The Jewish Heritage of Bukhara

On the very first day of my Uzbekistan trip last September, I stumbled across something that was to add a new perspective to my trip, and give me lots to think about. There I was wandering around the Saviksty Museum in Nukus and looking at the various works of art when I came across this painting of a “Bukharan Jew”, by Y.U. Razumovskaya (Charcoal on Paper, 1927).

Karakalpakstan Museum of Art, Savitsky Collection, Nukus Museum

It was the caption that caught my attention for I was not aware of the presence of Jews in Bukhara or in Central Asia. Since I was curious to know more about the painting and the community the man in the painting represented, I asked my guide at the museum for more information. While the guide could not give me more information on the painting or its painter, she did mention that Bukhara was once home to the largest number of Jews in Central Asia. She said that while there were still Jews living in Bukhara, the numbers had come down drastically.

That night, as I waited for my dinner to arrive in my hotel at Nukus, I read up on the Bukharan Jews.

There are varying accounts as to how the Jews came to Central Asia, in general, and to Bukhara, in particular. According to some sources, the Bukharan Jews are one of the lost tribes of Israel and had arrived in Central Asia through trade routes. Other sources say they moved from Persia in 5th century CE. Whatever the reason, the Bukharan Jews are considered to be one of the oldest ethno-religious and linguistic groups of Central Asia.

The earliest written accounts of Jews in the Central Asian region comes from the 4th century CE. After that there are only occasional references to the Jewish community in Central Asia on ossuaries and buildings. It is only from the 16th century that accounts of Jews in Central Asia, especially in Bukhara, can be found leading right up to present times.

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Brilliant blue tile work on the walls of the Jewish Cemetery in Bukhara. Note the star in the centre.

The Bukharan Jews were mostly traders who spoke a language called Bukhori that was a form of Persian mixed with Tajiki and some Hebrew. They lived in a separate area or Mahalla in Bukhara and did not always have an easy time as they faced various levels of persecution right from the time of Arab invaders to Timurid rule to Russian rule. This included paying a special tax, being denied a separate place of worship, wearing black and yellow clothes to distinguish them from the local Muslim population, being denied permission to migrate to Israel to other countries, etc.

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Jewish Mahalla in Bukhara

While the Jewish community was spread across Central Asia, the maximum numbers were in Bukhara alone. It is believed that at its peak in the 1970s, the total number of Jews in the region numbered 45,000 with nearly half of them living in Bukhara. These numbers have declined drastically since then. The houses that the Jews lived in were sold to locals and many of these have become B&Bs today.

When the Central Asian countries became independent in 1991, a large number of Jews migrated to Israel and the United States. A 2010 newspaper report said that there were only 300 Jews living in Bukhara; in 2015, a magazine article put this number at 100 !

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Maghoki Attari Mosque

Till the 16th century, Jews and Muslims in Bukhara worshipped at the Maghoki Attari mosque with the understanding that one community’s service would only begin after the others had finished. It was not until 1620 that a Synagogue was built in Bukhara, one that is still in use today — though there is a struggle to meet the numbers required to conduct the Sabbath service.

Exploring Bukhara’s Jewish history and heritage was not part of my original itinerary, but when I mentioned my interest to Shakhnoza, my guide in Bukhara, she told me about two places that I could visit — the Synagogue and the Jewish cemetery.

A sweet old gentleman, who I assumed was the caretaker, took me around the Synagogue. We couldn’t speak each other’s languages, but I think we managed to communicate just fine. The synagogue door opens into a cool ‘pink-washed’ courtyard with rooms leading off from it. On one side is a prayer-cum-meeting room and on the other side is the room where Sabbath services are held. The walls are covered with Hebrew inscriptions and photographs (of Bukharan Jews, I presume). The Synagogue is supposed to have a 500-year-old Torah, but with silk curtains drawn over it, I couldn’t imagine what it would look like.

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The entrance to the Synagogue at Bukhara
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Sabbath service is held here. I have taken the photograph from the mezzanine where women would sit behind drawn curtains
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The sweet old gentleman who took me around the Synagogue. Here he has typed out the age of the Synagogue on a calculator !

The Jewish Cemetery was not too far from the Synagogue, and when I first saw the entrance to the cemetery, I thought it was an Islāmic monument similar to the mausoleums I had been seeing all over Bukhara — a mud brick structure with a blue tiled dome. The finer details registered only later — the flatter dome, the Star of David on top of the dome (instead of the crescent), the Star of David carved on the wooden door and in the stone screen. No, this was no Islāmic monument, but one belonging to the Jewish community.

