Bukharan Jews

Bukharan Jews

Bukharan Jews in 1890

The term “Bukharan Jews” refers to the Central Asian Jews of the political entity of Bukhara, those of Samarkand, and the Ferghana Valley. Today, the region is divided between the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan (see description elsewhere on our website).

This section will describe in brief the overall history of the Bukharan Jews, in particular the community’s earlier years. More details can be found on the Jewish Virtual Library website and on Wikipedia.

The Bukharan Jews have a tradition that they are descendents of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel who were exiled by the Assyrians in the 8th century B.C.E., in particular the Tribe of Napthali and the Tribe of Issachar.

An alternate tradition has it that the Bukharan Jews can trace their ancestry to the conquest of Babylonia by Cyrus, the King of Persia, in 539 B.C.E. In either case, the Bukharan Jews are considered one of the oldest ethno-religious groups of Central Asia and over the years they have developed their own distinct culture.

Regarding the second hypothesis, researchers understand that Jews lived in Persia until 331 B.C.E., when Alexander the Great defeated the Sogdian King Spitamenes and conquered the region. At Alexander’s sudden death in 323 B.C.E., the Seleucids gained control, followed by the Parthians, who reestablished the Persian Empire.

The Parthians gave the Jews citizenship and allowed them to practice Judaism freely. Under Parthian rule, the Bukharian communities flourished. In 224 C.E., however, the Sassinids conquered the region. They made Zoroastrianism the official religion and persecuted the Jews for their unwillingness to convert. Some Bukharan Jews moved to the northern and eastern parts of the region due to anti-Jewish hostilities.

During the spread of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries, control of Bukhara was transferred between many different Arab rulers. In 874, the Saminids took over and made Bukhara the capital of their empire. They were fairly tolerant of the Bukharan Jews, though they forced all non-Muslims who refused to convert to pay heavy taxes. Jews were given the status of dhimmi, or “Protected Unbelievers.”

In 1219, the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan, conquered Bukhara, pillaging and burning the city to the ground, destroying the Bukharan Jewish community. In 1300, a new leader, Timur, rebuilt Samarkand and Bukhara and imported Persian Jews to work as dyers and weavers and develop the empire’s textile industry. Supposedly, one could recognize a Bukharan Jew by his purple-dyed hands. The community build a synagogue that was used for the next 500 years. The Bukharan Jews generally called themselves “Isro’il” (for Israelites).

Interior of the Great Synagogue in Bukhara, sketch based on a photograph by Elkan Nathan Adler

Bukhara went through many changes of hands next, from Muslim to Uzbeks (Turkic nomads) to eventually the Russians. The more recent history of the community can be found here and here.