A restored Karaite kenasa in Eupatoria (photo by perekop.info)
Karaites of Crimea: History and Present-Day Situation in Community
One of the most interesting ethnic and denominational groups that reside in the territory of the Crimean peninsula are the Crimean Karaites.
The Karaite movement emerged approximately in the middle of the 8th century AD in Baghdad, in the territory of the Abbasid caliphate as a counterbalance to the rabbinical (Talmudic) Judaism – the dominating form of Jewish religion. According to the tradition, Anan ben David is considered the founder of the Karaite movement. Not much is known about the life and works of Anan ben David. Almost the only sources of information about him are doubtful legends of a later time coming mostly from Anan’s opponents. According to one of such legends, Anan ben David claimed the office of “exiparch” – the head of Jewish people in exile. Nevertheless, his younger brother Anania was elected to this position instead of him. Not going to submit to this situation, Anan ben David founded his own religious movement that would be independent from the authority of his brother and other Talmudic scientists. His work “Sefer haMitsvot” (“The Book of Commandments”) has been preserved to our day. In it, Anan ben David disclosed the main provisions of his anti-Talmudic movement.
Originally, Anan ben David’s supporters called themselves “Ananites”, which meant the “the followers of Anan”. The term “Karaites” emerged much later, in the 9th-century works of Benjamin ben Moshe Nagavendi who used this term to describe various anti-Talmudic movements (including the Ananites). The term “Karaites” (plural form of Hebrew “Karai”) can be translated as “readers”. The very name reflects the basic characteristic of Karaism – the honor of the Holy Scriptures (TaNaKh) as the only source of religious truth. As a result of their denial of the authority of Talmud, the Karaites differed from Jewish Talmudists in their laws of kashrut and ritual purity, the rite of circumcision, marriage laws, rules of ritual slaughtering, their religious calendars, and the arrangement of synagogues.
From the end of the 10th to the beginning of the 11th century, the so-called “Golden Age” lasted in the history of the development of the Karaite movement. During this time, the Ananites, Karaites, and other anti-Talmudic sects and movements in Judaism united under the common name of “Karaites” into one spiritual center in Jerusalem headed by Anan II, great-grandson of Anan ben David. At that time, Karaites were actively working on the spreading of their non-Talmudic version of Judaism in the Jewish Diaspora in the Middle East, Byzantine, and Northern Africa. As a result of strong academic contacts with Muslim scientists, the Karaites were the first Jewish authors who wrote important works on the Hebrew grammar. The missionary activities of the Karaites was very successful – according to different estimates, around 30-40% of the whole Jewish population of those times followed non-Talmudic, that is, the Karaite version of Judaism, that got spread far outside Baghdad and Persia. In those times, Karaite communities appear in Egypt (Cairo), in the Caucuses (Tiflis and Gagry), and Byzantine (Adrianople and Constantinople). In the 10-11th centuries, a small Karaite community appeared in Spain, but soon after it was expelled by the Castilian government as a result of a conflict provoked by the local rabbanite community.
The question of the appearance of the Karaites in Eastern Europe (Crimea, Poland, and Lithuania), beginning with the 19th centuries causes a lot of debate in the scientific literature. In that period, a number of theories was formulated to explain the appearance of the Karaites in Crimea. All those theories developed in two main directions. The first direction that dominates present-day scientific circles says the Karaites are Jews both in the religious and the ethnic respect. Representatives of the second direction claim that ethnically Karaites are not Jewish but descendants of the Khazars, Polovets, and other Turkic nations. In the opinion of the followers of this theory, the Karaites have their own religion based upon ancient Turkic beliefs that have only indirect relation to Judaism. The most important aspect that has often been the stumbling block to representatives of these directions is the attitude of the authors to the activities of A.S. Firkovich and his heritage (see bellow).
Within the frameworks of these two directions, in the 19-20th centuries a number of versions developed about the emergence of the Crimean Karaites. Leaving academic debates behind, one should note that the theory of modern scientists Dan Shapiro and Golda Akhiezer deserves most attention. According to them, together with the Polovets and Kypchaks, the Karaites found themselves part of the Golden Horde where they learned the Turkic language of the local population. At the very end of the 14th century, in the wake of Vitold’s contacts with the Golden Horde, the Karaites came to Lithuania (Troki), Galicia, and Volynia. In the opinion of Shapiro and other scientists, the Karaites were apparently resettled to Crimea earlier, back in the 13th century, during the Tatar invasion into the territory of the peninsula. It is most likely that the Tatars brought the Karaites to Crimea together with other craftsmen and tradesmen who were necessary to maintain the economic condition of the Golden Horde. The following facts support this hypothesis:
1. The first written evidence of the Karaite presence in Crimea is dated 1278 and comes not from the Byzantine or Italian colonies of Crimea but from Solkhat (today’s Old Crimea), the first Tatar capital of the peninsula.
