Are Mountain Jews Descended from the Khazars?

An Examination of Jewish Tribes from the Eastern Caucasus

by Kevin Alan Brook


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The question of whether the Mountain Jews of Daghestan (in the north Caucasus) and Azerbaijan descend from the Khazar Jews, who were Turks, has been investigated by many authors, but the evidence is inconclusive one way or another. However, it is clear that Jews lived in the Caucasus since ancient times, having come there from places like Persia. This raises doubts about the possibility that Mountain Jews are entirely or predominantly Khazarian, even though they may have had friendly relations with the Khazars. The customs, clothing, religious practices, physical anatomy, superstitions, and language of the Mountain Jews, as demonstrated in a great exhibition at the Jewish Museum in New York City, have little in common with Turkic peoples or with Judaized Khazars in particular, but have a lot to do with the northern Middle East. Their language is Juwri (Juhuri), of Old Persian origin, related to the Persian spoken by Jews in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and also containing many Turkic and Semitic elements. Some Mountain Jews became integrated into Chechen communities. The Mountain Jews may have intermarried with the Ossetian (apparently partly Alan), Kumukh (Kumyk), Azeri, and Lezgin peoples since some of them physically resemble other Caucasian and Iranian tribes. They also were great warriors like their neighbors. But also there are some (around 4 percent?) Mountain Jews who have red hair rather than black hair. Emil G. Hirsch's article "Hair" in the Jewish Encyclopedia (1901-1906) declares: "On the other hand, in Caucasia, where the natives are dark, the Jews show 96 per cent of dark hair. The proportion of red hair is also quite high, reaching 4 per cent in some observations." Is red hair possibly a heritage of the Khazars? An argument can be made that a minority (though not a majority) of Mountain Jews descend from the Khazars, and further investigations should be undertaken.

Here are some opinions on the question:

"Where the Mountain Jews came from is a source of much scholarly speculation. Many of these Jews, who sometimes call themselves Tats, insist that they are descendants of Israel's Lost Tribes who began their wanderings after the destruction of Jerusalem's first temple in 722 B.C. Others say the Tats migrated north from Persia a mere 300 years ago, at the invitation of a local khan, or chieftain and were cut off from their cousins in Iran as the borders of empires shifted. An altogether different theory suggests that the Tats are what remains of the mighty Khazar nation, an indigenous Caucasian people who converted en masse to Judaism in the eighth century, in a vain attempt to fend off Christian Russians and Islamic Arabs. In appearance, the Tats are indistinguishable from their Azeri neighbors, who are themselves a mix of Turkish, Persian, Arab and Caucasian stock." - "The Mountain Jews of Guba" by Inga Saffron, in The Philadelphia Inquirer (July 21, 1997), page 1.

"According to Kings II - and oral tradition - when ancient Israel was destroyed, some citizens headed, in the eighth century B.C.E., to the conquering land of Assyria and beyond to Media on the Caspian's southern shores. A hundred or so years later, descendants of these exiles, along with other monotheists, were joined by Jews of the Babylonian diaspora. They lay the foundations for Persian Jewish society, some of whom apparently headed north to the Caucasus, with those in the areas that would become Azerbaijan and Dagestan eventually acquiring the identification of Mountain Jews." - "The Jewish Traveler - Azerbaijan" by Phyllis Ellen Funke, in Hadassah Magazine (October 1999).

"The persecution of Jews in Sassanid-ruled Persia [may have] motivated Jews to come to eastern Europe. According to the Israeli historian Michael Goldelman, the Zoroastrians in the Persia-Armenia area tried to impose their religion upon all non-Zoroastrians in the time of Persian king Yazdegard [II] (around the 450s) [reigned 439-457]; thus, circa 455, Armenian and Persian Jews were persecuted, and [allegedly] moved to what later became the Khazar territory." - The Jews of Khazaria, first edition, by Kevin Alan Brook (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 1999), page 117. (I am not aware of specific evidence to support Goldelman's claim about Persian Jews moving to the North Caucasus in that particular time. However, other historians suggest that the persecuted Persian Jews moved to Central Asia and founded the Uzbek Jewish community, and do not bring Mountain Jews into the story.)

