“שֶתּוֹלִיכֵנוּ לְשָלוֹם וְתַצְעִידֵנוּ לְשָלוֹם. וְתִסְמְכֵנוּ לְשָלוֹם. וְתַדְרִיכֵנוּ לְשָלוֹם. וְתַגִיעֵנוּ לִמְחוֹז חֶפְצֵנוּ לְחַיִּים וּלְשִמְחָה וּלְשָלוֹם“
“that You lead us toward peace, guide our footsteps toward peace, and make us reach our desired destination for life, gladness, and peace” (The Wayfarer’s Prayer)
(To A.A, my friend and guide through the dunes of life)
An Tian was exited.
The young Mandarin fastened the sleeves of his black robe and rushed through the capital’s smoky alleys until he entered a modestly constructed hall, not far from Xuanwu gate of the city walls.
A native of Kaifeng, the scholar came to Beijing seeking for a position within the ranks of local civil service. Before heading north, An tian learned that a group of westerns arrived in China, and not only that these foreigners had received the Emperor consent to settle down in the imperial capital, they had also got a permission to build their own house of worship. An tian’s source also claimed that the foreign party where strict adherents of a one almighty god, and that they were not Muslim, a well-established creed in China of the time.
For An Tian, that could have meant one thing only. Entering the house, An was greeted by a bearded European, who after short explanation was extremely delighted to meet a local co-religionists led him to the main prayer hall where they stood in front of four aura adorned figures. Following his host by kneeling in front of the picture, An tian curiously inquired why the painting only shows four of Jacob’s twelve sons.
And that is the story of the strange meeting between the Jesuit Matteo Ricci and An tian, the Jewish Mandarin of Kaifeng.
The Roman oppression of the great Jewish revolt and the destruction of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, 70 AD, traumatic as it was, was not the main generator of Jewish communities outside of their Middle Eastern motherland. Earlier waves of invasions and subsequent deportations as well as pure economic reasons had contributed to the gradual establishment of Jewish communities, from the western Mediterranean to Iran and further east, and from the Caucasus to the Yemen.
Early Jewish communities in Mesopotamia, Egypt and Iran are well documented as early as the 7th century BC, uprooted from their traditional professions of agriculture and artisanry, many of them turned to mercantile activity, banking, and even as mercenaries.
In fact, these prosperous communities have eventually played a significant part in the reconstruction of the second temple in Jerusalem, erected under Persian imperial approval, 516 BC. The Roman destruction of the Jewish homeland contributed to the growth of the diasporic communities when many prisoners of war and slaves were redeemed by local families, as obliged by the Jewish lore. As an outcome of this gravity shift, from the original community in Palestine, to the Mediterranean basin and beyond, the Jewish population had come to rely more heavily on trade, a phenomena common among immigrates, who lack access to local lands, but on the other hand possess multilingualism and overseas connections, two qualities prove beneficial for international trade.
Under Islam, starting the 7th century, this tendency intensified, when the influence of heavy taxing such as land tax and the Jizyah, a Per-Capita tax levied on non-Muslims, had generated Jewish migration from agricultural lands, and into the cities, a process that was encouraged by the late Abbasid political crisis, and weakening of central power along the 11th and 12th centuries.
The social fixation of Jewish communities to a predominantly urban setting, a process that had taken place in the Medieval Islamic world as much as it occurred in Christendom, made the Jews much more dependent on of their neighbors’ favors, and left them prone to arbitrary violence and exploitations. This social condition however, obliged them to take whatever advantage possible, when many of them turned to money lending, banking and of course, trade.
Historically, there is a strong connection between trade and the establishment of a human population far from its place of origin, in what is known as “Trade diaspora”, as can be seen in other examples such as Muslim, Armenian, Indian diasporas, and many more. The members of such a community are usually defined by the force of a common language, religion or other practices, contributing to their sense of unity and common interest, sometimes enabling them to establish their domination of a certain territory or field of commerce. A good example of such a network will be the Sogdian diaspora, which dominated the Inner Eurasian trade with China during late antiquity.