2. In around 1342–1346, the expansion of the Golden Horde began to the South-Western Crimea where the Tatars captured the cave city of Kyrk-Er (later called Chufut-Kaleh)але), and immediately after that a Karaite community was formed there, which is seen from the matzevs (tomb stones) in the Karaite cemetery in the Josaphat Valley (the Mariam-Dereh tract very close to the site of ancient Chufut-Kaleh settlement). The earliest of the authentic tombstone inscriptions is dated approximately 1360s, which was the time when the Tatars captured the city.
3. Researchers note that such Tatar names as Parlak, Manush, and Tokhtamysh can be found on the matsevs in the Josaphat Valley. This fact is a plain proof that the first Karaite settlers of the city were Turkic-speaking.
4. Significant although not a doubtless argument is a number of later Karaite legends of the 19th century in which the Karaites tell of their own arrival in Crimea together with the Tatars.
5. An important argument is the language of the Crimea Karaites (an ethnic dialect of the Crimean-Tatar language), which was embraced by the Karaites from the Tatars as a spoken language.
The Turkic spoken language of the Karaites of Lithuania, Galicia, and Volyn was significantly different from the language of the Crimean Karaites. Modern science calls this language Karaite o rather the Karaite-Kypchak language. Today, this language is one of the most ancient spoken Turkic languages. Karaites call it “lashon kedar” (which in this context can be translated as the “language of the nomads”). One should note however that the sacred language and the language of science in the Karaite environment up to the end of the 19th century was Hebrew, which was also used in business correspondence, scientific works, liturgy, and tombstone epitaphs.
Unfortunately, the early history of the Karaite communities of Crimea is not sufficiently covered in historical sources. Nevertheless, with a certain degree of confidence we can be sure that the most ancient Karaite community of Crimea was the community of Solkhat (Eski K’yrym). As was already mentioned above, this was the place of origin of the first evidence of the existence of the Karaite community in Crimea dated 1278. That year, Byzantine Karaite Aaron ben Joseph haRofeh (around 1250-1320) visited Solkhat. In his book “Sefer haMivchar” (“Book of Selected Works”), the scientist writes that in 1278, a calendar debate took place in Solkhat between the Karaite and Rabbanit communities. The Karaite community of Kaffah (today’s Feodosia) is as ancient: information of indirect sources makes it possible for the scientists to view 1292 as the year of the foundation of the Karaite synagogue in Kaffah.
In the middle of the 14th century, the Karaite community emerged in Kyrk-Er which then for a long time served the capital of Karaites in Crimea. In the 17th century, the name “Kyrk-Er” was changed for “Chufut-Kaleh” (translated as “Jewish fortress”; the name bears a negative and scornful meaning). The first written mention of the Karaite community in Chufut-Kaleh is dated 1459: that year, khan Hadji-Girey gave this nickname to the residents of Kyrk-Er, among whom were the Jews (that is, the Karaites). researchers date the appearance of the Karaite community in Karasubazar (today’s Belogorsk) and Yevpatoria by approximately the 14th century. In the second half of the 15th century, the Karaites come to Mangup too. The first Karaite settlers of Mangup were Greek speakers and seem to have resettled to Crimea from Byzantine after 1453, when Constantinople was captured by Osmanic Turks. This is seen from a great number of Greek names in the Mangup Karaite cemetery. A number of researchers believe that a small community of rabbinical Jews also resided in Mangup, which is seen from the Krymchak surname “Mangupli”, which means “native of Mangup”. In 1792–1793, the Mangup Karaite community stopped its existence. A poem about the leaving of Mangup, written by Simcha ben Moshe Mangubi tells of the last days of the community.
In the 19th century, minor Karaite communities existed in other Crimean cities too, such as Simferopol, Sevastopol, Kerch, Bakhchisaray, Perekop, and Armenian Bazar.
