Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan

The Qudiyal river, which is just a thin strip in the middle of a large empty riverbed in Xinaliq, at the top of the Caucasus, becomes much wider fifty kilometers further down, when it arrives at Quba. It is here that the first serious bridge leads over it. Two golden lions enthroned on the two barriers of the bridge indicate that you will reach a special settlement on the other side. This is Qırmızı Qəsəbə, formerly known as Krasnaya Sloboda, that is, Red Town, the largest settlement of Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan.

I met Mountain Jews for for the first time seven years ago, in a café of the Tabriz bazaar, where I was listening to the conversation of the waiters. The language was particularly familiar, some Iranian language, but not Persian, and not even Kurdish. “In what language do you speak?” I asked. “Be Juhuri, in Jewish”, they answered. “Come on”, I said, “I know two Jewish languages, but neither of them sounds like this.” “Well, this is then the third one. We, Mountain Jews speak in this language.” And they said that thousands of them live in the mountains of the “other”, northern, Azerbaijan, and farther north, in Dagestan, many more still.

School in the Jewish quarter of Quba, 1920s

The ancestors of the Mountain Jews were deported by the Assyrians after the conquest of the Samarian Kingdom (ca. 740 B.C.), and “settled them in the cities of the Medes” (2Kings 17:3-6), which would soon be occupied by the Persians. When in 539 B.C. the Persian king Cyrus the Great gave permission for the Jews to return home from “Babylonian captivity”, this only applied to those Jews who were deported in 604 B.C. by the Babylonians from Jerusalem. Those who had been deported a hundred and forty years earlier had already been integrated in the empire, and also changed their original language for the local Persian dialect. They became the Ten Lost Tribes, whom researchers in later centuries imagined would be found in the most exorbitant places of the globe, from the Tibetan plateau to South America. In reality, they were settled by the Persian rulers in places where they needed good traders, including the Caucasus, the northern border of the empire, together with the Persian soldiers whose descendants live today in Lahij. The Mountain Jews speak a version of the same archaic Persian language, Tat, enriched with a number of Hebraisms, which they call Juhuri, Jewish.

To this day the Mountain Jews have several villages scattered over the mountainous region of he North Caucasus, and number about fifty thousand people. Their strongest community, however, was in the so-called “Jewish Valley” to the south of Derbent, where between 1630 and 1800 they ran a semi-independent Jewish state. This community was destroyed during the Russian-Persian wars by the local khanates allied to the two great powers, and the refugees resorted for help to Fath Ali Khan, the Persian governor of Quba. The Khan settled then next to Quba, on the other side of the river, and provided them certain privileges, such that the five thousand strong shtetl remains purely Jewish to this day.

Jews of Quba in workday dress, 1883. From “Traditional Women’s clothes in the Caucasus”

At dusk we arrive at the village, we walk along the main street which still bears the name of Fath Ali Khan. It is flanked mainly by traditional houses with overhanging wooden balconies, but, as a sign of prosperity, they are more and more often replaced by marble palaces with traditional Jewish stucco motifs. Old people sit in front of the houses, they stop talking at our sight, all eyes are on us. Instead of salam, usual in Azerbaijan, we greet them with shalom, they smile, and reciprocate. We sit down in a tea house, we linger long over our pot of tea, we hope that one of the men playing cards and dominoes at the neighboring tables would start to talk to us. But the locals are apparently more retincent than the Azeris.

The next day we return at daylight. First we walk around the center, which still has six large synagogues, three of them working. In Soviet times they were rather neglected, but we do not know if the current restoration and enlargement has not caused even more damage. The alleys running down to the river are defined by the many six-pointed stars on the tin roofs, the fences and graffiti, and by the Friday Mosque towering on the other, Muslim side of the river, which can be seen from all the shtetl. The town now seems deserted, only a few people hurry along on their errands. They return our greeting with a friendly nod, but they do not stop to ask us where we come from.

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On one side of the Great Synagogue, there is the Great Patriotic War Memorial, and on the other, the barber’s shop and tea house. It even has clientele on Friday morning, old people playing dominoes at two tables. We ask them who could let us into the synagogue. They phone the president of the community, who cannot come now, but tell us we are very welcome to come to the prayers every morning and evening at half past seven.

