About Uzbekistan

Bukhara: Jewish Quarter
15 April 2018

In the last part about Samanid Park I finished the story of Bukhara's main attractions - it occupied 5 chapters since there are a lot of antiquities. And now let's take a walk along the old non-touristic Bukhara, with the winding streets of the true eastern city, for which the Jewish quarter starting from the Lyabi-hauz is best suited. Bukhara residents say that in 1920 this part of the town escaped the fire of Soviet artillery, since the majority of a few Bukharian Communists were Jews. I think that this is rather due to the fact that the Jews lived at the other end of the city opposite Arc, where the most brutal battles took place. So, half of this post will be about Bukhara Jews, and the other half - about the urban environment, which impresses no less than the ancient madrassas and mausoleums.

The first Jews appeared in Central Asia even before Bukhara was founded, about 2500 years ago, when the Persian king Cyrus the Great crushed Babylon and allowed the Jews captured by Nebuchadnezzar to return to their Judea. However, there were also those who settled in Babylon and who believed that it was better to stay in Persia, which became the strongest power in the world. Thus, appeared Persian Jews, some of whom joined the army of the "king of kings" and with this army were taken into Bactria - the first Jewish diaspora in Central Asia was in Afghan Balkh. The next wave of Jewish emigration to Persia happened in a thousand years, and these were, as in our time, refugees from the Caliphate ... Many Jews moved to Turkestan under Tamerlane - after getting acquainted with them in the Middle East, he began inviting Jewish artisans into his country, first of all dyers. The Jews became firmly settled in Central Asia, fully absorbing its material culture and language, which is now called the Jewish-Tajik dialect; they call themselves "Mayda Milliat", that is, "small people", whilst Persians called them as "yahuds" (Jews). The rich trading town of Bukhara quickly became the center of Jewish civilization in this part of the earth, but only in the 16th century, when Shi'ism was established in Persia and Sunni Central Asia began to fall out of the oikumene of Greater Iran, "Bukhara Jews" were separated from the Persian brothers. In 1792, Rabbi Yosef Maimon arrived from Morocco in Bukhara, discovering that local Jews live in deep ignorance, they interpret Tora too much in their own way, while part of their customs are not observed at all, and other part observed without total understanding ... in general, the guest from Maghreb seriously engaged in enlightenment of Yahuds, only he served according to the Sephardic canon (practiced by the Jews of Spain) that gradually replaced the Persian canon. The detailed history of the Bukhara Jews is very interesting and you can find a lot of information even in Wikipedia.

As I understand, most of the history Yahuds lived in in peace with Muslims and even prayed together in the ancient Magoki-Atari mosque between the Trading Domes, ending the services with the words "Shalom-Aleikhem!" ("Peace be with you!") in gratitude. The first synagogue in Bukhara was built only in the 17th century. The situation of Yahuds was greatly worsened at the end of the 18th century when in Khiva and Bukhara new dynasties of the Kungrats and Mangyts came to power, and both Khanates fought with Nadir Shah of Persia, who at first was a fierce anti-Semite, but at the end of his rule became friends with the Jews so much that entrusted them his treasury management: a similar logic worked in Eastern Europe in 1941, when Jews were revenged for having many Communists among them. No massacre happened here, but for several decades Yahuds were pressed to forcibly convert into Islam or expel. Expelling them succeeded in deteriorating Khorezm, but for the rich Bukhara the Jews continued to hold on - there they even had a group called "Chala", which accepted the Muslim rites, but secretly continued to consider themselves Jews and to read the Torah. Gradually, the persecution began to weaken, but situation never returned as it was used before: in Bukhara, for example, Jews were subject to substantially higher taxes and were subjected to symbolic discrimination - they were forbidden to ride horseback beyond the borders of their mahalla, to wear clothes of noble fabrics, to use belts, etc. At the same time, the work of Rabbi Yosef Maimon was not for nothing; illiterate semi-pagans turned into educated business people, and Yahud, wandering around the bazaar in rags, in his quarter could walk in silk and gold-embroidered khan-satin. After all, where Jews were not oppressed? And even now, the descendants of Yahuds consider that in Central Asia Jews were treated much better than anywhere else in the world in the past centuries.

