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).
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.
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.
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 !
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.
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.
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.
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 |