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Karaim Turks of Lithuania
1.       tunci
7149 posts
 03 Jan 2014 Fri 05:21 pm


Karaim Turks of Lithuania

 Ingmar Karlsson*


In Trakai, Lithuania, opposite the island in Lake Galve, where the city´s medieval castle stands, is a street with very special houses.

In Trakai, Lithuania, opposite the island in Lake Galve, where the city´s medieval castle stands, is a street with very special houses. They are all wooden and painted green and yellow, and each of them has three windows facing the street.

Here, for more than 600 years, one of Europe´s most remarkable and distinctive minorities, the Karaim, has been living on “Karaimu Gatve,” or Karaimu Street.

Their history in Lithuania began when, after the war against the Mongolian Golden Horde in Crimea in 1397, the Polish-Lithuanian King Vytautas Magnus brought 380 Karaim families with him to his capital city of Trakai.

They were given the task of guarding the royal castle as the only access to it was across a bridge from the part of the city the Karaim were allotted. Initially they worked as castle guards. In 1441, they were granted the same rights as the citizens of Magdeburg -- known as the Right of Magdeburg by the Polish--Lithuanian King Kasimir IV. This could be viewed as a model of self-government at the time, and the purpose was to ensure that they would become permanent residents. The Karaims increasingly engaged in agriculture and horticulture, horse breeding and different handicrafts and gradually came to constitute a middle class between the aristocracy and the framers who tilled the soil.

The head of the Karaim was the elected “vaitas,” and he was their official representative in contacts with the Polish-Lithuanian kings. Their houses had three windows facing the street because this demonstrated wealth, while to have four windows was considered to be showy and conspicuous.

On Karaimu Gatve one also finds the only “kenesa” in Europe, the shrine where the Karaim practice the distinctive religion that has given them their identity.

The religion of the Karaim was founded in the eighth century in Baghdad by a man named Anan Ben David. He based his teachings on the written Torah and rejected the oral tradition reflected in Talmud literature.

Thus, according to him, God´s pure and true words were only to be found in the Old Testament. He considered this interpretation to be a continuation of the old Jewish tradition and himself to be a successor to the Essenes of Qumran.

Everyone should closely study the Old Testament on his own and interpret the text according to his own ideas. “Thoroughly research the Torah and do not rely on my view” is a motto attributed to Anan Ben David. No believer was to follow rules the meaning of which he did not understand even after having read them carefully. Thus, the Old Testament should be interpreted individually and independently, without reference to authorities and with the Ten Commandments as the moral norms. According to some, this central message explains the name of the sect, and the word "karaim" is believed to derive from the Hebrew word “karaa,” to read, which may thus refer to the fact that they only accept the written word.

Both Christ and Mohammed are regarded as Karaim prophets, and the religion is also influenced by Muslim schools such as the Mutazilit school of philosophy and the Hanafi school of law.

The emphasis on the written word “sola scriptura,” which Marin Luther was to assert 800 years later in relation to Rome, caused German Protestants to regard the Karaim as forerunners of the Reformation.

When the Karaim center was moved from Baghdad to Jerusalem, the religion began spreading through missionary activities to the Turkic-speaking peoples on the Crimean peninsula and the steppes of the lower Volga region. The Khazars, the Kipchak-Kumans and the Polovts were converted to the new religion in the ninth century, the ulterior political motive perhaps being that they would then constitute a buffer zone between the Russian Orthodox Church advancing from the north and the Muslim expansion from the south and therefore be left in peace.

There is another point of similarity between the Karaim and Protestantism that has contributed to preserving their identity, namely, they worship in their own language, Karaim.

This language belongs to the Kipchak group of the Turkic-Altaic family and is closely related to the language of the Crimean Tatars.

Since Karaim was an isolated linguistic island surrounded by the Slavic languages of Russian, Polish and Lithuanian, it contains many old Turkic words that do not exist in the Turkic languages spoken today. Hence, Karaim is of special interest for comparative Turkic linguistics -- a Polish linguistic researcher has compared it to a fly encapsulated in a piece of amber.

Karaim since the 17th century:

After a visit to Lithuania in 1691, Professor Gustav Peringer from Uppsala University was the first to establish that Karaim belonged to the Turkic language group. One of the foremost experts on the Karaim language today is Eva Csato Johansson of Uppsala University.

The Karaim enjoyed their autonomy according to the Right of Magdeburg until the Third Division of Poland in the late 18th century, when they ended up in the Russian Empire. Half of the inhabitants of Trakai were Karaim. Their legal status changed. At first, they were lumped together with the Muslim Crimean Tatars. In 1863 however, they received the status of a religious minority of their own with a special high priest, or “hakhan,” for the western provinces of the Russian Empire.

