Before the exodus: the last warrior Tats

By Judith Matloff, November 9, 2012
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A Dagestani Jewish woman sits outside a local synagogue (Photo: Diana Markosian)

A Dagestani Jewish woman sits outside a local synagogue (Photo: Diana Markosian)

The Jews of Dagestan have long stood apart in Russia. Thought to have originated in Persia, they settled into remote folds of the Caucasus Mountains 12 centuries ago, and spoke a blend of Hebrew and Persian.

The Tats, as they are known, absorbed ways of Muslim clans, such as kidnapping brides and a warrior spirit. They were renowned for skill with horses and arms.

These days, the Tats have largely given up the fight. A troubled economy and 20 years of Islamic separatist violence has pushed most members of Russia’s oldest community to leave for Israel.

Local leaders say the population has dropped from 50,000 to 4,780 over the past two decades. Many young people also plan to exit the country.

Dagestani Jews fishing (Photo: Diana Markosian)

Dagestani Jews fishing (Photo: Diana Markosian)

Located next to Chechnya, this republic on the Caspian Sea has become the epicentre of violence in the North Caucasus region, where the militants want a Sharia state.

While most Tats say they get along fine with their Muslim neighbours, graves and synagogues have been desecrated in recent years and violence erupts at every turn. Earlier this year, bombs and police shootings were daily occurrences.

Once abroad, Dagestani Jews tend to leave the old ways behind. Their ancient culture is withering away, another casualty of conflict in the Caucasus.

    Last updated: 4:17pm, November 9 2012