South Caucasus Travel: Jewish Heritage in Azerbaijan
Jewish heritage is not always easy to trace in an Islamic country; it may have been covered up, forgotten, or forcibly erased. The South Caucasus country of Azerbaijan is different.
Historic ToleranceThough nominally a Shi’a Islamic country, Azerbaijan has had a historic tolerance for its Jewish communities beginning in the 5th and 6th centuries. That’s when people now called “Mountain Jews” began arriving from Persia.
Thought to have set out from Palestine 2,500 years ago, the Mountain Jews picked up a Farsi-based language along the way. Because they chose to settle in out-of-the-way mountain regions, they were able to keep their language and customs reasonably intact until Soviet times.
In the foothills of the Greater Caucasus mountains in Azerbaijan
Photo credit: Devin Connolly
Jewish VillageThe largest settlement of Mountain Jews is the town now called Qirbisi Qasaba, about three hours northwest of the capital, Baku. Known originally by its Russian name, Yevreskaya Sloboda, Jewish Village, the little town has been here since 1742.
When the Bolsheviks came to power, they re-named the town Krasnaya Sloboda, Red Village. Almost everyone here is Jewish, and though life is hard in the mountains, the town is seeing better days. Several of its native sons have done well as real estate moguls in Moscow and have underwritten new buildings and fresh paint.
Soviets, Yes – Nazis, NoJews, as well as Muslims, endured generations of Soviet atheism that eroded their traditions, but Azerbaijan escaped Nazi occupation and the wholesale slaughter of its Jews during WWII; in fact, the country became something of a refuge. Hitler’s armies were never able to make it into the country, though they deeply coveted the oilfields of Baku.
Synagogues Among the MosquesAmong Baku’s domed mosques, two synagogues were built in the 21st century, one for Ashkenazi and Georgian Jews, and one specifically for Mountain Jews. People from the community say that they have never felt the kind of prejudice that they might feel in other places. Jews, Muslims and Christians of Azerbaijan have historically lived together in peace.
Azerbaijan has had a historic tolerance for its religious communities, here in Baku
Photo credit: Michel Behar
Explore Jewish Heritage in Azerbaijan with MIR
MIR has 30 years travel experience to the South Caucasus, with on-the-ground support and tour managers that clients rave about. MIR’s full service, dedication, commitment to quality, and destination expertise have twice earned us a place on National Geographic Adventure’s list of “Best Adventure Travel Companies on Earth.”
MIR is an expert at designing unique independent trips for Jewish people searching for their roots, or their relatives. Travelers can meet with members of the local Jewish communities in both Krasnaya Sloboda and Baku, and tour their synagogues on custom, private itineraries prepared by the experts at MIR.
To find out more about our custom and private travel expertise, connect with a Private Journey Specialist to get started planning your own Jewish Heritage trip – handcrafted to your interests, dates and pace.
If you’re looking for a ready-made tour of Azerbaijan or the South Caucasus, MIR offers a variety of small group tours, rail journeys by private trains and pre-planned independent itineraries.
Contact MIR today at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-800-424-7289.
Top photo: A minaret in Sheki, Azerbaijan. Photo credit: Devin Connolly
PUBLISHED: March 1, 2016