|The Winding Road to a Persona
(or, How I Became A Khazar)
|by THL Katja Davidova Orlova Khazarina
Several months ago, I was at a barony meeting talking to a lady new to Thescorre. I had an advance copy of the A&S classes for Pennsic, and we were having an animated conversation about our shared interest, bellydancing, and one of my interests for that War, research for my Khazar persona. What’s a Khazar? the lady asked, so I proceeded to go into babble-mode. After a while, I realized that a friend was staring and I stopped, figuring that I was overwhelming the poor new gentle. “No, go on,” she urged. “This is the kind of thing which you should write up for Fewmet.”
Okay, here goes.
Katja is a Khazar woman living in the early 10th Century in the city of Khazaran-Itil, a dual city poised on the trade routes between the Caspian and Black Seas, a home to Jews, Muslims, and Christians alike, a city where Katja is exposed to many more cultures and knowledge than the average person living in early Medieval Europe.
But she didn’t start out that way.
If you set the Way-Back Machine to about 15 years ago, you’ll see me sitting in a college journalism class during my freshman year. The professor had asked us, as an assignment on feature writing, to describe our dream house. I immediately wrote in great detail about a huge castle set atop a hill by a great body of water, with walls hung with lots of spiffy swords and axes, a huge library lined with overflowing bookshelves, yadda, yadda, yadda.
The teacher read my paper, looked at me, and said, “I’m part of a group that you were just BORN to join. Have you ever heard of the Society for Creative Anachronism?”
It took about two years of watching on the fringe while going to school and working for my local newspaper, but I did eventually join the SCA, obviously. Once I started actually going to events regularly, I had to create a persona. Okay, no sweat, I thought. I’ve been to Ren faires and I’ve played lots of role-playing games – this will be fun! I came up with some fanciful gypsy character with an epic background who could do all sorts of amazing things…
…then I clued in that this wasn’t imaginary role-playing, and that I actually had to physically be able to do the things I claimed I could do! So, I named myself Caterina and vaguely claimed that I was Italian… for no real reason other than I love Tuscany and the first piece of garb a friend gave me was an Italian Ren gown. There wasn’t much to Caterina - she was basically Chris in a not-very-good medievaloid costume.
Pennsic was my second event and I went there with a collection of modern peasant/Ren Faire garb, adopted an English accent for some irrational reason, and basically was a clueless but eager new SCAdian. Over the course of the next year, I went to events in nearby baronies, met more SCAdians, and started realizing that a persona could be so much more than a one-sentence summary. The SCA is an educational organization in the eyes of the U.S. government; shouldn’t our personas to be fairly realistic representations of people who could have actually lived in the Middle Ages? For a research wonk like myself, the inspiration to learn more history was too tantalizing to ignore.
Dropping down from highmindedness, I realized that a persona didn’t have to be really elaborate or perfectly accurate – it just helps to be believable when talking to children at a demo!
I saw that most SCAdians in my area were Celtic or English, and I decided that I wanted to be something **different** and a little challenging. I’m mundanely of Russian, German, and Polish background, and there were no Slavic personas in my area, so I decided to be Russian. I quickly settled on 16th Century Kievan Rus, since that was about the only pre-Communist Russian history that was easily available from libraries at the time that wasn’t about the OOP reigns of Peter, Ivan, or Catherine the Great. I found the name Katja in a book at some point, got some Russian clothing patterns, and easily changed my persona’s name and country. I created a simple story as the youngest unwed child in a Russian family who was learning the secrets of herbal medicine from the local wise woman in training to be a midwife. Cool. Case closed.
Flash forward a few years in the Way-Back Machine to the early 1990s. I’m flipping through the latest issue of Tournaments Illuminated and the article entitled “The Jewish Kingdom of Khazaria” catches my eye. I learn that a Jewish city-state actually existed for about 500 years in the area that is now Uzbekistan, Armenia, and Crimea. Located on the Volga delta, Khazaria controlled the major trading sea and land routes in that area for a few centuries and thus was briefly more powerful than the Byzantine Empire. Originally comprised of Turkic people from Central Asia, Huns from the Caucasus Mountains, and Muslims from the Middle East, the Khazars converted to Judaism in the 8th Century.