During World War I the Karaim were evacuated to Russian towns, mainly to the Crimea. They were able to return in 1920 but found themselves divided between two nations, Lithuania and Poland, where Trakai was now situated. Families were split up and communications between the two communities became more difficult. However, the national feeling was strengthened by the growing nationalism in the resurrected Lithuanian and Polish nation states.

There were therefore extensive cultural activities going on during the inter-war period. A journal, “Karai Avazy” (Voice of the Karaim), was published as well as a historical and literary magazine, “Mysl Karaimska” (Karaim Thought), which contained texts in the Karaim language. Also a society of the friends of Karaim literature and history was founded.

When the German Wehrmacht ran into the Karaim in their thrust eastward, the latter denied any connection to Judaism. They had always repudiated any connection between Judaism and their religion, claiming instead that they were a distinctive religious community.

They were supported in this by Meir Balaban, a learned Jew from the Warsaw ghetto. He was forced by the Nazis to make an evaluation of the Karaim from a religious and racial point of view. Despite the fact that in his earlier publications he had always characterized the Karaim as a branch of Judaism, he now claimed the opposite to save them from the Holocaust.

The German National Socialist race researchers declared that the Karaim indeed belonged to a Jewish sect but at the same time established that they had no Jewish blood in their veins but were in fact Turkic Tatars. There was probably a political background to this ethnic determination. Hitler saw in the Crimean Tatars an ally against the Soviet Union, and since they regarded the Karaim as Tatars, their persecution or annihilation would have jeopardized their alliance plans.

After World War II the borders were again redrawn, and Trakai ended up in the Soviet Republic of Lithuania. The Karaim school was converted into an apartment building and the “kenesa” built in Vilnius during the period of Lithuanian independence became a warehouse.

The Karaim took an active part in the drive for Lithuania´s independence. In May 1988 the Lithuanian Karaim Cultural Society was founded and an anthology of poetry and a prayer book were published in the Karaim language. In April 1992 the Karaim ethnic group was given special legal status as a religious minority having existed in Lithuania since the 14th century.

Spiritual life of the Karaim:

Trakai has now again become the center for the spiritual life of the Karaim. They come here to see the place to where King Vytautas Magnus, whose portrait is to be found in most Karaim homes, brought their ancestors, and to visit their “kenesa.” This is a square building with a copper roof. There are oriental rugs on the floor, and the men sit in the main nave while the women follow the divine service from a gallery separated from the nave by a wall from which only narrow slits provide a view of the altar.

Representatives of the small Karaim communities dispersed over Poland, Russia, Ukraine and the Crimea had a meeting in 1989 in this “kenesa.” Contacts have also been established with the small Karaim (Karait) communities in Israel, Istanbul and the United States. There exists, though, a fundamental dividing-line among them. While the East European Karaim emphasize the independent nature of their communion, the others consider themselves to be Karaim Jews. They regard their religion as being based on Judaism in the same way as Christianity is a religion based on Judaism.

In addition to the religion various old customs and traditions of the Turkic peoples in the Caucasus and Central Asia have played a major role in preserving the Karaim identity. These include, e.g., the wedding traditions with the bride´s melodious and mournful farewell song “Muzhul Kielin” (The Sad Bride) and choosing the “ataman” (matrimonial agent) for the wedding, as well as the moral advice the community´s elders, the “aksakals,” give about future married life and the song sung when the couple enters the shrine.

600 years in Trakai:

The 600th anniversary of the arrival of the Karaim in Trakai was celebrated in 1997. A detailed census of the Karaim in Lithuania was carried out in this connection. At that time there were 257 Karaims in Lithuania, 132 men and 125 women. Thirty-two of them were under 16, 139 lived in Vilnius, 65 in Trakai and 31 in Panevezys. Furthermore, there were 133 Karaim in Poland, living in Warsaw, Gdansk and Wroclaw.

Eighty-two percent said that Karaim was their mother tongue but only 31 percent could speak the language and only 13 percent said they used it in both speech and writing. Over 60 percent spoke Lithuanian, Russian or Polish. Among young people under 16 only three spoke Karaim, a figure that must be seen in light of the fact that the number of Karaim in Lithuania was 423 in 1959 and 352 in 1979.

The future may, therefore, seem gloomy but bearing in mind the high level of education and strong awareness of their distinctive identity, the Karaim have better chances of surviving than some remnants of other peoples.

While 11 percent of the Lithuanian population had benefited from higher education, the figure for the Karaim was no less than 44 percent; 66 percent were in top posts in the administration, six had Ph.D.s and were employed in the newly independent Lithuania´s Foreign Service. Two of the most important posts, the ambassadors in Moscow and Tallinn, were both held by Karaim.

The latter, Halina Kobeckaité, subsequently became the Lithuanian ambassador to Turkey, a post she left last year.


Ingmar  Karlsson


Source :  * Ingmar Karlsson is Sweden´s consul general in Istanbul. The above lecture is part one of a lecture given by Karlsson at the Swedish Research Institute in Istanbul on Feb. 22, 2006.

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