One of the first early medieval accounts of a Jewish trade network refers to a mysterious trade guild named the Radanites . The etymology of the name is unclear, but some had claimed a Persian origin, deriving from the word combination of Rah (Road راه- ), and Dana ( knowing – دانا), meaning, “those who know the way”.
Not much is known of this long gone trade guild, although scarce Muslim sources give an interesting account of their activity:
” These merchants speak Arabic, Persian, Roman, the Frank, Spanish, and Slav languages. They journey from West to East, from East to West, partly on land, partly by sea. They transport from the West eunuchs, female slaves, boys, brocade, castor, marten and other furs, and swords. They take ship from Firanja (France), on the Western Sea, and make for Farama (Pelusium). There they load their goods on camel-back and go by land to al-Kolzum (Suez), a distance of twenty-five farsakhs. They embark in the East Sea and sail from al-Kolzum to al-Jar and al-Jeddah, then they go to Sind, India, and China. On their return from China they carry back musk, aloes, camphor, cinnamon, and other products of the Eastern countries to al-Kolzum and bring them back to Farama, where they again embark on the Western Sea. Some make sail for Constantinople to sell their goods to the Romans” ( Ibn Khurdadhbah, – Kitab al-Masalik “Book of Routes” 846 AD)
The alleged success of the Radanites can be attributed to their ability to perform as middlemen in the much divided world of the early middle ages. The rise of Islam and the collapse of the Western Roman Empire had much reduced the Mediterranean maritime trade, while preventing Muslim and Christian traders from crossing the geopolitical borders of the day by land. This interreligious rift enabled Jewish traders to act as independent commercial force, while established a far-fetched trade network, stretching from the Carolingian west through the Islamic lands and all the way to China.
The 9th century collapse of the Tang dynasty in China, and constant warfare among the Nomadic forces of Central Asia had made long range trade impossible and apparently fostered the final collapse of the Radanite trade network sometimes between the 10th and 11th centuries.
Due to insufficient external sources and the complete lack of inner sources we can only speculate the extent and historical significance of the Radanite network. It is feasible that a few fragments of Judeo-Persian manuscript found in Chinese Xinjiang province, a fragment of a Selichot (Hebrew: סליחות) prayer found in the Dunhuang-Mogao Buddhist grottos, and the exiting 2011 finding of the so-called “Afghani Geniza”, a hoard of commercial and religious manuscripts dating as early as 1005 AD, are indications of Radanite activity, but these are no more than speculations at the moment.
Apart from its important commercial position, the Radanites might have played a political role as well which proved crucial in Medieval Eurasian history.
Religion, in contradiction with the common belief, is not always a matter of spirituality, and this notion is especially important when we deal with Nomadic politics. Adopting a new religion is a common practice among a rising nomadic elite. It gives the nomadic ruler the chance of symbolically announce his independence, while simultaneously gaining legitimacy from a favored group, or acquiring new political and commercial advantages. In fact, it’s not uncommon for a steppe ruler to hold more than one religious or political title, while possessing more than one source of legitimacy.
This exact need was the reason for the conversion of one Steppe Empire to the least expected religion around.
The 7th century rise of the Turkic Khazar tribes on the expense of the deteriorating Göktürk Empire, had enabled them to form an extensive empire in Pontic steppe, north of the Caucasus and between the black and Caspian sea, that bore their name in the Persian language ever since, (Darya-I Khazar دریای خَزَر).
The Khazar proximity to the Abbasid Caliphate’s on one hand and the Byzantine Empire on the other, made the Khazar leadership make an theologically unexpected but otherwise a considerably pragmatic choice. It made Judaism the state religion.