By the beginning of the twentieth century about 8,000 Jews (12% of the city's population) lived in Bukhara; a large community was formed in Samarkand (most of the archival photographs were from there), and in general, Yahud people lived in almost all the cities of the Bukhara emirate and in Samarkand region. Travelers all in one voice noted the exceptional beauty of their faces and white skin unusual in Turkestan. Their main specialties were a dyeing business ("to go to the Jew" in Bukhara meant "to give the fabric to dye"), the secrets of which they brought during Tamerlane era from the Middle East, and alcohol distillation. Officially, they produced a strong wine for themselves, but secretly all Bukhara was purchasing it from them up to the emirs through an Armenian mediator (periodically, however, the emir tried to stop drinking and arranged anti-alcohol raids with arrests, confiscations and stick beatings). But the main specialization of yahuds was formed in the 19th century - it was a trade with Russia, where, as is well known, was its own Idyshland. Someone compared the meeting of Bukhara Jews with Ashkenazis with meeting of two human colonies in distant cosmos, who lost their connection for thousands of years - except for religion they did not have anything common and they still do not count each other to be of the same bloodline. Nevertheless, the first letter from the Yakhuds was received in 1806 by Ashkenazi from the Belarusian Shklov and in a letter they were asking whether it is difficult for Jews to live in Russia and whether is it safe for them to come from Bukhara? By the middle of the 19th century, Russian-Bukhara trade was already in the hands of local Jews. However, for a long time, the Jews of Turkestan were divided into "Bukhara" and "indigenous" (that is, those who came from Russia) ones, and different laws were applied to them in the emirate.

Under Russia, Yahudi began to gradually explore the big world. In Jerusalem at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, the Bukhara quarter was regarded as the most luxurious, but with the start of the First World War it was dispersed by the Turkish authorities (as mainly Russian citizens lived there). In Soviet Uzbekistan, the Bukharan Jews had a tremendous influence on culture, primarily the theater and music (by the way, the classic Central Asian shashmaqam in its present form was of Yahuds's origin). By the time of the repatriation in the late 1970s, there were about 50 thousand Bukhara Jews, now in total they count around 100,000 in the world (mostly in the USA and Israel, many of whom settle in Arabic cities, the largest community is in Ramla near Tel Aviv). But in Central Asia there are hardly couple of thousands of them left and here they live mostly in Tashkent. In Bukhara there are now only dozens of Jews left. Here on the photo some Yahudi-Americans came as tourists to their ancestors' land:

The Jewish quarter consisted once of three large mahallas - Kuhma-Mahalla (Old), Nav-Mahalla (New) and Amirobad (Emir town). The main entrance to it is this arch at Lyabi-hauz, opposite the ancient (1477) peach tree that has dried up, and from here is a very short walk to the synagogue in a straight line:

But we'll check the synagogue a bit later, right now let's have a stroll in the world of the old Bukhara alleys. You might have seen before on some other photos the narrow twisted old streets of ancient Uzbek cities, but none can be compared to the corners of the Jewish Quarter and adjacent to them Muslim mahallas, neither in scale, atmosphere nor integrity. The following photos were shot in different places, placed here not in a clear sequence - they are just the most typical sketches of the old Bukhara environment:

Oh, my apologies, one of the photos above is from archives of Prokudin-Gorsky, I accidentally put it in the list, but it looks there quite in place. It is a pity that it has not been possible to see inside the local courtyards - they are too closed and private. Indeed, in the eastern tradition, even windows never faced the street, those that you can see were made under Russian-European influence. But here you can see dolon - a characteristic dark porch:

Irregular twists of the streets, very narrow and chaotic that you totally lose your orientation; Unobtrusive houses with plain facades without signs of decor. Nevertheless, the huge clay mansions leave an indelible impression:

All these constructions are quite young - saman and raw bricks are short-lived, and they used baked bricks as the building material only for palaces and temples. I do not rule out that the oldest houses in the present Central Asia were actually made by Russians. You can come across "Russian-style" houses in these streets, and as far as I know, it was Jews who firstly started building them in the depths of their mahalla:

Here is a whole caravan-saray, which most likely they tried to build by the type of hotels they have seen in Russia:

The main decoration of the Old Bukhara is the numerous carved doors, often with columns or ceiling beams, that survived several demolitions and restorations of the house, or even moving to a new place. The door essentially became the face of the house, and according to the local residents, there are many doors that are actually older than 200-300 years:

Some doors impress with the seal of time, others with the beauty of the carving, although I showed the pair of the most beautiful doors in the first chapter:

There I also mentioned about this Bukhara "schtick" - gender wise door bells. The deaf knock of the ring against the door was addressed to women, a metal knock of the beater against the plaque - to men:

It is worth to wander around mahallas just for the sake of some doors alone ... The windows also sometimes are beautiful, but much less often:

Somewhere in these alleyways (the address on the sign is Khoja Bulgur street without a house number) I came across the high wall in which I saw the door through two anterooms:

After entering in I found a huge dilapidated Russian house, built with a facade inward according to eastern tradition:

Impressed, I looked into the open door of the Mahalla committee occupying this house now, and an intelligent elderly Bukharinite in a jacket and skullcap on my question of what is this house, silently opened the door to the hall leaving me speechless:

The old man told me it was the home of Giyoz Puschi, a wealthy local merchant who got rich by supplying caracul wool to St. Petersburg, where he also had a home. Giyoz was a relative of Faizulla Khojayev, a leader of Young Bukhara Party, and subsequently of local Bolsheviks, and they say that he handed over all his fortune to the poor before his death. I was also told that Bukhara People's Soviet Republic was proclaimed exactly in this house... honestly, I highly doubt everything except the first sentence, but for what I bought - for that I sell. Such is the 'first-hand story' of a house that you won't find in any guidebook, and it is valuable on its own.

I have not visited the house-museum of Khodjaev, which was preserved as a museum of a revolutionary but now serves as the museum of the life of the rich Bukhara merchant. But such personal discovery is even better. The basement of Puschi house:

And from here that elderly man in a jacket and a skullcap, greeting half of the people we met along the road, led me to the synagogue, which turned out to be closed. As I learned later, there are two old synagogues in Bukhara, which I called the Near and Far ones. I visited both of them - but only with a second attempt:

The nearest synagogue, as was already mentioned, is very close to Lyabi-hauz - just a couple hundred meters from the arch of photo # 5. According to the local legend, its construction is directly related to Lyabi-hauz: when divanbegy (treasurer) Nadir planned to build his khanaka, caravanserai (which eventually opened as a madrassah) and a pond between them, the project stumbled into the big house of the Jewish widow, which demanded in compensation for her removal to allocate land for the construction of a synagogue. Probably, if the khan was overseeing the construction works, it would not have resulted well for her, but the minister solved the issue with civilized methods, and probably Jewish services in the mosques made not all Muslims happy in Bukhara, but that's how appeared the first synagogue in Central Asia. Compare with the legend about Golden Rose synagogue in Lviv that was built almost the same years, for which the rabbi daughter supposedly had to sacrifice her virginity to burgomist, after which she committed suicide.

On the door of the Near Synagogue, as it is supposed, is mesuzah - a case with the prayer of Shema ... but here only it is just painted!

As you see, from outside of the synagogue is completely obscure, and it is open mostly in the morning and in the evening. The arrangement of the Central Asian synagogues in general is similar - a small courtyard and two prayer halls on each side, on the right for everyday prayers, and on the left for festive services:

Right Hall. All traditional decorations of synagogues are there, only the Bukhara Suzane, which covers the ark, looks strangely:

Torah scrolls - here they are relatively young, but according to the caretaker, scrolls kept in festive services hall are 600 and even 900 years old - only rabbi didn’t allow to show them to the strangers. The caretaker, by the way, speaking about the Jews used the words "they" - there are so few of them left that they hired a person from the outside to open the synagogue to tourists.

