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Historical Museum Opens in Azerbaijan’s All-Jewish Town

By Ilham Karimli February 8, 2020

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The Mountain Jews Museum is located in the building of the Karchog synagogue, which was closed during the Soviet years and was restored to its original appearance prior to being introduced as a museum. / Courtesy

Azerbaijan — a country of 10 million, where nearly 97 percent are Muslim — spotlights the very best example of the Jewish-Muslim coexistence, as thousands of Mountain Jews have been living there side by side Muslims for centuries.

On February 3, the Museum of the History and Culture of Mountain Jews opened in the all-Jewish Krasnaya Sloboda (Red Village) settlement in the northeastern Guba region of Azerbaijan.

The museum is located in the building of the Karchog synagogue, which was closed during the Soviet years and was restored to its original appearance prior to being introduced as a museum. Russian businessmen and philanthropists of Jewish descent God Nisanov, Zarakh Iliev, and German Zakharyaev — all from Krasnaya Sloboda — are the initiators and sponsors of the museum’s launch.

The Russia-based Regional Public Charitable Foundation of Mountain Jews STMEGI, which is the largest organization uniting Mountain Jews from all over the world, created the general conception and collected exhibits for the museum. Exhibits that have been donated to the museum by the Jews living in different corners of the world include clothes, jewelry, ritual utensils, manuscripts, books, and ancient household items.

Authors of the museum launched a multimedia component inside the building, due to which the exposition acquired a modern high-tech look. The exhibit collection of the museum contains Jewish religious literature, as well as books in the Juhuri, a traditional language spoken by Mountain Jews settled in the eastern Caucasus Mountains, primarily in Azerbaijan and the Dagestan Republic of Russia. Juhuri vocabulary includes Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic words. The museum is expected to feature the world’s largest library in this language and a center for the study of the history, traditions, and culture of Mountain Jews, sometime in future.

Roots of the settlement of Mountain Jews can be traced from before the 5th century BC. Historical sources identify them as descendants of the Lost Tribes that left Israel after the destruction of the First Temple in 587 BC. Caucasian Mountain Jews, as they are called, have been living in Azerbaijan for around two millennia, since Jews from Persia and possibly the Byzantine Empire were thought to have moved northeastward and settled in the region.

In Azerbaijan, the life of Mountain Jews flourished mainly in the town of Red Village — the only all-Jewish town outside Israel and the United States. The name of the village comes from red tiles used on many of the roofs. Around 4,000 Mountain Jews settle in this village, which is considered the world’s last surviving shtetl. A shtetl was a small town populated by Jews in Central and Eastern Europe before the Holocaust.

The overall number of the Jewish population in Azerbaijan was around 30,000 as of 2016. No negative sentiments like anti-Semitism interrupt the life of Jews in Azerbaijan as they enjoy equal rights with the indigenous population.

There are three Jewish synagogues in the Krasnaya Sloboda settlement. While synagogues in Europe, the United States, and Muslim-majority countries around the world are secured like a fortress, such measures are not applied for those in Azerbaijan where armed guards or high-tech security solutions could barely be seen.

“Anti-Semitism and security for Jews were not of concern to the Jewish community in Azerbaijan,” Sheila Gewolb, Senior Vice President of the Board of Deputies and Chair of the International Division of British Jews, said, according to a report by Jewish News. 

“To date, there has not been a single registered case of anti-Semitism in the country. There isn’t even a word in Azeri for ‘Jew-hatred’.”

Meanwhile, some believe the newly opened Mountain Jews Museum in the Red Village could contribute to the economic upsurge of the village and surrounding areas. Moses Becker, a leading researcher at the Institute of Law and Human Rights of the Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijan, says it will help increase the influx of foreign tourists into the region and to Azerbaijan.

“With the opening of the Museum of Mountain Jews, many more tourists from Israel will come to Azerbaijan. Soon we will see significant progress in the field of tourism cooperation,” Becker said.

“Now routes are being developed for Jewish places in Azerbaijan. They [tourists] will return to Israel with new impressions and pass them on to all their friends and relatives, who, in turn, will be interested in visiting Azerbaijan.”