tambora eruption reached 100 times the power of these earlier events and still ten times of the famous Krakatau eruption of 1883. From the original Tambora height of 4,200 meters, nearly 1,400 meters were blasted away, and about 150 cubic kilometers of volcanic material expelled.

Fig. 1: The location of the volcano Tambora in Indonesia and the ash deposits during the eruption in 1815 (Source: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tambora#/media/Datei:1815_tambora_explosion_B.png)

First, the disaster hit the inhabitants of Sumbawa, but also on neighboring islands like Bali. Tens of thousands of people died from the direct effects of the eruption or later due to the devastation of their fields by volcanic ashes (which only turned out to be a blessing for agriculture years later). The eruption column of the Tambora reached a height of more than 25 kilometers into the upper layers of the atmosphere. The ejected material spread there in the following months across the entire globe and influenced the shape of the celestial phenomena, but especially the weather.

For several years one could observe unusual colors at sunsets, caused by the volcanic dust particles and immortalized by artists such as the English painter William Turner (1775-1851). However, the climatic consequences of the change in the atmosphere were fatal. 1816 turned into a "year without a summer," when unexpected cold spells and long-running rainstorms were recorded in many regions of North America and Europe, where the Napoleonic Wars had just come to an end and people had hoped for more peaceful times. These extreme events reduced or entirely destroyed the harvests of various crops. The shortages and rises in the prices of food, famine and misery affected large population groups. The states of Europe were - after years of warfare - insufficiently prepared for the catastrophe, although attempts were made to reduce the lack of food by export bans, price regulations and measures against speculators and usurers. However, the state authorities were at least as interested in containing potentially revolutionary riots and acted against the growing numbers of beggars and vagrants.

Fig. 2: Comparison of the summer temperatures of 1816 in Europe to the long-term mean 1971-2000 (source: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jahr_ohne_Sommer#/media/Datei:1816_summer.png)

These dramatic events also aroused the interest of contemporary authors, such as Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832), who as Minister in Weimar had to be officially interested in their effects, although he was especially struck by the death of his wife Christiane in June 1816. The young English writer Mary Shelley (1797-1851) stayed with her family in 1816 in particularly disaster-ridden Switzerland and was inspired by the extraordinary weather events around Lake Geneva for her 1818 published novel "Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus". However, probably more directly than the famous poet in Weimar or the wealthy Englishwoman the pastor Joseph Franz Mohr became aware of the misery of the people, since in December 1792 he himself had been born in a poorhouse of the Archdiocese of Salzburg.

For Salzburg, which was finally added to the Austrian Empire in 1816, a commission in December of that year stated that "the prices have risen to an unprecedented level in history." The Lungau in the southeast of Salzburg, climatically not particularly favored anyway, suffered from record precipitation and extreme cold, which aggravated in the winter of 1816/1817. In this sad time Joseph Franz Mohr wrote in Mariapfarr the verses of the "Silent Night", which contrasted the misery in simple words with the message of hope of Christmas: "Jesus the Savior is here!", as it says in the last verse in the original text.

Fig. 3: Autograph of the song "Silent Night, Holy Night" by Joseph Franz Mohr, c. 1820 (source: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stille_Nacht,_heilige_Nacht#/media/Datei:Autograph_Mohr_Stille_Nacht.png)

However, the misery continued in the following year; the record winter of 1816/1817 was followed by an increased number of avalanche declines and floods. After the crop failures of the previous year, grain prices reached their peak in the spring of 1817. And even in the summer of this year, extreme weather events such as thunderstorms with heavy rain caused damage to settlements and fields. In the face of sheer distress, the authorities recorded an increase in crime in many areas in Austria and Germany; hunters in the Alpine regions noted an unprecedented number of acts of poaching.