"A considerable number of Khazars settled in Derbent, a seaport city located in Daghestan, north of Azerbaijan. In 733 or 734, Maslama ibn `Abd-al-Malik built a 'mosque of the Khazar' in one of the seven districts of Derbent, and it served the Khazar Muslims who were living in the city. It is likely that some Khazar Jews fled to Derbent after the Rus conquered Atil.... Some writers, including Arthur Koestler, have conjectured that the Mountain Jews of Daghestan and Azerbaijan, who call themselves Djuhur or Chufut and speak an Iranian language called Tat, have Khazarian ancestry. However, the Mountain Jews probably descend from Persian Jews who came to the Caucasus in the fifth and sixth centuries." - The Jews of Khazaria, first edition, pages 226-227.

"Another vestige of the Khazar nation are the 'Mountain Jews' in the north-eastern Caucasus, who apparently stayed behind in their original habitat when the others left. They are supposed to number around eight thousand and live in the vicinity of other tribal remnants of the olden days: Kipchaks and Oghuz. They call themselves Dagh Chufuty (Highland Jews) in the Tat language which they have adopted from another Caucasian tribe, but little else is known about them." - The Thirteenth Tribe by Arthur Koestler (1976), page 146.

"They spoke among themselves... Judeo-Tat... As the language is based on Persian elements, Persia is the tribe's most likely geographical origin. Scholars speculate that the Mountain Jews originally migrated to the lowlands of southern Caucasia from Persia, where they had lived long enough to acquire local customs and the Tat dialect. During the Middle Ages the Derbent region was known as Cufut-Dagh, or 'Mountain of the Jews.'... According to their own traditions, the Mountain Jews were led or pushed into this region by the conquering Assyrians or Babylonians... However, real evidence of Jewish colonies in the Caucasus is traceable only to 80 B.C.E, when the Armenian king, Tigran the Great, invaded Palestine and brought back to the Caucasus a large number of Jewish captives. The Talmud mentions the existence of a Jewish community in Derbent, and some prominent talmudic sages are known to have either come from or established yeshivot in Derbent and other cities in the North Caucasus. It is possible that the Mountain Jews are descendants of Persian-Jewish soldiers who were stationed in the Caucasus by the Sasanian kings in the fifth or sixth century to protect the area from the onslaughts of the Huns and other nomadic invaders from the east. Under the impact of the invading Turkic hordes, later generations of Jewish inhabitants of the Caucasian lowlands were forced to migrate even further north to Daghestan. Eldad Hadani, the Jewish traveler who visited this region in the late ninth century C.E., mentioned that the Jews of the Caucasian mountains lived harmoniously among neighbors who worshipped fire and married their mothers, daughters, and sisters.... Some historians believe that the Jews of the Caucasus introduced Judaism into the kingdom of the Khazars in the eighth century." - Jewish Communities in Exotic Places by Ken Blady (Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson Inc., 2000), pages 158-159.

"The origins of these [Mountain] Jews, like those of Bukhara, were lost in the mists of folklore... possibly they were the descendants of the famed Khazarian converts of the Middle Ages." - Diaspora by Howard Sachar (New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1985), page 438.

"Others [of the Khazar Jews] returned to the Caucasus and there augmented the Jews who had earlier immigrated from Persia. They formed the core of the 'Mountain Jews' who even today live in communities rich in tradition." - A History of East European Jews by Heiko Haumann (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2002), pages 6-7.

"A minority of Khazars, however, never left the Caucasus, their stronghold. To this day people called 'Mountain Jews' live there, in Azerbaijan and Daghestan, in entire villages inhabited by Jews who speak Tat who can claim Khazars among their ancestors." - "Prologue. Sur les traces des Khazars" by Marek Halter, in L'Empire khazar, eds. Jacques Piatigorsky and Jacques Sapir (Paris: Autrement, 2005), page 13.

"Many hypotheses exist about descendants of Khazars. It is thought that the Jewish Tats of the Caucasus are their direct descendants; however, this remains not very likely because the Tats speak an Iranian language. One can suppose that their ancestors formed part of the Khazar state, but they cannot be linked to the Khazarian ethnic group itself." - "Que sait-on des Khazars ou e'tat des lieux historique d'un peuple oublie'" by Alexei Terechtchenko, in L'Empire khazar, eds. Jacques Piatigorsky and Jacques Sapir (Paris: Autrement, 2005), page 77.

