Karaims of Crimea (Ukraine)


From: The Karaite Encyclopedia by Nathan Schur (Frankfurt, 1995)

Karaims of Crimea (Ukraine)

Three alternative explanations have been given as to the origins of the Karaite settlement in the Crimea. The most romantic one is the Khazar theory. The Khazars occupied at least the eastern portion of the Crimea between the seventh and early eleventh centuries. Such Karaite nationalists as A. Firkovich claimed in the nineteenth century that the Khazars were mostly not only Jews, but actually Karaites. To strengthen his case Firkovich sometimes "emended" the dates found in the colophons of manuscripts and on tombstones, in his books and reports. This has given the Khazar theory a very bad name among scholars, but it does not necessarily mean that there could not be some truth in it. At present it can neither be proven nor disproves.

The second alternative is to link their settlement to Karaite merchants from Byzantium. Most of the Crimean peninsula was part of the Byzantine Empire. The Karaite mercantile activity in the Black Sea in the twelfth century can thus be regarded as the background to their arrival and settlement. Their earliest still existent record is Aaron ben Joseph's report, from the last quarter of the thirteenth century, about a feud with Rabbanites in Solkhat on a matter of calendation. Karaite communities could have existed there already a century earlier, and, indeed, Petahya of Regensburg mentions late in the twelfth century Jewish heretics who do not lighten Sabbath candles in the "Land of Kedar" (however Crimea proper is called by him "Land of Khazaria").

Under Mongol rule the Crimea was the western outlet of trade routes that led to Central Asia and to China, and thus gained commercial importance which it did not possess either earlier or later. Against this background one has to understand the increase in the settlement there of Karaite traders in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. They kept up a lively trade between Kaffa (Feodosia) and Trebizond and Constantinople.

The third alternative is to stipulate the conversion of local inhabitants to Karaism, not in Khazar times, but later, during or after the Mongol rule, under the influence of the newcomers from Byzantium. This could explain the Turkish language of the local Karaites, their "Tartar" appearance and way of life, and the political independence of the Karaites of Chufut-Kale.

When both Byzantium and the Mongol Empire declined, the trading towns of the Crimea were administered in the fifteenth century by the Republic of Genoa. Later the Crimea constituted a Khanate, which came 1475-1783 under Ottoman suzerainty. The inhabitants were called Tartars and were an ethnic mixture of Scythians, Greeks, Khazars, Cumans, Mongols and Turks, speaking a Turkish dialect and professing Islam. The local Karaites worked the soil in a similar way as their neighbours, raised livestock and spoke the same Turkish dialect. They intermarried sometimes, and often even looked rather like their neighbours.

Well into the nineteenth century the Crimea remained numerically the largest and economically the most important Karaite centre anywhere. Many Karaites specialized in the growing of tobacco and cucumbers. Others owned tanneries and employed Tartar workers. The Karaites were regarded as belonging to the elevated social stratum of the Tarhan, did not have to pay taxes and had free access to the Khan's palace. They inhabited four main towns, Feodosia, Solkhat, Chufut-Kale and Eupatoria.In spite of the favourable social and economic conditions, the Karaite communities of the Crimea did not produce any important thinkers or scholars. At first religious leaders reached it from Byzantium and later from Volhynia and Lithuania (for instance Simha Luzki in 1751). 1734-1741 and 1804-1806 a Hebrew press operated in Chufut-Kale.

In 1783 the Crimea was incorporated in Russia. The number of Karaites amounted then to 2400. In 1839 the Scottish missionaries Bonar and McCheyne mentioned 4000 or 5000 Karaites there and added that they "are the most respectable of all Jews, men of character and intelligence, very cleanly and industrious in their habits and much favoured by the Government".

The Crimea was initially the centre of the National Karaite Movement, headed by such leaders as Benjamin ben Samuel Aga, Simha Babovich, Joseph Solomon Luzki, Abraham Firkovich and Samuel ben Moshe Pampolov. It achieved their exemption from all the civil disabilities of the Jews and they were accorded the same privileges as the Christians. Other leaders and scholars of the nineteenth century worth mentioning were Isaac ben Solomon, Abraham Luzki, Mordecai Kukizow and Mordecai Sultansky.But as the Karaites settled in the later nineteenth century in many of the towns of Russia, Poland and the Ukraine, the relative importance of the Crimea declined. World War I made further inroads. Chaotic conditions prevailed after the Germans withdrew. The Karaite Salomon Krym headed November 1918 - April 1919 the civil government of the Crimea.

