Pages 14-21

by Rovshan Didavari

Semyon Ikhiilov is the leader of the Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan, the largest Jewish community in the country. He gives Visions magazine his perspective on the fascinating history of the Mountain Jews and talks about their lives in modern-day Azerbaijan.

Where does the name Mountain Jews come from?

Many Jews have a prefix such as Mountain Jews, German Jews, Syrian Jews, or Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardic Jews and others. After slavery in Egypt our ancestors moved to Iran and 2,700 years ago came to North Azerbaijan. They settled in the mountains where the Tats lived (who later converted to Islam). The Jews are peaceful, not warlike people, and our ancestors became close friends with the Tats. For 300-400 years the Jews gave their daughters in marriage to the Tats and vice versa. The Jews and Tats intermingled and as a result the Jews gradually lost their language and began to speak Tat. But the Jews are religious people and they kept the Torah with them and prayed in Hebrew three times a day. These Hebrew prayers remain in our folk memory and are the only Hebrew that we know today. The language of daily life became Tat and the Tat-speaking Jews were called Mountain Jews.

Left to right: Sheykh-ul-Islam Haji Allahshukur Pashazadeh, Alexander, Bishop of Baku and the Caspian Eparchy, Semyon Ikhiilov, headf of the Religious Community of the Mountain Jews in AzerbaijanLeft to right: Sheykh-ul-Islam Haji Allahshukur Pashazadeh, Alexander, Bishop of Baku and the Caspian Eparchy, Semyon Ikhiilov, headf of the Religious Community of the Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan
nation has survived difficult times. When our ancestors lived in the mountains they were attacked by the forces of Nadir Shah as well as by Lezgins and other ethnic groups that lived in present-day Dagestan. They were robbed and killed, so the Jews had to find new shelter. Three hundred years ago they asked Fatali Khan’s father, Huseyn Aga Khan, for help. He offered them land on the far bank of the river (Qudyalchay) at present-day Quba. This Mountain Jewish town is called the Red Settlement or Krasnaya Sloboda. In the first five years of the settlement the Jews were freed of all taxes, because they were still building their new town. They worked hard, especially in commerce, to earn their living. A link to the town of Quba was important for the development of business, so the bridge between Krasnaya Sloboda and Quba was built. The link to Quba and nearby towns was not enough - life went on - and the Jews decided to move near the sea. This whole area was known as the Jewish settlement. At this time the Jews helped to fill the coffers of the Quba governorate. Today a central street in Krasnaya Sloboda is named after Fatali Khan.

Everything was fine until the establishment of the Soviet regime. In the Soviet era the Jews’ business and religious life fell into decay. Prominent rabbis were executed, while other rabbis and their families were sent into internal exile so that they could not return to Krasnaya Sloboda. Synagogues were closed. At best God’s houses were turned into party branches, at worst into warehouses.

Even during the most prosperous period of the Soviet Union no-one invested a kopeck here. Only the Jews spent money, built houses at their own expense and developed the settlement. Jews are hard-working, enterprising people. Krasnaya Sloboda is well-known and respected all over the world.

Today the Mountain Jews are the largest community of Jews in Azerbaijan (95 per cent). We are also the oldest community, over 2,700 years old. There are European and Georgian Jewish communities here. The members of these two communities pray in their synagogues. As we are the largest community of Jews in Azerbaijan, the chairman of the Community of Mountain Jews has represented the Jewish community of Azerbaijan at home and abroad for more than 10 years now. That’s me - your obedient servant.

What is the current state of the Mountain Jewish Community of Azerbaijan?

As I have already said, Mountain Jews have lived in Azerbaijan for 2,700 years. Jews have lived in almost all Azerbaijan’s regions, but now the number of Jews is falling day by day. The Jewish population is migrating to the centre - to Baku. This is mainly because employment opportunities are concentrated in the capital. This is a common problem for the Azerbaijani population. The Karabakh conflict created an army of refugees, economic hardships and other problems that have had a negative impact on the standard of living of the whole population.
Left to right: Semyon Ikhiilov, Major-General Davud Ashurov and Avigdor Liberman, Deputy Prime Minister of IsraelLeft to right: Semyon Ikhiilov, Major-General Davud Ashurov and Avigdor Liberman, Deputy Prime Minister of Israel
Despite all these difficulties the economy has greatly developed under the leadership of President Ilham Aliyev. The economic boom is regularly noted in the reports of international economic organizations. Building, reconstruction, renovation are everywhere. The whole territory of Azerbaijan has become a large building site. Even cultural facilities are closed for reconstruction. In other words, tremendous work is under way in all spheres of the life of our society. This society was founded by national leader Heydar Aliyev and we, Azerbaijani society, are erecting a building called democracy.

