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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 Byzantine control.

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 Podolia.

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, etc.

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 Russian population.

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.