The Karaim

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.

 

 

יהדות_קראית

The Circassians in Israel, Jordan & Syria

This Google Map shows present and former Circassian settlements in the State of Israel (green pins), the contested Golan Heights (the 14 red pins), Syria (blue pins) and Jordan (yellow pins).

The Circassian villages in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights were abandoned and destroyed during or after the Six Day War of June 1967. They are shown by the eight red pins with a white x. Those Circassian villages in Golan outside the Israeli zone, within the Quneitra Governorate of Syria, appear still to be intact. The two main Circassian settlements in the Syrian Golan are Beer Ajam and Bariqa, but many from these villages, and the Golan generally, were internally displaced and moved to Aleppo and Rukn al-Din in Damascus (not marked on the map).

The Circassians have lived in this region of the Middle-East since the Circassian Genocide of 1864, when a majority of the nation fled the Russian forces and escaped by boat across the Black Sea to ports from Varna in the west to Trabzon in the east. Those who survived the voyage and its immediate aftermath as refugees on the Black Sea coast, where they suffered from exposure, hunger and disease, eventually resettled in a number of areas within the Ottoman Empire. One of these is the line of settlement that can be seen on the map, extending from Manbij in Syria in the north to Kfar Kama in Israel and the cluster of communities in Jordan to the south.

In the case of the two Circassian villages in Israel, a number of features are marked on the map – mosques, cemeteries, cultural centres etc.

There are, or were, also Circassians in Raqqa and the Circassian mosque in their Al-Sharaqsa neighbourhood was used by Islamic State for sermons and decrees. The mosque has been largely destroyed in the recent conflict but the minaret, although damaged, still stands (as at December 2017).

 

Armenians in Israel & Palestine

This Google Map shows the Armenian Quarter of the old walled city of Jerusalem and other sites of Armenian settlement and interest across Israel and Palestine.

The sites within and around Jerusalem, including Gethsemane and Mount of Olives, are of course well known, as is the Armenian Apostolic Church’s role in the custodianship of such holy sites as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Less well known are the small Armenian communities, most dating back to the aftermath of the 1915 Armenian Genocide, when Armenians were marched and fled south to Palestine as well as Syria, leading to the establishment of settlements in, for example, Jordan and Lebanon. The Israeli State tends to regard and treat the Armenian minority as if they were Palestinian. This is witnessed by the unrelenting encroachment upon the Armenian Quarter in Jerusalem but also by the compulsory purchase of Armenian-owned land in Bethlehem, for instance (the Baron Der Orchard there was sacrificed to the Security Wall).

A little known Genocide survivor Armenian settlement was that at Sheik Brak, just inland near the town of Atlit, south of Haifa. This was effectively a refugee village without facilities which was never permitted to develop and eventually was abandoned. Today it is returning to nature, and there are a few remains of buildings and mid-C20th headstones amid the scrub and trees.

 

The Jews of Yemen

From mid-June to mid-July 1918, the British Army was actively recruiting in Jerusalem for “short service” (duration of war). Men were invited to enlist in the 40th Bn of the Royal Fusiliers. The new recruits were given army service numbers between J/4883 and J/5274 (and possibly a little either side of this regimental number range), suggesting that about 400 men enlisted in total. The great majority of these, and those recruited elsewhere by the 38th-40th Battalions of the RF, were of course Jewish, giving rise to the jocular Army nickname of the Royal Jusiliers.

Among the newly enlisted men were numbers who stated that they had been born in “Teman” – in other words Yemenite Jews. British rule in Palestine had encouraged a first wave of Yemeni Jews to emigrate from Yemen in the 1890s and 1900s; mostly they settled in Jerusalem and Jaffa. The RF recruits of 1918 had an average age of 27 years and were working men – a labourer, builders, a mason, a butcher, two janitors at the Tachkemoni School, a cigarette maker, a couple of manuscript writers, and many silversmiths and filigree workers. The silversmiths were from the Bukharim quarter, from Sukkat Shalom, from Mishkanoth, from Nahalat Tzedek and especially from Nahalat Zvi. For example, on 24 June 1918, the silversmiths Abraham Levy, Abraham Gershi and Elijah Rachabi enlisted; on 27 June, silversmiths Joseph Arussi and Chaiyim Levy attested. All five came from the Nachlath Zwi neighbourhood (as it is usually spelt in army service records).

We have started a rudimentary Google Map of Jewish communities in Yemen. The German ethnographer Carl Rathjens, who visited Yemen between 1927 and 1938, had it on good authority – viz: the hakham bashi, or chief rabbi, in Yemen, who was responsible for community tax returns in the Kingdom of Yemen – that in the early 1930s there were no fewer than 371 Jewish communities. In the 1950s, Shelomo Dov Goitein compiled a list of 1,050 Yemenite communities (which makes the number identified and marked on our map seem paltry).  There are very few Jews left in Yemen – some in the capital Sanaa, and some in the northern town of Raydah and its satellite village of Bayt Harash (shown on the map). The rest have left, and their descendants populate and enrich the diversity of Israel and a few places in the diaspora.

The map is updated periodically as and when new information is gathered. 84 Jewish communities in Yemen are currently shown. Most recent update: 24 Jan 2018.

 

 

Les Juifs du Yémen | יהודי תימן | יהדות תימן