Meanwhile, Joseph Franz Mohr was transferred in September 1817 from Mariapfarr to Oberndorf on the banks of the river Salzach near the city of Salzburg. There, too, the people who lived on the river, among other things from the salt trade, suffered under the extremes of nature, such as floods and the general decline in trade caused by the crisis. With his superior pastor Georg Heinrich Joseph Nöstler Mohr soon came into conflict. He found a friend, however, in the teacher Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863) from the nearby village Arnsdorf, who served in the Church of St. Nikola in Oberndorf as a cantor and organist. Gruber, too, came from the simplest of circumstances and had been born in Unterweitzberg in the Innviertel as the son of a linen weaver. This industry suffered especially from the consequences of rising prices and dwindling sales, but also from the new competition of industrial textile production from England.

Fig. 4: The crater of the volcano Tambora today and the Silent Night Chapel in Oberndorf near Salzburg during the Advent season (source: https://de.wikipedia.org)

At the turn of the year 1817/1818, Europe was in desperate desire for an end of the time of need. But only in the course of the new year, the climatic and economic effects of the Tambora eruption weakened. In 1819 food prices returned to their usual level. During this time between misery and hope Joseph Franz Mohr and Franz Xaver Gruber performed the song "Silent Night, Holy Night" in the Church of St. Nikola in Oberndorf on Christmas Eve 1818, after Gruber had composed a melody to the already two years old verses of his friend.

Mohr and Gruber, as well as their better-informed contemporaries, did not see through the connection between this time of distress and the outbreak of the Tambora, even though news of the huge eruption in Southeast Asia in the years after 1815 spread to Europe as well. Only the ascent of the volcano in 1847 by the Swiss botanist Heinrich Zollinger (1818-1859) and his team allowed more accurate conclusions about the extent of the natural event. The poet of the "Silent Night", Joseph Franz Mohr, died a year later on 4 December 1848 in Wagrain in Pongau, where he had served since 1837 as a parish vicar. At this time, the song had already begun its triumphal procession in the world and was first heard in 1840 in New York. And meanwhile there is also a translation into the Malay language, which is widespread in Indonesia: "Malam Kudus ...".

 

Literature:

W. Behringer, Tambora and the Year without a Summer: How a Volcano Plunged the World into Crisis. Medford 2019.

M. W. K. Fischer, "Stille Nacht" entstand genau vor 190 Jahren, ORF-Science, 24.12.2006: https://sciencev1.orf.at/news/146616.html

F. Frommelt et al. (eds.), Das Jahr ohne Sommer: Die Hungerkrise 1816/17 im mittleren Alpenraum. Innsbruck 2017.

R. Glaser, Klimageschichte Mitteleuropas. 1200 Jahre Wetter, Klima, Katastrophen. Darmstadt 2008.

S. Haeseler, Der Ausbruch des Vulkans Tambora in Indonesien im Jahr 1815 und seine weltweiten Folgen, 2016, online: https://www.dwd.de/DE/leistungen/besondereereignisse/verschiedenes/20170727_tambora_1816_global.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=5

D. Krämer, „Menschen grasten nun mit dem Vieh“. Die letzte große Hungerkrise der Schweiz 1816/17. Basel 2015.

C. Oppenheimer, Eruptions that Shook the World. Cambridge 2011

M. Sigl et al., Timing and climate forcing of volcanic eruptions for the past 2,500 years, Nature 523 (2015), doi:10.1038/nature14565.

Ein Vulkanausbruch beeinflusst 1816 das Leben in Salzburg, Salzburg-Wiki: https://www.sn.at/wiki/Ein_Vulkanausbruch_beeinflusst_1816_das_Leben_in_Salzburg

https://www.stillenacht.com/de/das-lied/entstehung/

 

Dr. Johannes Preiser-Kapeller is senior researcher at the Institute for Medieval Research / Division of Byzantium Research of the Austrian Academy of Sciences. His research interests include the impact of climatic and ecological changes on societies of the past.

