Three alternative explanations have been given as to the origins of the
Karaite settlement in the Crimea. The most romantic one is the Khazar
theory. The Khazars occupied at least the eastern portion of the Crimea
between the seventh and early eleventh centuries. Such Karaite nationalists
as A. Firkovich claimed in the nineteenth century that the Khazars were
mostly not only Jews, but actually Karaites. To strengthen his case
Firkovich sometimes "emended" the dates found in the colophons of
manuscripts and on tombstones, in his books and reports. This has given the
Khazar theory a very bad name among scholars, but it does not necessarily
mean that there could not be some truth in it. At present it can neither be
proven nor disproves.
The second alternative is to link their settlement to Karaite merchants
from Byzantium. Most of the Crimean peninsula was part of the Byzantine
Empire. The Karaite mercantile activity in the Black Sea in the twelfth
century can thus be regarded as the background to their arrival and
settlement. Their earliest still existent record is Aaron ben Joseph's
report, from the last quarter of the thirteenth century, about a feud with
Rabbanites in Solkhat on a matter of calendation. Karaite communities could
have existed there already a century earlier, and, indeed, Petahya of
Regensburg mentions late in the twelfth century Jewish heretics who do not
lighten Sabbath candles in the "Land of Kedar" (however Crimea proper is
called by him "Land of Khazaria").
Under Mongol rule the Crimea was the western outlet of trade routes that
led to Central Asia and to China, and thus gained commercial importance
which it did not possess either earlier or later. Against this background
one has to understand the increase in the settlement there of Karaite
traders in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They kept up a lively
trade between Kaffa (Feodosia) and Trebizond and Constantinople.
The third alternative is to stipulate the conversion of local inhabitants
to Karaism, not in Khazar times, but later, during or after the Mongol
rule, under the influence of the newcomers from Byzantium. This could
explain the Turkish language of the local Karaites, their "Tartar"
appearance and way of life, and the political independence of the Karaites
When both Byzantium and the Mongol Empire declined, the trading towns of
the Crimea were administered in the fifteenth century by the Republic of
Genoa. Later the Crimea constituted a Khanate, which came 1475-1783 under
Ottoman suzerainty. The inhabitants were called Tartars and were an ethnic
mixture of Scythians, Greeks, Khazars, Cumans, Mongols and Turks, speaking
a Turkish dialect and professing Islam. The local Karaites worked the soil
in a similar way as their neighbours, raised livestock and spoke the same
Turkish dialect. They intermarried sometimes, and often even looked rather
like their neighbours.
Well into the nineteenth century the Crimea remained numerically the
largest and economically the most important Karaite centre anywhere. Many
Karaites specialized in the growing of tobacco and cucumbers. Others owned
tanneries and employed Tartar workers. The Karaites were regarded as
belonging to the elevated social stratum of the Tarhan, did not have to pay
taxes and had free access to the Khan's palace. They inhabited four main
towns, Feodosia, Solkhat, Chufut-Kale and Eupatoria.In spite of the
favourable social and economic conditions, the Karaite communities of the
Crimea did not produce any important thinkers or scholars. At first
religious leaders reached it from Byzantium and later from Volhynia and
Lithuania (for instance Simha Luzki in 1751). 1734-1741 and 1804-1806 a
Hebrew press operated in Chufut-Kale.
In 1783 the Crimea was incorporated in Russia. The number of Karaites
amounted then to 2400. In 1839 the Scottish missionaries Bonar and McCheyne
mentioned 4000 or 5000 Karaites there and added that they "are the most
respectable of all Jews, men of character and intelligence, very cleanly
and industrious in their habits and much favoured by the Government".
The Crimea was initially the centre of the National Karaite Movement,
headed by such leaders as Benjamin ben Samuel Aga, Simha Babovich, Joseph
Solomon Luzki, Abraham Firkovich and Samuel ben Moshe Pampolov. It achieved
their exemption from all the civil disabilities of the Jews and they were
accorded the same privileges as the Christians. Other leaders and scholars
of the nineteenth century worth mentioning were Isaac ben Solomon, Abraham
Luzki, Mordecai Kukizow and Mordecai Sultansky.But as the Karaites settled
in the later nineteenth century in many of the towns of Russia, Poland and
the Ukraine, the relative importance of the Crimea declined. World War I
made further inroads. Chaotic conditions prevailed after the Germans
withdrew. The Karaite Salomon Krym headed November 1918 - April 1919 the
civil government of the Crimea.
Under Soviet rule it was attempted to develop a secular, non-religious
Karaism, with an ethnic culture of its own. Still, the collectivization of
agriculture caused great financial loss to the Karaites. It is possible
that their hatred for the Communists made them in World War II such pliant
tools in the hands of the Nazis (Holocaust), who captured the Crimea in the
autumn of 1941. The Karaites were left in peace, while all other Jews were
massacred. At the end of the war many of the Karaites fled to the West,
others were deported (many, apparently, to Troki). Still, quite a few
remained, and in 1991 M. El-Kodsi was told that 800 were left, of them 250
in Simferopol, 90 in Gozlov (Eupatoria), 70 in Feodosia, 60 in Sevastopol,
50 in Bakhchisarai (Chufut-Kale), 30 in Yalta and further ones elsewhere.