וְהוּא הָיָה מִשְׁתַּדֵּל מְאד בְּתורַת הַכּוּזָר עַד שֶׁהָיָה מְשַׁמֵּש בַּעֲבודַת הַהֵיכָל וְהַקָּרְבָּנות בְּעַצְמו בְּלֵב שָׁלֵם, וְכָל אֲשֶׁר הָיָה מִשְׁתַּדֵּל בַּמַּעֲשִׂים הָהֵם, הָיָה הַמַּלְאָךְ בָּא אֵלָיו בַּלַּיְלָה וְאומֵר לו: “כַּוָּנָתְךָ רְצוּיָה וּמַעַשְׂךָ אֵינֶנּוּ רָצוּי”, וְגָרַם לו זֶה לַחֲקר עַל הָאֱמוּנות וְהַדָּתות וְהִתְיַהֵד בַּסּוף הוּא וְעַם רָב מֵהַכּוּזָרִים.
“And (the King) immersed himself in the Khazar lore, and preformed the rites by himself with much devotion, and all while devoting himself to that, an angel had appeared at night, say: “Your intention is much approved, while your acts are not” and by that he investigated the faiths and religious till accepting the Jewish faith, and with him the Khazars in multitude”
This quote from the “Kuzari” by Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, an apologetic composition of the 12th century, represent a common theme in the history of religions and nations, a wise ruler is summoning a religious debate in order to choose the right faith for his realm. In his work, Yehuda Halevi is using the debate theme in order prove the superiority of the Jewish faith upon Islam, Christianity and the Aristotelian Metaphysics.
Fictional as that story might be, the conversion of the Khazar Kaganate (618–1048) elite, perhaps under Rhadanite influence is a historical fact, well documented by Arab, Byzantine, Armenian, Zoroastrian and Khazar sources. Despite that, Judaism was never exclusive in the Khazar realm and the typically religiously tolerant nomads and their sedentary subjects freely followed an array of practices including Islam, Christianity, Tengrism and perhaps even Buddhism.
With the Khazar Kaganate’s 11th century disintegration under the pressure of Oguz Turkic groups and the Rus principalities came the end of the Jewish influence on the Steppe people, even though several given names of the Seljuk founding family such as Israel, and Daud, might be a sign of lingering Jewish-Khazar influence within the steppe region. What ever happened to the Khazar Jews is hard to answer, some might have converted, some might have joined existing communities in central Asia or Eastern Europe. Today it’s a popular topic among racists, nationalists and empty headed people of all creeds and religions, so we shall leave it at this point.
The story of the Khazar conversion shows how even an exclusive, non-missionary religion such as Judaism, might be accepted by a nomadic empire under the right social and political condition. Furthermore, it demonstrates the Jewish presence in Eurasian commerce.
Naturally, the Jewish presence south of the steppe in the lands of greater Iran goes back even earlier. An interesting 4th century evidence of Jewish presence in Central Asia comes from the Babylonian Talmud:
“רב שמואל בר ביסנא אילקע למרגואן אייתי ליה חמרא ולא אשתי, אייתו ליה שיכרא ולא אשתי… משום שימצא דשימצא”
(בבלי,ע”ז לא ב)
“Rabbi Samuel Bar Bisna came to Margiana (Merv), but did not drank the wine served to him, suspecting it was not Kosher (=used for Pagan practices)”
This Rabbinical piece of evidence might indicate a well-established Jewish community deep in the heart of Asia, when later Bukharian Jewish traditions from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan trace their origin back to the time of the first Jewish exiles, deported during the Assyrian onslaught of the 7th century BC. Be it a descendant of the Assyrian exile, or a later Persian origin, this ancient community of traders and artisans, now almost completely extinct in its motherland, the Bukharian Jews are among the oldest ethnic groups in Central Asia, well pre-dating the later Turkic migrations that shaped its medieval and modern history.
