“Judaism in the Caucasus”

Jews appeared on the territory of modern Azerbaijan after Cyrus II, the Great, established the Achaemenid Empire, which included both Azerbaijani lands and the territory of the former Kingdom of Babylon. After the famous “Edict of Cyrus” of 538 BC, some Babylonian exiles returned home, while the remainder was drawn into the orbit of the new states economic and social life. The Silk Road was laid in the 2nd century BC. A significant segment of it passed through the territory of Azerbaijan, and that determined the Jewish presence here. In connection with the spread of Christianity in Iran, a confrontation arose between the Zoroastrian religion and the new religion, whose adherents were active in missionary work, and that affected the Jews, who, as we know, did not proselytise. However, during the rule of King Yazdegerd II (438 - 451), all the Gentiles were subjected to harassment and persecution. Religious confrontation peaked during the rule of King Firuz I (459-484). As a result, a significant portion of the Jewish population moved to Azerbaijan, Dagestan and the Khazar Kaganate.

  The 7th-century historian, Moses Kalankatuyskiy, provides information about the life of “Christians, Jews and Gentiles” in the 7th century in the capital of Caucasian Albania - the city of Barda. In the second half of the 13th century, the Elkhanids turned Azerbaijan into the central region of the empire. Their religious tolerance attracted many Jews to Azerbaijan. The first minister of Argun Khan (1284-1291), the Jew Saad al-Dawla, actually directed all the internal and external policy of the state of the Elkhanids. The Jew Muhazzim al-Dawla was chief of administration of Tabriz, the Jew Labid bin Abi-r-Rabi headed the administration system of the whole of Azerbaijan.

  In the middle of the r8th century, small feudal states appeared on the territory of Azerbaijan. Huseynali Khan, the founder of the largest of them, the Guba Khanate, began to invite merchants, craftsmen, and mining experts. There were many Jews among the immigrants, who, after the devastating attacks by Nadir Shah, settled near the town of Guba. There, they founded a new settlement in 173 r - the Tewish (Krasnaya) or Podgornaya Sloboda settlement. This settlement began to develop especially quickly under Fatali Khan.

  According to S. Bronevskiy, “Jews inhabiting the village of Kulgat located opposite Guba confess their law. They have four rabbis and four synagogues”. The entry of Azerbaijan into the Russian Empire allowed the Mountain Jews to strengthen contacts with the rest of the Jewish world. In addition, civil wars between local rulers ceased and raids by Iranian troops stopped. As a result of this, the population of the Krasnaya Sloboda (Jewish) settlement began to show a tendency to grow constantly. In r856, it was home to 3,000 people. In 1868, there were 4,947 people in it. In 1873, there were 5,120 people here, in 1886 - 6,280, and in 1916 - 8,400.

  The first Ashkenazi Jews came to Azerbaijan in 1810. In the same year, in Baku there were 897 Muslim, 24 Armenian, and 10 Jewish houses. After the earthquake in Shemakha in 1859, the status of provincial city was conferred on Baku. In the 1870s, thanks to the oil discovered in its vicinity, this new industrial centre of the empire began to develop rapidly. It should be noted that for Jews of the western regions of czarist Russia, resettlement in Azerbaijan was a factor of their moral emancipation. According to the information provided by the correspondent of the newspaper “Ha-Tsafir”, Mordechai Glick, the position of Jews here is quite favourable: “They have successfully advanced in life, become rooted and entrenched in society, accumulated wealth and been awarded a calm and carefree life. Many of them were artisans, masons, factory workers, watchmakers, tailors, weavers and jewellers. They have turned into full-fledged citizens of the country” The first Jewish Oil Company, Dembo and Kagan, was founded in the late 1870s. The company financed the building of a kerosene production refinery and the laying of the first pipeline, the Balakhany - Black City pipeline.