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„Stille Nacht“ und der Vulkan. Die Klimageschichte eines Weihnachtsliedes

Als das „weltweit bekannteste Weihnachtslied“ verzeichnet die Online-Enzyklopädie Wikipedia „Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht“; übersetzt in mehr als 300 Sprachen, symbolisiert es für viele Menschen in allen Ländern den Frieden der Weihnachtszeit. Den Text des Liedes dichtete der Hilfspfarrer Joseph Franz Mohr (1792-1848) jedoch im Winter 1816 in Mariapfarr im Salzburger Lungau vor dem Hintergrund bitterster Not. Hunger und Elend suchten die Menschen nicht nur in der Umgebung Mohrs, sondern in vielen Regionen Europas und der Welt heim.

Ausgelöst hatte diese globale Krise mehr als ein Jahr zuvor im April 1815 der gewaltige Ausbruch des Vulkans Tambora auf der Insel Sumbawa im heutigen Indonesien. Schon in den Jahren zuvor waren mehrere Vulkane in der Region ausgebrochen (so der Awu auf indonesischen Insel Sangihe Besar 1812 oder der Mayon auf den Philippinnen 1814). Die Eruption der Tambora erreichte aber mit einer Stärke von 7 auf dem Vulkanexplosivitätsindex (VEI) das Hundertfache der Gewalt dieser früheren Ereignisse und immer noch das Zehnfache des berühmten Ausbruchs des Krakatau 1883. Von der ursprünglichen Höhe des Tambora von 4200 m wurden fast 1400 m weggesprengt und ca. 150 Kubikkilometer an vulkanischem Material ausgestoßen.

Abb. 1: Die Lage des Vulkans Tambora in Indonesien und die Ascheniederschläge während des Ausbruchs 1815 (Quelle: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tambora#/media/Datei:1815_tambora_explosion_B.png)

Zuerst traf die Katastrophe die Bewohner auf Sumbawa, aber auch auf benachbarten Inseln wie Bali; zehntausende Menschen starben aufgrund der direkten Auswirkungen der Eruption oder danach an Hunger wegen der Verwüstung ihrer Felder durch die Vulkanasche (die sich erst Jahre später als Segen für die Landwirtschaft erweisen sollte). Die Eruptionssäule des Tambora erreichte mit einer Höhe von mehr als 25 Kilometern aber auch die oberen Schichten der Atmosphäre; das ausgeworfene Material verbreitete sich dort in den folgenden Monaten auf dem gesamten Globus und beeinflusste die Gestalt der Himmelserscheinungen, insbesondere aber das Witterungsgeschehen.

Noch mehrere Jahre konnte man ungewöhnliche Farben bei Sonnenuntergängen beobachten, die durch die vulkanischen Staubteilchen hervorgerufen und durch Künstler wie den englischen Maler William Turner (1775-1851) verewigt wurden. Fatal waren jedoch die klimatischen Folgen der Veränderung der Atmosphäre; 1816 wurde zu einem „Jahr ohne Sommer“, in dem man unerwartete Kälteeinbrüche und langanhaltende Dauerregen in vielen Regionen Nordamerikas und Europas, wo man gerade die Napoleonischen Kriege hinter sich gebracht und auf friedlichere Zeiten gehofft hatte, verzeichnete. Diese Extremereignisse verminderten die Ernten verschiedener Feldfrüchte oder vernichteten sie zur Gänze; Mangel und Verteuerung der Lebensmittel, Hungersnot und Verelendung weiter Bevölkerungsgruppen waren die Folge. Die Staaten Europas waren – nach Jahren der Kriegsführung – nur ungenügend auf die Katastrophe vorbereitet; zwar versuchte man durch Ausfuhrverbote, Preisregelungen und Maßnahmen gegen Spekulanten und Wucherer den Mangel an Nahrung zu mindern. Jedoch waren die staatlichen Autoritäten mindestens ebenso an der Eindämmung potentiell revolutionärer Unruhen interessiert und gingen gegen die wachsende Zahl der Bettler und Landstreicher vor.

