A series of documentaries on the history of all Turkish peoples up to the present day – Zaman Yolcusu. Türklerin Izinde (“A Journey through Time in the Footsteps of the Turks”) – traces a wide geographical arc, starting in Mongolia and southern Siberia, passing through Central Asia and the Central Volga, and extending to Istanbul. But before reaching the final destination of this journey to the West, it comes to the Turkish population living in Eastern Europe, particularly in the Crimea, who were originally neither pagan nor Muslim: they are the Karaites, who profess the Jewish religion.
In Turkish they are called Türk Museviler (“The Turkish followers of Moses”), but also Hazarlar, Karaylar (“Karaites”), and Kırımçaklar. They call themselves Karai or Karailar. The term is derived from the Hebrew word “read” and refers to those who read Holy Scripture.
It is interesting that to this day there is debate as to who these Karaites really are. According to some, they are Jews who profess a religion other than Judaism. Others believe that they are descended from a Turkish population that adhered to Judaism, but with some variations. Finally, others claim that they are Turks who rejected Islam.
According to the most widely held opinion, the Karaites are a Jewish sect, from whose followers a population arose in a region between Russia and Poland. This population, on the one hand, is related to the Turks and, on the other, is detached from them. Therefore, some think that the Karaites are Turkish Jews. There is still debate about the connection of their history with Jewish culture and religion, and not only with these.
‘Sola scriptura’: Luther’s Jewish predecessors
Although the ancestors of this population came from the Far East – more specifically from Siberia and Mongolia – the spiritual journey of the Karaites began in the Middle East in the 8th century. The movement is known to few. Even historians of Judaism speak of it only in passing. For example, in Leo Trepp’s book Die Juden. Volk, Geschichte, Religion (The Jews: People, History, Religion), the Karaites are dealt with in the chapter “New Problems,” in which we read: “At that time [after the Muslims had seized power] several new religious and spiritual difficulties emerged. Toward the end of the 8th century a Jewish sect arose that quickly organized itself: the Karaites. They denied any value to the Talmud and recognized only and exclusively as a rule the Torah, as it is written. But if one followed the interpretation of the Karaites, this would have meant an alteration of the authentic meaning and content of the Torah.” Many believing Jews, however, had a different idea, and joined the movement.
The one who led the movement that led to the birth of the Karaite people was called Anan ben David. He lived in the region of present-day Iraq from about 740 to 795, at the time of the Abbasid dynasty. He taught that Moses had received from God only the Torah, and that none of the biblical prophets mention the later interpretations and teachings of the rabbis that led to the formation of the Talmud. Naturally, this drew criticism from the rabbis. But the caliph cleared him of their charges, because he saw in the new group within Judaism a movement analogous to that of the so-called “rationalists,” the Mu’tazilites in Islam, which he supported at the time.
Because he believed that everyone should find his own way to God, Anan declined to develop a corresponding religious doctrine. He himself considered Moses, Jesus and Muhammad prophets. Interestingly, in their opposition to the Talmud, Anan and his followers referred to Jesus.
Although Karaite communities spread to many countries, the best known and most significant are the Turkish ones. But how was it possible for a variant of Judaism to spread among the Turkish tribes? To answer this question, we must consider the events of the Jewish Diaspora in the 6th century.
At the beginning of this period, many Jews had to flee the Persian Empire, because they had supported a movement of opposition to the government, Mazdaism. When they arrived in the region of present-day Dagestan, they devoted themselves to cattle breeding, while preserving the rules of circumcision and sabbatical rest. In 730, Bulan, the ruler of a Turkish state in what is now southern Russia, embraced Judaism and made it the state religion, but guaranteed religious freedom to all, as reported in a letter by the twelfth khagan (Turkish ruler) named Joseph. In it, it is said that the Turks of the Khanate of Khazaria initially embraced Judaism in the form of the Karaite doctrine, and that only later this was replaced by orthodox Jewish doctrine.