"Isolated for centuries in remote Daghestan villages that nestle on rocky ledges in the Caucasus or lie on the plains fringing the western shore of the Caspian Sea, the Mountain Jews claim an ancestry that goes back to the destruction of the First Temple. In later centuries, the Jewish rulers of Khazaria held sway over Daghestan. But what happened to the Mountain Jews from then on until the seventeenth century, when they formed a large community in the coastal city of Derbent, remains obscure.... They believed in talismans and amulets as protection against evil spirits and demons.... They excelled as horsemen and as folk dancers and musicians. The language of the Mountain Jews is known as Tat, in which a Jewish literature was created. It is Persian spiced with Turkish and Hebrew words and idioms, but is written in Hebrew characters." - Pictorial History of the Jewish People by Nathan Ausubel (New York, NY: Crown, 1953), page 221.

"Their distant forefathers once lived in southern Azerbaijan, the north-western part of present-day Iran. It was there that they adopted the Tat language but retained Judaism as their faith (the Tats are Islamic). Having become largely assimilated, the predecessors of the Mountain Jews settled on the west coast of the Caspian Sea in the 5th-6th century and from that time on their history has been related to the mountains and the people of Dagestan." - The Red Book of the Peoples of the Russian Empire by Margus Kolga, Igor Tõnurist, Lembit Vaba, and Jüri Viikberg. Quote reproduced with the permission of Indrek Hein.

"The Khagan of Khazaria Bulan chose Judaism and ensured the strength of Khazars which lasted from the 7th c. to 11th c. and became the ancestors of the Mountain Jewish ethnic group. " - Dr. A. I. Musukaev, professor of historical studies of Caucasus, quoted at Istok.ru (translated from Russian)

"From this we can make a judgement that the ancestors of Mountain Jews of Caucasus were the inhabitants of the once mighty Khazar Kingdom... Today most historians agree with this..." - Dr. Z. A. Rabaev, scholar of the North Caucasus, quoted at Istok.ru (translated from Russian)

"The Khazars were Mountain Jews who accepted Judaism..." - Dr. Matatov and Dr. Murzahanov, Caucasian scholars (translated from Russian)

"Both the Mountain Jews and the Karachais seem to be connected with the Khazars of the Caucasus region." - Douglas Morton Dunlop, Abraham N. Poliak, and editors, "Khazars", in Encyclopedia Judaica Vol. 10 (1971)

"It is a romantic notion that today's part-agrarian Mountain Jews of Daghestan are descendants of the Turkic Khazars who uniquely converted to Judaism about 740 C.E. However the authoritative Professor Michael Zand of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, considers that they migrated from Iran less than 300 years ago." - from a paper by Z. Ramazanova and M. Magomedkhanov at the Oxford Symposium 2005

"The distinct identity of Mountain Jews is believed to have crystallized by the eighth century, when waves of Jewish immigrants began migrating to the Caucasus from Persia. Members of the community spoke Dzhuhuri - a kind of 'Persian Yiddish' - a Farsi dialect with a heavy mixture of Hebrew. Another piece of evidence supporting a Persian origin is the fact that Mountain Jewish synagogues face west - the direction from Persia to Jerusalem - not south, as is customary in many synagogues in the former Soviet Union. Later, some scholars say, Mountain Jews may have mixed with the remnants of the Judaic population of the mysterious Khazar empire. Situated between the Caspian Sea and the Black Sea, the Khazars converted to Judaism en masse and made it their state religion in the seventh century. Three hundred years later, they fell under attacks from the Byzantine Empire and the precursors of today's Slavs." - "For Jews from the Caucasus, freedom poses existential threats" by Lev Gorodetsky, Jewish Telegraphic Agency (June 5, 2001).

