Samarkand: Home to Jewish Tradition


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.

A street in the Jewish Quarter of Samarkand

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.

redstarThis post received a “Red Star” award from the editorial team


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.

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.


6 thoughts on “Samarkand: Home to Jewish Tradition

  1. Excellent job this week! This post has a lot going for it, most notably the level of analysis and the range of the source material. As you continue to post throughout the course, I encourage you to keep up the good work in respect to drawing references and citing material. As for the meat of the post itself, I think you really nailed it this week. You clearly were able to utilize an image from the gallery to construct a more broad analysis about Russian history during the last years of the empire. I also enjoyed how you carried the post through to examine the ways in which Jewish populations were challenged and altered by regime and policy changes. All in all, marvelous work!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting post about the history of Jews in Samarkand. One point I find particularly interesting, and I think this is a trend you see in history in general, is the continued oppression of the Jews and how it continues from regime to regime. From the tsar limiting or preventing Jews from gaining land to the 20 year period of far lower synagogues being built under Communist rule, oppression in Russia (and later, Soviet Union) is a continued thread in their story. Great Job!


  3. Great post! My image was also taken in Central Asia, and I too focused on an ethnic group in the region. It’s interesting to see how the Jews of Uzbekistan where treated similarly to the Turks in Turkmenistan, for which I covered in my recent post. I would be curious to know if the Jews in this region were forced to trade at fixed prices like the Turks, or if they were conscripted into the Russian army against their will.


  4. When i was looking through the pictures i was wondering where Samakand was. It is interesting that there is such a large population of Jewish people in central Asia as i was unaware that the Jewish Diaspora had spread to Uzbekistan. Very well written first post.


  5. I have two takeaways after reading this blog post. First, the post and (first) image sheds light on just how vast and culturally diverse the Russian Empire was. Secondly, I found it interesting how the Russian Empire turned out to be yet another example of a state/region that persecuted (or increasingly became less tolerant) of those of the Jewish faith. It is astonishing to look back in history and see how frequently and vehemently the Jewish faith has been opposed by governments. Taking the two together (size of Russia and Jews), I found it interesting that Jews could migrate from a place where they were less welcome, to a place more accepting (Samarkand) within the Russian Empire and that Jews from different geographical locations held different perspectives on the Russians.


  6. Andrew, I hope you respond to some of these comments and questions about this wonderful post. I especially appreciate how much you incorporated here: The discussion of the community in Samarkand is impressive and important, but situating Jewish life here in terms of the Pale of Settlement takes this to another level. Nicely done.


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