Abb. 2: Vergleich der Sommertemperaturen von 1816 in Europa zum langjährigen Mittel 1971–2000 (Quelle: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jahr_ohne_Sommer#/media/Datei:1816_summer.png)

Diese dramatischen Ereignisse erweckten auch das Interesse schreibender Zeitgenossen, wie Johann Wolfgang von Goethes (1749-1832), der sich als Minister in Weimar von Amts wegen für ihre Auswirkungen interessieren musste, wiewohl ihn vor allem der Tod seiner Frau Christiane im Juni 1816 traf. Die junge englische Schriftstellerin Mary Shelley (1797-1851) hielt sich zusammen mit ihrer Familie im Jahr 1816 in der besonders von der Katastrophe heimgesuchten Schweiz auf und ließ sich von den außergewöhnlichen Wetterereignissen um den Genfer See für ihren 1818 veröffentlichten Roman „Frankenstein or The Modern Prometheus“ inspirieren. Wohl noch unmittelbarer als der berühmte Dichter in Weimar oder die wohlhabende Engländerin nahm aber wohl der selbst im Dezember 1792 im Armenhaus der Erzdiözese in Salzburg geborene Pfarrer Joseph Franz Mohr das Elend der Menschen war.

Für Salzburg, das erst im Jahr 1816 endgültig dem Kaiserreich Österreich zugeschlagen wurde, befand eine Kommission im Dezember dieses Jahres, das „die Teuerung (…) bis zu einem in der Geschichte (…) beispiellosen Grade gestiegen ist.“ Der Lungau im Südosten Salzburgs, klimatisch ohnehin nicht besonders begünstigt, litt besonders unter Rekordniederschlägen und Extremkälte, die sich im Winter 1816/1817 noch verschärfte. In dieser tristen Zeit verfasste Joseph Franz Mohr nun in Mariapfarr die Verse der „Stillen Nacht“, die dem Elend in einfachen Worten die Hoffnungsbotschaft des Weihnachtsfestes gegenüberstellten: „Jesus der Retter ist da!“, wie es in der letzten Strophe im Originaltext heißt.

Abb. 3: Autograph des Liedes „Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht“ von Joseph Franz Mohr, um 1820 (Quelle: https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stille_Nacht,_heilige_Nacht#/media/Datei:Autograph_Mohr_Stille_Nacht.png)

Die Not setzte sich jedoch im folgenden Jahr fort; dem Rekordwinter 1816/1817 folgte eine vermehrte Zahl an Lawinenniedergängen und Überschwemmungen. Nach den Mißernten des Vorjahres erreichten die Getreidepreise im Frühjahr 1817 ihren Höhepunkt. Und auch im Sommer dieses Jahres verursachten extreme Witterungsereignisse wie Gewitterstürme mit Starkregen Schäden an Siedlungen und Äckern. Angesichts der schieren Not verzeichneten die Behörden in vielen Gebieten in Österreich und Deutschland ein Ansteigen der Kriminalität; Jäger in den alpinen Regionen vermerkten eine noch nicht dagewesene Zahl an Akten der Wilderei.

Währenddessen wurde Joseph Franz Mohr im September 1817 von Mariapfarr nach Oberndorf am Ufer der Salzach nahe der Stadt Salzburg versetzt; auch dort litten die Menschen, die unter anderem vom Salzhandel auf dem Fluss lebten, unter den Extremen der Natur wie Überschwemmungen und dem durch die Krise verursachten allgemeinen Rückgang des Handelsverkehrs. Mit seinem vorgesetzten Pfarrer Georg Heinrich Joseph Nöstler geriet Mohr bald in Konflikt, fand aber einen Freund im Lehrer Franz Xaver Gruber (1787-1863) aus der nahen Ortschaft Arnsdorf, der in der Schifferkirche St. Nikola in Oberndorf als Kantor und Organist diente. Auch Gruber stammte aus einfachsten Verhältnissen und war in Unterweitzberg im Innviertel als Sohn eines Leinenwebers geboren worden; gerade dieses Gewerbe litt besonders unter den Folgen der Teuerung und des schwindenden Absatzes, aber auch der neuen Konkurrenz der industriellen Textilherstellung aus England.