The hall for festive services is bigger and looks neater, on weekdays serving as something like a museum of the synagogue. Sometimes very eminent guests pay a visit here, for example, Hillary Clinton:

Jewish seven-candlestick and Muslim décor ... but looks very organic:

On the walls - suzanne with gold sewing. This is the school of the neighboring Kashkadarya, which also belonged to the Bukhara emirate:

The ritual objects for the blessing ceremony of four species during Sukkot holiday.

Opposite the synagogue, facing almost door to door is a school, also hiding in the courtyard:

Nowadays Uzbeks and Tajiks studying here, what is left of the "Jewish" here is only an in-depth study of English, and, probably, Hebrew. The education is in Russian:

However, in the Near Synagogue, I learned that it was not the only one in Bukhara. The young assistant of the caretaker volunteered to guide me to the second one, which is very cleverly lost in alleyways around 15-20 minute walk from the first one. The main orienting point is a small Jewish bazaar, that is usually deserted by the evening. In that synagogue I met a very old rabbi and his granddaughter, from whom I learnt that the last Yahuds are having services here, away from the curious eyes of countless tourists. Early in the morning of the next day I went there again, hoping to meet the Jews at least in the bazaar:

Wandering here and there, I attracted the attention of tradeswomen, but according to them, Jews rarely visit here. Considering that I have done all I could to see the Jews and my conscience is clear now (I still had to go to Navoi, from where to catch a night train to Khorezm) I went back, but then suddenly I heard behind: "Hey, man, stop there, the Jew is coming!" I returned - the tradeswomen noticed an elderly Yahud passing by, and soon we went together to the synagogue along the clay alleyways:

Here it is, the Far Synagogue, belonging to the New Mahallah district. It was built in the beginning of the 19th century by the rebbe Iskhak, nicknamed Zambor, and was restored in 1862 by merchant Yakovbay. Notice how the "synagogue" is written in Uzbek: "yahudlar machiti", that is, "Judaic mosque"!

Its courtyard looks smarter than the Near one, and there is some kind of homey comfort in it:

At our first visit rabbi show us the festive hall. The ancient scrolls of the Torah, which we can not see - behind those wooden flaps:

And on my second visit early in the morning I witnessed the service of the last Bukhara Jews. To be honest, I violate my ethics here - they did not want to be photographed. But what an interesting appearance they have! I heard that the Persian and Bukhara Jews best preserved the ancient Jewish type:

Sadly, but in 10-20 years this community will no longer exist after lasting for thousands of years.

The evening again, on my first visit. Granddaughter of the caretaker shows us a photo exhibition of the people of Jewish Bukhara:

Local often joke: "Jews left us - golden brains, Russians left us - golden hands, and only us left - golden teeth." But one can argue about the golden hands in Bukhara with its abundance of handicrafts. In general, there are a lot of everything to see in these mahallas and not only Jewish staff. In Bukhara you quickly get accustomed to expect a miracle at every corner and not to be surprised at all after seeing it. And you meet mosques, mausoleums or madrasas in these lanes more often than churches and monasteries in old Moscow. The Mosque of Haji Bulgur of the 18th Century:

Unidentified but clearly Muslim construction with a Persian inscription over the entrance:

The Arabian mosque (or just Arabon) next to the madrasah near the Sheikh Jalal gate, again 18th century:

That's how I approached a weird building, where a six-pointed star rose above the Central Asian kok-gumbez instead of the crescent.

Behind the blue dome a Jewish cemetery was discovered with ohel (similar to the cemetery chapel) ...

And, suddenly, sardoba, that is, an underground reservoir, in this case, on unknown age:

Pay attention to the background - the cemetery is located on the back of the main square of Soviet Bukhara. The graves of Bukhara Jews in this arid but native soil:

Near the Jewish cemetery is the lone and pretty mausoleum of Abu Bakr Muhammad Ibn Ahmad, who lived in the 9th and 10th centuries, I could not find anything about him, but the mausoleum is obviously a thousand years younger.

On this I will finish the story about the Old Bukhara. In the next part - about the Soviet New City, where there is still some Russian pre-revolutionary and Turkestan antiquities.

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