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.

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