  In the late 1880s, the owners of the oil companies anticipated the possibilities of using oil waste. With a view to transporting it, the firm Dembo began to acquire cargo barges from the Persians, which were then re-equipped and turned into tankers, which marked the beginning of the tanker fleet. The Caspian-Black Sea oil and trading company of Rothschild played a prominent role in the development of the oil industry. In 1913, 14 Jewish companies produced 44 per cent of kerosene in the Russian Empire. In the same year, the Jewish population of Baku reached 9,690. The following facts show the Jewish populations successful adaptation to life in Azerbaijan. Thus, of the 283 registered lawyers and attorneys, 75 were Jews, and of the 185 practicing physicians - 69 were Jewish. It must be added that of the 190 pharmacists and pharmacy owners registered in the city of Baku, 137 were Jews.

  A yeshiva opened in Baku in 1896. A Saturday adult school for men opened in 1898 and a Saturday adult school for women opened in 1901. The Choral Synagogue, a school for Georgian Jews, a Jewish library, literary and music circle, the department of the Society of the Education of Jews and a society of lovers of Hebrew opened in 1910. Prior to 1920, there was a Jewish gymnasium in Baku. A Jewish kindergarten was opened in 1890. In 1891, an office of Hovevei Zion [Lovers of Zion] was opened in Baku. In 1899, E. Kaplan established the first Zionist Organisation. In 1903, a representative of the Baku Zionists of E.Eyzenbet participated in the Sixth World Zionist Congress in Basel.

  The Azerbaijan Democratic Republic was proclaimed on 28 May 1918. There were one or two representatives of the Jewish population in all the government bodies and the parliament of the newly established state. In the courts, the Jews were granted the right to swear the oath in Hebrew. The famous paediatrician, Professor E. Gindes, who was the minister of health, was a prominent figure in the ADR. In the parliament of the ADR, the Zionist activist, A. Gukhman, represented the Jewish community. The Jewish National Council that united the majority of Jewish parties and movements was recognised as the official representative of the Jewish minority.

  In 1926, 19,000 European (Ashkenazi), 7,500 Mountain and 427 Georgian Jews lived in the Azerbaijan SSR. In 1927, Kurdistan Jews appeared in Baku. From 1932 to 1936 the Baku Jewish Workers Theatre gave performances in Yiddish. The Synagogue of Mountain Jews opened in Baku in 1945 and the synagogue of Ashkenazi and Georgian Jews was opened in 1946. In 1959, the All-Union census showed that in the Azerbaijan SSR, the Jewish population reached 40,204. In 1969 the figure had risen to 41,288. Jews played a prominent role in the development of the culture, science and art of Azerbaijan.

  Among the famous Jewish scientists born in Azerbaijan, we should mention: Nobel Laureate and Hero of Socialist Labour, Academician of the USSR Academy of Sciences L. Landau; the theoretical physicist, Corresponding Member of the USSR Academy of Sciences E. Feyn-berg; the geologist, Academician of the USSR Academy of Sciences V. Hain; the philosopher, M. Blek, and others.The first legal Hebrew courses in the USSR were opened in Baku in 1987. The Aleph Club of Jewish Culture opened in 1989. The Ma-tone musical ensemble was established. The Azerbaijan-Israel Friendship Society and the representation of the Sokhnut Jewish Agency started their activities in 1990, and the Embassy of the State of Israel was opened in Baku in 1993. In 1994, the Vaad Hatzola opened a yeshiva, and a division of Hebrew was also opened at the Department of Oriental Studies of the Baku State University. In 2005, the head of the Jewish community, Yevda Abramov, was elected to parliament. In 2010, he was re-elected. In 2011, a new synagogue of Mountain Jews was built in Baku.