Entering into the well-kept white courtyard you’ll find the walls adorned with Hebrew inscriptions and photographs. Behind the Uzbekistan silk curtains there are ancient Torahsfrom over 500 years ago.
The blue dome with a star
Entering into the well-kept white courtyard you’ll find the walls adorned with Hebrew inscriptions and photographs. Behind the Uzbekistan silk curtains there are ancient Torahsfrom over 500 years ago.
The screen with the star pattern carved out
Entering into the well-kept white courtyard you’ll find the walls adorned with Hebrew inscriptions and photographs. Behind the Uzbekistan silk curtains there are ancient Torahsfrom over 500 years ago.
The entrance door to the Cemetery. Note the Star of David symbol carved on the door

The cemetery is quite large and very well maintained. It is supposed to have over 10,000 graves and is run on the money sent by the diasporic Bukharan Jews settled elsewhere in the world. Here too, like the Synagogue, there was no one else at the Cemetery apart from the caretaker. Though the caretaker indicated that I could explore the Cemetery, I only walked around the perimeter of one part. It was a very hot afternoon and due to the harsh Central Asian sun, I preferred to stay in the shade of the grape vines growing abundantly there.

This meant that I missed out on visiting the older (and perhaps more exciting) part of the Cemetery. Still I did come across some interesting graves, two of which I have shared below and were completely contrasting in style and execution.

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A beautiful gravestone of a man, who I think was a musician
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A rather elaborate laser etched tombstone — a style borrowed from the Russians

Bukhara turned out to be a city of surprises at every step — from its seductive charm to its grand monuments to the history of its Jewish community, a community that has contributed to the growth of the city over the centuries.

Over the months since my visit to Bukhara and the little exploration of Bukhara’s history and heritage I did there, I can’t help but draw parallels with the Jewish heritage of my city, Mumbai. The Jews in Mumbai number about 4,000 and are from the Bene Israeli community, with a few Baghdadi Jews. Both cities have dwindling numbers of Jews as well as community members who are doing their best to keep the numbers and spirits going. Synagogues in both cities struggle to get the required number of adult males to conduct services every Sabbath.

There’s a major difference between the Jewish communities in both cities as well. The Bukharan Jews have faced a lot of persecution over the centuries, while the Bene Israelis in India have had a very peaceful existence here and have not been discriminated against.

And yet, the Jews from both cities continue to migrate to the “promised land”.


My Dream Trip Uzbekistan Series:
Dear Uzbekistan | A city called Nukus | Art in the Desert: The Savitsky Collection at Nukus | Mizdahkan: A city for the dead | 3 forts & a dakhma | Itchan Kala of Khiva | There’s something about Bukhara! | Monumental Bukhara | The Jewish Heritage of Bukhara | Shakhrisabz: The home town of Amir Timur | The Registan Square of Samarqand | The blue city of Samarqand | The silk paper factory at Konigil | The surprise & delight that was Tashkent | Uzbekistan: The food & markets special | The Uzbekistan trip planner |


In the coming weeks, I will be writing about #MyDreamTripUzbekistan on this blog. Join me on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram as I share this journey and all “My Favourite Things” with you.


28 thoughts on “The Jewish Heritage of Bukhara

  1. A very insightful post on the history of the Bukharan Jews. Loved the painting from Nukus and of course the photograph of that stunning door. We had heard about the Jewish Synagogue in Bukhara and insisted we see it. It was not part of our itinerary and our guide had not ‘planned’ for it. I am glad that we did and it is wonderful to see the same caretaker who was there when we went a few years ago. We did not visit the cemetery but now if I ever get a chance to go back, I will. Uzbekistan will remain a travel close to my heart and Bukhara, the most precious part of that memory. There was something else about being in Bukhara. For me, it was the city/town which touched me most; even more than opulent and stunning Samarqand.

    Thank you for how you bring places and people alive through your posts.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. From the outside, the Jewish Cemetery could pass off as an Islamic monument. It is only the details that make it stand out.

      Bukhara is a pretty special city, and I’m very happy that there is someone else like you wh thinks so. 🙂

      Like

    1. Thank you, Nirmalya. What I like about the architecture is that it is not much different from Islamic architecture; it is the little details that make it stand out as a Jewish place.

      Like

  2. Your post reminds me of the Jews in Mumbai and Kolkata, and I bet if I was to travel to, say, Cochin, I would have learnt the same – the Jewish members are dwindling, they are trying to maintain and upkeep their synagogues and yet majority of their community have migrated to the Promised Land for better future (or perceived better future?). Love reading your posts – so much insights and information about foreign lands, their history, legacy and culture. It’s my kind of travel 🙂

    P.S. I’m catching up on your Uzbek posts now.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would say perceived better future, Kat. At least for the Jews in India. I know of Jews in Mumbai who have returned. I visited the Cochin Jew town in 1998 and even then were hardly any members of this community left. I wonder what is the state now.

      Thank you so much for going through the posts and for your comments and feedback. Cheers !

      Liked by 1 person

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