Mysteries of the Crimean Jerusalem
The great kenasa Chufut-Kale

Mysteries of the Crimean Jerusalem


The history of the most ancient Karaite kenesa of Ukraine and of the city where it is situated reminds of Bible plots turned into reality. What mysteries does the cave city and its temple conceal?


Mysteries of the Crimean Jerusalem
The great kenasa Chufut-Kale

The centre of Karaite life in Crimea and throughout Eastern Europe was Kirk-Yer that is better known as Chufut-Kale now. Joseph ben Joshua ha-Mashbir, the Karaite scientist and poet from Volyn who lived in the 17th century described Kale in such a way: «The main among Karaite communities city that is notable for the  wise and bibliophiles, filled with books and the perfect righteous». The Karaites saw a projection of the Temple of Jerusalem in the most ancient among Karaite kenesas that you can still see today and that is situated in Chufut-Kale, and they considered the city itself to be the Crimean Jerusalem. The captured travellers that had seen Kale also shared the same opinion. Southern slope of the table mountain whereon the ancient Kirk-Yer was situated was a temple mount, and the yard with two ancient kenesas was a temple complex. Some Kale placenames directly testify that residents considered it to be the second Jerusalem: under the table-land slopes Emek Yehoshafat – Yosafat valley, a little sister of its Jerusalem namesake, a last resting place for many generations of the Karaites, and not only for the local ones, is located.

It’s interesting that in Karaite legends Kirk-Yer can still argue with the Holy Land for the role of place where Mashiah (Messiah) will be revealed to the world what the Karaite legend tells: «The first prince from Uzun family was a brave Khadji Musa (Khadji Musala) who was the first one among Karaite princes to perform the pilgrimage to Jerusalem. From there the prince brought a cradle to his grandson as a gift that was shaped out of Lebanon cedar. Before parting the Jerusalem Chasan (in Karaim – priest) wished that Salvator Mundi would grow up in this cradle whose coming would bring happiness and goodness to earth. Since that time the cradle has begun to pass from generation to generation as a family blessing of the first Karaite pilgrim».

Mysteries of the Crimean Jerusalem
Kenasa Kale

The name of the city has changed over the centuries: Kirk-Yer (Kirk-Or), Hevkher-kerman, Sela Yehudim, Chufut-Kale. The most ancient from these placenames is Kirk-Yer, or Kirk-Or, and means «forty places» or «forty fortresses». Such a strange name as for one settlement was explained by the researcher of Crimean history O.O. Vasiliev in his monograph «The Goths in Crimea» as early as in the first half of the 20th century: he assumed that firstly the name Kirk-Yer had belonged not to one city but to the whole region – the Crimean mountains in the south between Kherson (medieval Chersonese) and Sudak. Therefore, in the name of the city Kirk-Yer we see the outlines of the medieval Kirk-Yer principality the capital of which was Kirk-Yer.

Researchers typically associate the emergence of the Kirk-Yer fortress with activities on strengthening the northern borders of the Byzantine Empire at the end of the 6th-in the 7th centuries. In those days the Goth-Alans – Byzantine federates – were living here. There was a small garrison in the fortress, and in case of danger residents of the surrounding densely populated valleys with their property also could find shelter in it.

Exploring the gravestones of Yosafat valley and the manuscripts left by remote ancestors of the Karaites, the scientist Daniel Chwolson concluded that in the 6th century the Bene Mikra – the Karaites from Byzantium – migrated to Kirk-Yer that raised the level of culture of local fellow believers that had settled there earlier. The researcher associates the emerging of epitaphs on the gravestones notable for elegance of style with their migration. Among the migrants there were the cohanim that traced their origin to the family of the chief priest Tsadok dating back to the King Solomon, and the Levites as well.

The name Yosafat valley is not the only placename that links Jerusalem with Kale. One of the names Chufut-Kale mentioned in primary sources is Hevkher-kerman – «Fortress of jewels».

Mysteries of the Crimean Jerusalem
Kenasi of Chufut-Kale

«Tatarian Ulemas called this fortress Hevkher-kerman. In that time all walls and the gate of the fortress were actually bejewelled. After it came to be in the Tatars’ possession, probably, there’s no need to ask if precious jewels were left. However, even now the places where there were jewels are noticeable and differ», – Evliya Chelebi writes in his «Book of Travel», in the chapter «Description of the Hevkher-kerman fortress».

The biblical prophet Isaiah also described the future Jerusalem as a fortress of jewels: «Oh, the untalented, thrown by the storm, disconsolate! Here I am laying your foundations on malachite, your foundations on sapphire. I will make your battlements of sardius, your gate of garnet, all your fence of semi-precious stones» (Isaiah, 54:11-12).