"The most reliable reference point in searches of the area from which Jews were moved to the East Caucasus is the language of the Mountain Jews. In the opinion of Vsevolod Miller, Jewish-Tat language was generated in territory of Small Media (modern Iranian Azerbaijan); therefrom they were moved to the East Caucasus - at last Persian tsars from the Sassanid dynasty. In the opinion of the modern researchers I.M. Oransky and A.L. Gryunberg, Jewish-Tat language is 'Middle Persian' on the basis of an adverb which has an South-East-Iranian origin. It lets us speak of the ancestors of Mountain Jews having moved to the East Caucasus in the Sassanid era - from Babylonia or from adjacent areas of Iran... M.I. Artamonov has also paid attention to the fact that in the 'Anonymous Cambridge' letter of a Khazar Jew to Spanish dignitary Hasdai ibn Shaprut, it is told that the ancestors of the Khazarian Jews ran from Armenia or through Armenia to Khazaria; they began to marry with the Khazars... Data that Jews arrived in Khazaria from "Armenia" demand that we understand that the "Armenia" of the 'Anonymous Cambridge' Letter represents not actually Armenia, but rather the territory of the large administrative unit which at the time of Arab domination was called Armenia. From time to time it included almost all of Transcaucasia. About the connection between Khazarian Jews and the Jewish groups moved by Khosrov Anushirvan to the East Caucasus, one more fact from the Jewish-Khazarian correspondences testifies. In the 'Anonymous Cambridge' letter, it is said that during the religious debate between representatives of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, Khazarian Torah books were retrieved from a cave in the valley Tizul. In the opinion of P.K. Kokovtsov, V.F. Minorsky, and O. Pritsak, Tizul is an incorrect spelling of oykonima Tarku... Tarku (Jewish-Tat 'Torxu, Torxun') is a local Daghestani name of the city of Samandar, the first capital of the Khazarian kaganate... [I]n ancient Armenian sources, in particular the compositions Favstos Buzand and Elishe, very detailed lists of East-Caucasian peoples are provided repeatedly, and the first mention [by Movses Kalankatuatsi] of Jews in the East Caucasus are from city of Partave in the year 627... [I]n the Khazarian kaganate in the 10th century there were unusual names for Jews like Hanukkah and Pesakh (names of Jewish holidays), Sinai, and also the educated names Sabriel and Nissi which were derived (artificial names) [following Hebrew naming conventions]... An anthropological feature of Mountain Jews is the prevalence among them of names from the Pentateuch, from the books of Prophets and Empires. Another interesting fact is that Mountain Jews rather frequently use names of Jewish holidays as names: Xanuko (Hanukkah), Pisax (Pesakh) - man's, Purim - female... and other unusual names... Additionally, among Mountain Jews to this day is used, frequently, the name Nissi - in the forms Nisu, Nusu... On the basis of these facts it would be possible to find that Mountain Jews are descendants of proselytes [like Khazars], however it is possible to present arguments that contradict this assumption. Especially important among them is that anthropologically Mountain Jews until the end of the 19th century hardly ever had Talmudic names and most very ancient Jewish names, however as against Jewish Khazars the Mountain Jews not only used names of the brightest biblical characters but also names considerably less bright. To be more precise, Mountain Jews used ALL sorts of very ancient Jewish names! That fact can speak that their ancestors came... from the world of the Iranian Jews and, after arriving in the Caucasus, stayed there in relative isolation... Talmud names were widely popular among medieval Jews of the Near East and Europe... As already shown, there are reasons to believe that East-Caucasian Jews significantly influenced the character of Khazar Judaism... [The Khazar name Hanukkah] is met twice in the Kievan Letter, once on a medieval gravestone in the Crimea, and once in the list of Khazarian kings. Outside of the territory of the Khazarian kaganate and outside of the historical zone of the migration of Mountain Jews, this name practically is nonexistent; two exceptions during the Middle Ages were in Jerusalem in the 10th century and in Byzantium in the 12th century. Also it is possible to recollect that according to a legend stated in the 'Anonymous Cambridge' letter, the first Khazar king who accepted Judaism had a Jewish wife named Serax. This name, extremely rare for medieval Jews, is found frequently among Mountain Jews. This circumstance specifies that [she]... most likely came from East-Caucasus, and also that cases of mixed marriages between East-Caucasian Jews and noble Khazars took place even before the Khazar kings accepted Judaism... The Khazarian king Joseph specified that his ancestors accepted Judaism "340 years ago", that is about the year 620, and in that there is nothing improbable because by that time the ancestors of Mountain Jews had already lived almost a hundred years in the East Caucasus." - Igor Semyonov, "About Early Contacts Between East-Caucasian Jews and Khazars", a report read at the 7th Annual International Interdisciplinary Conference on Judaica, February 1, 2000 (translated from Russian)