In the 16-18th centuries, the most significant and influential Karaite community of Crimea was the community of Chufut-Kaleh. The neighborhood of the Karaites was a no small factor for the maintenance of the economic condition in Bakhchisaray, the capital of the Crimean Khanate. Karaites were famous as artful craftsmen (tanners, jewelers, saddle-makers, etc.) and traders. Some Karaites were also skilled in gardening and farming. Nevertheless, in the 17-18th centuries, in spite of the fact that many Karaites had shops in Bakhchisaray, they were not allowed to stay inside the city overnight. Apart from being the economic center, Chufut-Kaleh also was the religious and cultural center of the Karaite life. It is interesting that printing was brought to Crimea by the Karaites. The Karaite printing shop in Chufut-Kaleh was founded around 1731. It was sponsored by Karaite leader Isaac ben Moshe Sinan-Chelebi. In the 19th century, the Karaites began to leave Chufut-Kaleh. After the death of Firkovich in 1874, the Karaites totally left Chufut-Kaleh and the Karaite center was moved to Yevpatoria (Gezlev).
The most significant Karaite historical monument of Crimea is located near Chufut-Kaleh, in the Josaphat Valley; it is the Karaite cemetery. The exact number of tombstones in that cemetery is still not clear, for the preliminary estimates of different researchers vary from 5 to 7 thousand. The latest burials (around ten tombstones) were carried out in the cemetery after 1917. Researchers date the earliest tombstones 1360s, however, both the dating and the introduction of these tombstones into scientific circulation is currently difficult for a number of reasons, one of which was the work of Firkovich.
Abraham Samuilovich Firkovich (1787–1874) was one of the most famous collectors of ancient manuscripts and one of the central figures of the Karaite movement of the 19th century. Firkovich was born and taught in Lutsk. In the 1820s, he was invited by major Karaite merchant Simcha Babovich to come to Yevpatoria. In his travels around the Holy Land, Turkey, Caucasus, Lithuanian, and Poland, Firkovich collected unique manuscripts that are now kept at the St. Petersburg Saltykov-Schedrin National Library. The work of Firkovich on the study of the Karaite cemeteries began in January 1839, when governor-general of the Novorossiyisk territory, count Vorontsov passed to the Karaites an official inquiry into the origin of the Crimean Karaites. The same year of 1839, Firkovich went to his first archeographic tour of Crimea.
The interest of the Russian administration in the Karaites was caused by the following thoughts. At the end of the 18th – beginning of the 19th century, the Karaite community of Crimea experienced an economic revival, as a result of which Karaites became one of the richest and economically most influential ethnic groups of the Russian Empire. After the annexation of Crimea to Russia (1783), the Karaites tried to adjust to life under new conditions, as a result of which they gradually separated themselves from the Jewish community. The repressive measures of the Russian government against the Jews (“the pale”, double taxation, mandatory military service) first affected the Karaites too. However, the Karaites sent a number of ambassadors to the tsar with the purpose of separation of the Karaites from the rest of the Jewish population of the Russian Empire. The main arguments of the representatives of the Karaite community was the fact that the Karaites did not recognize the authority of the Talmud (which in the opinion of the Russian authorities was the main enemy of Christianity) as well as the privileges that Karaites enjoyed from the previous authorities (Lithuanian princes and Crimean khans). As a result, for a whole number of political and ideological reasons, the Russian administration granted a number of privileges to the Karaites but not to the Rabbanite Jews to whom the laws were applied in all strictness.
The inquiry of count Vorontsov contained a number of questions on the past of the Karaites. It essentially boiled down to making serious claim on their special status, which was different from the rest of the Jews. Alias, there practically were no historical evidence of the appearance of the Karaites in Crimea. That is why, the Karaite community of Yevpatoria asked Firkovich to find such evidence. Firkovich went on the trip which resulted in the making of 58 copies of tombstone inscriptions found in the cemeteries of Chufut-Kaleh and Mangup (the most ancient tombstone was dated by Firkovich by the sixth century BC). In 1840, he transferred his findings to the Odessa Society of History and Antiquities, which immediately had some doubts in the authenticity of the findings. In 1872, Firkovich published his main and most famous work – “Sefer Avne Zikkaron Livney Israel” (“The Book of Memorial Stones of Sons of Israel”) which included copies of tombstone inscriptions from the Karaite cemeteries of Mangup, Chufut-Kaleh, Yevpatoria, Old Crimea, Feodosia, and Trok, as well as the historical concept of the author concerning the emergence of the Karaites in Crimea. According to Firkovich’s concept, the Karaites were descendents of ancient Israelites who departed from the rest of the Jews shortly before the birth of Christ and consequently had nothing to do with his crucifixion. After their wanderings around Armenia, Persia, and Media, the Karaites came to Crimea during the time of Persian King Kambiz II (6th century BC). In around 750 AD they allegedly convert the Khazars to Judaism of the Karaite version, and in 988 they tried to convert Prince Vladimir to Judaism.