The most unusual fact about this shtetl is that it works. Anyone who has seen the deserted houses of the Galician shtetls and the Jewish streets of the Eastern European villages, the closed down synagogues or their empty places, and brought them to life again in the imagination with the characters of Sholem Aleichem, can see here how that world would look, had its inhabitants not disappeared. The traditional Jewish world of the Red Shtetl has only gradually modernized. The town center has been renovated, but they have also built a new mikve, a kosher butcher’s shop, and a community house called “The House of Happiness”, and the facades of the ostentatious palaces built in the places of the old wooden houses are still decorated with the motifs of traditional Jewish iconography.

Friday morning cleaning

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At the end of the town, a dirt road bends up toward the cemetery. Like in most shtetls, the dead have the best view. From the hillside you can see the whole shtetl, the Muslim town on the other side, as well as the distant ridge of the Caucasus, and the Russian border mountain, the Şahdağ. The majority of the tombs from as early as the 1960s have photographs: typical Caucasian faces and costumes, most of them could pass for an Azeri or a Georgian, were they not emblazoned with Hebrew inscriptions and the strange Persian-sounding names written in Cyrillic.

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Descending from the cemetery, we hear wedding music from one of the houses. The hosts, standing in front of the house, politely invite us to take part, to “come in just for ten minutes”. Apart from Juhuri and Russian, the third language is Hebrew, spoken by the relatives visiting back from Israel. Not many have emigrated: although many of them live there, the migration is bidirectional. “Have you not yet been to the synagogue? By seven thirty in the evening, come there by all means.” In the evening we will be already on the top of the world, but it is no problem. It will be much better to realize this exploration in the August tour, in illustrious Jewish company.


In Lahij, the heat chases you from the main street into the teahouse. The refrigerator has a brand of beer with the promising name Aysberq, and at every table, a set of dominoes, with an abacus for each of the two players, to keep track of the winnings.

At the table next to us, old regulars are playing in their Sunday suits, ironed trousers, white shirts. They lay each play down forcefully on the table with a loud slap, like my grandfather did in my childhood. I smile at this memory, the old man sends an apologetic look at me, like a child caught in the act. Do, they shout, two, chahor, four, pendj, five. I’m listening in surprise. Bo otobus-e si soʿati yad, he comes on the three o’clock bus, they say about someone. And although in the first centuries after Christ, Persian soldiers settled here in the Caucasus, on the northern border of their empire, they could not yet have brought an autobus with them, so they had to borrow it from a modern language, but the rest of the words form a carefully preserved Persian heritage, still more or less intelligible for a Persian ear. I’m at home.

Today the village, eight hundred strong,  uses only the lower mosque, for in the upper one they have installed a museum. Nevertheless, before entering you still have to take off your shoes. The young attendant is glad to practice his English with a foreigner, but I ask him to guide us in the local Tat language. He looks at me in disbelief, he starts to say slowly, almost syllable by syllable: Lahidj is composed of seven village parts… Turkic words are mixed with some archaic, lapidary Persian, as if he wanted to shout across the divide of two thousand years, as if the lost garrison wanted to report to the inspection committee arriving after two thousand years from the capital. Time unfolds before me like a dazzling mountain panorama. Bâle, motevadjam, yes, I understand, I say. The cashier lady puts down the knitting needles, her eyes open wide. “How do you know Lahiji?” she asks. “I speak Persian”, I say. By the time the visit ends, and we exit the museum, a small group is waiting for us in front of the former mosque, I have to say a few words to everyone, Tat and Persian words cling together into a bridge over the abyss of time.

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Lahij, just like Xinaliq, was until recently not easy to get to. The settlement looked toward the mountain pass, from where the enemy was expected. Behind its back, in the direction of the former Persia, a mountain wall towers, broken only by the deep gorge of the Ghidirman river. The road, carved a few years ago into the rocks along the river, is a dirt road, still difficult to cover by car, and you can safely travel on it only between the spring thaw and the winter rains. This is the period when the craftsmen of Lahij, the descendants of the former armourers, must collect their income for the whole year from the thin trickle of tourists.

