A little-studied page in the history of independent state formations in the Lower Volga region prior to the appearance of the Golden Horde is Saksin.
The emergence of this city-state is associated with the dissolution of the Khazar Khaganate, one of the most powerful states of its time, on which virtually all nearby tribes and peoples depended, from the Bulgars to the Slavs. But, like most empires, whose rulers forget about the moral and ethical foundations, Khazaria also fell under the blows of the more successful neighbors.
Historians differ in their assessments about who did deal a crushing blow to the Kaganate – the Russian squads or Turkic-speaking Oghuz (it is possible that one overlapped the other), in any case, this once-powerful state ceased to exist. And if the outskirts of the Khaganate, already possessing autonomous self-government, such as the Volga Bulgaria, as a result of the crash of the Khazars only won, becoming completely independent, the central provinces on the other hand were left neglected.
The fall of Khazaria occurred at the end of the 10th century, and for some time the peoples who inhabited Itil the capital of the khanate, whose number according to various sources amounted to 10,000 people, were scattered. But already at the beginning of the XI century, they recovered from the rout and managed to rebuild their hometown, which they called as Saksin.
The etymology of this word is not quite clear, but some scholars suggest that the city received its name from one of the Turkic tribes who headed this region at that time. Such an interpretation seems quite acceptable, and therefore it is possible to more or less identify the name of the city and the tribe with the Turkic sikez, i.e. seven. As is known, some tribes called themselves by certain numbers, for example, the ancestors of Bulgars – onogurs (un ogur, i.e. ten ogurs). Saksin existed for almost a century and a half, until it fell under the blows of Batiy.
The most detailed description of this city was left by the famous Arab traveler al-Garnati, who not only visited Saksin several times, but also lived there for several decades. “On a huge river,” al-Garnati writes in his manuscripts, “in the country of the Khazars is the city of Saksin, in which the Khazars and Oghuz live. Each of the Oghuz tribes has its own emir. They have large yards, and in each yard there is a tent covered with felt, huge as a large dome, one containing a hundred or more people …. And in the city there are merchants of different nationalities and foreigners and Arabs from the Maghreb – thousands, countless in their numbers. And there are cathedral mosques in which the Khazars perform the Friday prayers … And in the middle of the city there lives an emir of the Bulgar people who also have a large cathedral mosque in which Friday prayers are performed, and around it live the Bulgars. And there is another cathedral mosque in which the nationality, called as “the inhabitants of Suvar” prays, they are also numerous.”
Based on these reports, one can see that the city was, in fact, a whole state, populated by representatives of various nationalities, most of them professing Islam. But interestingly, neither al-Garnati nor other travelers anywhere mentioned the rulers of this huge city.
This suggests that the city-state possessed a unique in history form of government – each community or tribe was subordinate to its own emirs, without having a supreme ruler. It is possible that this unique set-up, in turn, was one of the reasons for the fall of the city in the face of a powerful enemy.
Life in Saksin, judging from the descriptions of al-Garnati, flowed in a quiet and measured channel. Despite the fact that the Saksons did not mint their coins, they, however, had their own currency. Its role was played by tin, which they chopped into pieces and used it as a small coin for shopping. At the same time, there were also Arab money – dinars and dirhams, which could be exchanged for a dozen of local tin coins.
The Arabian traveler was also fascinated by the abundance of food: “They have so many different varieties of fruit,” he writes in his manuscript, “that there hardly could be any more, including extremely sweet melons, one sort of which could be preserved till winter.”
The author did not leave without description the fish, which in the city was in abundance. Especially it concerned the red fish (Sturgeon), about which it was said that “it is one of the wonders of the world”. In the city there was enough meat, which was not only diverse (lamb, veal, horse meat, camel), but also very cheap. So, for a small coin (tin), one could buy a lamb or a ram.
The dwellings of this huge city were also adapted for living in the winter. Al-Garnati describes this as follows: “Their winter houses are made of large pine logs laid one on top of the other, and the roofs of the ceilings are made of wooden planks. And they make a fire in the houses, the small doors are hung with sheepskins with fur, and inside the houses it’s hot, like in a bathhouse, and they have plenty of firewood.”
Unfortunately, such a prosperous life once ended, which was caused, as already noted, by the invasion of Batiy’s troops. The first campaign led by Subadei – one of the best warriors of Genghis Khan, only partially affected Saksin, after passing through the dependent suburbs. Defeating the Russian-Polovtsian army on the Kalke river, the army of Subadei moved towards the Volga Bulgaria, where it suffered a crushing defeat.
It took several years for Subadei’s troops to come to their senses, and only after the accession to the Khan’s throne of Genghis Khan’s son Ugedei, troops were sent to the Volga region. Their numbers were enormous, besides, they possessed all sorts of military devices – from siege machines to incendiary devices. All this, as well as the lack of centralized management and allied relations between neighboring tribes played a decisive role in capturing Saksin.
The fall of the city was already inevitable, and although the residents offered heroic resistance, Saksin was taken and ruined. Some of the inhabitants began to seek refuge in the territory of the Volga Bulgaria, as reported by the Laurentian Chronicle.
And yet, as after the fall of Khazaria, after some time the city was reborn again, having received the name Astrakhan. Undoubtedly, this contributed to the unique strategic location, thanks to which it has always been a powerful trade center. After the collapse of the Golden and the Great Horde, the Astrakhan Khanate appeared on these territories.
Thus, the history of Astrakhan begins, at least, from the middle of the VIII century, when, according to historical chronicles, the capital of Khazaria Itil was founded. Since then, the city has changed its name several times, but the continuity of Saksin and Astrakhan does not cause any doubts. But the interesting question is what guided the Astrakhan authorities, who in 2008 celebrated only the 450th anniversary of their city?
The history of Saksin once again proves that Islam in the territory of modern Russia has ancient and mighty roots. But the main thing is that when studying the life of such a huge and diverse city, you come to the conclusion about the peaceful and voluntary acceptance of the Islamic ideology not only by the ancestors of modern Tatars – the Bulgars, but also by many other peoples. After all, the tribes that once inhabited this beautiful region, of course, did not disappear from the face of the earth, but took part in the ethnogenesis of many peoples of modern Russia and neighboring Muslim states such as Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan or Azerbaijan.