- Chufut Kale, Bakhchisaray
- Eupatoria / Gözleve
- Feodosia / Kaffa
- Simferopol / Akmescit
- Solkhat / Eski Kirim
Chufut Kale ("Jew's Castle"
in Turkish; Bakchisarai)
This was an important Karaite centre
in the southern Crimea. Karaite sources call it "Sela haJehudim"
(Rock of the Jews). Nearby Mangup was settled in Roman and Byzantine
times and the area was controlled by the Khazars in the ninth
and tenth centuries. Karaites might have settled there before
the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century. The large Jewish
cemetery is several centuries older. Later the Karaites enjoyed
there a great deal of independence. They defended the town when
attacked and one of their leaders, Elijah, is reported to have
been killed during a Genoese attack on the town. The Ottoman traveller
Evliya Celebi described in 1660 the independent status of the
"non believers" there. He claimed the Karaites to have
been the majority of the population. Both the local garrison and
its commander were reported to have been Karaites. When in difficulty,
the Muslim ruler of the Khanate of the Crimea, is reported to
have taken refuge there. Further, he is reported to have lodged
there some of the prisoners of war he had taken for safekeeping.
In the middle of the seventeenth century
the Karaites are reported to have numbered there over 300 families.
In 1734 a Hebrew press was set up by the brothers Afdah and Shabbetai
Yeraka, especially for Karaite works. It functioned till 1741,
and again 18041806. In 1751 settled there the important
scholar Simha ben Moses Luzki. In 1834 the French marshal Marmont
reported that Karaites inhabit all the 300 houses of the citadel
area, but descend every day to Bakchisarai for their business.
In 1839 the Scottish missionaries Bonar and McCheyne reported
that some 1500 Karaites lived there. It served as centre for all
of the Crimea. The Karaites were ruled by the Celebi clan and
after 1826 by the Babovich family. In disputes between its Hakham
and the one of Eupatoria on points of Karaite Halakha, custom
and religion, Chufut Kale is reported usually to have been victorious.
Later it declined and was temporarily
abandoned after the Crimean War, with most of its Karaite population
moving to GozlowEupatoria. As a result A. Firkovich was
able to obtain at Kale many of the Karaite documents of his second
collection. Also 546 of the 751 Hebrew epitaphs published in his
"Avnei Zikkaron" (1872) were from Kale. Later the new
town of Bakhchisarai was built below the old castle. The Karaites
survived there unharmed World War II. In 1991 M. ElKodsi
was told about fifty Karaites living there, but could actually
locate only one. Most of the houses of the "Karaite street"
have been abandoned, but the Karaite cemetery was in good condition
and Firkovich's house still survives. In 1878 and 1881 Daniel
Chwolson was the first to carry out there serious archaeological
excavations, to be followed in 1890, 1912, 19724 and 1986
by others, both in the castle and the cemetery.
One of the four main towns settled by
Karaites in the Crimea since the late Middle Ages. It is located
in the west of the peninsula and initially it was less important
than ChufutKale, to its southeast. After the Crimean
War ChufutKale was abandoned and its Karaite population
moved to Gozlow, which became now the main Karaite centre. A printing
press was founded there in 1833, which was later managed by Abraham
Firkovich. Many of the basic Karaite works were printed there
for the first time, or reprinted for a new audience. Marshal Marmont
visited there in 1834 and found the Karaite house in which he
lodged "charming". The total number of inhabitants he
estimated at 12,000 "composed totally of Karaite Jews, and
Tartars". A Karaite deputation on horseback received him
on arrival. Panpulov served as Eupatoria's mayor, till 1879. In
1894 a school for Khasanim was founded. In 1897 1505 Karaites
lived there, about 9% of the total population. In 1905 there was
a pogrom in Eupatoria. During the chaotic years at the end of
World War I the last Hakham escaped to Istanbul and Serge von
Douvan served as mayor of Eupatori. In 1926 2,409 Jews (both Karaites
and Rabbanites) lived there. In World War II it was captured by
the Germans and later recaptured by the Soviets. Many of the Karaites
left at this stage. A visitor in 1970 reported that the synagogue
had been turned into a Karaite museum. In 1991 M. ElKodsi
reported that 90 Karaites were still living there.
