The Mountain Jews: an ancient community between the Caucasus and the Caspian

That Jews live in Dagestan, in southern Russia, at all can seem unlikely. Historically speaking, however, Derbent is exactly the kind of place Jews would be found: a city which has been a crossroads for five millennia

Felix Light

It was well after midnight on a hot summer’s evening in July 2013 when Ovadia Isakov, rabbi to the Jews of Derbent, in Russia’s restless southern republic of Dagestan, arrived back at his apartment. It was not unusual. Tending to the ancient city’s 2,000 Jews often kept him on duty until the small hours.

Outside his house on Pushkin Street, in the heart of Derbent’s Old Town, Isakov left the car and walked to his front door. From out of the darkness, shots rang out. One tore through his ribcage. Neighbours rushed the critically injured rabbi to hospital, from which an Israeli medical team flew him to Israel.

The gunman fled. Though the Russian police later announced that they had killed a known terrorist suspected of the attack, no one was ever brought to trial. In Dagestan’s years-long Islamist insurgency, a spillover of the Chechen wars, few militants ever were.

For the remnants of the Jewish community that once dominated Derbent, the assassination attempt seemed like the final straw. “There is no future for Jews here,” Angela Rubinova, head of the local branch of Atzmaut, a Jewish organisation, told The Times of Israel. “I’m staying because someone needs to turn out the lights.”

That Jews live in Dagestan at all can seem unlikely. In Moscow and St Petersburg, the autonomous republic’s name is almost a byword for the distant barbarism of Russia’s wild southern fringe: overwhelmingly Muslim, culturally alien and congenitally violent.

Historically speaking, however, Derbent is exactly the kind of place Jews would be found.

Squatting in a three-kilometre-wide gap between the Caucasus mountains and the Caspian Sea, the city has been a crossroads for five millennia. Sitting astride both Europe’s Silk Road with China and one of the only north-to-south passes through the Caucasus, it has been both commercial hub and military outpost. For the Persian shahs, the fortress they built at Derbent—which means “barred gate” in Farsi—was the end of the known world, Iran’s eternal insurance policy against northern invaders.

It was, some historians say, the shahs who brought the Persian-speaking Mountain Jews from Iran to the Caucasus, perhaps as early as the fifth century BC. Over the centuries, the Mountain Jews settled in a vast crescent spanning modern-day Azerbaijan, Dagestan, and the Russian North Caucasus. Derbent, growing rich on the trade routes, grew into one of the many improbably cosmopolitan dots that pepper Eurasia. Jewish and Armenian merchants dominated a dizzyingly international town that by the 20th century, according to Svetlana Anokhina, a local journalist, boasted Georgian, Polish and even Chinese residents, on top of 36,000 Jews.

It was not to last.

The Caucasian Mountain Jews suffered as much as anyone from the revolution, civil war, totalitarianism, and an eventual, precipitous collapse that Soviet power offered. “The Bolsheviks wouldn’t let us live as Jews, religiously,” says Robert Ilishaev, rabbi and chairman of the Derbent Jewish community. “My family were forced to leave Dagestan on foot, walked for months to Istanbul, and took a ferry to Israel.”

Amid the economic collapse and ethnically-inspired bloodshed that consumed the Caucasus after the Soviet collapse in 1991, Mountain Jewish communities in Chechnya, Ossetia and Dagestan shrivelled, died and emigrated. Only two final redoubts survived: in the village of Qirmizi Qasebe in Azerbaijan, and in Derbent.

Strung out along Tagi-Zade street, about halfway between the hilltop Sassanid fortress and the Caspian shore, stands the Kele-Numaz Synagogue. Restored and reopened with much fanfare in 2010, the centre of Derbent Jewish life is immediately recognisable: it is the only half-modern building on a street otherwise made up of decaying 19th-century merchants’ mansions. Containing a Jewish kindergarten, a museum, a medley of administrative offices and Russia’s southernmost mikvah (a bath for ritual immersion), the synagogue complex is a microcosm of a community that once dominated Derbent.