Concerning the Georgian Jews to the West: "Or perhaps, as the tradition of Georgian Jews has it, they really are the descendants of the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel, or of the Khazars, a Turkic people who converted en masse to Judaism in the eighth century C.E." - John D. Klier, review of Facing West: Oriental Jews of Central Asia and the Caucasus, in The Historian (Summer 2000). And here's another opinion: "Il y a aussi des traces historiques de liens étroits entre les juifs géorgiens et ceux de l'empire des Khazars entre les 9ème et 11ème siècles." - Léon Alhadeff, "Les Ethnies Marginales du Judaisme", in Los Muestros No. 39 (2000).

I have not yet been convinced of a connection between Mountain Jews and Khazarian Jews. It is possibly a coincidence that Khazarian Jews and Mountain Jews lived in roughly the same geographic area. And most of the Khazars who remained in the Caucasus after the 10th century are known to have been forced into Islam, leaving us with the more likely scenario that the Turkic groups of the North Caucasus who are Muslims, such as Karachays and Kumukhs, are partly descended from the Khazars. On the other hand, it is still possible, even if not proven, that some Khazar Jewish families did (as others suggest) form forts and fortresses in the North Caucasus up until the time of the Mongols, and perhaps there was a small amount of intermarriage between any surviving Khazarian Jews and the Mountain Jews living in the same country. I am not sure if there is any Khazar significance to the fact that some Mountain Jews have the surname Xanukaiev or Xanukiev, though Khazars also used the name Hanukkah while other Jewish communities tended not to. Mountain Jews also use Serah as a female name, just as the Khazars had done. Turkic words in the Mountain Jewish language include the words for foods, people, and animals. There are also many Hebrew, Aramaic, and Iranian words in the Mountain Jewish language.

At the 6th International Conference on Ancient DNA and Associated Biomolecules (July 21-25, 2002), Dror Rosengarten of Israel announced that the majority of Mountain Jewish genetic paternal (Y chromosomal) haplotypes "were shared with other Jewish communities and were consistent with a Mediterranean origin." Bayazit Yunusbayev and his colleagues tested 10 Mountain Jewish men for the study "The Caucasus as an asymmetric semipermeable barrier to ancient human migrations" in Molecular Biology and Evolution (2011) and found a similar result; 3 of them were found to belong to Y-DNA haplogroup J1e*, 4 to J2a*, 1 to J2a2*, and 2 to L2. The J haplogroups originated in the Near East and dominated this sample of Mountain Jews. L2 is sometimes found among Balkarians and people from Iran. L haplogroups ultimately originated in South Asia.

A Mountain Jew who had his Y-DNA tested learned that his subclade within the haplogroup G-M201 is very frequent among North Ossetians, South Ossetians, and Georgians.

In terms of mtDNA, some Mountain Jews (coded as "Mizrachi") from Azerbaijan have tested through Family Tree DNA and at least 6 of them were found to belong to the mtDNA haplogroup H, a haplogroup that is widely distributed across Europe and also found to a lesser degree among the peoples of the Middle East, southern Caucasus, and North Africa.

The Mountain Jews and Ashkenazi Jews are ancestrally related due to their common partial Israelite roots. Both groups should work together rather than apart. Ashkenazi Jews need to pay more attention to the culture and history of the Mountain Jews.


Cultural aspects of the Mountain Jews

Occupations. According to historian Ken Blady, the Mountain Jews used to be agriculturalists and grew such crops as grapes, rice, tobacco, grains, and marena (madder). In later years most of the Mountain Jews were forced to get involved in business, so they became traders, tanners, jewelers, rug-weavers, leather-workers, and weapon-makers. A small number of Mountain Jews remained farmers as late as the 20th century.

Cuisine. The foods of the Mountain Jews are outstanding. I have personally eaten the Mountain Jewish versions of chicken shashlik (shish-kebab) and dolma (stuffed grape leaves), and I liked the way the food was prepared and the vegetables and sauces that were used with the meats. There are many very good Mountain Jewish and Persian restaurants in New York City and one of the Persian restaurants is called "Khazar" after the Persian name of the Caspian Sea.