Another Interesting evidence indicating the existence of a prominent Jewish community was found in the region of Ghur, central Afghanistan. The Hebrew, Aramaic and Judeo-Persian Inscriptions and tombstones on site suggest Jewish presence for at least five hundred years when the earliest inscription dates from 752 AD, An interesting figure when accounting the chronological proximity to the Chinese Tang dynasty heydays of the Silk routs (And to the An lushan rebellion which destroyed it, but that’s a different story).
The history of early Jewish presence in China is shrouded in mystery. Some claim Jewish presence in China’s western regions as early as the time of the Han dynasty (C. first century AD), and Judeo-Persian fragments found in Xinjiang are dated to around the 8th century. Jewish traders of Persian origin might have arrived China during the Tang Dynasty, when an influx of foreigners, Muslims, Nestorian Christians, Manicheans and Buddhists entered the middle kingdom via the Silk routs, turning Chang An to the most Cosmopolitan and vibrant city in the world at that time.
The community’s own tradition dates its establishment to time of the Song dynasty (960-1279), with the coming of Jewish traders from the Xīyù (Western regions, i.e, Xinjiang), allegedly after been invited by the newly established Song dynasty. However, due to the fact that historically the Chinese did not distinguish much between Jews and Muslims (Bearded, weird religious concepts, no pork), hard evidence regarding these early times are tricky to find.
Most of the evidence regarding Jewish presence in china therefore comes from external, non-Chinese sources, usually Muslim and Christians, such as Ibn Zayyd of Saraf who recorded Muslim and Jewish casualties in the Huang chao revolt of the late 9th century. Other travelers of the Mongol age such as Marco Polo and Ibn Batuta also report of Jewish presence under the rule of the Mongol Yuan dynasty, a time of great movement of populations and commercial activity across Eurasia.
An interesting tale gives away another evidence of Jewish presence in the Yuan domain of the 13th century. After been extremely insulted by a Muslim delegation refusing to eat the non-Halal meat that was served at an official banquet, the furious Qubali Khan released the following decree:
“Chinggis Khan was born and collected all the various countries from
where the sun rises to where it sets and made them follow [Mongol]
customs. Among these many diverse peoples only the Muslims
[objected] saying, “We do not eat food [prepared in] Mongol [fashion].”
[Chinggis Khan thus] asked, “Being protected by Heaven we
conquered you. You are our slaves, but you refuse to eat our food….
….saying “We do not eat what other
people have slaughtered,” and because they harassed the common
people, it has been decreed: Muslims and Jews must eat meat
regardless by whom, [or how] it is slaughtered. They are forbidden
to kill sheep by slitting the throat. They are forbidden to perform
circumcision. And because they are supposed to pray five times a
day, if they do so twice and pray [ten times a day], then they will
As a consequence of that, many foreigners had left the Yuan domain in search of other, more tolerant territory to profess their trade, by that contributing to the future poor condition of the Yuan economy, which eventually contributed to its downfall.
Scholars today believe that China use to have quite a few substantial Jewish communities, mostly along the coastline, in Hangzhou, Ningbo and the most famous community, in Kaifeng, where a major synagogue has stood, constantly being rebuild as most Chinese wooden made structures, but otherwise keeping a westward orientation towards a forgotten city on a mountain.
Not much was left of the Jewish community of Kaifeng, some elderly residents of the old Hutongs are might be the descendants of An tian and his family. The communities’ last synagogue was destroyed in a flood during the mid-19th, accompanied by the death of the last Rabbi around the same time.
The Chinese culture has a known ability to assimilate new comers, Turks, Mongol, Manchurians, all gave in to the silken comforts and scholarly depths of the middle kingdom. Even the Huge Muslim community (In Muslim scale, not Chinese of course) seems more Chinese then strict adherents of the Sharia. And historically the community needed frequent doctrinal waking calls to remind it it’s an off -shoot of the Dar al Islam. The Jewish community didn’t have much chance in front of the all-embracing Chinese-ness. It was just too small to remember. Too small to remember its own language, it scriptures and its own history, and in Judaism, remembrance is everything.