Beyond Azerbaijan’s bustling capital city of Baku, with its modern skyline now defined by flame-shaped glass towers, is an abundance of ethnic diversity. Living in compact settlements nestled among the lush green hills and snow-capped mountains of Azerbaijan are about 50 different ethnic populations speaking over 40 languages.
Krasnaya Sloboda (Red Town) is one such hamlet. Named for its red roofs that visually pop from nearby highland lookouts, it is one of the only all-Jewish towns outside of Israel.
Just off Krasnaya Sloboda’s center square, inside its main chaykana (a traditional Azeri teahouse usually reserved for the exclusive use of men), I interrupted an intense game of backgammon. Here, I met Anatoliy, the town’s synagogue keeper, who was eager to explain the history of the Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan.
He took me on a tour, pointing out historic sites, including the cemetery reserved exclusively for Mountain Jews, and the renovated homes of prominent individuals in the community. A lavish wedding hall overlooks the Qudyal River, and on the other side, Anatoliy pointed to the Muslim city of Quba.
“We’ve always lived peacefully here in Krasnaya Sloboda with our Muslim neighbors,” he said. “Our mutual respect for one another allowed the Mountain Jews to preserve our unique and ancient customs.”
The Mountain Jews have inhabited the region since the 13th century, but the existence of a modern-day shtetl in Azerbaijan is surprising mainly because the country predominately adheres to Shi’a Islam.
Elsewhere in the Muslim world, Jews were expelled from many countries shortly after the Arab-Israeli war and the creation of the state of Israel in 1948. Before independence in 1991, Azerbaijan was also part of the Soviet Union, where Jews endured discrimination and experienced government-sanctioned anti-Semitism.
Azerbaijan is also known more for its oil wealth than its love for diversity. Indeed, the country’s post-Soviet existence has been defined in part by a bitter conflict with Christian Armenians over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory. Despite a shaky ceasefire since 1994, the so-called “frozen conflict” once again erupted in April of this year, resulting in dozens of casualties.
The past does not weigh heavily on Krasnaya Sloboda, however. Azerbaijan’s Mountain Jews see the current government more as protectors than as persecutors.
The Mountain Jews’ comfort with President Ilham Aliyev’s administration might have something to do with the national narrative Azerbaijan’s government wants to publicize – an inclusive and cosmopolitan society that is secular and non-threatening to Western values.
Despite the enmity between Azeris and Armenians, Milikh Yevdayev, a leader of the Religious Community of Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan, asserted that Azerbaijan should be held up as an example of a country where “people of every culture and cloth have something fundamentally in common.”
To a certain extent, Aliyev’s administration is trying to reconnect to a historical tradition in which Baku was celebrated as an internationally oriented city that was hospitable toward Jewish groups. The capital’s ethnic diversity in recent centuries was rooted in its status as a Silk Road trading hub, especially its role as a conduit for trade between Turkey and Iran. The oil boom of the late 19th – early 20th centuries heightened Baku’s cosmopolitan feel.
President Aliyev likes to call attention to this heyday era of inclusivity. For example, an international gathering held in early May in Baku, sponsored by the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations (UNAOC), took place under the motto: “Living Together in Inclusive Societies.” First Lady Mehriban Aliyeva even held up the prosperous existence of Krasnaya Sloboda as an exemplar of Azerbaijan’s tolerance.
Rights activists and some other observers contend that the government’s emphasis of its acceptance of Jews might be a tactic designed to muddle the international community’s recent criticism of Azerbaijan's democratization record. Watchdog groups now rank Azerbaijan among the more politically repressive states in the world. According to anthropologist Bruce Grant, amplifying an idyllic shared history can be perceived as a vehicle for state sponsorship – in other words, propaganda.
How the Mountain Jews got to Azerbaijan remains in dispute among religious historians. Yet the population’s distinct language, Judeo-Tat or Juhuri (an Arabicized dialect of Farsi) lends some clues. Linguistic evidence suggests that Juhuri is closely related to the endangered Tat language, which is spoken by neighboring Caucasian Muslim populations. Juhuri is also of a different language group than Azeri, the Turkic national language of Azerbaijan.
Both Tat and Juhuri are linked to Persian. Thus, the Mountain Jews are likely descendants of Persian Jews. Following the destruction of the first temple in ancient Israel, they migrated to Iran in the 8th century and continued onward in the Caucasus, settling in remote and mountainous areas of present-day Dagestan and Azerbaijan.
In 1742, the Khan of Quba gave the Jews permission to set up their own municipality, Krasnaya Sloboda. This enabled the community to escape persecution, and preserve their Jewish identity and traditions. The remoteness of the community likewise helped Mountain Jews to endure the vicissitudes of World War II, Soviet pogroms, and a myriad of other 20th century political upheavals.
In the mid-1980s, before the Soviet Union started to unravel, the Mountain Jews in Krasnaya Sloboda numbered over 18,000 people. Today, it has just over 3,000 inhabitants. But many who have left, especially those who have prospered, retain a strong connection to the town. Some who now call Moscow, New York or Israel home continue to invest in projects that improve their hometown’s simple way of life without diminishing its traditions.
There are two functioning synagogues in Krasnaya Sloboda, a summer and winter one, where colorful hand-woven rungs adorn every inch of the chapel’s floor. Anatoliy pointed out that all visitors are required to take off their shoes before entry. Taking off your shoes to pray is not a Jewish tradition, but in the Southern Caucasus, the synagogue keeper explained, some Muslim rituals were borrowed by the Jews. And in this part of the world, both the Mountain Jews and Shi’ite Muslims are considered equally Azerbaijani.
Lolita Brayman is a freelance writer based in the United States who likes to travel and write about the South Caucasus.