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Feodosia is one of the most ancient cities of Crimea – its history began as early as in the 6th century BC. Centuries went by, historical eras changed, and in the 14th-15th centuries this city that was called Kafa at that time had about 70 thousand residents, that was one of the largest harbors not only of the Black but also of the Mediterranean Sea, and around two hundred ships could be seen all at the same time in the waters of its harbor.
A big trade centre attracted people of many confessions and cultures. A Catholic bishop Ioannes Halifonten who visited Kafa many times wrote: «All Oriental languages are spoken here, and once I managed to count as many as 35 languages». Another traveller of that time pointed out that among the Kafa residents, besides the Catholics, were the followers of six different confessions: believers of the Armenian Gregorian Church, Orthodox Christian Greeks and Russinians, Jews of Talmudic and Biblical direction and Moslems. The witness of those times meant the Karaites as the Jews of Biblical direction that were also called bnei Mikra – «sons of the Holy Writ». According to the majority of researchers, two ancient church houses – of the Jews- rabbinists and of the Karaites – belonged to the times of Genoese domination.
If one looks at the map of Kafa of that time, it can be observed that the temples of one confession or another were situated densely in the particular district of the city. Followers of different religions preferred to settle close to their co-religionists.
The Karaites have been living up to now in the old picturesque district of the city, the Karaite sloboda, at the south-west hillside of the Mount Mithridat. Time seems to stand still here. A lot of ancient low white houses roofed with Sarmatian tiles facing the narrow sloboda streets have survived. The central street of this quarter is certainly called the Karaite. It is difficult to describe its character and charm better and more poetically than it was done once by Ivan Mykhailovych Sarkisov-Serazini – a doctor and a scientist who left his memoirs about Feodosia to descendants:
«In any quarter of the city I didn’t have such a particular feeling of previous centuries as during my visit to the Karaite sloboda. It seems to me it was like that in the time of the Genoese and remained as it was in the days of Turkish domination. Narrow streets covered with paving stones, unexpected curves in the lanes, high blank walls, gridded windows. The whole sloboda became clenched, hid under the protection of Mithridat Hill, closed behind the heavy bolts of its gates, cut off from the rest of the world. Time has changed the appearance of people of the city but it has not almost changed its external architecture, houses and a particular character of streets, blind alleys and lanes».
It is almost a century since these words were written but it seems that not much has changed in the architectural identity of the sloboda to this day. It is easy to imagine how silver-haired aqsaqals in long robes were walking in a dignified manner along these streets, girls covered with a light marama were passingly running along, and in the shade near the cheshme fountain dirty-faced children were busy over there.
Within this district on the city plan of 1853 two synagogues – the Karaite and the Jewish – were marked. None of them has survived.
What can a curious bypasser see today in the hot street of the old city?
The vestiges of an ancient stone building can be found among the ordinary private houses of today’s Nahirna Street. At first sight, it is not so different from the surrounding development. However, if we take a closer look, the words carved in stone in Leshon Kodesh – the Biblical Hebrew – may be seen on the facade vestiges. In fact, one word הכח (ha-koakh) – power – is repeated several times there. The power of the Creator of the world is meant.
There are three dates of foundation of the synagogue – 850, 909 and 1309. Historians have been debating which of them is true for centuries. Most of them prefer the latter one.
The old photo shows three windows on the south side of the building that is a specific feature of the architecture of the Karaite kenesas. Unfortunately, a marble plaque from the east wall dated by 1460 with the inscription in Hebrew: «Build a house with the knowledge and prepare using common sense; send the Saviour to gather together the exiles of Israel» has not survived.
On the wooden board of the synagogue shrine there was an inscription of 1404 about the donation made by the Azov Karaites. It has a great scientific value as it provides evidence of existence of the Karaite community in the city of Azov.
For some time this building was a matter of dispute between the Karaites and the rabbinists, but the vestiges of mikvah (a ritual pool that is not envisaged by the Karaite tradition) found nearby resolved a problem in the rabbinists’ favor. And what about the evidence that the synagogue belonged to the Karaites?
According to the legend that existed among the religious as early as in the beginning of the 20th century, this synagogue had been found under the ground, and afterwards it had been excavated and reconstructed. We may make a guess that the building deserted by the Karaites due to some reasons was reconstructed by the rabbinists later. During World War II it was destroyed as a result of the German bombing.
The Karaites’ kenesa was situated at a hundred meters from this ancient synagogue, in the 31 Nahirna Street. Its age is also quite respectable, the kenesa was founded in 1292. There was a midrash – the Karaite analogue of the parochial school – close to it. It was located in the one-floor building with a couple of classrooms. Later the religious managed to build a better building.
In 1874 a new midrash building was built in the adjacent to the Karaite sloboda region, in the Turets’ka (Zheliabova) Street, for the willed money of a rich Karaite merchant Shabbetai Simovych Khadzhy. It is far from the kenesa but such a place for the midrash was chosen not by accident: Mr. Khadzhy’s house stood nearby. Now the building address is 13 Bohaievs’koho Street.
If the ancient synagogue has survived at least partially, and the midrash building still looks quite well nowadays, the Karaite kenesa was out of luck. It died during World War II, this building was hit by a Soviet air bomb. The fountain near the kenesa has not survived either. Only the ancient stone stairs that stood close to the building earlier and led, probably, to its balcony, and now they are going somewhere to upper spaces, remind us of the times of its existence. However, there is yet a poem «Feodosia» written by the poet Vsevolod Rozhdestvensky in which the kenesa is mentioned. So, remember that stone works may be destroyed but poetry is eternal.
… There is a pit near the walls of the Karaite kenesa,
All over covered with leaves of pink pear trees.
Here, while at the door an angry gate-keeper
Was sorting out the keys brought by his daughter,
I watched how were breaking against the ancient slabs
In the grape shelter the slanting rays.
Photos provided by the author