Under Soviet rule it was attempted to develop a secular, non-religious Karaism, with an ethnic culture of its own. Still, the collectivization of agriculture caused great financial loss to the Karaites. It is possible that their hatred for the Communists made them in World War II such pliant tools in the hands of the Nazis (Holocaust), who captured the Crimea in the autumn of 1941. The Karaites were left in peace, while all other Jews were massacred. At the end of the war many of the Karaites fled to the West, others were deported (many, apparently, to Troki). Still, quite a few remained, and in 1991 M. El-Kodsi was told that 800 were left, of them 250 in Simferopol, 90 in Gozlov (Eupatoria), 70 in Feodosia, 60 in Sevastopol, 50 in Bakhchisarai (Chufut-Kale), 30 in Yalta and further ones elsewhere.

Crimean cities with Karaim Settlers

  • Chufut Kale, Bakhchisaray
  • Eupatoria / Gözleve
  • Feodosia / Kaffa
  • Simferopol / Akmescit
  • Solkhat / Eski Kirim

Chufut Kale ("Jew's Castle" in Turkish; Bakchisarai)

This was an important Karaite centre in the southern Crimea. Karaite sources call it "Sela ha­Jehudim" (Rock of the Jews). Nearby Mangup was settled in Roman and Byzantine times and the area was controlled by the Khazars in the ninth and tenth centuries. Karaites might have settled there before the Mongol invasion of the thirteenth century. The large Jewish cemetery is several centuries older. Later the Karaites enjoyed there a great deal of independence. They defended the town when attacked and one of their leaders, Elijah, is reported to have been killed during a Genoese attack on the town. The Ottoman traveller Evliya Celebi described in 1660 the independent status of the "non believers" there. He claimed the Karaites to have been the majority of the population. Both the local garrison and its commander were reported to have been Karaites. When in difficulty, the Muslim ruler of the Khanate of the Crimea, is reported to have taken refuge there. Further, he is reported to have lodged there some of the prisoners of war he had taken for safekeeping.

In the middle of the seventeenth century the Karaites are reported to have numbered there over 300 families. In 1734 a Hebrew press was set up by the brothers Afdah and Shabbetai Yeraka, especially for Karaite works. It functioned till 1741, and again 1804­1806. In 1751 settled there the important scholar Simha ben Moses Luzki. In 1834 the French marshal Marmont reported that Karaites inhabit all the 300 houses of the citadel area, but descend every day to Bakchisarai for their business. In 1839 the Scottish missionaries Bonar and McCheyne reported that some 1500 Karaites lived there. It served as centre for all of the Crimea. The Karaites were ruled by the Celebi clan and after 1826 by the Babovich family. In disputes between its Hakham and the one of Eupatoria on points of Karaite Halakha, custom and religion, Chufut Kale is reported usually to have been victorious.

Later it declined and was temporarily abandoned after the Crimean War, with most of its Karaite population moving to Gozlow­Eupatoria. As a result A. Firkovich was able to obtain at Kale many of the Karaite documents of his second collection. Also 546 of the 751 Hebrew epitaphs published in his "Avnei Zikkaron" (1872) were from Kale. Later the new town of Bakhchisarai was built below the old castle. The Karaites survived there unharmed World War II. In 1991 M. El­Kodsi was told about fifty Karaites living there, but could actually locate only one. Most of the houses of the "Karaite street" have been abandoned, but the Karaite cemetery was in good condition and Firkovich's house still survives. In 1878 and 1881 Daniel Chwolson was the first to carry out there serious archaeological excavations, to be followed in 1890, 1912, 1972­4 and 1986 by others, both in the castle and the cemetery.

Eupatoria (Gozlow)

One of the four main towns settled by Karaites in the Crimea since the late Middle Ages. It is located in the west of the peninsula and initially it was less important than Chufut­Kale, to its south­east. After the Crimean War Chufut­Kale was abandoned and its Karaite population moved to Gozlow, which became now the main Karaite centre. A printing press was founded there in 1833, which was later managed by Abraham Firkovich. Many of the basic Karaite works were printed there for the first time, or reprinted for a new audience. Marshal Marmont visited there in 1834 and found the Karaite house in which he lodged "charming". The total number of inhabitants he estimated at 12,000 "composed totally of Karaite Jews, and Tartars". A Karaite deputation on horseback received him on arrival. Panpulov served as Eupatoria's mayor, till 1879. In 1894 a school for Khasanim was founded. In 1897 1505 Karaites lived there, about 9% of the total population. In 1905 there was a pogrom in Eupatoria. During the chaotic years at the end of World War I the last Hakham escaped to Istanbul and Serge von Douvan served as mayor of Eupatori. In 1926 2,409 Jews (both Karaites and Rabbanites) lived there. In World War II it was captured by the Germans and later recaptured by the Soviets. Many of the Karaites left at this stage. A visitor in 1970 reported that the synagogue had been turned into a Karaite museum. In 1991 M. El­Kodsi reported that 90 Karaites were still living there.

