Girmizi Gasaba: Jerusalem of the Caucasus

A report from the"Jerusalem of the Caucasus" – a village in northern Azerbaijan.

In Guba District in northern Azerbaijan, there is a village called Qirmizi Qesebe. The village had different names at different times – Zidkovskaya Sloboda, Yevreyskaya Sloboda, Krasnoselsk, Fatali khan. But most often the place is called the Jerusalem of the Caucasus – for the fact that it is the only place in the post-Soviet area that is populated by a community of "Mountain Jews".

Historical background

Mountain Jews are a ethnic group that first migrated to the Caucasus from Persia in the 5th century CE. Mountain Jews first appeared in the Azerbaijani city of Guba in the 1730s durring the reign of the Guba leader Huseynali Khan. His son, Fatali Khan, also took the Mountain Jews under his protection and provided them better living conditions. The group settled on the left bank of the River Kudialchay. An idea to change the name of the village to Fatali Khan emerged in the 90s but the new name never caught on.

Girmizi Gasaba: Jerusalem of the Caucasus
Girmizi Gasaba, Azerbaijan, September 2019
Girmizi Gasaba’s Synogogue, Azerbaijan, September 2019

"No entry"?

Back in Soviet times, Girmizi Gasaba was a wealthy village, in which there was humming trade in goods that were in short supply: electronics, furniture, and clothes. Nowadays, it is the most self-isolated community in Azerbaijan and one of the most self-isolated Jewish communities in general. Local residents are quite friendly and sociable at first, but the only thing they spoke with us about is the weather, and shied away from answering questions about themselves or life in the village, especially on camera. Cars form the local municipality, the local community and police followed the Meydan TV crew on the streets of the village. We were asked where we had come from, what we were filming, why we were filming without permission (albeit, permission is not required for filming in the street), and then we were strongly advised not to film anything "bad", for example, "the pit on the side of the road". Incidentally, that pit may be the only flaw on the streets of the village.

Girmizi Gasaba’s Synogogue, Azerbaijan, September 2019
Girmizi Gasaba, Azerbaijan, September 2019

Home to an affluent Jewish community

Girmizi Gasaba does not look like other small population centers in Azerbaijani provinces. The village is lined with mansions, clean and well-groomed streets, and a smooth asphalt road on which expensive cars drive. Especially striking is a huge mansion with numerous extensions behind a long white wall. The house belongs to God Nisanov, one of the people at the top of the Forbes list, a Russian billionaire who is a native of the village. He co-owns the Kievskaya Ploshchad Group of companies, which is one of Russia's 200 largest private companies.

When speaking to us, however, local residents do not mention the names of their powerful fellow villagers too often. Instead, they spoke about the ancestors of the famous Chinese and US composer Aaron Avsholomov, or the father of the famous Soviet surgeon Gavriil Ilizarov, who were originally from Girmizi Gasaba, too.

Girmizi Gasaba’s Synogogue, Azerbaijan, September 2019
Girmizi Gasaba’s Synogogue, Azerbaijan, September 2019

A village of the elderly and children

According to the latest statistics, there are about 3,000 people living in Girmizi Gasaba. The streets of the village are fairly busy in early autumn. However, a woman who lives in the village and requested anonymity, said that the village is empty from mid-autumn till summer.

"Only elderly people and children will stay. In our family it is only my children, my grandmother and I that spend the winter here. My parents, my brothers and my husband all live and work in Russia," she said.

Grisha Yusufov, a man who lives in the village, explained to us that this all "has to do with economic reasons". He, too, was planning to travel to Russia several days after our conversation. He would be happy to land a job in Azerbaijan and not go anywhere even for a short time, but he has not been successful yet. Grisha's younger brother has moved permanently to Israel together with his family. He even took his elderly parents with him. The mother, Sonya Yusufova, flatly refused to stay in Israel.

"My husband passed away in Israel. He could not live far from his motherland. He came back here in a coffin," says the woman, 83, with tears in her eyes. "I had arguments with my daughter-in-law all the time and I demanded that she bring me back here as long as I was alive."

Girmizi Gasaba, Azerbaijan, September 2019
Girmizi Gasaba, Azerbaijan, September 2019

"This is the motherland"

The homes, each one prettier than the next, are empty for most of the year, but they still look well-groomed. "Our fathers and grandfathers are buried here, and everyone wants to have their own house here. Wherever they live – in the United States, or Moscow, Russia or Israel – they think of this place as their home," Grisha says.

It is customary for wealthy natives of Krasnaya Sloboda to help their village and its less fortunate residents.

"They send money to those in need every month. For example, they send me, a single mother, 300 USD every month, and they send more to those who are in greater need," tells us a lady who we bump into on the street. They also organize and finance different training courses for local people, for example, English courses, the woman adds. She refused to tell us exactly how the system of providing for the poor works.

Girmizi Gasaba, Azerbaijan, September 2019

Multilingual Residents

Juhuri is the mother tongue of the Mountain Jews. It belongs to the group of Iranian languages. At the same time, almost all of the Jews of Girmizi Gasaba speak Azerbaijani and Russian.

Previously, before the Soviet era, there were thirteen synagogues operating in the village. In addition to religious services, the synagogues also housed schools for Jewish children. There are now two synagogues left in the village. Yet another synagogue has been converted into a school, at which children study the Torah, the customs of the Mountain Jews, and Hebrew. The school is also funded by wealthy natives of Sloboda. The students are even paid an allowance – 100 USD a month.

According to the lady who happened to accompany us, people had previously left for Russia or Israel or the United States to earn money. Most of them were men. Back then, you could only see women and children in the village all year round. It was also then that the fashion emerged to launch "women's courses" to train women in cooking, dressmaking and hairdressing. Students attending those courses were paid allowances, too. "Nowadays many men take their families with them. It is for this reason that there are now even fewer people in the streets for most of the year. But almost everyone comes back in summer and for public holidays. People also bury here those who die abroad."

With the support of Mediaset

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