Firkovich’s findings caused a lot of debates in the scientific circles. And these debates are still hot. In the opinion of some researchers, who by no means deny the importance of Firkovich’s findings, the Karaite patriarch falsified the dating of early tombstone inscriptions and a number of colophons (additions to manuscripts) in order to prove the ancient origin of the Crimean Karaites. However, as was mentioned earlier, there are no authentic evidence of the Karaite presence in Crimea before the 13-14th centuries. One should also note that Firkovich never talked about the Karaites as descendents of the Khazars but considered them absolutely different nations.
The so-called “Khazar theory” of the origin of the Crimean Karaites was voiced in the 19th century. In the 1840-60s, Russian oriental scientists V.D. Smirnov and V.V. Grigoryev first spoke out in support of the Khazar theory of the Karaite origin. They make further conclusions assuming that the Karaites did not only convert the Khazars to Judaism but also ethnically merged with them. Thus, according to V.D. Smirnov and V.V. Grigoryev, the Karaites are of Turkic origin with elements of Semitic blood. But the main role in the formation of this theory belongs to Seraya Markovich Shapshal (1873-1961), who should be considered the founder of the “Khazar theory”.
Shapshal received wonderful oriental education in St. Petersburg and was a well-known philologist. Back in his student days he embraced the theory of V.D. Smirnov and V.V. Grigoryev and significantly developed it. The Khazar theory was finally confirmed in the Karaite literature after Shapshal entered the office of the haham of the East-European Karaites in 1915. Nevertheless, present-day science ruled the sources on which Shapshal based his theory invalid.
After 1917, the Karaites suffered persecution by the new power. Many of them were dispossessed and shot. During the years of the Soviet regime, the Crimean Karaite community significantly declined. Its religion and culture also suffered. The national and public life of the Karaite community began to gradually fade away, and by the 1940s it had almost stopped completely. This situation existed practically unchanged up till the beginning of the perestroika. Since the end of the 1980s, and especially after the collapse of the USSR, a splash of national activities could be seen among the Karaite community of Crimea. It was characteristic not only of the Karaites, but also of other small ethnic groups of Crimea (Crimean Tatars, Krymchaks, Greeks, Armenians, and others).
Over the past decades of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries, profound changes took place in the ethnic self-identification of the Karaites. The main trends of these changes are increased internal de-Judaization (denial of the Jewish heritage in the Karaite history and culture) and the absolutization of the Turkic influence. During this period, leaders and ideologists of the Crimean Karaite community publish a lot of works teaching on the various options of the Khazar version of the origin of the Crimean Karaites that have been more or less adjusted to the modern realities. Since the modern-day Crimean Karaites deny their Jewish origin, the Karaite ethnic revival in Crimean is not of any clear religious nature. Nevertheless, many changes are taking place in this direction as well: the small kenasah synagogue was restored and opened again in 1999 in Yevpatoria, services were resumed, the restoration of the Great and Small kenases in Chufut-Kaleh is underway. National Karaite societies stand in the lead of the cultural life of the Karaite. They have united into the All-Ukraine Association of Crimean Karaites. The Association includes ten Karaite societies of Ukraine and Crimea. They sponsor Days of Karaite Culture, different celebrations and events devoted to the memory of famous Karaite figures; they are also active in the public, cultural, and enlightening work.
According to the last census of the population of Ukraine (2002), 671 Karaites live in Crimea (0.03% of the population of the autonomy), while a total of 834 Karaites live in Ukraine. According to some estimates, the Yevpatorian Karaite community consists of around 260 people. Approximately the same number of Karaites lives in Simferopol, around 100 live in Feodosia, around 50 in Sevastopol, 30 – in Yalta, and 50 – in Bakhchisaray.
In conclusion, I would like to note that currently, the Karaites of Crimea, Russia, and Eastern Europe on the whole are facing a choice. They need to choose the future for the constantly declining Karaite community. So far, there has been all evidence that the overwhelming majority of this region’s Karaites will continue to follow the Turkic-Khazar rather than Jewish orientation.
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