Jerusalem also appears as a fortress of jewels in the famous book of the Christian tradition – Revelation to John: «Foundations of the city wall are decorated with any precious jewels: the first foundation – jasper, the second – sapphire, the third –  calcedony, the fourth – emerald, the fifth – sardonyx, the sixth – sardion, the seventh – chrysolite, the eighth – beryl, the ninth – topaz, the tenth – chrysoprase, the eleventh – jacinth, the twelfth – amethyst (Revelation 21: 19-20).

By the way, Chufut-Kale meridian is close to the Jerusalem one: 35°14’00” east longitude (Jerusalem), 33°55’28” east longitude (Kale).

Two ancient kenesas situated side by side – Big and Small –  were the centre of Karaite life in Chufut-Kale. Once trees were growing in front of them, residents of the fortress were cherishing here the city’s only garden. The holiday of Sukkot was celebrated in it.

On the inscription made on the stone stele that was installed next to the Big kenesa on the occasion of the visit of the Emperor Alexander III this church house was called «древний храм» («an ancient sanctuary») in the text in Russian, and «bet mikdash meat veattik yomin» in Hebrew that is translated as «a house of holiness old by days». The name of the Temple of Jerusalem – «bet ha-mikdash» («a house of holiness») – is similar in the Hebrew tradition.

Historians assume that the Big kenesa was built in the 14th century but this is only an assumption, and nothing specific is known about the time of its construction. Radiocarbon analysis of the ornamental batten of the front of the chancel showed the earlier date – the 12th century.

Mysteries of the Crimean Jerusalem
Small kenasa Chufut-Kale

Next to the Big kenesa, at the same place, above the southern slope of Chufut-Kale, the Small kenesa is also situated, it was built by the Karaites that had migrated from Mangup to Kale at the end of the 18th century. The Small kenesa that was built between 1795 and 1800 acquired the name «bet ha-kodesh» (also translated as «a house of holiness»). Samuel Pigit in the book «Iggeret-nidkhe-Shemuel» presents the memories of his grandfather who told that not only the Torah scrolls and books but also the details in interior design, its wooden parts, beams, roof timbers and everything that could have been moved and used in the construction of a new kenesa had been carried over to this kenesa from the derelict Mangup kenesa. That is why it was also called Mangup, or, more precisely – «mikreshei vekkodshei ir Mangup» – «of wood boards and holy things of the Mangup city».

This historical subject is aligned with the prophesy concerning the Temple of Jerusalem made a century and a half before these events by a Polish and Volhynian scientist-rabbinist and poet named Edels Samuel Eliezer Ben Judah Ha-Levi, also known as Maharsha. In his opinion, the Third temple in Jerusalem will unite all synagogues of the world that will miraculously arise in one place and make the Temple that will be brought down to earth and will be completely constructed.

In the first half of the 19th century Chufut-Kale begins to empty and turn into the ruin. Residents gradually leave it and migrate to the cities that were experiencing better times at that moment than the ancient fortress in the mountains. The already mentioned by us Samuel Pigit wrote that more and more new houses had been sold and ruined by owners or buyers at that time there every week. In 1839 the Small kenesa was mainly closed, its doors were open only when the Karaites from other regions came to the city, and for the local believers its bigger neighbour was quite enough. The city relived a short renaissance during the Crimean War when the Karaites-refugees from the near-front regions of Crimea found shelter in Kale. The Small kenesa was open again, and the Saturday prayers were heard there. However, that was the last breath of the old city’s life. After the war’s end it fell into a heavy sleep again, everlastingly this time.

An archeologist Abraham Firkovich, the Karaite researcher of the past, was one of few people who stayed there. In the Small kenesa he arranged a book storeroom, a huge library of valuable ancient manuscripts collected by him while traveling to the Oriental countries. So the house of worship became a scientific archival depository. In 1876 its contents were carried over to the Public Library of Saint Petersburg. Nowadays there is a museum of Karaite religion – an institution of a similar profile – within the walls of the Small kenesa. And the Big kenesa is still used for the intended purpose. As compared to the Temple of Jerusalem, its remote Crimean descendant avoided the destruction, and the Karaites from all over Crimea get together there during the holidays, conduct church services. Just like many centuries ago, prayers are heard within the ancient walls.

Photos provided by the author

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The project was implemented with the support of the Ukrainian Cultural Foundation

Oleksandr Dzyuba

Author of culturological materials, head of the Kharkiv Karaite Community, historian

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