Monday, November 27, 2006

Astra-ology

(map source)

I don't remember what led me to this link, but I'm glad I went. Just another reminder about what a wide world this small planet is.

The link was to a story in the online The Hindu, and was written by someone with a Muslim perspective, I'd guess. Whatever, I must have missed this on Channel Nine's Getaway travel program, but I'd love to see them do it. Sounds interesting in an edgy kinda way.

Astrakhan, Russia's Eurasian melting pot: It is Asian enough to be familiar
Astrakhan (Russia): As the Nikitin expedition moves south and east, the urban landscape becomes more oriental than Russian even before you cross the Caucuses. Astrakhan, situated 100 km from the shores of the Caspian, is Asian enough to be familiar and provincial enough to be intimate.

Dusty ramshackle wooden bungalows, reminiscent of Indian towns of the 1950s line both sides of the narrow streets. Soviet-style high-rises are few and far between and traffic is tolerably sparse.

But make no mistake. Astrakhan is more international than Moscow. The town lives up to its reputation as a key link in the north-south silk route. The quays are dotted with boats and cranes.

Europe and Asia converge in this town, which is home to 1.2 million people from 170 nationalities. Russian Christians make up the majority, followed by Tatars and Kazakh Muslims. Cossacks from Krasnador Krai and Stavropol dressed in breeches and carrying sabres are not an uncommon sight on the streets of Astrakhan. Azeris run the thriving catering businesses.

Armenians, Caucasians, Georgians and Dagestanis all come in search of jobs in oil and caviar for which this region is famous. Multinational and Russian oil majors — Agip, BP, Rosneft, Gazprom and Lukoil — are drilling in the Caspian, hoping to hit it big in this region acclaimed as the second Middle East.

The legal status of the Caspian is yet to be determined and the littoral states are fighting over whether it is a sea or a lake. Meanwhile, Astrakhan, the bridgehead for oil and gas exploration in the Russian coast of the Caspian Sea makes hay, merrily drilling away. A state-of- the- art port — Olya — is being built here and, when completed, will become the bridge to the north-south trade corridor that could bring Russian goods to Indian shores and vice versa.

But it was neither oil nor caviar that first brought Indian traders to this part of the world more than 200 years ago. Enterprising Gujarati merchants trudged all the way from Kutch piled high with super-soft cotton razaais lovingly sewn by Kutch women. They came on boats, camels, horses and even on foot to trade in other goods. After all they were all vegetarians and did not care much for caviar nor had the means to carry oil back home. In fact, most of them decided to stay on.

There was a flourishing Indian trading yard in the affluent part of the town adjacent to the Persian and Armenian trading centres, but today nothing survives. The Astrakhan state administration has seen it fit to mark the site and declare the site of the trading yard as a national monument.

Indians continue to fascinate historians and scholars alike. We meet @@ at the @@ library. She is researching for a book on Indians in Astrakhan based on extensive secondary material — books, portraits, photographs — housed in the local library. Unfortunately, Indians in Astrakhan are no longer distinguishable since they have intermarried and merged with local peoples. @@ also tells us that many Indians were also hounded out of Astrakhan during ## for charging usurious rates of interest!

Perhaps it was this Indian connection that brought Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi to Astrakhan in August this year. Ahmedabad and Astrakhan are sister cities and Modi landed with a group of businessmen from Gujarat. Many MoUs were signed. Collaboration in oil and gas exploration and production was one of them.

We visit the very modern and very impressive Astrakhan State University, whose medical faculty boasts many Indian students.

Astrakhan is truly a melting pot of many cultures and civilisations. Islam practiced in these parts seems a liberal version, one that tolerates consumption of alcohol as well as pork. Before the Russian Revolution, Astrakhan province had 260 mosques, and the town itself was home to 91. But during Soviet times, all the mosques were converted into offices and barracks. Now worship takes place only in 8 mosques.

Says Refat Asanov, a Tatar youth, "We hope to get back the mosques one day". We visit the White Mosque built in 1898 by Hazrat Wahabuddin. During the one-hour we spent in the premises, we saw several worshippers - Azeri, Kazakh, Chechen and Tatars - trooping in for prayers. Some of the madrassas are being revived although funding seems to be a problem. There are many churches and a Buddhist monastery as well.


I'm sure it was an honest oversight, but there is a long and thriving Jewish history in Astrakhan, and synagogues too.

Jewish community of Astrakhan
Astrakhan is a major city in southern European Russia, which lies on the Volga River, close to where it empties into the Caspian Sea. While Astrakhan's Kremlin dates back to the 1580s, the city was likely settled under the Tatar dynasties of the 13th century. Ivan IV conquered the city in 1556, thus opening the entire Volga River to Russian traffic, and it became an important trade center.

Situated 1534 kilometers south-east of Moscow, the city spreads over eleven islands, occupying 500 square kilometers. The country's main waterway, the Volga River, flows through Astrakhan and connects it with the Black Sea. The region borders on Kalmykia to the west, Volgograd Region to the north and Kazakhstan to the east.

As a frontier city at Russia's southern gates, Astrakhan is situated on the crossroads between Europe and Asia, making it a commercial and transport center. Both a large river and seaport, it was an essential stop on the Great Silk Way and played a key role connecting West and East.

There are over 150 minorities and ethnic groups in Astrakhan and 14 different religious confessions. The total population as of the 2002 census is 502,800 people, of whom there are an estimated 3000 Jews.

The first signs of Jewish life in this region may be connected to an epoch that left almost no evidence except for broken crockery and a coin with the Magen David star, both of which were found about 14 kilometers from the city of Astrakhan. This is all that remains from the city Itil, the capital of the Khazar Khanate, an empire that which existed until the 16th century.

In 1791, Empress Catherine the Great granted permission to Jews to reside in Astrakhan. The first Jews settled here in 1804 - two members of the Davidov family, both merchants representing the Chernorechensk Winery.

By 1835, there were 49 Jews residing in Astrakhan. None of them were registered to a community and were basically occupied with their craftsmanship. In that year, Tsar Nikolai I introduced the concept of the 'Jewish pale' and excluded Astrakhan from the cities on this list. His decree to evict all Jews from the city came in spite of appeals from the Governor of Astrakhan Region, who argued that Jews did not disturb the city's Russian population. Nevertheless, the Governor did not defy orders given by the Minister of Finance, who had taken control of the eviction process.

Among the local Jewish population were both Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews, both natives of the Caucasus region. The Jewish community purchased a building for use as their first Synagogue. They also started to construct a new building as a second Synagogue. By the beginning of the 20th century, the city had two Synagogues: one Ashkenazi, one Sephardi. The Ashkenazi Synagogue gave rise to the so-called 'Craftsmen's" Synagogue'.

A Karaite Jewish community used to exist just north of the city, but its members eventually left the Astrakhan Region.

In the early 19th century, there was also a large group of Gers. These were Molokan Subbotniks (sectarian Bible-centered Christian peasants who refused the Russian Orthodox Church and came to adopt Jewish practices) who eventually converted to Judaism.

Read all about it

Go see for yourself

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