Those who wished to remain faithful to the Karaite doctrine had to withdraw from the capital and the centers of power. Many of them went as preachers to the Turkish nomads and enjoyed some success in converting them. Thus was the community of Karaites formed among the Turks. A certain Rabbi Pentahja, who in 1180 made a trip to southern Russia, tells of having met followers of the Karaites among the Turkish nomads.
At that time the Karaites also came to the Crimea, and already in the 11th century the Bible had been translated into their language. If one compares this translation with the teachings of the Christian missionaries to the Cumans – the great federation of Turkic-speaking tribes – and with the translation of the Gospel into their language, one can see how the language of the Karaites was closely related to that of the Cumans. After the invasion of the Mongols the power of the Karaites declined. They themselves suffered. In practice their mission came to an end, and in time many of their communities ceased to exist. Only two centers still remained: one in northwest Lithuania and Poland, the other in the Crimea.
The main center of the Karaites was in the Lithuanian town of Trakai, when Grand Duke Vitoldo, in the course of the war with the Golden Horde, invaded the Crimea, taking 500 families of Karaites as prisoners, whom he installed in Lithuania. As early as 1410, Karaite knights took part in the Battle of Grunwald. In order to avoid conflicts with the Orthodox Jews, the Polish rulers forbade the latter to settle in Trakai. However, in 1714 an agreement was reached between the Karaites and the Orthodox Jews to settle internal disputes independently, without the interference of state power. In Lithuania and Poland, the Karaites were entrusted with the task of guarding the roads and bridges. The Swedish orientalist Gustav Peringer wrote in 1690 about the Karaites: “This people is small, because it continuously participates in wars.”
In the 18th century a group of the Karaites converted to Catholicism, and still today there are Karaites who profess Christianity in the Baltic countries and in Russia. The Karaites present in the Crimean Peninsula, given its favorable strategic position, devoted themselves to trade. For this reason, they were able to maintain contact with other communities. Being richer than their co-religionists in Poland, they paid part of the taxes for them and assisted them financially. On the other hand, the Polish Karaites were better educated and, when they came to the Crimea, they took up important positions in the communities. But Karaites from Asia Minor and Constantinople also came to the Crimea. Among them was Aaron ben Joseph, who composed the text of the Karaite liturgy, which became the norm in all communities. The Karaites also cultivated close relations with other countries: at the beginning of the 15th century the famous architect Sinan Cheleb came from Iran, and in Venice in 1528 a prayer book was printed, which was the first publication in the Karaite language.
The Karaites as a people were formed between the 13th and 16th centuries. They had their own language, their own religious faith, different from that of their neighbors, which determined their mentality and culture. Although it did not have its own state, it had its own region in which to live. In the Crimean Khanate, until the annexation by Russia in 1787, the Karaites had the right to administer themselves independently. Thus, from the 14th century – that is, from the time when the Crimean Khanate was formed – until 1787, they were closely related to the Crimean Tatars. They not only lived side by side, but cooperated with each other. They possessed similar languages, customs and traditions. In Turkey today, the Karaites – even those living in Poland or Lithuania – are considered Turks, as can also be concluded from viewing a large map in the Turkish National Museum in Istanbul, on which all Turkish populations and languages are indicated: the Karaites there are given the number 3.
The Karaite people arose from the fusion of Jewish migrants from the Near East with the Turks. But this is by no means unusual; even the Russian Cossacks, in fact, are a mixture of Russian peasants and Turkish nomads. The most important thing is not origin, but identification, and the Karaites identified themselves with the Jewish religion (according to their interpretation) and with the Turkish language and culture. The Crimean Karaite people therefore appear unique in this respect.
The Karaites in Russia
Crimea, at the time part of the Ottoman Empire, was annexed to the Russian Empire in the year 1787. This constituted a great change for the Crimeans. Until then they had lived with the Crimean Tatars, who were ethnically close to them, and were content with their status in the Crimean Khanate. Now they became part of a country in which the state religion was a branch of Orthodox Christianity.
