A statue of Amir Timur. (photo by Deborah Rubin Fields)
The 14th century was not a great time for European Jewry, to say the least – there were various kinds of persecution, including forced conversions, expulsions and massacres, especially in Western Europe. Yet, the Jews of what is now Uzbekistan got through this period relatively unmolested.
Turko-Mongol military leader Timur (Iron), who ruled from 1370 to his death in 1405, is also known historically as Tamerlane, from the Persian Timur-i lang (Timur the Lame), and Amir Timur (or Temur).
Timur conquered central Asia and parts of India – today’s Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, large chunks of Turkey and Syria, and the northwestern portion of India. While it is estimated that his armies killed 17 million people, about five percent of the global population at the time, it seems he left Jews alone.
“Over the years, the moral justification for [Timur’s] campaigns … had evolved into a formality,” writes Justin Marozzi in Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World. “If the objects of his attentions happened to be Muslim, as they almost invariably were, then they had become bad Muslims. If they were infidels, so much the better.” Yet Michael Shterenshis, in Tamerlane and the Jews, contends that Timur did not consider Jews as infidels, at least not infidels needing to be violently eliminated, perhaps because they had no political ambitions and all they sought was Timur’s protection.
It would seem that Timur’s Jews were of more service alive than dead – which is a good thing, as Timur once reportedly constructed 28 towers from 70,000 of his enemies’ skulls, each tower consisting of 2,500 heads. According to Shterenshis, the ruler primarily used his Jewish subjects as taxpayers and skilled artisans. Jewish weavers and dyers contributed greatly to his efforts to rebuild the region and to reinstitute the abandoned Silk Road, which connected Europe to Asia.
Yu Datkhaev’s The Bukharan Jews is mentioned in Alanna E. Cooper’s Bukharan Jews and the Dynamics of Global Judaism. According to Cooper, Datkhaev argues that the term “Bukharan Jews” came to be after Timur moved several hundred Jewish families from Bukhara to Samarkand to assist in overhauling Samarkand, his designated capitol. These Jews reportedly lived near Timur’s recently rehabilitated and stunning Registan.
Timur’s Jewish subjects appear to have been loyal followers. Indeed, while Jews are not mentioned in his court history, there is a preserved letter from Herat physicians who ask the permission of Shah Rukh (one of Timur’s sons) to treat Timur’s injured soldiers. Significantly, they are offering their services to the state army, notes Shterenshis.
Timur seemingly responded in kind. He never issued anti-Jewish proclamations, laws, orders or restrictions. He never oppressed the Jews for being Jews, says Shterenshis. Under Timur, he adds, Jews were able to own houses and land, and they could be farmers – the regime did not impose upon Jews the role of moneylenders.
Jews under Timur’s reign were better off than the Jews of Europe and those in the Mamluk Sultanate, but were worse off than those who lived under the Mongols of China. Under Timur, Jews enjoyed a legal, but inferior status, writes Shterenshis. In contrast to their appointed role in other countries, Timur’s Jews were not particularly used as translators or envoys and their main occupations seem to have been as artisans, local merchants and doctors, says Shterenshis, noting that Jewish doctors under Timur did not enjoy the enhanced status they had previously, from the 10th to 12th centuries. Nonetheless, in local Jewish legends, Tamerlane is painted in a favourable light, says the historian, and is even supposed to have moved the Prophet Daniel’s remains to a tomb in Samarkand.
Some sources indicate that the Jewish presence in Samarkand pre-dates Timur’s rule. Tenth-century Samarkand (as well as Khorezm, Osh and Kokand) apparently hosted famous Jewish scholars, known in the singular as khabr, a word derived from the Hebrew chaver (friend or colleague), “which they used to distinguish themselves from ‘commoners,’” writes Irena Vladimirsky in “The Jews of Kyrgyzstan” (bh.org.il/jews-kyrgyzstan).
Indeed, the notion that Jews had been living in Central Asia prior to Timur’s rise to power is reinforced by the late-12th-century traveling Jewish chronicler Binyamin M’tudela (Benjamin of Tudela), who described this community as having as many as 50,000 members, among them “wise and very rich men.” Furthermore, the Samarkand community apparently appointed someone as nasi (head) of their community, who collected the requisite taxes of a recognized ahl al-demma (protected group).
In that period, Jews reportedly made Samarkand a major Jewish centre, and community members contributed to the construction of Samarkand’s aqueduct.
In the centuries after Timur, Jews came to dominate the region’s textile and dye industry, according to historian Giora Pozailov.
Uzbekistan’s aging Jewish population is now mainly concentrated in the cities of Tashkent, Samarkand and Bukhara. Even before the demise of the Soviet Union, Uzbek Jews began leaving, mainly for the United States and Israel. As the JTA article “Dwindling at home, Central Asia’s Bukharian Jews thrive in
Diaspora,” which can be found at ucsj.org, notes, Bukhara’s two synagogues almost never open at the same time, so that at least one of them has a minyan.
Deborah Rubin Fields is an Israel-based features writer. She is also the author of Take a Peek Inside: A Child’s Guide to Radiology Exams, published in English, Hebrew and Arabic.