New Book: Dan Shapira: Avraham Firkowicz in Istanbul
- Avraham Firkowicz in Istanbul (1830-1832): Paving the Way for Turkic Nationalism
by Dan Shapira
KaraM Publishing Co., Ankara, January, 2003.
120 pages, 24 illustrations
Avraham Firkowicz was the outstanding leader of the Karaims, a Turkic speaking Jewish group in Eastern Europe in the 19th century whose scientific activities proceeded his political missions. He was the man who virtually made the Karaites an ethnically self-conscious group, now accounted among Turks of the Kipchak sub-group, and who started the debates on the very (Turkic) origin of the whole East European Jewry.
The early 19th century was an age when people started to leave the Biblical traditions on the ancient history of humankind and to look for their origins by scientific means. Indo-European linguistic unity was discovered and people also realized some similarities in the languages of what is termed the Uralo-Altaic region. Jewish studies also followed the same path. Karaim Jews were very distinct in two aspects: They were speaking in a dialect of the Northwestern Turkic (Kipchak) and they were Talmudist, in contrast to the thousand-fold crowded Rabbanite Jews of Eastern Europe. These Jews, few in number, used to live in Crimea, Western Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania. This posed an ethnological problem before inquisitive minds of the age, a leading one of whom was Avraham Firkowicz himself, leader of the community from what is now Western Ukraine.
He started to make scientific expeditions and pilgrimages to Crimea, the Caucasus, Palestine and Egypt. Among those visits, the most important was his stay in Istanbul for two years (1830-1832). During the Istanbul days, when Turkey started to taste a new era called Tanzimat (Reformation Age), he organized and educated native Karaim Jews. Though Karaims in those days did not call themselves Turks, a Turkic connection at least in language was very important. On his return, he accelerated his studies on Karaim origins. He never termed his people as Turks, but very carefully separated them from the Rabbanite Jews. He had political obligations before his people living under very suppression of the Russian Tsardom. He consequently convinced the tsar that Karaims were not accomplices in the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Privileges for Karaims followed this explanation as a gratitude. Rabbanite Jews, then jealous of them, were still undergoing suppression of Russian officials.
In his late years, Firkowicz started to target Rabbanite Jews in his political and intellectual conflict. After separating his community from the rest of the regional Jewry, he tried to show historical superiority of the Karaims over the Rabbanites. His visit to the Caucasus was associated with the Khazar Empire, an early Medieval Turkic state, whose upper layer converted to Judaism as a reply to the efforts of the Muslim Baghdat and the Christian Constantinople. He claimed that Khazar Turks received Judaism in Karaim format.
This meant that the Khazars were or became Karaims. Firkowicz did not reveal this, but later researchers elaborated this issue. The difficulty in explaining origins of the East European Jewry in general, due to overcrowding especially in Russia and Poland, led to extension of the debates on the Rabbanites also. Interesting theories were offered. The Khazars were not massacred by any power in that age, rather scattered across Eastern Europe after losing their state. They were ancestors of today's Jews. More clearly, the Ashkenazi Jews, composing of an overwhelming majority of world Jewry, were not Jews proper, in contrary to the Sepharide Jews. They could be at most the thirteenth tribe as believers of Moses, and not sons of Israel. Thus, Adolf Hitler, for instance, massacred ethnic Turks. Some claimed even that the Ashkenazi Jews had no right over the Promised Land. This caused very potent reactions. Avraham Firkowicz certainly could not guess what his ideas would lead to.
Another influence of Firkowicz was in the Turkic world. Ismail Beg Gaspirinskiy, a Crimean Tatar, familiar to Firkowicz thanks to the neighboring Crimean Karaims, was watching his activities with great admiration. The Karaim leader saved his people from Russian suppression and created an ethnical consciousness in a community scattered from Crimea to Poland in very few numbers. His mean was publications, especially periodicals. His books were read even in Egypt.
Ismail Beg, then member of a people more suffering from the Russian outrages than any other ethnos, decided to do the same. He started to publish Tercuman (Interprettor) in Bahcesaray, the leading Crimean city. Circulation of this paper was comparable to the modern international papers in a geographical sense. Tercuman was read over vast regions from Sarajevo in the west to Kashgar, now in China, in the east, and from Kazan in the north to Cairo in the south. He continuously expressed the unity of all Turks, but never annoyed the Tsardom. Tercuman was more fruitful than the publications of Firkowicz in both political and intellectual senses, and put its founder rightfully among the leaders and initiators of Turkic nationalism.
Dr. Dan Shapira of the Open University of Israel, Tel Aviv, has been working for a long time on this historical personality. The academic curiosity of Dr. Shapira, an orientalist working particularly on Turko-Jewish historical relations, seems to be more than the curiosity of Firkowicz on the origins of his people, as shown by the very richness of the material used in this little book. Shapira made use of all Turkish and Russian archives, as well as Jewish sources and traditions. He elaborates on Firkowicz's Istanbul visit, with premises and consequences, and he also gives interesting information about the early days of the Tanzimat Era in Istanbul. In this book, one can learn also about the life of Firkowicz.
"Avraham Firkowicz in Istanbul (1830-1832): Paving the Way for Turkic Nationalism", enriched by 24 illustrations, was published by Ankara's Karam Publishing. This is also a first in Ankara, as it is not customary in Turkey to publish books of foreign authors in foreign languages.
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