Monday, August 29, 2011

עמק יהושפט; The Karaite Necropolis of Crimea

Emek Yehoshaphat, The valley of Yehoshaphat, is the name given to the ancient Karaite necropolis at Chufut Qale ("Jews' Fortress") in the Crimea where the local Karaites buried their dead for centuries.
The size of the area is about 80 dunams and is now known by its 'new' Tatar-Karaite name “Balta-Teymez”, which means ‘the place where an ax is never lifted’.

The area was first explored by the Karaite Hakham and Scholar Abraham Firkovitz in the second half of the 19th century. The study was conducted as part of a more comprehensive research into the history of the Crimean Karaites on behest of the Czarist authorities. Some scholars believed that the results of that study was not 100 percent accurate and some forgeries were suspected.

A new full comprehensive epigraphical study was conducted in 1997 by the Ben Zvi Institute and published in Hebrew in 2008 under the title מצבות בית העלמין של היהודים הקראים בצ׳ופוט־קלעה

Why Emek Yehoshafat?

Already in Tanach and even more so in the New Testament,
the Valley of Yehoshafat has eschatological significance (1).
The moniker appears to have been first coined by the German zoologist Peter Simon Pallas when he visited the site during his travels throughout Russia and its territories at the end of the 18th century (2).

The reason for this, is the very similar topography between Chufut Qale and the biblical Emek Yehoshafat in Jerusalem.
The Russian traveler Y. Markoff, also noted this stark resemblance during his travels there in the sixth decade of the 19th century. At the beginning of the 20th century, The Russian writer S. Vajsenberg writes, the local Karaites would often compare the surroundings of chufut qale to the outskirts of Jerusalem and named the mound in front of the ancient castle “the mount of olives”. Kizilov opines (in "matzevot", p. 72) that the name emek yehoshafat was first given by Karaite pilgrims to Jerusalem in the 17th and 18th centuries who noticed the stark similarites between the 2 localities.
Karaites, like other Jews (and perhaps even more) always maintained a close connection to Jerusalem and put a special emphasis on making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem at least once during their lives (not dissimilar to the Muslim hajj to Mecca). Many recordings of such travelogues have been preserved. In addition, many of the tombstones at the necropolis likewise contain references to Jerusalem. Aside from the obvious religious connection to Jerusalem, Karaites were also able to do so relatively easily during the many centuries when both Crimea and Jerusalem were under Ottoman rule.
Why the Change to Balta Teymez?
The first one who called the burial grounds by this new name appears to have been Hakhan (emphasis on the 'n) Seraya Shapshal. Shapshal undertook the radical turkicization of the Karaite community of Crimea and Eastern Europe and stripped them of all vestiges of Judaism (even going as far as to ban the Hebrew language). The name arose because of the heavily wooded area in the center of the cemetery, particularly the "great oak" that had attained almost sacred status among the local Karaites. Shapshal spoke of religious ceremonies having been conducted there to pray for rain or to put a stop to plague. This kind of shamanistic pagan worship is not foreign to the region and was cited as “proof” of the non Jewish Turkic origin of the local Karaites (some local Karaites still practice this holdover from dark times when any connection to Judaism was tantamount to a death sentence. See here beginning at the 3:12 mark) . Interestingly enough, the Tatar rulers took full advantage of this adoration and often extorted money from the community by threatening to uproot the trees. Kizilov ( in "matzevot" p. 141, note 7) puts forth a different theory as to why the Karaites guarded the trees so zealously. He claims that it is tied in with the Karaite tendency to generally neglect their burial grounds because “from dust hast thou arisen and to dust thou shalt return” (Genesis 3:19). This is also the reason why Karaites generally frown at the (increasingly common) Jewish custom of praying at a gravesite. (see for instance the Karaite sage Sahl b. Mazliah's sharp rebuke of this custom in Pinsker, Likuttei Kadmoniot II, Ch. 32. Mentioned in El-Gamil, Toledot Part I, p. 73).

(1) One notes that the eschatological midrashic work Sefer Zerubavel mentions עמק יהושפט as a place that would take center stage in the Messianic age:
כי שם יהיה משפט לרשעים ושמחה לצדיקים

see Wertheimer, בתי מדרשות תק'
(2) Bemerkungen auf einer Reise in die südlichen Statthalterschaften des Rußischen Reichs in den Jahren 1793 und 1794 (Leipzig, 1799—1801), p. 35

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