The Earliest States of Eastern Europe
DG-2021, 384-417

Defense Capacity of Khazar Steppe Fortresses

V. S. Flyorov

Institute of Archaeology of the Russian Academy of Sciences


Financing: Program “Humara & Pliska – two stone fortresses on the map of early medieval Eastern Europe”.


For citation: Flyorov, Valery S. Defense Capacity of Khazar Steppe Fortresses // Drevneishie gosudarstva Vostochnoi Evropy (The Earliest States of Eastern Europe). 2021: Eastern Europe and the World of Islam. In honor of Tatjana M. Kalinina. Editors of the volume B.E. Rashkovskiy, E.V. Litovskikh, E.A. Melnikova. Moscow: Dmitry Pozharsky University, 2021. S. 384–417.


DOI: 10.32608/1560-1382-2021-42-384-417


Abstract: The defense capacity of the fortresses of Khazar khaganate has not been studied up to date as an independent topic. It would be wrong to consider the fortresses which are the largest in their area and/or have the longer perimeter of external walls to be the most defensible. In general, all metric and quantitative data give only purely formalized estimates. No matter how much I want to formalize, summarize in tables, correlate them all, it is impossible to do without verbal descriptions and comparisons. Such kind of comparison is proposed in this article for three Khazar fortresses located in Lower Don Region and constructed from different materials. 1) The fortress of Semikarakorsk – a khagan’s residence, built of raw brick with structures in a citadel made of burnt one. In it’s plan this fortress looks like a “square in square. 2) Tsimliansk Right-bank fortress, built white limestone of blocks 3) Sarkel (or Tsimliansk left-bank fortress) built of burnt brick.

The main characteristics of those three fortresses are given in the Table. Semikarakorsk and Tsimliansk Rigt-bank fortresses were constructed in the end of 8th – the beginning of 9th centuries and were captured simultaneously several years following the construction of Sarkel, most likely in the time of internal conflict in Khazaria at the end of the first third of the 9th century. Being synchronous, they are built in different traditions. Semikarakorsk fortress is more archaic, but the use of burned brick appeared there earlier than in Sarkel, i. e. before Petronas Kamateros mission to Khazaria.

The main disadventages of Semikarakorsk fortress were the unstable raw brick, absence of towers and moat. In Tsimliansk Right-bank fortress the internal space was fundamentally different: it was divided into three sectors. The same principle is used in Sarkel, but with a division into five sectors. Such kind of internal devision as well as a rectangular plan of the towers was the main similarity between Tsimliansk Right-bank fortress and Sarkel. On the other hand, Tsimliansk Right-bank fortress like Semikarakorsk fortress had a two-chamber workshops attached to fortress’ walls.

Sarkel was the most perfect of Khazaria’s Don Region fortresses. It had a moat, towers, it was devided into five sectors and it was built of solid construction material. At the same time, it is impossible to assess the defense capacity of each fortress without knowledge of the specific circumstances of their destruction. The tactical situation at the moment of threat of each one of the fortresses can only be modeled depending on the initial methodology researchers. We can only assume that the local tribes of the Don Region of the Khazar period did not have a huge experience in using catapults, battering rams or other siege technics.

In peacetime, the Lower Don fortresses could serve as an administrative posts or a bases of small military units. In fleeting clashes of local importance and in favorable circumstances, each could defend itself. But in a wide operational environmen those fortresses with their small garrisons could not influence the overall course of hostilities because they were completely isolated. Only help from outside could save them.

In this article I do not deal with the long-standing question “against whom” Sarkel and the Tsimliansk Right Bank Fortress were built. More often, Hungarians are implied among others. Why did none of the scholars raise the same question with regard to the Semikarakorsk Fortress? Also against the Hungarians or any other tribes?

Khazar khaganate, fortresses, defensibility, fortification, Semikarakorsk fortress, Tsimlyansk Right-Bank Fortress, Sarkel

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