At first they continued to regard the khan as their overlord, paying him taxes, even when he lived in Russia with a pension from the Russian government. When the khan was allowed to go to the territory of the Ottoman Empire, they wanted to follow him, and the sultan assigned them a region, which corresponds to present-day Albania. But although many of them left, there was never a migration of the entire Karaite people. There were always individual Karaites who migrated from Crimea to other regions of the Ottoman Empire, but the majority of the population remained in Crimea.
At first, however, the Karaites were intent on leaving territory controlled by Russia. When they asked the Empress Catherine to let them go to Turkey, she found herself in an embarrassing situation: a people – in which, moreover, there were no Muslims – wanted to leave her Empire to go to the Turks! A further reason for emigrating was the 1793 law imposing double taxation on Jews. In 1795, the government exempted the Karaites from it, while it remained in force for the Orthodox and Hasidic Jews.
By the beginning of the 20th century, the Karaites had developed a vast system of education, first religious and then secular, and at the end of the 19th century 70 percent of the men and 50 percent of the women were literate. The children of the poor attended religious schools almost exclusively, while the children of middle-class families studied at state high schools, and therefore had practically no contact with religion. The first Karaite who received a university education was Kasas (1834-1912), who wrote a scholarly book on ancient Hebrew (first in Tatar and then in Russian), translated many works of European philosophers into Karaite and published in Hebrew several volumes of a work dedicated to biblical criticism. But for the Karaites education had not only positive consequences: the more educated the men, and especially the women were, the less they were willing to marry co-religionists. There is even talk of a “marriage strike.” Birth rates among the Karaites were also very low: 15 children per 1,000 people, compared to 50 among Orthodox Christians, 45 among Muslims, and 36 among Orthodox Jews.
The Russian language gradually replaced Karaite, especially among those who lived outside a Karaite community. On the one hand, this was a natural process, but on the other, the Karaites wanted to escape anti-Semitic hostility in this way. For the same reason, Karaite parents gave their children Russian names. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Karaite community was subject to the process of assimilation – but also secularization – and lost many of its members.
The Karaites after the Revolution
The October Revolution was a tragic event for all religious communities in Russia, but it particularly affected the Karaites. The reason was that many of the men of this small community who were able to handle arms joined the Whites, both because of their monarchist convictions and because after the beginning of the unrest and civil war they had returned home to the Crimea, which had become the center of resistance against the Bolsheviks. Those who did not die in battle went abroad, while many of those who remained were executed by the Bolsheviks.
Those who survived the civil war were targeted by anti-religious propaganda. In the early 1930s, the last Karaite place of worship (Kenasa) was closed and the cultural newspaper Bizim Yol (“Our Way”) was suppressed. At that time the Karaites could not emigrate to Egypt, where their own community would have been able to receive refugees. The other community outside the USSR was in Trakai – then a Polish territory – where a group of Karaite scholars had been formed and a Polish-language newspaper, called the “Karaite Life,” was published. With the financial help of the Polish government the Karaite Museum was founded, which included a library in which ancient manuscripts were preserved.
A great danger for this population, besides the atheist Bolshevik dictatorship, came from Nazism. Some Karaite communities in Germany, which were made up of a few former White Army officers, approached the Ministry of Justice after the Nazi rise to power, asking that they not be considered Jewish. In fact, they were recognized as a non-Jewish community, and so were exposed only to sporadic persecution, as happened for example in Kiev during the Nazi occupation.
Interestingly, even the Orthodox hierarchies in exile considered the Karaites an autonomous community. Metropolitan Seraphim stated, “The faith of the Karaites has always been seen by the Orthodox Church as an entirely independent religion.” Another exiled Orthodox Metropolitan, Epholgy, wrote: “The Orthodox Church has always considered the faith of the Karaites as an autonomous religion. […] The Karaite religion accepts the Old Testament with the Ten Commandments, which are also recognized by all monotheistic religions (for example, by Islam). In Karaite doctrine, Jesus and Muhammad are great prophets.”
