The Khazars and the Mountain Jews: Tales from Jewish Azerbaijan

Buried deep beneath Azerbaijan’s bucolic landscape lie secrets behind the ancient Muslim-Jewish friendship that prevails in this South Caucasus largely Shiite country.
November 4, 2014

Buried deep beneath Azerbaijan’s 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 Koestler’s 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 region—the so-called Mountain Jews of Quba, a town about 160 kilometers from Baku, today’s 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 region’s 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 town’s Jewish and Muslim communities.

The history of ethnic relations in Azerbaijan is obscured not only by a lack of historic evidence but also by a long history of intermarriage and conversion. As for the Mountain Jews, many have moved to Israel, even while in many cases maintaining a home in Quba.

Given Azerbaijan’s role as a Silk Road crossroads, and its experience of military invasions, it is not surprising that the country has hosted many ethnic groups in close proximity. Still, the entente between Azerbaijan’s Jewish and Muslim populations contrasts sharply with the relationship in neighboring regions.

Many Azerbaijanis point out that different ethnicities working together, side by side, kept Azerbaijan alive through the course of empires and the Soviet Union. Family friendships across ethnic lines are relatively common. Azerbaijani leaders frequently cite negligible evidence of anti-Semitism, support for synagogues and Jewish schools, and public recognition of the contributions of Jewish Azerbaijanis.

As archaeologists and historians continue to uncover and parse the evidence, Azerbaijanis and their visitors continue to enjoy the fruits of ethnic harmony. No doubt, the Khazars and the Mountain Jews have a place at the table. But, in the words of H.E. Rafael Harpaz, Israel’s ambassador to Azerbaijan, “At first, I found the Azerbaijani tolerance model to be something new and unexpected. I have traveled extensively in other countries. But really it is very simple. The Muslims here have never thought of Jews as apart from society.”

Indeed, since achieving independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan has worked to reclaim and document its history. Enhanced understanding of Azerbaijan’s human story will bring bright new insights to the telling of the human story.

Diana Cohen Altman is Executive Director of the Karabakh Foundation, a U.S. 501 (c) 3 that celebrates the culture, arts, and heritage of the Azerbaijani people. She previously served as Director of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum/Center for Jewish Culture/Philip Lax Archive.

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