Jewish heritage in Central Asia

Among many Jewish communities in the world there is one that for more than 2,000 years has survived and preserved its religion and national identity in almost total isolation from the rest of Jewry world. Jews of that community have developed their own distinct culture at the same time adhering to Jewish principles. These Jews are called Bukharian Jews and are spread all over Central Asia. Origins of Bukharian Jews are obscure. No one really knows when first Jews settled in Central Asia. A Bukharian-Jewish legend says that it were Assyrians, who, after conquering Kingdom of Israel (722 BC) deported large part of its population (lost tribes of Israel) to Bukhara.

synagogue bukhara

Early History. Some Bukharan Jews claim they are the descendents of the ten lost tribes of Israel who were exiled by the Assyrians in the 8th century B.C.E. Whether or not this is the case, the Bukharians can trace their ancestry back to the conquest of Babylonia by Cyrus, the King of Persia, in 539 B.C.E. Cyrus decreed that all Jews in exile were free to return to Jerusalem, though many remained in Persia. The Jews lived peacefully in Persia until 331 B.C.E., when Alexander the Great defeated the Sogdian King Spitamenes and conquered the region. At Alexander's sudden death in 323 B.C.E., the Seleucids gained control, followed by the Parthians, who reestablished the Persian Empire. The Parthians gave the Jews citizenship and allowed them to practice Judaism freely. Under Parthian rule, the Bukharian communities flourished. In 224 A.D., however, the Sassinids conquered the region. They made Zoroastrianism the official religion and persecuted the Jews for their unwillingness to convert. Some Bukharan Jews moved to the northern and eastern parts of the region due to anti-Jewish hostilities.

bukharian jews

During the spread of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries, control of Bukhara was transferred between many different Arab rulers. The Saracens overpowered Bukhara in 709 and founded the Umayyad dynasty throughout the former Persian Empire. But the Abbasids, who were Shi'ite Muslims from Baghdad, quickly defeated the Saracens. They maintained control of the region until 874, when the Saminids, who were Sunni Muslims, took over and made Bukhara the capital of their empire. The Saminids were fairly tolerant of the Bukharan Jews, though they forced all non-Muslims who refused to convert to pay heavy taxes. Jews were given the status of dhimmi, or “protected Unbelievers.” Under the Saminids, the Bukharians found relative peace, which was ended by the conquest of the Qarakhanids in 999. The Jews of Central Asia now found themselves completely cut off from the Jews of Europe, but they managed to maintain some contact with those in the Muslim Empire. In 1219, the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, conquered Bukhara, pillaging and burning the city to the ground, destroying the Bukharan Jewish community. In 1300, the new leader, Timur, rebuilt Samarkand and Bukhara when the Mongols decided to abandon their traditional nomadic way of life. Timur imported Persian Jews to work as dyers and weavers and develop the empire's textile industry. Supposedly, one could recognize a Bukharan Jew by his purple-dyed hands. In the rebuilt city of Bukhara, the Jews lived in the makhallai yahudiyon, or Jewish quarter in Tajik. The community was restricted to this section of the city, and was strictly forbidden to live elsewhere. Jewish stores had to be one step lower than Muslim ones. Despite these restrictions, Jewish merchants established lucrative trade businesses and the women became known for their elaborate goldthread embroidery. The community also built a magnificent synagogue that was used for the next 500 years.

Jewish heritage in Central Asia

At the beginning of the 1500s, Persia was ruled by Shi'ite Muslims, while Central Asia came under Sunni Uzbeks in 1506. Jews in Persia and Central Asia were divided and ties severed. The isolated Bukharan Jewish community developed its own unique form of Judaism. At the same time, Bukhara had become the center of Jewish activity in the region, especially after a devastating earthquake in 1720 in Samarkand prompted its Jewish population to move to Bukhara. Under the Uzbeks, Turkic nomads from the East, Bukharan Jews experienced waves of relative tolerance and those of discrimination. They were forced to wear yellow and black dress to distinguish themselves from the rest of the population. As non-Muslims, the heads of Jewish households were slapped in the face when they paid their annual tax, a humiliation they endured for centuries. During the mid-18th century, Bukharan Jews were isolated further. The Durrani dynasty created the Afghani kingdom and military conflicts between Bukhara's Manghit dynasty and the Durranis. Due to the continued hostilities, Central Asian Jewry became a distinct entity, named the "Community of Bukharan Jews." Toward the end of the 18th century, the mullahs of Bukhara began to institute forced conversions of the Jews. Converted Jews were called chalas, meaning neither one thing nor the other in Tajik, as they practiced Judaism in secret while posing as Muslims. Both the Muslim and Jewish communities looked down upon the chalas, leading to the creation of a separate anusim community.

Jewish community in Central Asia

Growth of the Community. The Jewish population of Bukhara increased in the 19th century, prompting the Muslim authorities to allow Jews to move outside of the Jewish quarter. Jews congregated in the New Mahalla and Amirabad quarters. Jewish quarters were also created in the cities of Marghelan, Samarkand, and Dushanbe. After a mob of Shi'ite fundamentalists burned the Jewish quarter of Meshed, Persia, and forcibly converted the entire Jewish population, a wave of Jews fled to Bukhara. They mostly settled in the Bukharan cities of Shahrisabz and Merv. By 1849, the Bukharan Jewish community was made up of 2,500 families. The Jewish community in every town was led by an elected kalontar. The Jews of Bukhara established a network of Jewish schools called khomlo. Since the emir of Bukhara had forbidden the Jews to build new synagogues, rich families allowed services to be held in their large homes. The Rubinov House Synagogue is one of these makeshift synagogues that still stands today.

Modern History. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, the region was split between the newly independent republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan. Today, approximately 25,000 to 35,000 Jews remain in Uzbekistan, most of whom are Bukharan and reside in the cities of Bukhara, Samarkand, and Tashkent. These Jewish communities are well organized and provide many Jewish activities and communal services. Most Bukharan Jews speak Russian, but some in Bukhara and Samarkand still speak Judeo-Tajik and Hebrew. To this day, however, there is little mixing between the Bukharan and Ashkenazi Jewish communities. Since the creation of the independent Republic of Uzbekistan in 1991, a growing number of Bukharan Jews have left the country due to the rise in Muslim fundamentalism and the poor economy. More than 70,000 Jews have left the country since its inception, and have moved to Israel and the United States. Large Bukharan Jewish populations are located in Jerusalem and Queens, New York. The Jewish community of Bukhara is now around 3,000 and, in Samarkand, there are approximately 2,000 Bukharan Jews.