Events - A Brief
History of the Karaites in Eastern Europe
based on Hakham Mordekhai Ben-Yosef Sultanski’s Sefer Zekher Saddiqim (Chufut-Qale, 1838) and other sources
by Hakham Avraham Ben-Rahamiël Qanaď
During the reign of Theodosios I (4148, 388 c.e.), Karaites from Persia
moved to Adrianople (the modern Edirne, Turkey) in the Byzantine Empire
- eventually, gradually moving from there to Constantinople (the modern
Istanbul, Turkey) and also to the Crimean peninsula, settling in the
city of Sulkhat, called presently [in Karaite Judćo-Tatar] Eski Kirim
("Old Crimea"), being that the Crimean peninsula had recently come under
During the reign of the Byzantine emperor Constantine V (Circa 4502,
circa 742 c.e.), Khazar Turks from the region of Bukhara invaded the
Crimea. Karaite writers in Byzantium and elsewhere deride the Khazars,
call them enemies of Israel, and even equate the name Khazar with the
Hebrew word Mamzer (see Ya‘aqov Ben-Re’uven’s [11th - 12th century c.e.]
Sefer Ha‘Osher as well as the commentaries of Yefet Ben-‘Ali [10th century
c.e.] and Yeshu‘ah Ben-Yehudah [11th century c.e.]).
At the end of 11th century c.e., The crusader Baldwin I, Count of Edessa
and King of Jerusalem, with the aid of the Genoese, transfers 250 Karaite
families from Jerusalem to the Crimea, settling them in the fortress
towns of Qalé [Chufut-Kalé] and Mangup.
Circa 4960 (1200 c.e.), Tatars conquered the interior of the Crimea.
The Genoese trading colonies founded on the coast. Many more Byzantine
Karaites moved to the Crimea. The Judćo-Greek speaking Karaites gradually
adopted the language of the Tatars and developed the Karaite Judćo-Tatar
dialect. The Tatars esteemed the Karaites so well that the Khan appointed
a Karaite to the hereditary title of Agha and mintmaster, which position
remained until the Crimea was conquered by Russia in the late 18th century.
In 5148 (1388 c.e.), Grand Duke Vitold Jagello of Lithuania, after defeating
the Tatars in a war in the Crimea, exiled 483 Karaite families from
Sulkhat [Eski Kirim] and settled 330 families in Trakai [Troki], near
Vilinius, and the remainder he settled in the town of Panevezys. After
Vitold unites Lithuania with Poland (5152, 1392 c.e.), the wars begin again against the Tatars
which had invaded from the Crimea into Poland. He took an additional
280 Karaite families from Sulkhat [Eski Kirim] and settled 180 of them
in Galicia in the city of Halicz on the Dnester river and the remainder
he settled 200 families in Volhynia in the city of Krasna Góra on the
hill across the Styr river opposite the fortress city of Luck (Lutzk).
From there Karaites spread to other towns in Lithuania, Volhynia, and
Some time after the deportation of the 883 Karaite families from Sulkhat
[Eski Kirim], the remaining Karaites moved from Sulkhat [Eski Kirim]
to Kaffa (Kefe) [Feodosia], Qalé [Chufut Kalé], Mangup, and Gözlöv [Evpatoria],
thus ending the Karaite settlement in Sulkhat [Eski Kirim].
5225 (1463 c.e.), Turks conquer the Crimean coast ousting the Genoese,
the Karaites alone remaining in the fortress towns, except in Mangup
where Tatars settled as well among them. Later, due to oppression by
the Arnauti, the Karaites flee Mangup and go to Qalé [Chufut-Kalé] and
to Gözlöv (Evpatoria).
After the Karaites flee Mangup, the Tatars also abandon it. Sometime
after the Karaite community of Luck had grown greatly, another community
of 60 families was started at Derazne (Derazhno) in Volhynia near Luck
on the Hory river. That community was, however, destroyed by the Ukrainian
Haidamak leader Gonta’s army and the few survivors returned to Luck
and Halicz. The Karaites in Lithuania also spread out and settled in
many towns such as Pasvalys (Poswol) [in the region of Panevezys], Salaty
and Pósalaty [in the region of Paneveys], Birzai (Birze) [in the region
of Panevezys], Seda (Szaty) [in the region of Telsiai (Telz) or Ukmerge
(Wilkomir)], Kronie [in the region of Trakai (Troki)], Swiate Ozero,
In 5448 (1688 c.e.), A number of Karaite families were transferred by
the Polish King Jan Sobieski III from Trakai [Troki] to Kukizow [Krasne
Ostrow]. Over 100 years later, after Galicia came under Austrian rule,
due to oppression by the local governor, the majority of Karaites abandoned
Kukizow [Krasne Ostrow] and went to Halicz and Luck.
1783 - 1795 c.e., Russia conquered and annexed the Crimea and Lithuania.
The Russian Empress Catherine II relieved the Karaite Jews of the double
tax that was imposed on all Jews and permitted them to acquire land
(which had been denied to other Jews). Legislative decrees still referred
to the Karaites as Jews.
1827 - 1840 c.e., Russian Tsar Nicholas I exempts Crimean Tatars and
Karaites from the general military draft law. The same exemption was
extended to the Karaites of Lithuania and Volhynia. The official Russian
designation for the Karaite Jews is changed from “Jews-Karaites” to
“Russian Karaites of the Old Testament Faith”.
The Karaites were put on an equal footing with the Muslims and were
granted an independent church statute (this made them no longer responsible
to the Rabbanite communal authorities for the collection of taxes and
recognized the independence of the Karaite Beit Din).
1863 c.e., The Karaites were given rights equal to those of the native
Through 1874 c.e., Hakham Avraham Ben-Shemu’el Firkovich, in an effort
to relieve the Karaites of some of the oppressive Russian anti-Semitic
laws, convinces the Russian government that the Karaites are not Jews
but the descendants of the Turkic Khazars. This was only for external
consumption. Within the Karaite community they continued to identify
themselves as Jews.
1910 c.e., Due to increasing anti-Semitic laws and actions, in order
to protect the rights of the Karaite community the congress of Hakhamim
and Hazzanim decided to no longer allow marriages between Rabbanites
and Karaites or accept Rabbanites who wished to become Karaites (This
ban was not always followed and marriages between Rabbanites and Karaites
still occurred, but rarely).
1917 c.e., After the Bolshevik revolution, the communist government
accepts the Tsarist opinion that the Karaites are a Turkic people
descended from the Khazars. Due to the anti-religious policies of the
communist regime, almost any teaching about the Jewish heritage of the
Karaites ceases and most Karaites in the U.S.S.R. begin to believe
the Khazar ruse.
1945 c.e., Lithuania is annexed by the U.S.S.R. and Poland becomes a
Soviet satellite. Communist policies are extended to those countries
as well and the same result occurs as in the U.S.S.R.
1993 c.e., After the fall of the Soviet Union, Karaites in the former
U.S.S.R. and Poland begin to show a renewed interest in their Jewish
heritage, some even emigrating to Israel.