The condition of the Mountain Jews does leave something to be desired. Today mostly elderly Jews live in Azerbaijan and they need social support. We have a long list of people who need support. If you look through the list you can see the names and surnames of people of other ethnic origins too. If a man comes to God’s home with out-stretched hands and asks for aid, then we try to help them, regardless of their ethnicity and religious affiliation. We cannot let people go without. Although we do not have enough voluntary donations, we try not to leave needy families without financial support.

The poorest are often the elderly whose children have gone abroad. They are people who have lived all their lives in Azerbaijan, contributed their mite to the prosperity of Azerbaijan and rightly consider Azerbaijan to be their homeland. They have earned their pension through their honest work, although this pension does not provide enough to live on. They cannot leave the country. Most of them are heroes of this country. It is easy for young people to leave, as they have to bring up their children and give them a proper education, and education and medical services have to be paid for in a market economy.

The American-Jewish organization Joint supports
Semyon Ikhiilov with members of the Jewish communitySemyon Ikhiilov with members of the Jewish community
us in providing aid to needy families. Joint was founded in 1927 and gives help to Diaspora Jews. Through the Jewish House they do their best to help the elderly, of whom there are around 2,000. They provide medical and food assistance and rent wards in hospitals for treatment and medical check-ups. A ward will be put at the disposal of our elderly for a week and all medical services are paid for. Cultural programmes and trips within Azerbaijan are also organized for them.

Charitable dinners are held and hot meals are delivered to homes. Food assistance, winter clothes and medicines are donated. The needy are provided with gas-stoves, refrigerators, ventilators and other domestic appliances. Sometimes flats are repaired. Everything is done to ensure the welfare of people and their families. The special programme for the elderly includes lectures and meals. Cars fetch those who cannot walk unaided. They are also taken to the barbers and bath house.

How do the Mountain Jews fit into Azerbaijani society? Are they well integrated?

Mountain Jews are represented in almost all spheres of the economy. They take an active part in private business and are involved in political, medical, educational and cultural life. Our community is also represented in the Azerbaijani parliament. Unemployment is a known problem. It is difficult to find professional work. The higher paid jobs go to those with a foreign language and computer skills. The question arises: what do people do with a doctor´s, engineer´s or teacher´s diploma?

Is there a problem of mass Jewish emigration from Azerbaijan?

Most of the Jewish community now lives outside the country. They work abroad to support their families and children.

Our community is suffering from the common economic problems. In the past a
Semyon Ihkiilov and the late Kamil Aliyev, a famous carpet maker. They are completing work on a new Azerbaijani carpetSemyon Ihkiilov and the late Kamil Aliyev, a famous carpet maker. They are completing work on a new Azerbaijani carpet
member of the family might leave for a former Soviet country or elsewhere to earn money. They would be able to come back to attend, say, family weddings, their sons´ and daughters´ Bar and Bat Mizvah or funerals. They visited God´s house – the synagogue - and made their voluntary donation.

Working outside Azerbaijan was meant to be temporary, but it has gone on because of the economic hardships. The cost of air travel has risen astonishingly and not everyone can afford to visit their family often. Instead they try to take their family to the country where they are working. Therefore, we are losing voluntary foreign donations, which are gradually becoming less and less. There was a time when Jews emigrated from Azerbaijan. A great number of Jews left for different countries, especially the USA and Israel. Not everyone settled well. Some people, not so many, have come back. They returned because of the terrorism threat in Israel. Some fear for the safety of their children and leave them here while they are abroad.

How do you get on with other faiths in Azerbaijan?

For a long time the three traditional faiths in Azerbaijan have formed a highly tolerant trio: the Sheykh-ul-Islam of the Caucasus, Haji Allahshukur Pashazade; the Bishop of Baku and the Caspian Eparchy [of the Russian Orthodox Church], Bishop Alexander; and your obedient servant, the chairman of the Religious Community of the Mountain Jews in Azerbaijan, Semyon Ikhiilov. The three of us attend events together. If one of us was absent from any official event,
A conference on religious affairsA conference on religious affairs
[the late President] Heydar Aliyev would certainly take an interest and ask, "Where is the Sheikh?" or "Where is Semyon?"