Hospitality. The Mountain Jews were generous to guests, just like their Caucasian neighbors. Ken Blady says that this hospitality probably originated with the Jews themselves: "As one of the oldest inhabitants in the region and the people who brought monotheism to Caucasian soil, it may well have been the Jews who wove the biblical patriarch Abraham's practice of hachnosat orchim (welcoming guests) into the fabric of Daghestani culture. Every guest was treated as if he were personally sent by God. In every Jewish home a special room or hut covered with the finest carpets was set aside for guests. Every host would... lavish on them the finest foods and spirits...." (p. 165-166)

Music and dance. Instruments used by Mountain Jews included the tar (plucked string instrument) and saz (long-necked fretted flute) (Blady, p. 166). Saz is a Turkic word. Blady also says that there were "many talented musicians and wonderful storytellers among the Mountain Jews" (p. 167). Furthermore: "The Mountain Jews were graceful in their movements, and were excellent dancers..." (p. 168).

Courage and independence. Like the Khazars, the Mountain Jews were "skilled horsemen and expert marksmen" (Blady, p. 166). They loved horses and nature. Mountain Jews knew the value of self-defense and carried and owned many weapons (especially daggers).

Dress. Mountain Jews wore clothing like that of their neighbors in the Caucasus.

Charity. Blady explains that all Mountain Jewish towns had a "house of kindness and charity" which helped poor and sick people.

Religion and education. Most of the Mountain Jews were illiterate until modern times even though they did have great oral folklore. Only a few of them studied in yeshivas and became rabbis. They were also pre-Talmudic in many ways (Blady, p. 165). There were many religious customs that they did not follow that other Diaspora Jewish communities did practice. But on the basics of Jewish practice the Mountain Jews were very faithful and always celebrated Shabbat, Pesakh, Shevuot, and other holidays. The first mikvah (Jewish ritual bath) in Azerbaijan was built in the late 20th century.

Some traditional settlement areas of Mountain Jews. Azerbaijani towns: Krasnaya Sloboda, Guba (Kuba/Quba), Vartashen, Baku. Daghestani towns and regions: Kaytag, Derbent, Makhachkala. There are tens of thousands of Mountain Jews living in Israel today. There are also some Mountain Jews in the United States of America and Canada. Many Mountain Jews now live in Moscow.


For more information about Mountain Jews, I suggest the following books:

Mountain Jews: Customs and Daily Life in the Caucasus by Liya Mikdash-Shamailov. Published in 2003. This is an illustrated guide to Jews from Dagestan and Azerbaijan, many of whom resettled in Israel. It explores their history, spiritual life, language and literature, daily life, material culture, and decorative arts.

The Mountain Jews: A Handbook. Published in 2003. This handbook provides an introduction and practical guide to the Mountain Jews and their language. It covers all aspects of the people, including their history, religion, politics, economy, culture, literature and media, plus pictures, chronologies and appendices of up-to-date statistics, maps and bibliographies.

"Facing West: Oriental Jews of Central Asia and the Caucasus" by Waanders Uitgevers Zwolle, Valery Dymshits, Tatjana Emelyanenko. Published in 1999. The chapter called "Jews of the Caucasus" is by Vladimir Dmitriev. This book is tied to the Jewish Museum of New York's 1999 exhibition on Mountain Jewish clothing and customs.

"Jewish Communities In Exotic Places" by Ken Blady. Published in 2000. Has a large chapter on Mountain Jews. Another chapter on Kartvelian Jews in Georgia.

Some links to Mountain Jewish websites are provided here, under the subheading "THE CAUCASUS". Among the best is Juhuro.com. Another centralized resource is Gorskie.ru. Most of these resources are in the Russian language.

Are East-Caucasian Jews Descended from the Khazars (or other proselytes)? by Zvi Avraham is a good companion to my essay. He provides a nice chart of pros and cons.

Kevin Alan Brook is the author of The Jews of Khazaria, the most recent general history of the Khazars in English.

Are Russian Jews Descended from the Khazars?