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Once there were two hundred blacksmith’s shops in Lahic, but after the collapse of the Soviet Union there were only eight left. For the time being there is no demand for more, although the locals cherish high hopes about the new road crossing thirty kilometers of mountainous land. It is Sunday, two tourist buses arrive from the city of Ganja, lying two hundred kilometers away. Second and third year college students of English, they are here for the first time. They roam the streets of the village in groups of five or six, sooner or later each of them stalks us, gently, like kittens, and they let themselves be photographed with the foreigners. They all speak for the first time in English with a foreigner. They are just as excited, like the Tat boys were before. They experience in the same way, that through the language they speak, they enter into a community with a great, albeit remote, culture, whose existence is from now on a certain thing, fot it has sent to them its living messengers.

Dariush Talaʿi: Hejâz. From the Radif of Mirza Abdollah, Âvâz-e Dashti (1999)

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Midsummer’s Day

June 24, Midsummer’s Day, that is, the feast of the birth of St. John the Baptist. The feast falls in the period of the summer solstice, and in the Western church it precedes by exactly a year the birth of John’s younger cousin, Jesus, placed on the day of the winter solstice. This coincidence, and the increase and decline of the length of daylight which begins on these dates, nicely illustrates the saying of St. John the Baptist: He must increase, and I must decrease (Jn 3:30). The metaphor has been abundantly exploited by preachers for two thousand years.

During our Eastern journeys in recent months, we encountered several representations of St. John the Baptist with an iconography which is fairly unusual for the Western viewer. This feast is a good opportunity to present them.

That St. John carries his own head in his hand, while he looks at us with his other head on his neck, as in this Georgian icon, inevitably reminds us of the medieval catalog of monastic relics, quoted by István Ráth-Végh and later by Umberto Eco, which included, inter alia, the childhood skull of St. John the Baptist. Of course, no Orthodox believer thinks that St. John had two heads. The icon is not a worldly portrait of the saints, but the representation of their transcendent and eternal being. For the believer it is quite possible, that the saint, appearing in his otherworldly shape, points at his own relic revered in this world, as in fact happened, in the legend on the finding of the head of St. John the Baptist. The head lying in the bowl is a reference to an existing relic, which was preserved until 1204 in the palace chapel of Constantinople, and since the looting of Byzantium it is kept in the Amiens Cathedral. On the other hand, the severed head is also an attribute of the saint, a symbol referring to his martyrdom. In some 16th-century Greek icons John turns to Christ appearing in heaven, and by pointing to his skull relic on the earth, he holds this inscription in the hand:

“Seest Thou what suffer those who censure, O Word of God, the faults of the unclean. Not being able to bear censure, Lo Herod cut off my head, O Saviour.”

The scroll in the above icon, the other attribute of the saint, does not include this text, but the one he himself preached according to Matthew’s gospel. To understand it, let us see, instead of the Georgian icon, its Church Slavonic version in the recently visited monastery of Suceavița in Bucovina.

“Покайтеся, приближибося Царствие Небесное.” – “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven has come near.” (Mt 3,2)

Another interesting feature of the Orthodox representation is that John is wearing wings, as if he were an angel. And indeed he is. In fact, the gospel of Mark describes him like this:

Ἰδοὺ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου, ὃς κατασκευάσει τὴν ὁδόν σου: φωνὴ βοῶντος ἐν τῇ ἐρήμῳ, Ἑτοιμάσατε τὴν ὁδὸν κυρίου, εὐθείας ποιεῖτε τὰς τρίβους αὐτοῦ.

“Behold, I send my messenger/angel before thy face, which shall prepare thy way before thee. The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”

The Greek word ἄγγελος means primarily “messenger”, and only in a second, Biblical sense the messengers of God, that is, the angels. However, the Greek icon tradition, to emphasize the divine mission of John, as well as what Jesus said about him: “among those born of women, there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Mt 11:11), is based the second meaning in shaping his figure.

In some other icons we see the angel-John with a different attribute and inscription:

“Аз видех и свидетельство ва онен: се Агнец Божии, вземляй грехи миpa” – “I have seen and I bear witness: Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn 1:29).

