The Jews of the Great Silk Road

Chinese Jews Reading a Torah Scroll

In previous posts I’ve extolled the virtues of Arab traders in keeping the engine of global commerce and subsequent cultural exchange alive along the Silk Road. Although the Arabs were indeed an important part of trade along the Silk Road, many other nationalities and ethnicities were as well. There were Chinese, of course, Greeks, especially along the maritime trade routes, Europeans, and Jewish merchants situated in strategic outposts of both the land and the maritime Silk Road lines.

Dating back almost three millennia, the Jewish community in Iran is the oldest in Asia. Originating as enslaved subjects in ancient Babylon (now, Iraq), Jews first settled within the territory of modern-day Iran after the Persian emperor Cyrus conquered Babylon in 539 BCE, freeing the Jewish slaves and making them an integral part of the Persian Empire. As Persian subjects, Jews traveled widely and did business in Persian dominated lands from Afghanistan, the Caucasus and Caspian through Central Asia.

In the Caucasus, the Jews traded with many of the displaced Turkic tribes that were wandering westward and southward, but they formed a special association with the Khazars. Evidence of great glassworks factories can be found in Orbeti, which dates to the 7th and 8th centuries. This factory were likely under Jewish control, because the designs of the glass produced in these factories and especially the shape and the coloration of the beads can be traced to Near-Eastern Jewish glass designs. Around this time the Khazar king “converted” to Judaism and by the 8th and the 9th Centuries, most Khazars followed Judaism as they continued west and south into the Danube basin.

The largest settlements of Persian Jews in Central Asia was to be found in Uzbekistan, and Jewish merchants worked the important hubs of commerce along the Central Asian Silk Road in places like Bukhara and Samarkand, helping to establish them as major trading posts.

Kaifeng Synagogue

Mediterranean Jews were great entrepreneurs who controlled a considerable part of the trade in that region and played an important role in developing the economies of those nations. In Alexandria, they monopolized shipping; in Syria they controlled many of the markets and as early as the first few centuries AD, they set up their own silk production industry based in Beirut. Other arts and crafts that were dominated by Jews in this region were textile dyeing and glassworks – with glass beads often being used to pay for incoming shipments of foreign goods.

Possibly as early as the first few centuries of the Common Era, large merchant settlements of Jews could be found along the Eastern Silk Road, reaching even into Kaifeng, China. Early trade documents in a unique form of Hebrew from the area dating from around 400 CE have been found in China that suggest the community was not only in existence, but thriving by that time. Remains of a great synagogue have also been found in Kaifeng and have been dated to the 11th and 12th Century CE.

So the mixing and blending of goods, foods and cultures in countries touched by the great Asian trade routes was accomplished by a wide variety of different types of people – most of whom were merchants – out to make a buck along the Silk Road. For thousands of years, Arabs, traded with Africans and Greeks and Jews, and Jews traded with Persians, Georgians, Uzbeks and Chinese, and Chinese traded with Indonesians and Thais and Sri Lankans and Arabs who traded with . . . As bloodlines merged, imported cultural practices became integrated into those held dearly for millennia and modern cuisines emerged from the crucible of history – all blended and formed along the Great Silk Road. (Words by Laura Kelley)

Share

7 thoughts on “The Jews of the Great Silk Road

  1. Liane Wakabayashi

    Thank you for writing a blog on the Jews of the Silk Road and the Silk Road Gourmet. I’ve lived in Tokyo for more than 25 years, am Jewish, and writing a memoir about being married to a Taoist Japanese therapist. As I dig deeper into common roots, I’m curious to find out whether there’s any possibility that Jews landed in Japan via the Silk Road. There is much evidence in ancient Japanese culture that points to Jewish customs. All the best, Liane

    Reply
    1. lauramk Post author

      Hi Liane:

      Sounds fascinating – both your life and your writing project!

      I do not know, “which came first” the Jewish customs or the “Japanese” customs, but I do know that there were several sizable, more-or-less permanent settlements of Jews in China from antiquity well into the early 20th century. No doubt some of these people and their descendants looked to Japan for economic opportunities, but I am not sure of the history.

      Please let me know if you uncover something!

      THX,

      Laura

      Reply
    2. Dahlia Abraham-Klein

      HI Liane, I am Jewish and my grandfather lived in Tokyo for over 25 yrs in the Rapponghi district. Would you remember a very old many with an Indian helper, named Haim? Also there is well known Rabbi that knows about the Jewish history in Japan, named Rabbi Tokeyar in Great Neck, NY. You may want to look him up.

      Reply
    3. EDWARD TANAKA

      Hi Liane,

      I have been living in US for a long time, but I was born and raised in Japan. I am writing the paper about the “Ancient Israelites in Japan” which I believe is a proof that it is true. I want to mail the paper to you, if you give me the third party address such as a business of your husband or friend, I will be glad to send it to you. If there is an email address I can attach the file to, that would work just as well. My paper has a very convincing material so hope you get to read it.

      Ed Tanaka (A Japanese friend who live in US)

      Reply
  2. Dahlia Abraham-Klein

    HI Laura,

    You have done a wonderful job explaining the Jews of Central Asia. I have written a cookbook further elaborating on the Jews in the region and the types of foods they ate. My cookbook is specifically vegetarian. I think we have a lot in common and possibly should do a cross or joint write up.

    For one… Central Asian Jews did not eat Kabobs, like most people think of in that region. Kabob was more of a street food. Although Jews did not eat from the street, due to kosher dietary laws.

    Let me know your thoughts and would be happy to connect in any way.

    Thanks, Dahlia

    Reply
    1. lauramk Post author

      Hi Dahlia:

      I welcome all opportunites to work together and will consider joint projects, cross-postings, events, etc. Perhaps as a first step we can exchange books.
      I was recently in Bukhara again, and one could really feel the Jewish history there in a very vibrant way. We visited the old synagogue and walked the Jewish quarter as well as stayed in a hotel that was the home of a wealthy Jewish merchant. Lovely place, teeming with history!
      Let’s get back in touch after the New Year and put our heads together for things to do together. You can e-mail me using the link on the SRG front page.

      Look forward to hearing from your,

      Laura

      Reply
  3. lauren Berdy

    I wonder how they saw the map of remaining kosher? I wonder what kosher meant to these societies?
    It is curious that in our modern times that kosher has so many meanings and is context dependent?
    I for one who enjoy knowing and possible even cooking what these Jews ate along the silk road?
    many thanks for this post

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>