Was Kiev founded by Khazars?

A magnificent city of Kiev, one of the oldest cities of Eastern Europe and most important Slavic cities of all times has a really long history whose beginnings are long forgotten. There is no much disagreement between historians on the events that followed the 9th century AD, when the city fell to Varangians, after whose rule it became the seat of the Kievan Rus. There is also no disagreement that territory around Kiev has been inhabited by Slavs since times immemorial. But the history of the city itself is somewhat more complicated. Wikipedia article on history of Kiev briefly addresses that problem:

“8th-century fortifications were built upon a Slavic settlement apparently abandoned some decades before. It is still unclear whether these fortifications were built by the Slavs or the Khazars. If it was the Slavic peoples then it is also uncertain when Kiev fell under the rule of the Khazar empire or whether the city was, in fact, founded by the Khazars. The Primary Chronicle mentions Slavic Kievans telling Askold and Dir that they live without a local ruler and pay a tribute to the Khazars in an event attributed to the 9th century. At least during the 8th and 9th centuries Kiev functioned as an outpost of the Khazar empire. A hill-fortress, called Sambat (Old Turkic for “High Place”) was built to defend the area.”

So who were the Khazars? A general consensus is that they were a semi-nomadic Turkic people who exchanged their Tengric religion for Judaism, and whose vast empire lasted for several centuries, playing a key commercial role between China, the Middle East and Kievan Rus. Indeed, almost all maps of Khazaria show the city of Kiev at the very border of the empire.


Now, a very popular story of the city origins states that it was founded by three brothers, named Kyi, Shchek and Khoryv. In later versions a sister Lybid is added. Her name means “swan” in Slavic, and it is also the name of the river that flows through the city, a right tributary of the Dnieper river.


Kiev founders monument, Kiev, Ukraine

However, while the name of Lybid is undoubtedly Slavic, the same cannot be said of the names of the three brothers. Their etymologies are more problematic and there is no officially accepted attempt to explain them with Slavic terminology. Since the oldest source of this legend is the Primary Chronicle, written around the year 1113 in the city of Kiev, I decided to take a look at the original text, and discovered something really interesting and surprisingly overlooked by historians. This is the text in question:

And they went along the Dnieper, and while going by they caught sight of a city on a hill; and they asked and said: “Whose city is this?”

And they replied: “There were three brothers, Kyi, Shchek, and Khoriv, who founded this city; and they perished, and we remain, paying tribute to their Khazar clans.”

Primary Chronicle, Invitation to the Varangians, lines 15 and 16. Full text here.

THEIR Khazar clans? (“родомъ ихъ козаромъ” in the original version) It seems that Nestor, who wrote this account only a few centuries later in the very city of Kiev, didn’t really have doubts about the origins of Kiev’s founders. But if these people were really Khazars, what do their names mean and can they be explained with Turkic etymologies?

Another interesting theory states that Kyi decided to settle down in Ukraine, giving the city its name, while his other two brothers decided to go further, Shchek becoming the forefather of the Czech nation and Khoriv becoming the forefather of Croatians. Indirect support for this theory of Croatian origins can be found in the following Wikipedia quote on the history of Kiev:

“Other historians suggest that the Magyar tribes ruled the city between 840 and 878, before migrating with some Khazar tribes to Hungary. “

Indeed, a large Khazarian necropolis, containing 650 graves and dated to 8-9 century AD has been discovered in Chelarevo, Serbia, just below the planes of Hungary. Not many links are available in English, but one of them is here.

But if these names are indeed coming from Turkic / Khazar tribes, one would expect to see them first appear further to the East, in the earlier period, before the western migration had happened. And maybe this is really the case.


Namely, during the excavations in the ancient city of Tanais, near Rostov on Don, modern day Russia, two tablets have been discovered, known today as Tanais tablets. For our story, the most interesting one is the tablet B, dated to year 220 AD and bearing one of the earliest mentions of the ethnonym Croat. As Wikipedia article claims:

“Among the names on the tablets are those of three men: Horoúathos, Horoáthos, and Horóathos (Χορούαθ[ος], Χοροάθος, Χορόαθος). Those names scholars interpret as anthroponyms of the Croatian ethnonym Hrvat. The ethnonym Hrvat is generally considered to be of Iranian origin, and that can be traced to the Tanais Tablets. The Tanais Tablet B mentions Horoathos as the son of Sandarz which is a Scytho-Sarmatian name, and scholars view this as an indication that early Croats could have been at that time Sarmatians or Alans who became Slavicized in the following centuries”

Tanais tablet b.jpg

Tanais tablet B

So it seems that six centuries before Khoriv we see the ethnonym Horoathos (-os is a Greek suffix) much further to the East, of course, provided that there is indeed a connection between these names. However, speaking of connection, it should be mentioned that the city of Tanais was also a part of Khazarian empire, marking the eastern border of the empire, as Kiev was to the west.


The south border of Khazarian empire was touching the Caucasus mountains, pretty much where modern state of Chechenia is. I have seen etymological forums where people were ridiculed for making parallels between Czech and Chech-enia, but from this perspective, perhaps there could be some truth in these claims. The problem is that I couldn’t find the official etymology of Chechenia and I don’t speak the local language, so will not go deeper into this debate.


But this brings us to the most important question. Who was Kiy? (Кий in Primary Chronicle). As Wikipedia on Kiev states:

“..the three names are mentioned in the Kiev Chronicle as Kyi, Shchek and Khoryv, none of them are Slavic names and it has been always a hard problem to solve their meaning/origin by Russian historians.”

