This 1911 photograph from the Prokudin-Gorskii collection captures a Jewish teacher instructing Jewish children in Samarkand. Beginning around 600 BC, the Silk Road connected Europe with Eastern Asia in order to establish a trade circuit. Samarkand, located in Uzbekistan, stood as a main stop in central Asia along the trade route, and in turn, adopted a politically and religiously diverse culture from its constant flow of merchants. In 1899, writer Michael A. Morrison wrote that “there are really two towns here, one where the Russians live, and the native town about a mile away . . . The Russian half is uninteresting—it is a collection of plain white houses” (Morrison 2226). However, the native side of Samarkand, home to thousands of Jews, had humble living conditions and dirty streets. Despite its imperfections, Samarkand was a home to ancient Jewish culture and tradition.
Jewish people began to settle in Samarkand around the 7th Century, as religious diversity was welcomed in the trade city. The religious safe haven attracted Jewish communities throughout the Soviet empire, however, the 20th Century saw increasing Russian regulation of religion. The number of Synagogues went from thirty to one between 1917 and 1935, but did not stop small communities from continuing traditions. The Prokudin-Gorskii picture most likely shows one of few Jewish schools left in the city, as Jewish schools also began to evaporate in the 20th Century.
Historically, Jews in Eastern Russia received unfair treatment in regards to how they could trade, where they could live, and the ability to enroll children in Jewish schooling. In “the Interior” of Russia, including Moscow and St. Petersburg, strict requirements on trade disqualified many Jewish merchants. These limitations forced Jewish communities to move to eastern cities like Samarkand, Bukhara, and Toshkent. Two major groups made up the Jewish population of Uzbekistan: the Ashkenazim and the Bukharan. The Ashkenazim, Jews under direct Soviet authority in the West, joined the indigenous Bukharan Jews in Samarkand. Reverend Henry Lansdell wrote in 1885 that “while the Western Jews were looking upon the Russians as their oppressors, I found when I reached Samarkand that the Eastern Jews regarded the Russians as deliverers” (Lansdell 37). In the West, land was rarely given to them for schools or synagogues, because the Tsar would not recognize them as citizens. From reading multiple narratives about Samarkand, all accounts never fail to mention the beautiful contrast between the poor living conditions of the Jews and their fight to preserve tradition in the midst of Soviet rule. Many Jews left Uzbekistan in the mid-1900’s for the United States and Israel, but some did continue to live in the Jewish Quarter.
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Lansdell, Henry. “THE JEWS IN CENTRAL ASIA.” The Sunday at home : a family magazine for Sabbath reading.1603 (1885): 37-40. ProQuest. Web. 24 Jan. 2016. http://ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/login?qurl=?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/docview/4195847?accountid=14826
Morrison, Michael A. “A Rabbi of Samarkand.” The Independent …Devoted to the Consideration of Politics, Social and Economic Tendencies, History, Literature, and the Arts (1848-1921) Aug 17 1899: 2226. ProQuest. Web. 24 Jan. 2016. http://ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/login?qurl=?url=http://search.proquest.com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/docview/90597323?accountid=14826