Oct 30 (Reuters) – The Jewish community of the mostly Muslim region of Dagestan, focus of international attention since an attack on passengers flying in from Israel as the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in Gaza intensifies, traces its origins back to the 7th century.
The community, shrunk by emigration to around 300-400 families from a peak population of over 10,000 in the middle of the last century, is based in the even more ancient city of Derbent on the western shore of the Caspian Sea, on an old north-south trade route skirting the Caucasus mountains.
Dagestan became part of the Russian empire in 1813, when Tsarist forces prised it away from Persia.
Known locally as “Mountain Jews”, they speak a dialect of the Farsi or Persian language spoken in Iran to the south.
This fact led Soviet authorities to designate their “nationality” – or ethnicity – in passports as “Tat”, an umbrella term for Persian-speaking peoples who lived in many parts of the northern slopes of the Caucasus.
Derbent, a city of 120,000, is their religious and cultural centre, but has only one synagogue.
Some scholars believe that the first Mountain Jews, like members of many other Jewish communities, started to emigrate to a prospective homeland in what was then Ottoman-ruled Palestine as early as the 19th century.
Since the easing of emigration restrictions in the later years of the Soviet Union, the bulk of Dagestan’s Jews have emigrated to Israel.