Well if these are indeed Turkic tribal names, an obvious candidate could be one of the most important Turkic tribes in history – the Kayi tribe. Could Kayi be related to Kiy? Wikipedia on Kayi states:

“The Kayı tribe played a prominent role in the history of the Caucasus, and now the Kayitag language is classified as one of five dialects of the Kumyk language, which for ten centuries (10—19 cc.) was a lingua franca in the North Caucasus.”

On the other hand, Wikipedia on Khazars states the following:

“For some three centuries (c. 650–965) the Khazars dominated the vast area extending from the Volga-Don steppes to the eastern Crimea and the northern Caucasus”

and somewhat later:

Proposals of Khazar origins have been made regarding the Slavic Judaising Subbotniks, the Bukharan Jews, the Muslim Kumyks, Kazakhs, the Cossacks of the Don region, the Turkic-speaking Krymchaks and their Crimean neighbors the Karaites to the Moldavian Csángós, the Mountain Jews and others.”

As we see, both Khazars and Kayi are connected with Turkic origins and Kumyk language, so it is quite likely that Kayi were one of the tribes of the Khazarian empire. If that is the case, could the name of Kiy be related to them? There is no doubt that this ancient and important tribe was roaming the steppes even long before the recorded history. The Kayi were highly revered by Ottoman Turks during the middle ages, but there are indications that their history could be related to the earliest records of Scythians, a connection to which I will dedicate one of the future articles.

In any case, this is all just a theory, but if there is any truth in it then the following conclusions can be made:

Slavs and Turkic people from the steppes are both of the Scythian stock and they have been sharing borders from Asia to Europe since times immemorial, sometimes in war, sometimes in peace. This claim can be also proven by genetics, where we see that the dominant Y haplogroup of both tribes is R1a (excluding the Caucasus region). Both nations have left their traces on the vast territory that stretched between Europe and India, Baltic sea and Siberia, and the deeper we dig the differences become more blurred.

Khazarian empire is not so mysterious as it is usually portrayed. It was a conglomerate of nations, just like Scythian “empire” was before it. Its population can probably be best described with the little help of the necropolis of Chelarevo, where three distinct types of burials had been found, those of shamanistic Avars who preserved their ancestral faith, Khazarian Jewish and Slavic, all in one place.

If Croats and Czechs indeed bear Turkic tribal names, these names were probably just those of the smaller semi-nomadic ruling class. The same is valid for Bulgarians, a Slavic population that owes their name to Bulgars, a Turkic tribe of Volga, that was also a part of Khazarian empire, from which they had migrated to Balkans in this exact period. We do know that their numbers were so insignificant that Slavic language remained dominant, even though a certain cultural influence is evident, such as shamanistic beliefs in Tengrism.

The events described here are known to historians as Turkic migration, expansion of the Turkic tribes in Europe and the Middle East, that took place between the 6th and 11th centuries.  Two other important tribes of this stock are Huns, that undoubtedly gave the name to Hungaria and Sabir (also known as Serboi) which may have given the name to Serbia.

In the end, if this theory is correct and national names of Czech, Croat, Serb, Bulgarian and Hungarian are all of Turkic origin, it could mean that Turkic tribes were dominating whole of Eastern and Southern Europe much earlier than the 8th century and that their origins should be traced by different tribal names, probably well recorded by ancient historians. The same goes for Slavs. Today, there are around 315 million speakers of Slavic languages in the world. Slavic is one of the oldest Indo-European languages, closely related to Sanskrit and older than most of the wide-spread languages of Europe. And yet the history of (all) Slavs can barely be traced to the 6th century.

Intentionally or not, but the ancient history of Europe is biased, and some of the numerous tribes that fall into categories such as Norse, Germanic, Celtic, Gaelic, Illyrian and Thracian, with the note “presumably”, could in fact be Turkic and Slavic.



















  1. Good read. I did not see it before, but after reading your piece, I can see some similarities beetween Kij, Szczek and Choryw (Polish spelling) story and Lech, Czech and Rus (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lech,_Czech,_and_Rus) one. There are three brothers as well, each founding his own nation, and one of them building/capital Gniezno.
    Three brothers is a common motif in Slavic tales.
    As for Turkic and Slavic people coming from same ancestry it is an elegant theory. Relations between those two groups, ruling steppe aristocracy (Turks) and settled subjects (Slavs) are reflected in various dragon stories from Slavic lands. For me as for Pole most common one is Wawel Dragon (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wawel_Dragon) but there are few others (especially Rus/Ruthenian ones https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nikita_the_Tanner , ). In those stories dragon will be representation of armored riders (and horses). Draco standards used by some of the steppe people add to this interpretation as well, and to mention last ethnonym Sauromatae may come from Greek saurus (lizard).

    • Exactly, that is a good example. Similar tradition can be found in virtually all medieval chronicles, even those of Germanic peoples, as well as in more ancient of epochs, like in ancient Greece. It is in fact quite logical, as in the remote times tribes were smaller – clans based on common ancestry, but the tradition of connecting ethnonyms to ancestors survived even later, all the way until the Middle ages.

      I do not believe that Turkic tribes were always dominant over Slavs, but in this particular period they may have been. Some of the Scythian and Sarmatian tribes were also Slavic (particularly Poles), as Scyhtian nations were a conglomerate of tribes of different origins, meaning that the culture of armored riders and horses is also Slavic. (English word “saddle” can be traced to Slavic “sedlo”) meaning that this “technology” came to the west via Slavs and not Turkic tribes.

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