Due to this sea and overland trade, and the fact that Jews from all over Europe and Central Asia fled there to escape persecution, Khazaria was a Medieval melting pot. Unlike almost any other place in Europe in the Middle Ages other than perhaps Constantinople, Christians, Jews, Moslems, and others in Khazaria freely interacted with each other. Its judicial system even included members of each of the major religions. Of course, eventually the differing religions and ethnic backgrounds led to extensive political in-fighting. That weakened Khazaria internally while numerous Rus and Tartar attacks eventually destroyed the capital city by the late 900s. The kingdom utterly collapsed by the 12th Century, and was eventually swallowed up by the Russian and Mongol Empires. Still, for a time, it was the most diverse area of its time period.
Wow, I thought. Here’s an early-period country which would allow a persona to have the cosmopolitan knowledge and exposure of one in the late-Renaissance! And more to the point, it would allow someone to have a Jewish persona who was accurately free of persecution. For a Jew, this wouldn’t just be the Middle Ages “as they should have been” but as they actually were.
For years, I’d wanted my Russian persona to be Jewish. I figured that, since so few people in the Middle Ages could read, it would be one way for me, as a female, to be legitimately literate. In addition, it would give me a reason to learn more about my mundane father’s religion and personalize for me some of the family heritage that was abandoned when my parents wed. But I hadn’t wanted to play a persecuted persona… or to ignore the very real fact that Katja very likely would have been a victim of pogroms. However, being a Khazar would allow Katja to be able to read and write, AND to follow a faith not popular in Medieval Europe. Spiffy!
…Unfortunately, trying to find research on Khazaria was WAY more easier said than done. For a long time, all I could find was some scattered comments in Russian or Jewish history books, a lame theory in The Thirteenth Tribe that Khazars were the missing band of Biblical Jews, and a fictional work, Dictionary of the Khazars: A Lexicon Novel. Talk about treading water…
Happily, the dissolution of the Soviet Union (and its resulting slow but steady release of information) and the rise of the Internet eventually made that search easier. I found the Slavic Interest Group in 1995, then surfed to the wonderfully rich literary/archaeological resource Khazaria.com on the Internet in 1997, and the authoritative book The Jews of Khazaria was published last year. Now, I finally had a better idea of what Katja would have eaten, done, and known. For example, I'd always assumed that Katja would have worn something similar to a kirtle, and so I often wore simple tunics for years. To my surprise, Khazars were actually much more Turkish than Eastern European/Russian, and that meant that more appropriate garb would be something similar to a Ghawazee coat.
Sigh. Time to overhaul the garb closet.
Okay, you waded through enough explanatory blather!
Here’s my persona story, as it currently stands:
Katja was born in the Year of our Lord 925 in the city of Khazaran-Itil at the mouth of the Volga River, the youngest of several children to David and Rebekka. Widowed and childless, she now works in a bakery, contentedly sieving and kneading ground barley and wheat with other bakers for the Khagan’s court and the mysterious grand judicial council of Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and Turkic judges.
The daughter of a rabbi, she properly learnt to read the Talmud and Torah, to write Hebrew-Aramaic, to count with Arabic numbers, and picked up bits of the Persian, Armenian, Byzantine, and other strange tongues from her visits to the marketplace to purchase fish, spices, honey, and candlewax. While in the market, she often gazes wistfully at the expensive, exotic silks which are so much more colorful than her own simple linen and woolen garments.
Katja loves listening to traveler’s tales in the palace and the marketplace, and she is thankful that she has food and a warm room to call home. On holy days, she lights candles in memory of her brothers and father, who all perished in the city’s frighteningly increasing wars with the Rus north of the Volga and its mountains, and the Huns and Magyars across the great seas. She hears wonderous but terrifying stories about those who cross the sea and visit that marvelous city of wonders, Constantinople. She cannot think of going there, as it is weeks or even months of dangerous travel and she needs to support her widowed mother…
For more information on Khazaria:
The Jews of Khazaria, Kevin Alan Brooks, 1999
Jewish Travellers in the Middle Ages, E. N. Adler, 1987
The History of the Jewish Khazars, D.M. Dunlop, 1967
The Khazaria Info Center (www.khazaria.com)
Khazaria-Announce at eGroups
©2001 Chris P. Adler
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