Instead of the head relic, John holds a cup in his hand, in which the naked child Jesus is floating, and he points on him. This symbol refers to the Mass, where the priest, when elevating the bread and wine converted into the body and blood of Christ, repeats these same words of John. As he takes over the text of John, so John here takes over from the priest the chalice with the host, testifying that Christ is truly present in them.

The same chalice with the Christ child floating in it can be seen in the outside wall of a number of Orthodox churches, to bear witness to the reality of the consecration that takes place inside, in the sanctuary. As we have seen, painted in the famous “Voroneț blue”, on the church of the Voroneț Monastery, founded in 1488 by the Moldovan prince Stephen the Great.

On one of the roofs of the world: Xinaliq

“When the Communists came, the books were evacuated from the village, and moved into the cave of the Şahdağ. They stood there, in a big pile this high”, the small man raised his hand to the height of his eyes. “But the Communists found them, and they set the whole thing on fire. Before that, the cave was white inside, but since then it has been completely blackened with soot.”

“My grandfather walled our books into a window when the Communists came. He put them in one of the windows, walled it up inside and outside, nobody could see anything. When he came back from the Gulag, because he was a rich sheep owner, a kulak, as they said, and they took him away for ten years, so when he came back, he immediately asked whether the house was still standing. It was, but by then it belonged to the kolkhoz, the kolkhoz office was set up there. In the night, when nobody was looking, he opened the window, and removed the books.”

Our host, Gadjibala Badalov shows us his small private museum on display in a glass cabinet in his “nice room”, the work of a lifetime. Old jugs, coins, swords and guns, whatever he was able to collect from the neighbors over the years, in exchange for favors or for a sheep. The complete material culture of a village, two thousand strong, and at the same time of an entire people, one of the oldest peoples of the Caucasus, who live only in this village. And, of course, the books, the miraculously rescued books. He can no longer read them, he is asking me whether or not one of them is written in Arabic, in Persian or in Ottoman Turkish. Eighty years ago, together with the Muslim teachers and the books, they swept out the Arabic letters, too, from Xinaliq.

The village, which lies beneath the ridge of the Great Caucasus range, almost completely isolated from the outside world, was never reached by conquerors, but a few solitary wandering teachers, scribes and missionaries sometimes found their way here. Then the village took over from him what was brought, but also maintained a respect for their predecessors. At the highest point of the village stands the mosque, built around 1200, and slightly below it, the 7th-century house of a pir, a Zoroastrian holy man. In the woods there can be found a few âteshgâhs, Zoroastrian fire temples, and around the village are the tombs of many Zoroastrian, Christian and Muslim pirs, which are still worshiped by the villagers, who let them be buried around them. The newer graves even have names, but the older ones are marked only by a standing stone, thousands of stones all over the fields around the village, thousands of years old, with sheep and calves grazing among them.

Tomb of Baba Jabbar (15th c.), with a small cemetery around it

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Arabic literacy, which was formerly so widespread that every family had its home library, came to an end, but the need for culture lived on among the local people. This can be seen by the many local poets who have published their Khinalug-language poems in thin booklets, printed in Cyrillic or Latin letters, or by the painters, with their typically grotesque landscapes of Xinaliq. And also by our host, the sheep owner and amateur historian, who has just published his fourth book, on the names and traditional uses of the medicinal plants known in Xinaliq, in the Khinalug and Azerbaijani languages.

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In the hilltop village you can still find Arabic and Persian inscriptions here and there. Even if they cannot read them any more, they are held in high esteem. The everyday life of the village goes on around them, women are washing in the mountain spring water that is led to common wells, children carry home the calves which still cannot find the way, men are kneading blocks of fuel for fire from manure and straw, old men are talking with one another on the flat rooftops. From below in the river valley you can hear the subsiding bleating of the flock that rolled along just a few hours ago. And although we see the signs of change – including the fact that we ourselves can now come to this place –, nevertheless, while sitting in front of the house in the twilight, and looking down on the village, we feel as if time, just like the pirs, the books and the letters, once it arrived in Xinaliq, did not pass along, but was forever accumulated and thickened.

Rovshan Gurbanov, Elshan Mansurov, Nadir Talibov, Kamran Karimov: Getme, getme (Don’t go away). From the album Azərbaycan Məhəbbət Təranələri (Azerbaijani Love Songs, 2014)

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