This is evidence of the high level of relations amongst the traditional religious communities. Under the conditions of tolerance that prevail in Azerbaijani society we have respect for religions and cooperate with one another in mutual understanding.

The Community of Mountain Jews of Azerbaijan has a special place in the country. We are treated very well. We make our contribution to society and the leadership of the country as well as to other fraternal religions.

On 19 October 2007 our community held a general meeting and election in the Mountain Jews´ synagogue. Three items were on the agenda: the annual report, internal discipline in the synagogue – worshippers should attend the synagogue on time and should observe holiness and not speak during prayers – and the election of a new chairman.

The Sheykh-ul-Islam of the Caucasus, Sheykh Allahshukur Pashazade, Bishop Alexander of the Baku and Caspian Eparchy and representatives of the State Committee for Work with Religious Institutions also asked to attend the assembly. This is clear evidence of tolerance.

Three candidates were nominated for the position of chairman of the Community of Mountain Jews. Everyone chose the candidacy of the current chairman and from 1 January 2008 I will begin the new term of my chairmanship.

When prominent religious leaders such as Aleksiy II, the Patriarch of All Russia, and the late Pope John Paul II visited Azerbaijan, they were astonished at the tolerance, friendship and mutual understanding among the leaders of the three religions. After what he saw in Baku, the Pope invited us to the Vatican.

Sheykh Allahshukur Pashazade, Bishop Alexander and I accepted the invitation and visited the Vatican.
A Jew is praying in the Synagogue in BakuA Jew is praying in the Synagogue in Baku
We continued the dialogue we had started in Baku during the audience with his Holiness. The Pope, who did not spend more then 10-15 minutes even with presidents, spent more than an hour with us. This religious leader of global stature did a great deal for the reconciliation of Jews and Christians, although 2,000 years ago the Roman Catholic Church slandered the Jews on Christ´s death.

I would like to state clearly that anti-Semitism has never existed in Azerbaijan. Jews have not suffered from religious and ethnic persecution. We are citizens of this republic with equal rights. We live as brothers with the Azerbaijani nation in perfect concord.

Official figures or delegations visiting Azerbaijan always receive us together and are all amazed. It is exceptional, an example for the whole world.

The Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict has already lasted for 20 years. Internationally, Armenians try to present it as an inter-religious conflict, a clash of civilizations. Do you think this is accurate?

The Armenians have always tried to give this conflict a religious hue. We have never had this problem. During the difficult years of the Karabakh conflict we were united with the fraternal Azerbaijani nation and fought for the territorial integrity of our Republic.

My friendship with Sheykh ul-Islam Allahshukur Pashazade arose during the tragic days of Azerbaijan - on 22 January 1990 when we buried the martyrs of that Black Day, 20 January. These innocent victims fell at the hand of the Soviet Army when troops were brought onto the streets of Baku. The disaster brought us together and since then we have been friends and have cooperated in an atmosphere of perfect mutual understanding.

There were also Jews who died during the January tragedy. Jew Albert Agaronov is a national hero of Azerbaijan. He died in the battle for Shusha in May 1992 when Azerbaijanis were trying to ward off Armenian attacks. His memory is honoured by everyone.
Young people pay their respects to Azerbaijan´s National Hero Albert AgarunovYoung people pay their respects to Azerbaijan´s National Hero Albert Agarunov
The school where this hero studied has been named after him. The community holds special events at the school and celebrates his birthday to the present day. Children read poems and compositions dedicated to Albert at his grave.

What is your vision of Azerbaijan?

I´m proud that I was born in Azerbaijan. I´m very glad that I live with such tolerant people. For centuries the nations inhabiting Azerbaijan have lived in peace. When we were Soviet people 30-40 years ago we lived in communal flats. In those close quarters all the nations lived as a family. Everyone - Jews, Azerbaijanis, Russians, Armenians, Tatars - were together both in times of trouble and celebration.

I think that all the Mountain Jews consider Azerbaijan their native land. More than once I have been offered very good jobs in Israel, Germany and the USA. I politely refused. I will not go anywhere. This is my homeland, my home is here and, at the end of the day, my mother lives here.