The Khazars and the Mountain Jews: Tales from Jewish Azerbaijan

Posted By on November 5, 2014

The Mountain Jews of Quba at a Jewish school in the 1920s. Public Domain

Buried deep beneath Azerbaijans bucolic landscape lie secrets behind the ancient Muslim-Jewish friendship that prevails in this South Caucasus largely Shiite country. The 8th-century leaders of the Khazar Empire, famously, converted from their shamanistic religion and worship of a deity named Tengri to Judaism. A semi-nomadic Turkic tribe, the Khazars originated to the north of and between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. The Khazars ruled lands from the Volga-Don steppes to the eastern Crimea and the Northern Caucasus for some three centuries, often listed as between 650 to 969 AD.

The circumstances surrounding both the Khazars conversion to Judaism and their relationship to other Jews abound in mystery. Nonetheless the story of the Khazars and their neighbors is more than a missing piece of the Jewish story. Khazar history holds clues to the Azerbaijani tolerance model.

In the 1970s, readers of writer/journalist Arthur Koestlers book The Thirteenth Tribe pondered the intriguing hypothesis that European Ashkenazic Jews descended from Khazars who migrated into Eastern Europe as their empire was collapsing. Scholars since have discredited the book for a variety of reasons. Anti-Semites have used theories of the Turkic Khazars as ancestors of modern Jews to attack Zionist claims of Israel as an ancestral homeland.

The Khazars decision to become Jewish may in fact reflect a simple desire to remain independent of both the Muslim Arab caliphate and of Christian Byzantium. Their conversion nevertheless resonates with the existence of another major Jewish community in the regionthe so-called Mountain Jews of Quba, a town about 160 kilometers from Baku, todays capital of Azerbaijan. While large gaps exist in public knowledge of both the Khazar people and the Mountain Jews, oral tradition holds that the Khazars and Mountain Jews interacted and that the Mountain Jews played a significant role in the Khazar conversion.

The Mountain Jews are said to have settled in northern Azerbaijan after leaving the Persian Empire beginning in the 5th century. They developed their own language, Juhuri, or Judeo-Tat, which endures to this day. Over centuries they formed productive relationships with their Muslim neighbors across town.

In recent years the Mountain Jews of the Red Town (the all-Jewish section of Quba; considered to be the only all-Jewish town outside of Israel) have captured outsiders interest. They practice a blend of Ashkenazic and Sephardic religious traditions and maintain customs unique to their community.

Much of what is known about the Mountain Jews history is preserved in oral history, although archaeologists also have evidence in the form of artifacts such as sacred texts, architecture, and talismans.

The record supports the strong, positive impression the Mountain Jews left on their neighbors. Literate and religious, the Mountain Jews were also accomplished horse riders and warriors and skilled agriculturists. They displayed an enviable determination to adapt to their environment. And to the regions rich musical portfolio they added their own complementary repertoire.

Visitors to the Red Town today are struck by the clearly marked Jewish institutions and the ample use of the Star of David as home decoration. But those who spend time in Quba at large also marvel at the fluid relationship between the towns Jewish and Muslim communities.

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The Khazars and the Mountain Jews: Tales from Jewish Azerbaijan

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