Georgian Jews

  The first Jews arrived in Georgia in 539 BC. The information on the presence of Jews in Mtskheta in the first centuries AD is confirmed by archaeological findings. There is evidence of a wave of Jewish migration from Armenia to Georgia. In the Early Middle Ages, Georgian Jews were apparently associated with the Jews of Iran. Marco Polo, who visited Tbilisi in 1272, found a very small number of Jews there. The distressful situation of Georgian Jews after the Mongol invasion served to turn them into serfs. Free Jews, merchants and artisans lived in the cities. The serfs lived in villages in small groups. The desire for liberation from serfdom sometimes led Jews to convert to Christianity.

  After the inclusion of Eastern Georgia into the Russian Empire (in 1801), Georgian Jews belonging to the category of royal serfs became “serfs of the treasury”. With the abolition of serfdom, they moved to the cities. A relat ively small number of them were artisans. Urbanisation encouraged the formation of the definitive structure of the Jewish community. A gabbay [trustee] was elected to head each community. The Jewish population of each city formed their own neighbourhood. The establishment of contacts with Russian Ashkenazi Jews was an important event in the life of Georgian Jews in the 19th century. At the end of the 1890s, Avrahamha-Levy Khvoles was elected the chief rabbi of the city of Tskhinvali. Girls education was introduced for the first time in the history of Georgian Jews. A school for the children ofGeorgian Jews was founded in Tbilisi in 1902 and teaching there was conducted on the basis of the system of “Hebrew in Hebrew”.

  The Georgian Democratic Republic was declared in May 1918. Two seats were reserved for election to the Constituent Assembly of the new state for candidates from the Georgian Jews and one from the Ashkenazi Jews. Five hundred to 2,000 Georgian Jews left the country after the Red Army invaded Georgia, and of them about 1,200 arrived in Palestine that was under the British Mandate. In 1921, the number of Georgian Jews in Eretz Israel [Land of Israel] reached 1,700.

  At the beginning of the Sovietisation of Georgia, the central Soviet authorities acted there with marked respect for national and religious traditions. In the 1920s, there was no interference in Zionist activity, either. Hebrew was studied as the language of the Georgian Jews. However, after the suppression of the anti-Soviet rebellion in 1924, the policy of the authorities became much tougher. Legal and semilegal Zionist activity was prohibited. The actions of the Soviet authorities in the economy led to the bankruptcy of many Georgian Jews -large and small traders. The first collective farm of Georgian Jews was established in Tsiteli Hora in 1928. In 1933, there already were 15 such collective farms. However, from the 1930s, the authorities began to take steps to destroy the Jewish collective ethnic homogeneity. As a result, the Jews began to settle in cities. Here, in cooperatives, ethnic unity allowed them to continue to comply with their traditions. Nine hakhams [Torah scholar, rabbi] (two of them Ashkenazi Jews) of the city of Tskhinvali were arrested in September 1937. Despite the repression, most Georgian Jews continued to regularly attend the synagogue and to observe kosher rules. Children under the age of 13 studied at clandestine cheders [private Jewish elementary religious school]. The mass aliya [immigration] of Georgian Jews [to Israel] began in 1971. By mid-1981, about 30,000 Georgian Jews had repatriated to Israel.


  Mountain Jews founded a Jewish community near the fortress of Nalchik in 1847" 1848. In the new settlement, they began to develop the leather industry and furriery business. Trade flourished.Mountain Jews lived in Nalchik quite safely. In the early 1980s, the city s Mountain Jew community numbered over 12,000, and by 1991-1992, it was 17,000-18,000. The local population always treated them kindly. However, with the collapse of the USSR, the situation changed. The criminal situation and low standards of living caused them to leave en masse. In the early 2000s, departures were paused.

