Bukharan Jews, ancient and modern*

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The khanate, and later the amirate, of Bukhara was situated between the rivers Amu-Darya and Syr-Darya (the Oxus and Jaxartes of old), a land of high moun- tains, deserts and well-irrigated fertile plains. Its population comprised mainly Persian, Mongol and Turkic peoples, but there were also Arabs, Hindus and Jews. They had an ancient tradition of trade in agricultural produce, locally made cotton and silk materials, furs, horses - the famous horses of Ferghana were highly valued in China - and precious stones. The khanate was founded in the early 16th century and, from 1561 until its disappearance in 1920, the city of Bukhara was its capital. Other major towns, at different times, were Samarqand, Tashkent, Khoqand and Balkh. In the 2oth century the amirate was replaced by the Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Tajiskistan, Qirghizstan and Turkmenistan.

The information available on Bukharan Jews concerns mainly the early settle- ment and the modern period, from 1820 onwards. The almost total absence of records for the intervening period may be due as much to the Jews themselves, who seem to have kept no records, as to the lack of interest shown by Muslims, reluctant to write about Infidels.

Contact with the nearest Jewish communities of Iran and Afghanistan was also very difficult after the early Middle Ages. Religious animosity between the Sunnis of the khanate and the Shi’as of Iran, together with rival claims to the rich province of Khurasan which then included Nishapur, Mashhad, and Marv, meant that travel to Iran was dangerous, even for Muslims. Pilgrims to Mecca accordingly chose to travel through Turkey or even through India, as did Jewish pilgrims to Jerusalem, for their co-religionists were often grievously persecuted in 17th- century Iran.l Contact with Afghanistan and India became equally dangerous after the early 18th century, when the decline in power of the Bukharan ruler resulted in the secession of Balkh and the surrounding area south of the Amu-Darya.

The only foreigners to reach the khanate in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries were Russian ambassadors, whose sole concern was to establish good relations with the khans in order to free Orthodox Christians from slavery and to develop the existing trade, which was dominated by the khans and their courtiers. Jews found no place in their detailed reports to the Tsars.

This changed in the 19th century, when members of Russian missions began to write for the general public. Imbued with the contemporary love of exoticism,


Paper presented to the society on 6 April 1995. they noted the dark garb, shaved heads and long side-whiskers of the Jews, visited their synagogues and wrote about the discrimination to which they were subjected. Missionaries to the Jews also wrote about them in detail, as did the British officers who investigated the commercial and strategic possibilities of the area. After Russia established its domination in Central Asia in the late 19th century, the truncated amirate became a Russian protectorate, far safer for non-Muslims, and there were many

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