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Bukhara’s Jews

South of Lyabi-Hauz is what’s left of the old town’s unique Jewish Quarter. There have been Jews in Bukhara since perhaps the 12th or 13th century, evolving into a unique culture with its own language – Bukhori, which is related to Persian but uses the Hebrew alphabet. Bukhara’s Jews still speak it as do about 10,000 Bukhara Jews who now live elsewhere (mainly Israel).

They managed to become major players in Bukharan commerce in spite of deep-rooted, institutionalised discrimination. Bukhara Jews made up 7% of Bukhara’s population at the time of the Soviet Union’s collapse, but today only a few hundred remain.

The Jewish community centre & synagogue, roughly across from Salom Inn, holds regular services and also sponsors a functioning Jewish school just around the corner. A century ago there were at least seven synagogues here, reduced after 1920 to two. The second synagogue is located south of Kukluk Bazaar – walk through the bazaar’s rear entrance, proceed about 250m straight ahead, and look for it on your right.

Barely a century ago the Bukhariot Jews had dominated the city's banks and bazaars. They had owned the camel-caravans which wended into Afghanistan and over the Pamirs to China, and had controlled the precious silk market. Above all they knew the secret dyes which glowed in the Bukhara rugs. It was they who mixed an intense crimson from the crushed and roasted bodies of insects found on ash and mulberry trees, and squeezed a beautiful, enduring yellow from a species of larkspur. The hands of half the city's Jews were stained to the knuckles with dye.

Now they looked poor. They had tired faces and rough hands. They spoke no Hebrew (and for centuries never had). Foreign Jews had been horrified by the unfamiliarity of their customs.

Two hundred years ago Moroccan missionaries had convinced the community that their origins were Sephardic, and they liked to trace their diaspora through Persia and even Tunis. Some scholars believe that Tamerlane brought them from Shiraz or Baghdad, or that they arrived from Merv early in the eighteenth century.

'It was Tamerlane,' maintained the cobbler as we debouched into the street. 'He moved everyone about. We grew rich after that, I've heard, but now we're all poor. Look at my hands.' They were ringed with callouses. 'Those are a working man's. Most of us are barbers or watch-menders, or deal in clothes.'

The Lost Heart of Asia by Colin Thubron