In 1944, during the Second World War, some Karaites were transferred, along with the Tatars, from the Crimean peninsula, to Central Asia. In the Baltic Republics, of the five Karaite places of worship functioning while they were part of the USSR, only one remained in Lithuania, in the city of Trakai. And in 1982, on the death of the last head of that community, it too was closed.
The 1979 census showed that there were 3,341 Karaites living in the USSR, of whom 1,151 were in the Crimea. In Russia and Ukraine there were many marriages of Karaites with Slavs, leading them to abandon their religion. At present it is possible to recognize Karaites in these countries only by their Turkish names. The children born from marriages with Christians also became Christians for the most part, just as the children born from marriages with Muslims became Muslims. The Karaites tried to find a spouse in their own community, but it was difficult because the community was very small. However, in Poland and Lithuania they were able to maintain their ethnic and religious identity. Even from those lands many emigrated to America.
Before the Revolution there was a Karaite community in Harbin, China, but it was broken up by the war with Japan and its members moved to Europe, America or Australia. It is also difficult to know what happened to the Chinese who embraced the Karaite faith.
In the Turkish Republic, under Kemal Atatürk, the Karaites were recognized as Turks, but with their own religion. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Karaite community in Istanbul numbered 200 families. The Turkish origin of the Karaites is also evidenced by the practice adopted for the election and installation of religious leaders (hakhan). The chief was elected by all the members of the community, and for the installation they followed the customs of the Turks of southern Siberia. Therefore, Jewish and Turkish customs were mixed in this ceremony.
Today, Karaite communities are scattered all over the world. In addition to Russia, they can be found in the countries of the former Ottoman Empire and also in Europe and America. The small Karaite people is an example of how different cultural and religious traditions can merge into a harmonious unity.
DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.9 art. 7, 0922: 10.32009/22072446.0922.7
. See В. С. Глаголев, Религия Караимов, МГИМО, Москва, 2018 (V. S. Glagolev, The Religion of the Karaites, Moscow, Mgimo, 2018).
. L. Trepp, Die Juden. Volk, Geschichte, Religion, Hamburg, Reinbeck, 1998.
. See В. С. Глаголев, Религия Караимов, op. cit.
. Cf. Г. Гретц, История Евреев от древних времен до настоящего, T. 4, Одесса, 1905 (H. Graetz, The History of the Jews from Ancient Times to the Present, vol. IV, Odessa, Sherman, 1905).
. See А. Я. Гаркави, Сказания еврейских писателей о хазарском царстве, Спб., 1874 (A. Y. Garkavi, Tales of Jewish writers about the Cazars and the Cazarian kingdom, St. Petersburg, Imperial Academy Printing House, 1874).
. See П. К. Коковцев, Еврейско-хазарская переписка в X в. , Ленинград., 1932 (P. K. Kokovtsev, The Correspondence between Jews and Cazars in the Tenth Century, Leningrad, USSR Academy of Sciences, 1932).
. Cf. S. Szyszman, Karaites en Europe, Paris, 1986.
. See М. Я. Чофер, “Крымские Караимы”, Москва, 1993 (M. J. Čofer, The Crimean Karaites, Moscow, 1993).
. Cf. S. Szyszman, Le Kharaisme. Ses doctrines et son histoire, Lausanne, l’Age d’Homme, 1980.
. Cf. Полное собрание законов Российской империи, Т. 23, № 17340 (18 Июня 1795) (The Complete Legislation of the Russian Empire, vol. 23, No. 17340, June 18, 1795).
. See ibid.
. Cf. “Караимы”, in Краткая еврейская энциклопедия, Еврейский Университет в Иерусалиме Иерусалим, 1988 (“Caraiti”, in Short Jewish Encyclopedia, Jerusalem, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 1988).
. В. С. Глаголев, Религия Караимов, op. cit.
. See ibid.
. See М. С. Сарач, “Слово о вере и религии Караимов”, Караимские вести, 1994, № 3 (M. S. Sarach, “A Word on the Faith and Religion of the Karaites”, in Karaite News, 1994, No. 3).