Feodosia (Kaffa)

Port in the southeastern Crimea, with a Jewish population dating back to Hellenistic times. In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries Karaites were among the merchants who traded there and eventually also settled there. The traveller Schiltberg mentions early in the fifteenth century both a Rabbanite and a Karaite congregation. In the years 1453­1475 Feodosia was administered by the Bank of St Giorgio on behalf of the Republic of Genoa. 14751783 it was under Ottoman suzerainty. It continued to be one of the four Crimean towns with Karaite communities, but was overshadowed by Chufut­Kale, and in the nineteenth century, under Russian rule, by Eupatoria.

The local Karaites were not killed by the Germans in World War II, and in 1991 M. el­Kodsi reported that 70 Karaites still lived there.


This is at present one of the main towns of the Crimea. Solomon Krym founded there a university in 1918, which still exists. While there is no record of a pre­nineteenth century Karaite congregation there, at present (1991) exists there the largest Karaite community of the Crimea, some 250 souls. The synagogue was built in 1886 and services were held regularly, till 1936, when it, and the nearby school, were confiscated by the Soviet authorities. Both have now been returned to the Karaites.

Solkhat (Eski Kirim)

This town in the Crimea held an early Karaite community, mentioned already in a colophon of 1207. Aaron ben Joseph (the Elder) (c. 1250­1320) was born there and became at a young age the Hakham of the local congregation. The earliest more detailed information about the Karaites of Solkhat (and of the Crimea in general) can be deduced from the record of his disputes on calendation with the local Rabbanites. In later centuries Solkhat was one of the four main towns in the Crimea in which Karaite congregations existed. But it was overshadowed by Chufut­Kale and Eupatoria, and later mentioned no longer.

Other Ukrainian Cities with Karaim Settlers

  • Lutsk
  • Lvov
  • Kherson


City in Volhynia; until 1793 part of Poland, afterwards of Russia, and now of Ukraine. Grand Duke Witold of Lithuania is credited with having settled in Krasna Gora, opposite Lutsk, in 1392 the first hundred Karaite families, who were prisoners from the Crimea. But there is considerable doubt about the authenticity of this tradition. The earliest reliable report about a Karaite community in Lutsk dates from 1506, when lgng Sigismund 1 (1506­1548) released the local Karaites from some of their taxes. From the archives of Lutsk the following numbers of Karaites have been culled: in 1552, 25 households; in 1648 20 households; after the Chmielnicky massacres of that year only three households remained in 1650; in 1660/1 the number had risen again to 21. A century later, in 1778, 80 Karaites (souls, not households) were counted; in 1784 105; in 1787 33 households, consisting of 137 souls, plus ten households in the vicinity. In 1789, 25 households were counted in the Karaite street of the town. In the later eighteenth century they suffered heavy losses as a result of the Haidamack uprisings.

Relations with other Karaite communities were close. In the fifteenth century students from Lutsk are supposed to have studied with Elijah Bashyazi in Istanbul. Later, Lutsk was influenced from Troki in Lithuania and the local synagogue was built of wood, like that of Troki. In the nineteenth century some of the Karaites of Lutsk moved to the Crimea, and among them were several scholars named Luzki, after their hometown. Others moved to such large towns, as Odessa and Moscow. Still, the community of Lutsk, too, had a more urban character, than, for instance, that of Halicz. World War I, the following Civil War and the Petljura pogroms had a devastating affect. In the 1920's only some 70­80 Karaites ware left in Lutsk; community life was at a standstill and the younger Karaites were no longer able to speak their language. In World War H the Karaites of Lutsk cooperated with the Nazis and acted as liaison between the Germans and the Lutsk Judenrat. A survivor of the local ghetto has testified to their anti­Jewish activity: they would enter the ghetto, extort big sums of money from the Judenrat and beat up women and children. Worse, they also helped the Germans and Ukrainians in the liquidation of the Lutsk ghetto, in August 1942. No Karaites were mentioned in 1991 by M. El­Kodsi in Lutsk.


The capital of "Red Russia", or eastern Galicia, now in the western Ukraine. R. Fahn assumed it to be the oldest Karaite congregation in Galicia, though he admits that he does not know under what circumstances they arrived there.

In 1444 they had a cemetery there, together with the Rabbanites. No early Karaite tombstones have survived. In 1475 a document mentions a division of debts between Rabbanites and Karaites. There was but little intercourse between the Karaites of Lvov and those of Halicz and the rest of Galicia.

Till 1457 their quarter was in a suburb, outside of the city walls. The importance of the Jewish community in general lay in their dominant share of the east­west trade, which passed through it. But the Karaite community remained small and less important than those in such smaller towns like Lutsk, Kukizow and Halicz. A verdict of 1501 mentions the Karaites of Lvov, showing that they enjoyed the same rights in the town as the Rabbanites. They do not seem to be mentioned there, however, after the seventeenth century.


Town in the Ukraine, where Karaites settled in the nineteenth century. Outstanding among them was Mordecai ben Joseph Sultansky (c. 1772-1863).


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