Abb. 4: Der Krater des Vulkans Tambora heute und die die Stille-Nacht-Kapelle in Oberndorf bei Salzburg zur Adventzeit (Quelle: https://de.wikipedia.org)

Zum Jahreswechsel 1817/1818 ersehnte man in Europa ein Ende der Not; doch erst im Laufe des neuen Jahres schwächten sich die klimatischen und ökonomischen Auswirkungen der Tambora-Eruption ab. 1819 kehrten die Preise für Nahrungsmittel auf ihr gewohntes Maß zurück. In dieser Zeit zwischen Elend und Hoffnung führten Joseph Franz Mohr und Franz Xaver Gruber am Heiligabend 1818 das Lied „Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht“ in der Kirche St. Nikola in Oberndorf erstmals auf, nachdem Gruber eine Melodie zu den schon zwei Jahre alten Versen seines Freundes komponiert hatte.

Den Zusammenhang der erlittenen Notzeit mit dem Ausbruch des Tambora durchschauten Mohr und Gruber, aber auch ihre besser informierten Zeitgenossen nicht, obwohl sich die Nachricht über die gewaltige Eruption in Südostasien in den Jahren nach 1815 auch bis Europa verbreitete. Erst die Besteigung des Vulkans im Jahr 1847 durch den Schweizer Botaniker Heinrich Zollinger (1818-1859) und sein Team ließ genauere Schlüsse auf das Ausmaß des Naturereignisses zu. Der Dichter der „Stillen Nacht“, Joseph Franz Mohr, verstarb ein Jahr später am 4. Dezember 1848 in Wagrain im Pongau, wo er seit 1837 als Pfarrvikar diente. Zu diesem Zeitpunkt hatte das Lied schon seinen Siegeszug in alle Welt angetreten und war bereits 1840 erstmals in New York erklungen. Und mittlerweile existiert auch eine Übersetzung in der in Indonesien weitverbreiteten malaiischen Sprache: „Malam Kudus…“.

 

Literaturhinweise:

W. Behringer, Tambora und das Jahr ohne Sommer. Wie ein Vulkan die Welt in die Krise stürzte. München 2015.

M. W. K. Fischer, "Stille Nacht" entstand genau vor 190 Jahren, ORF-Science, 24.12.2006: https://sciencev1.orf.at/news/146616.html

R. Glaser, Klimageschichte Mitteleuropas. 1200 Jahre Wetter, Klima, Katastrophen. Darmstadt 2008.

S. Haeseler, Der Ausbruch des Vulkans Tambora in Indonesien im Jahr 1815 und seine weltweiten Folgen, 2016, online: https://www.dwd.de/DE/leistungen/besondereereignisse/verschiedenes/20170727_tambora_1816_global.pdf?__blob=publicationFile&v=5

D. Krämer, „Menschen grasten nun mit dem Vieh“. Die letzte große Hungerkrise der Schweiz 1816/17. Basel 2015.

C. Oppenheimer, Eruptions that Shook the World. Cambridge 2011

M. Sigl u. a., Timing and climate forcing of volcanic eruptions for the past 2,500 years, Nature 523 (2015), doi:10.1038/nature14565.

Ein Vulkanausbruch beeinflusst 1816 das Leben in Salzburg, Salzburg-Wiki: https://www.sn.at/wiki/Ein_Vulkanausbruch_beeinflusst_1816_das_Leben_in_Salzburg

https://www.stillenacht.com/de/das-lied/entstehung/

Dr. Johannes Preiser-Kapeller ist wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Mittelalterforschung/Abteilung Byzanzforschung der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften. Zu seinen Forschungsgebieten gehört die Auswirkung klimatischer und ökologischer Veränderungen auf Gesellschaften der Vergangenheit.

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