Publicly, the authorities are cagey about precisely how many Jews remain. Privately, most put the figure today at a little less than a thousand. “This whole part of town used to be Jewish,” says Vafik Gasanov, a Shi’ite Azeri security guard I meet on the street outside. “Further down, towards the sea, it was Christians. Armenians and Russians. In the upper city, beneath the fortress, Azeris. We always just got along. Derbent has always been like that—tolerant, educated.”

‘That Jews live in Dagestan at all can seem unlikely. In Moscow and St Petersburg, the autonomous republic’s name is almost a byword for the distant barbarism of Russia’s wild southern fringe

Dagestan is, for outsiders, dizzyingly diverse. Over 30 ethnicities with their own, largely unrelated, languages inhabit a region no larger than Scotland. It is a cultural jigsaw so complicated that it resembles more a whole series of puzzles, each with little to do with the next. Even the Avars, Dagestan’s single biggest nationality at around a third of the population, who traditionally dominate politics in the capital of Makhachkala are almost unheard of in Derbent, barely an hour’s drive south.

Dagestan’s extraordinary variegation has often been seen as self-fulfilling: nationalism isn’t practical when no one nation is anything other than a small minority. Dagestan was simply too multicultural for ethnic cleansing or national sorting. Many credit this diversity for the Jews’ survival.

A billboard advertises Shi’ite pilgrimages to Mecca, Medina and Karbala (©Felix Light)

“If there weren’t so many different nationalities here, we Jews would have left long ago,” says Viktor Mikhailov, editor of Vatan, Derbent’s Jewish newspaper. “Everything in Dagestan depends on a very precise balance. That meant we never came under attack from our neighbours, as happened elsewhere.” He says that in the 2000s, during the worst of the Islamist insurgency, Derbent’s balkanisation helped protect local Jews from the fate of other, vanished Dagestani Jewish communities. “The southern Dagestan, Derbent mentality is very, very different from the rest of the republic. In Makhachkala, in the north, everyone is Sunni. Here, it’s always been a mix of Sunni, Shi’a, Christians and Jews. That has made Derbent more pluralistic, and meant that terrorism was always less of a problem.”

Nevertheless, Dagestan’s distinctive brand of ethnic coexistence has demanded sacrifices from the Mountain Jews. One of the most painful has been their specifically Jewish identity. When the Soviets took control of Dagestan in the Civil War, they began to grapple with the new republic’s dazzling ethnic kaleidoscope, creating 14 official nationalities into which all Dagestanis were expected to fit. Rather than being recognised as Jews, Mountain Jews were officially categorised as Tats, members of another Dagestani people with distant Persian origins.

“The word ‘Tat’”, Ilishaev, the community leader, says flatly, “is a communist invention. It was always about eroding our religion and heritage as Jews.” Even so, others suggest this bureaucratic compromise has brought the Derbent community certain advantages. “In Soviet Dagestan, there were very strict ethnic quotas for employment, access to education, housing,” says Mikhailov. “Being one of the 14 official nationalities got you all kinds of advantages that outsiders didn’t get. Of course we’re not actually Tats, but we certainly benefitted from pretending to be Tats.”

The old Jewish quarter in Derbent (©Felix Light)

Today, however, many of the old certainties that nurtured and protected the city’s Jewish community are gone. Derbent’s unique cultural mix has started to crumble. Amid the post-Soviet chaos the city’s Christians, Soviet Russian administrators and technicians, and ancient Armenian merchant clans almost all left, as well as most of the Jews. The collapse of Soviet-era controls on internal migration have seen huge influxes into Derbent from Dagestan’s hinterland, swelling the city’s population from 80,000 in 1989 to 120,000 today. The new arrivals, mostly Tabasaran and Lezgin Sunnis, known derisively as uncivilised, uncouth gortsy, or highlanders by some Derbent old-timers, have decisively shifted the city’s demographic balance.

For the Mountain Jews, the problem is not security—with the long-running Dagestani insurgency now largely defeated, Jews are now perhaps safer than at any time since 1991. Rather, it is a sense that the multi-confessional city that nurtured and protected their community is no more. With thriving Mountain Jewish communities in Moscow and Acre, emigration looms ever larger for those who remain.

Yet stubbornness flickers. “My entire family have already gone to Israel”, says Ilishaev, “but I’m not leaving, I’ve no business in Israel. Derbent is my home, and my community’s home and I’m staying here.” 

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