  During World War II, the community of Nalchik fell into the hands of the Nazis. Every day people awaited execution. They were saved by the fact that the Nazis questioned the “Jewishness” of the Mountain Jews and began to seek their origins. A national council, headed by the Kabardian lawyer,Semyon Shadov, was established in Kabardino-Balkaria. He decided to prove to Field Marshal von Kleist that the Nalchik Jews were a mountain people. It was explained to the Germans that they were Tats - people of an Iranian group that spoke a dialect of the New Persian language. The occupiers were shown the national dances. The enemies were treated to dishes of the Mountain Jewish cuisine. Meanwhile, the residents of the colony left for local villages. They were hidden, fed and saved. At the same time, the Nazis continued to compile lists of the Mountain Jews, intending their complete destruction. They set the date for their mass execution. But the underground that served in the German administration managed to inform the Mountain Jews of the planned event. Partisans and the Red Army liberated Nalchik ahead of schedule.In 1993, a new synagogue was built in Nalchik. Next to it was the two-storey building of the Hesed Imid Charitable Foundation. It hosts a variety of activities; people study Hebrew, the traditions and history of the Jewish people there.

The Jews of North Ossetia (Alania)

  The Jews of Vladikavkaz have been living here for over 200 years. In 1804, a royal edict was issued allowing European Jews to live in the Caucasus, which was associated with the need for skilled craftsmen. Over time, retired “Jews from the lower ranks began to settle in Vladikavkaz. The Soldier synagogue was built in mid-1860. Relations with the local population were very friendly. In 1879, a cheder was opened. In 1885, a religious board headed by an official rabbi was established in Vladikavkaz. In 1880, the Craft synagogue was opened in Vladikavkaz. On 1 January 1877, the Jewish residents of Vladikavkaz numbered 742. According to the first all-Russian census, in 1897 there were already 1,214 of them, and in 1923 - 1,143 of them.In the late 19th - early 20th century, Jews were well represented in the merchant class. Especially, there were a lot of Jewish pharmacies, fashion boutiques, etc.The revival of the Jewish community of Vladikavkaz began in March 1989 when the Shalom cultural and educational society and the Mekhina School were opened, where Hebrew, the Torah, the history and traditions of the Jewish people are studied.

The Jews of Dagestan

  Both European (Ashkenazi) and Mountain Jews live in Dagestan. Researchers attribute the appearance of Mountain Jews in the Eastern Caucasus to the reign of the Sassanid dynasty in Iran (226-651). Historical legends suggest that the Mountain   Jews were originally in Shir-van and Aran (the Republic of Azerbaijan). The most ancient place of their settlement in Dagestan is the Dzhuud Gatta (“JewishGorge”) in Kaitag. During the civil war, most of the Jews moved to towns. They began to emigrate to Israel, Western Europe and North America in the 1970s.

  The idea that the ancestors of the Mountain Jews belonged to the Iranian tribe of Tats and that it was in Iran that they embraced Judaism was rekindled in Dagestan at this time. At the same time, the fact that the Tat tribe never existed in Iran was ignored. Caucasian Tats are the same Persians, but they do not call themselves so. The physical and anthropological data show that the Mountain Jew type is not related to the Tats. Recently, in this respect, there have been positive developments in the scientific substantiation of the ethnonym of “Mountain Jews”.

  When speaking of tolerance in the Caucasus, we should note that ethnic and religious diversity is one of the reasons for mountain peoples’ tolerance toward Jews. Jews were not so different from the surrounding population, whose customs and language they adopted to a large extent. Besides, most of them were artisans, and this activity was always very popular in the Caucasus. Furthermore, due to the under-development of commodity-money relations and the virtual absence of usury and a banking system, the population practically did not depend on their Jewish fellow citizens, unlike in medieval Europe, where a greater economic component played a huge role in fomenting anti-Semitism, in addition to the religious factor. As for Azerbaijan, it should be emphasised that the Turkic peoples have always tolerated the Jews. Suffice it to recall: the Khazar Kaganate where Jews were entrusted with the leadership of the armed forces of the country ; the Ottoman Empire, which in 1492, hosted tens of thousands of exiles from Spain; and during World War II - thousands of refugees from Nazi Germany. In 1998, the national leader of Azerbaijan said about the growth of anti-Semitism in the Russian Federation: “We have never had this phenomenon, and we will never tolerate it in our country. This is our firm position and for us it is unshakable.