Back in May 2001, I visited the town of Trakai in Lithuania. A mini-bus took me and a handful of Japanese tourists the 30 or so km from Vilnius bus station and dropped us off outside Trakai’s tourist attraction, the restored Trakai Castle situated romantically in lake Galvė. While the others headed across the footbridge to the castle with their cameras at the ready, I wandered by myself the length of the little town to see what I could find of the Karaim.
Karaism is a non-Talmudic Mosaic faith and the Karaim, or Karaites, are a dispersed people with what are generally regarded as Semitic but sometimes, probably fancifully, as Turkic roots, living in scattered communities across the former Soviet bloc and the Middle East.
Historically in what is today Ukraine, Karaim lived in towns such as Lutsk (inter-War Polish Łuck) and Halych (after which the former Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia is named). There were many Karaite communities in the Crimea, in towns such as Bakhchisaray (Bağçasaray), Feodosiya (Kefe) and Yevpatoriya (Keslev). One of the best-known traditional centres of the Crimean Karaim was Chufut Kale (Çufut Qale) but this was abandoned during the 19th century (although two kenesas survive, adjacent to one another). The Crimean Karaim often lived by trade and therefore sometimes had mercantile links and family outposts in Black Sea ports (e.g. Kherson and Odessa) and the Eastern Mediterranean (e.g. Egypt and Constantinople).
The Karaim in Lithuania arrived at some date before the end of the C14th, almost certainly as officially invited and privileged settlers involved in defence. It is not clear whether the original settlers came from the Crimea or from Lutsk. In any event, while military service may have been the prime mover behind their arrival in Lithuania, soon many Karaim were involved simply in agriculture or in trade.
The most well-known settlement in Lithuania is that at Trakai which I visited but smaller communities survive in Panevėžys and Vilnius. There is a Karaim cemetery in each of these three places. The one in Trakai is disappearing amid meadow and woodland on the other side of lake Totoriškiai facing the town – inscriptions are mostly in Hebrew but with some Latin script. A Karaim place of worship – a prayer house known as a kenesa – survives at Trakai and Vilnius but that in Panevėžys was destroyed in 1970, a victim of the atheist communist state and probably also the declining local population and the ongoing process of assimilation. Other Lithuanian Karaim communities such as the one in Biržai have become extinct or, like that in Naujamiestis, all but died out with only individuals or solitary families surviving. The Lithuanian Karaim population is now very small and dwindling: officially 423 in 1959, 388 in 1970, 289 in 1989 and 273 in 2001. Assimilation and out-marriage are serious issues for the survival of the community, which traditionally was endogamous and sometimes had to resort to sourcing marriage partners from Lutsk or even the Crimea.
A distinctive feature of the Trakai Karaim settlement is its vernacular architecture. The typical Karaim wooden cottage, sometimes painted in pastel or brighter shades, sits with its gable end with three ground-floor windows facing on to the street; the entrance is on the facade round the side.
One reason why the Lithuania Karaim community survives at all today is the official recognition they gained in 1863. In that year, they successfully asserted themselves as a Turkic people in contra-distinction to the Jews, with whom they had previously been associated in the Russian Empire. The unforeseen consequence of this was that they were largely spared the fate of the Lithuanian Jews during the Holocaust.
The Google Map shows the distribution of past and present Karaim settlements from Liuthuania in the north, south through Poland and Ukraine to Crimea, and on to Egypt, Turkey and Israel. Green pins show kenesas, both surviving and former. Blue pins show cemeteries and settlements which have or had a Karaite population.