Port in the southeastern Crimea, with
a Jewish population dating back to Hellenistic times. In the thirteenth
and fourteenth centuries Karaites were among the merchants who
traded there and eventually also settled there. The traveller
Schiltberg mentions early in the fifteenth century both a Rabbanite
and a Karaite congregation. In the years 14531475 Feodosia
was administered by the Bank of St Giorgio on behalf of the Republic
of Genoa. 14751783 it was under Ottoman suzerainty. It continued
to be one of the four Crimean towns with Karaite communities,
but was overshadowed by ChufutKale, and in the nineteenth
century, under Russian rule, by Eupatoria.
The local Karaites were not killed by
the Germans in World War II, and in 1991 M. elKodsi reported that 70
Karaites still lived there.
This is at present one of the main towns
of the Crimea. Solomon Krym founded there a university in 1918,
which still exists. While there is no record of a prenineteenth
century Karaite congregation there, at present (1991) exists there
the largest Karaite community of the Crimea, some 250 souls.
The synagogue was built in 1886 and services were held regularly,
till 1936, when it, and the nearby school, were confiscated by
the Soviet authorities. Both have now been returned to the Karaites.
Solkhat (Eski Kirim)
This town in the Crimea held an early
Karaite community, mentioned already in a colophon of 1207. Aaron
ben Joseph (the Elder) (c. 12501320) was born there and
became at a young age the Hakham of the local congregation. The
earliest more detailed information about the Karaites of Solkhat
(and of the Crimea in general) can be deduced from the record
of his disputes on calendation with the local Rabbanites. In later
centuries Solkhat was one of the four main towns in the Crimea
in which Karaite congregations existed. But it was overshadowed
by ChufutKale and Eupatoria, and later mentioned no longer.
Other Ukrainian Cities with Karaim Settlers
City in Volhynia; until 1793 part of
Poland, afterwards of Russia, and now of Ukraine. Grand Duke Witold
of Lithuania is credited with having settled in Krasna Gora, opposite
Lutsk, in 1392 the first hundred Karaite families, who were prisoners
from the Crimea. But there is considerable doubt about the authenticity
of this tradition. The earliest reliable report about a Karaite
community in Lutsk dates from 1506, when lgng Sigismund 1 (15061548)
released the local Karaites from some of their taxes. From the
archives of Lutsk the following numbers of Karaites have been
culled: in 1552, 25 households; in 1648 20 households; after the
Chmielnicky massacres of that year only three households remained
in 1650; in 1660/1 the number had risen again to 21. A century
later, in 1778, 80 Karaites (souls, not households) were counted;
in 1784 105; in 1787 33 households, consisting of 137 souls, plus
ten households in the vicinity. In 1789, 25 households were counted
in the Karaite street of the town. In the later eighteenth century
they suffered heavy losses as a result of the Haidamack uprisings.
Relations with other Karaite communities
were close. In the fifteenth century students from Lutsk are supposed
to have studied with Elijah Bashyazi in Istanbul. Later, Lutsk
was influenced from Troki in Lithuania and the local synagogue
was built of wood, like that of Troki. In the nineteenth century
some of the Karaites of Lutsk moved to the Crimea, and among them
were several scholars named Luzki, after their hometown. Others
moved to such large towns, as Odessa and Moscow. Still, the community
of Lutsk, too, had a more urban character, than, for instance,
that of Halicz. World War I, the following Civil War and the Petljura
pogroms had a devastating affect. In the 1920's only some 7080
Karaites ware left in Lutsk; community life was at a standstill
and the younger Karaites were no longer able to speak their language.
In World War H the Karaites of Lutsk cooperated with the Nazis
and acted as liaison between the Germans and the Lutsk Judenrat.
A survivor of the local ghetto has testified to their antiJewish
activity: they would enter the ghetto, extort big sums of money
from the Judenrat and beat up women and children. Worse, they
also helped the Germans and Ukrainians in the liquidation of the
Lutsk ghetto, in August 1942. No Karaites were mentioned in 1991
by M. ElKodsi in Lutsk.
The capital of "Red Russia",
or eastern Galicia, now in the western Ukraine. R. Fahn assumed
it to be the oldest Karaite congregation in Galicia, though he
admits that he does not know under what circumstances they arrived
In 1444 they had a cemetery there, together
with the Rabbanites. No early Karaite tombstones have survived. In
1475 a document mentions a division of debts between Rabbanites and Karaites.
There was but little intercourse between the Karaites of Lvov and those
of Halicz and the rest of Galicia.
Till 1457 their quarter was in a suburb,
outside of the city walls. The importance of the Jewish community in general
lay in their dominant share of the eastwest trade, which passed through
it. But the Karaite community remained small and less important
than those in such smaller towns like Lutsk, Kukizow and Halicz.
A verdict of 1501 mentions the Karaites of Lvov, showing that
they enjoyed the same rights in the town as the Rabbanites. They
do not seem to be mentioned there, however, after the seventeenth
Town in the Ukraine, where Karaites
settled in the nineteenth century. Outstanding among them was
Mordecai ben Joseph Sultansky (c. 1772-1863).