Azerbaijan Days: Qırmızı Qəsəbə “Perhaps the only completely Jewish Settlement Outside Israel”

Mountain Jews of Guba: The school, early 1920's

“Shalom”, local people called to us, as we walked through the town. “Are you from Israel?” No we explained, America and Britain. My friends and I were in Azerbaijan, but at the time, it seemed like we had wandered through a wormhole to somewhere completely different. This was Qırmızı Qəsəbə, perhaps the only completely Jewish settlement outside of Israel.


Fancy tin roof of a house in Qırmızı Qəsəbə

Across the broad, stony river bed from the town of Guba in the North of Azerbaijan lies a small community of houses and shops, many of them with red-tin roofs. From a distance, it doesn’t look anything special. Maybe some of the houses have fancy sandstone frontages but all in all, it looks like just another small Azeri community. Qırmızı Qəsəbə, in English the Red Community (a prosaic name imposed in Soviet times) is however unique. Founded in 1742 as Yevreiskaya Sloboda or the Jewish Settlement, the local Khan gave permission for the Jewish community who had been living in the town of Guba from at least the 13th century to found their own village the other side of the river. This was a rare event as generally, Jews were not allowed to own land.

A Peace Corps friend of mine who lives nearby said local people believe the only reason he gave them permission to build there was because if invaders came from the North, Guba would be alerted by the Jewish community going up in flames. That may not be true but it is indicative of an ambiguous attitude towards the community by the wider population.

Many old houses line the streets

How large numbers of Jews came to live in towns and villages across the Caucuses is a story in itself.  Seemingly, their distant ancestors once lived in southwest Persia, fleeing their homeland of Israel after the destruction of the first Jewish temple in about 722BC. One of the “wandering tribes”, they adopted the Middle Persian language and finally settled in the Caucasian mountains in the 5th or 6th centuries. Some historians believe they may be descended from Jewish military colonists, settled by Parthian and Sassanid rulers as frontier guards against invading forces from the North. These days, that history is barely remembered by the residents of this unique settlement.

Tom Parfitt, a journalist writing for the Telegraph newspaper has stated that during the communist period, something like 18,000 people lived in the community but soon after the fall of the regime many left for Israel, Russian and the United States. Now, the population hovers around the 3,500 mark.

The refurbished synagogue

Parfitt points out that “before 1917, Krasnaya Sloboda was a thriving community of skilled leather workers and other tradesmen. Known as Little Jerusalem, it boasted thirteen synagogues. The Communists turned all but one of them into storehouses and carpet-weaving workshops and banished several rabbis to Siberia. It was the first blow in a long decline”.

Written eight years ago, the decline in numbers continues but the physical state of the community has improved greatly. Today the streets are clean, the houses smart and well kept although some have been long abandoned. The synagogue has been refurbished and looks well used but there are not so many children on the streets and old people predominate.

Mason and the dried fruit ladies

Three middle-aged ladies approached my friend Mason and tried to get him to buy some pressed semi-dried soft-fruit, used in making levangi, a regional specialty. He was willing to buy a single piece but was told it could only be purchased by the kilo. How about half a kilo? No, you can only buy it by the kilo. As he walked away, one of the ladies rushed up to him and gave him the one piece he was willing to purchase… I’m not sure what the moral of that story is, other than to say the people we met there were very friendly. Mind you, one mother shouted at her children “don’t let him take your photographs!” We would not have, without permission…

Mass grave across the river in Guba

Crossing over the river to the Guba side, we were confronted with a 20th century horror that resonates today. In 2007, an excavation beside a football field uncovered a mass grave containing the remains of some four-hundred Jews and other Azeris murdered as the Red Army advanced towards Baku in April and May 1918. Among the dead were some one-hundred women and fifty children. In all, Azeri historians claim that a total of 3,800 old men, women and children from the Guba area were killed at this time. Jews were not specifically targeted but suffered along with the rest of the population.

Today, relations between the communities are convivial as people rise to the challenge of modern day life.

As I took my leave of Qırmızı Qəsəbə , chewing my way through some of the semi-dried fruit Mason gave me, I hoped that the community would see a reversal in its fortunes and the continuation of a unique tradition and way of life.

If you would like to visit Qırmızı Qəsəbə, contact CBT AZerbaijan for details of homestays at nearby Gusar:




About stevehollier

Steve Hollier is the editor of AZ Magazine, an English language lifestyle magazine based in Baku, Azerbaijan. He began his career working for a firm of stockbrokers in the City of London then went on to attend the University of Essex where he was awarded an MA in Sociology in 1984. After a career in arts and cultural development work, he became a freelance arts consultant, writer and photographer.
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One Response to Azerbaijan Days: Qırmızı Qəsəbə “Perhaps the only completely Jewish Settlement Outside Israel”

  1. Hello Steve

    Thats pretty much sums up about mountain/juhuro jews. Indeed new generations of montain jews here in NYC will feel disconnected from its past. Montain/Juhuro Jews will have better preservation of our culture in Israel then US. We here in NYC have local site about juhuro jews from Azerbaijan.

    Thank you for doing this….whats your next topic from Baku
    Best Regards

    Oh btw I know we have juhuro synagogue on “Pervomaskie street” I am not sure whats the name of the street now. But I read on of the azeri news web site they had to demolish that synagogue in order to make a way for new road or something. But local politician promised that they will help to rebuild a new one not far away from the old location. We had two local synagogues within walking distance from my house now that you know where I lived. One was ashkenazi and other one was mountain/juhuro synagogue.

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