The Lithuanian Karaites

Published at Islamonline.net (now OnIslam.net)

Visiting Eastern Europe without adventure is like ordering a doughnut without a filling — a crime second only to disbelief in God Almighty. To some this may be a grievous blasphemy. To me, it is simply what I believe. It is no wonder then that when the opportunity to travel arose, I grabbed it with both hands and found myself in Vilnius, the capital city of Lithuania.

 
The remnants of the Soviet era are clear throughout the city from the large swathes of architecture to the Saturday flea market atop Taurus Hill where all sorts of memorabilia may be found. Someone even tried to sell me a Russian army general’s uniform, complete with hat and decorative medals!

 

Lithuania is located in northern Europe along the south eastern coast of the Baltic sea. First documented in 1009, it has a chequered history which includes strong pagan roots (they were the last country to accept Christianity in the region), and in recent years included Napolean’s army’s retreat through the city, Nazi’s, Soviet occupation, declaring independence in 1990.

In recent history, Lithuania joined NATO in 2004 where President Bush who attended the ceremony stated, “Anyone who would choose Lithuania as an enemy, has also made an enemy of the United States.” While a wonderfully profound statement, my translator echoed the sentiments of the vast majority of Lithuanians, joking that she hoped the reverse was not also true. The old town in Vilnius is one of the most beautifully preserved in Eastern Europe rivaling the likes of Prague. And the country is dotted with castles dating back centuries – true, many have been destroyed and are in the process of renovation, but they are still an awe-inspiring sight.

 

Imagine then my luck when taking a half day tour to Trakai — the capital of Lithuania during the Middle Ages — a stunning town situated between 3 lakes, which when looked at on a map appears to be an island. Of the three castles, only two remain, and of those, only one has been renovated, for sure a sight to see.

 

But that isn’t what caught my attention. Rather, it was the Karaite community which live in this town.

An offshoot of Judaism, the Karaites originated from Baghdad. They rely only on the Tankh (the Hebrew Bible) as scripture, rejecting the Mishnah and the Talmud. The Karaites flourished during the 10th and 11th centuries especially in the Muslim world where many held high positions of authority, such as tax collectors, doctors, and clerks.

 

During the 14th century, Karaites living in the Crimea were invited to Lithuania by the Grand Duke and today, while there are less than 300 of them living in the Trakia, they have a temple, a museum, and a restaurant serving their traditional food, kibinai.

 

Kibinai is similar to a Cornish pasty on the outside with a cabbage and meat mix on the inside. The traditional kibinai is made with lamb, however modern day variants also exist. Given that the Karaites by virtue of their belief are ‘People of the book’ I couldn’t help but try one, and have to say, the kibinai tasted quite good!

 

Later, as I ventured into the Karaite museum, I was struck to find traditional Turkish memorabilia, similar to what you would see in Istanbul lining display cabinets. What took me by surprise the most was one of the plaques which clearly read “Allah” in Arabic.
A Karaite plaque, in a Karaite museum, reading “Allah”?! To me, this was another proof that there is no god but Allah; even the Karaites believe so!

 

Looking beyond the stag and hen nights — the adult entertainment which has taken precedence over and above the beautiful history of Lithuania — the country’s minority religious culture extends further, this time, to the Tartars.

 

The Grand Dukes of Lithuania really were multicultural. They recognized the different skill sets people from different countries could offer and chose to invite them to add value to their nation. It was under the rule of the Grand Duke Vytautas that the vast majority of Tartars were invited to Lithuania.

 

The first community was established in the town of Keturiasdesimt Totoriu, meaning the “Town of the 40 Tartars”, more than 600 hundred years ago. Along with the Tartar community of Nemezis, they are both located just outside Vilnius city, but within Vilnius district. Both towns have original wooden mosques dating back many generations in a traditional Tartar style, though sadly both are in need of extensive repair. When we arrived at Keturiasdesimt Totoriu, my driver and I wandered about eventually finding a Tartar gent riding his tractor. Directing us to a house, we met with a lady named Maryam, a great grandmother (masha’ Allah) who happened to have the key to the mosque. Still in use, the mosque is apparently at full capacity, especially on Fridays.

 

The imam, a local Tartar, lives in Vilnius and is married to one of Maryam’s granddaughters. Despite being a very old lady, she moved about with great agility, and as we drove away, my driver said something before I could utter similar words: ‘Farrukh, when she smiled, it was as if light shined from her face, everything lit up’.

 

Ok, so his English wasn’t that good, but he spoke words to that effect and I simply couldn’t agree more.

The first few photos that I took of Maryam, her face came out over exposed (too much light coming from her face only, nowhere else)! I had to manually alter the settings on my camera for it to take one in which her face could be recognized. I would like to think that it was noor, light, emanating from her smile, but Allah knows best.

 

Back in town, in more recent history, during the 17th and 19th centuries, a mosque was located in Vilnius itself, in Lukiskes square: sadly, it was destroyed. Today, the square is a public open space, housing a church to one side, and it is crossed by the main shopping street Gediminas Avenue, which leads in one direction towards the amazing cathedral in the center of the old town at the foot of Gedimanas Castle: both sights which must be seen.

 

Walking through Lukiskes square along Gedimanas avenue I couldn’t help but wonder about the history of this nation, one which is often ignored by those seeking cheap adult entertainment. For sure, the fairytale-like castles which dot this country as well as the wonderful history and general friendliness of the people is a reason to visit. An added bonus is however the Islamic heritage of this country — much of which I simply hadn’t the time to explore.

 

For example, Maryam told us that just outside Keturiasdesimt Totoriu, in the Black forest is a plot of land, about 4 acres in size, full of graves dating back to the earliest residents of the city, more than 600 years ago! Sadly the weather, snow and ice, as well as time, didn’t allow for us to visit.

 

Further along Gediminas Avenue, making my way back to my hotel, I ended up entangled in a group of about 80 young women all hoping to be the next leading model from the Baltic region: apparently a program was being run by a regional model agency looking for the newest talent.
With less that 3,000, Muslims are a minority in Lithuania. My translator was kind enough to point out that the Lithuanian Tartar Muslim community and the Karaites Jewish community has throughout the centuries had very close ties with each other.

 

 

He continued to say that in recent generations while ‘faith’ was suppressed under Soviet rule, that suppression led to unity between the different faiths, despite their differences. This ensured harmonious interaction as everyone struggled against communism, understanding one another’s desire for faith.

 

I do hope to return to Lithuania one day, preferably as a tourist where I have more free time, ideally in summer as great grandmother Maryam and I have a date: we agreed to have afternoon tea. Those who do travel, if you are a fan of mineral water, try Tiche, a Lithuanian variety, it is much tastier and cheaper than Evian!

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