Our Trip to Uzbekistan

We were a small group of Jews traveling in Uzbekistan, a predominantly Muslim country. Our tour group had originally included nine others who dropped out of the trip after war started between Israel and Hamas, because they did not feel comfortable being in a Muslim country. However we felt safe and entirely welcome. (All these people wanted to take picture with us!)

Uzbekistan is a secular country with a constitutional separation of religion and state and a guaranteed right to practice any, or no, religion. According to our Uzbecki guide, there is a long-standing religious tolerance towards Jews. A bit of online research suggests otherwise – that Jews under Muslim rule were mostly oppressed with forced conversions to Islam. There were two exceptions during which Jews flourished personally as well economically – the 14th century Tamarind Dynasty and under Russian occupation from the late 1860s until 1917. Treatment of Jews after the Russian Revolution was, however, not so good with the destruction of synagogues and forced closures of Jewish schools. All in all, the typical pattern of mostly oppression with occasional tolerance.

Our tour was aimed at a Jewish audience and included visits to synagogues, Jewish cemeteries as well as several other Jewish sites. Not surprisingly, though, most of what we saw were mosques, madrassas (Muslim religious schools) and mausoleums. The buildings with their elaborate mosaics feel ancient but actually much of the mosaic ornamentation is due to recent restoration initiatives by the Uzbecki government as the buildings were badly damaged during the Russian occupation – after, it should be noted, surviving centuries of invasions and warfare by a variety of empires. Most of the madrassas have been decommissioned and replaced by secular schools that enroll girls as well as boys. The buildings have been turned into markets and I found it a bit disconcerting to go into these formerly religious institutions and see stall after stall of merchants.

We visited synagogues in three cities – Bukhara, Samarkand and Tashkent. All are gender-segregated but I noticed a big difference – in Tashkent (an Ashkenazi synagogue), the women’s area is a balcony within the sanctuary. Anyone sitting up there can easily see the service as well as being quite visible to anyone seated below. Not so for the other two synagogues which are Sephardic – in Samarkand, the women’s area has a narrow window opening into the sanctuary which is covered by a grill; while in Bukhara, the women’s area is actually an outside balcony. We did not go into those areas but I can’t imagine they are conducive to feeling part of the service.

We also visited Jewish cemeteries in Bukhara and Samarkand. The cemeteries are state-supported and well-maintained by Muslim families who have taken care of the cemeteries for generations. One thing that was noticeable was that there are no Holocaust memorials. There is a WW2 memorial in both cemeteries, but it commemorates the Jewish Uzbeki soldiers who died fighting against the Nazis during the war. Although not treated well under Soviet occupation, Jews were not sent to concentration camps. Uzbekistan even accepted a large number of Jewish refugees, many of them unaccompanied children – although I had mixed emotions about hearing this as most of the children were not raised as Jews and may not even have known that they were Jewish by birth.

Two other sites in Samarkand attested to a period of Jewish prosperity at the turn of the century. The Regional Museum of Local Lore in Samarkand was originally the home of a wealthy Jewish merchant Abram Kalantarov. I have to admit that I was more interested in the magnificent architecture than in the exhibits. The other is the Dovudi hammam (steam bath), which is apparently the oldest hamman still in use in Uzbekistan. It’s located in the old Jewish quarter and I was unable to figure out whether it was originally used only by Jews. Today it is not, but it is geared only for men.

Today there are not many Jews living in Uzbekistan. At one time there were over 100,000 but the majority left when Uzbekistan achieved independence from the Soviet Union in the early 1990’s, fearing a backlash against non-Muslims. They mostly emigrated to Israel or to the United States – some to Queens and several members of our tour attested to the wonderful Uzbeki restaurants and markets there. Today there are only about 1000 Jews living in the cities of Uzbekistan clustered within three cities. The community in Bukhara has a school. However the communities in Samarkand and Tashkent do not. The Rabbi in Samarkand told us that he was the youngest person in his community. The younger generations, children and grandchildren, have left and the remaining communities are aging and gradually dying out. According to our guide, the government is actively reaching out to Jewish expats to return to Uzbekistan. We’ll have to see how that turns out. Uzbekistan has had a good relationship with Israel but the war with Hamas may be changing that.


See also these posts about our trip to Uzbekistan:

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