The Mountain Jews, or Jews of the Caucasus, have inhabited the Caucasus since the fifth century A.D. Being the descendants of the Persian Jews of Iran, their migration from Persia proper to the Caucasus took place in the Sasanian era (224-651). It is believed that they had arrived in Persia, from Ancient Israel, as early as the 8th century B.C. Other sources, attest that mountain Jews were present in the region of Azerbaijan, at least since 457 B.C.
Mountain Jews have an oral tradition, passed down generation after generation, that they are descended from the Ten Lost Tribes which were exiled by the king of Assyria (Ashur), who ruled over northern Iraq from Mosul (across the Tigris River from the ancient city of Nineveh). The reference, most likely is to Shalmaneser, the King of Assyria who is mentioned in II Kings 18:9-12. According to local Jewish tradition, some 19,000 Jews departed Jerusalem (used here as a generic term for the Land of Israel) and passed through Syria, Babylonia, and Persia and then, heading north, entered into Media.
In Chechnya, Mountain Jews partially assimilated into Chechen society by forming a Jewish teip, the Zhugtii while three other teips, the Shuonoi, Ziloi and Chartoi have also been theorized to have Jewish relations. In Chechen society, ethnic minorities residing in areas demographically dominated by Chechens have the option of forming a teip in order to properly participate in the developments of Chechen society such as making alliances and gaining representation in the Mekhk Khell, a supreme ethnonational council that is occasionally compared to a parliament. Teips of minority-origin have also been made by ethnic Poles, Germans, Georgians, Kumyks, Russians, Kalmyks, Circassians, Andis, Avars, Dargins, Laks, Persians, Arabs, Ukrainians and Nogais, with the German teip having been formed as recently as the 1940s when Germans in Siberian exile living among Chechens assimilated.
Mountain Jews maintained a strong military tradition. For this reason, some historians believe they may be descended from Jewish military colonists, settled by Parthian and Sassanid rulers in the Caucasus as frontier guards against nomadic incursions from the Pontic steppe.
A 2002 study by geneticist Dror Rosengarten found that the paternal haplotypes of Mountain Jews "were shared with other Jewish communities and were consistent with a Mediterranean origin." In addition, Y-DNA testing of Mountain Jews has shown they have Y-DNA haplotypes related to those of other Jewish communities. The Semitic origin of Mountain Jews is also evident in their culture and language.
"The Jewish Valley"
By the early 17th century, Mountain Jews formed many small settlements throughout mountain valleys of Dagestan. One valley, located 10 km south of Derbent, close to the shore of the Caspian Sea, was predominantly populated by Mountain Jews. Their Muslim neighbors called this area "Jewish Valley." The Jewish Valley grew to be a semi-independent Jewish state, with its spiritual and political center located in its largest settlement of Aba-Sava (1630-1800). The valley prospered until the end of the 18th century, when its settlements were brutally destroyed in the war between Sheikh-Ali-Khan, who swore loyalty to the Russian Empire, and Surkhai-Khan, the ruler of Kumukh. Many Mountain Jews were slaughtered, with survivors escaping to Derbent where they received the protection of Fatali Khan, the ruler of Quba Khanate.
In the 18th–19th centuries, the Jews resettled from the highland to the coastal lowlands but carried the name "Mountain Jews" with them. In the villages (aouls), the Mountain Jews had settled in separate sections. In the lowland towns they also lived in concentrated neighborhoods, but their dwellings did not differ from those of their neighbors. Mountain Jews retained the dress of the highlanders. They have continued to follow Jewish dietary laws and affirm their faith in family life.
Soviet times, Holocaust and modern history
Synagogue in Gilaki quarter, Qırmızı Qəsəbə
(purely Jewish town), which was reopened in 1941 after initially being closed by Bolsheviks.
By 1926, more than 85% of Mountain Jews in Dagestan were already classed as urban. Mountain Jews were mainly concentrated in the cities of Makhachkala, Buynaksk, Derbent, Nalchik and Grozny in North Caucasus; and Quba and Baku in Azerbaijan.
In the Second World War, some Mountain Jews settlements in Crimea and parts of their area in Kabardino-Balkaria were occupied by the German Wehrmacht at the end of 1942. During this period, they killed several hundreds of Mountain Jews until the Germans retreated early 1943. On September 20, 1942, Germans killed 420 Mountain Jews near the village of Bogdanovka. Some 1000–1500 Mountain Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Many Mountain Jews survived, however, because German troops did not reach all their areas; in addition, attempts succeeded to convince local German authorities that this group were "religious" but not "racial" Jews.
The Soviet Army's advances in the area brought the Nalchik community under its protection. The Mountain Jewish community of Nalchik was the largest Mountain Jewish community occupied by Nazis, and the vast majority of the population has survived. With the help of their Kabardian neighbors, Mountain Jews of Nalchik convinced the local German authorities that they were Tats, the native people similar to other Caucasus Mountain peoples, not related to the ethnic Jews, who merely adopted Judaism. The annihilation of the Mountain Jews was suspended, contingent on racial investigation. Although the Nazis watched the village carefully, Rabbi Nachamil ben Hizkiyahu hid Sefer Torahs by burying them in a fake burial ceremony. The city was liberated a few months later.
In 1944, the NKVD deported the entire Chechen populace that surrounded the Mountain Jews in Chechnya, and moved other ethnic groups into their homes; Mountain Jews mostly refused to take the homes of deported Chechens while there are some reports of deported Chechens entrusting their homes to Jews in order to keep them safe.
Given the marked changes in the 1990s following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and rise of nationalism in the region, many Mountain Jews permanently left their hometowns in the Caucasus and relocated to Moscow or abroad. During the First Chechen War, many Jews left due to the Russian invasion and indiscriminate bombardment of civilian population by the Russian military. Despite historically close relations between Jews and Chechens, many also suffered high rate of kidnappings and violence at the hands of armed ethnic Chechen gangs who ransomed their freedom to "Israel and the international Jewish community". Many Mountain Jews emigrated to Israel or the United States. Qırmızı Qəsəbə in Azerbaijan remains the biggest settlement of Mountain Jews in the world, with the current population over 3,000.