Van as a site is an ancient city. For centuries different religious communities lived together in harmony in the city. Muslims, Armenians (Gregorian, Catholic and Protestant Armenians) and Jews lived in Van for a ling time of period.

Accordingly, Kemal Karpat in his study, Ottoman Population 1830-1914 Demographic and Social Characteristics wrote that there were 836 Jews in Hakkari in 1914. However in a similar work Osmanli’da Etnik Yapi ve 1914 nüfusu (Ethnicity in Ottoman and Census 1914). made by Orhan Sakin, the number of Jews of Başkale was given as 836 in the same year. Additionally, 273 Jews lived in Güvar (modern Yüksekova), another district of Hakkari. Because there were no Jews living elsewhere in Hakkari, Kapat’s number must refer to Jews of Başkale.

According to the French geographer Vital Cuinet, 1,000 Jews lived in Van Sanjak and 500 in Van Centeral Kaza in 1894. Additionally, in his famous encyclopedia Kamus-ul Alam, the Ottoman writer Şemsettin Sami (Sami Frashëri) estimates 430,000 people were living in Van Province. Of them 242,000 were Muslim, 178,000 Christian, 5,400 Yazidis, 600 Roman and 5,000 Jews between the years 1889-1898.

Van province consisted of Van and Hakkari sanjaks. Distribution of the Jews in the province population in 1914 was 274 in Şemdinli and 273 were in Güvar, today’s Yüksekova in Hakkari.

As is seen, there is a lack of sources on both Jews of Van and Başkale. During my literature review I did not come across many resources specifically related to Jews of Van, who once lived in the city center, at least according to the general censuses of 1881, 1882, 1893 and 1914. As a matter of fact, during my fieldwork, interviewees who first introduced themselves as Jews of Van later would remind me during the course of the interview they were originally from Başkale. For instance Shlomo Araban was born in Van in 1951. He grew up and went to the school in Van. But originally his family came from Başkale. He said “specifically there is not any Jewish community of Van. We are all known as Jews of Başkale because the synagogue was in there.

Then he said, “I will tel you an interesting thing”:

I would spend my summer holidays for one week or ten days with my sister at Başkale. When I get back, teacher would ask where did you go in summer holiday? We would say: “We did not go to anywhere, we were here in Van”. Because if we told we were in Başkale everybody would know we were Jewish.

Therefor, Jews who settled in Van likely immigrated from Başkale. Besides, information we have regarding Jews from the region is about the Juwish community of Başkale that is mostly based on oral history obrained through in-depth interviews.

Table: Population of Jews of Van, 1927-1965:

Year 19271945195519601965
Number of Jews 12913276991

Ephraim Arasli was born in 1950, and he lived in Başkale until he was ten years old. He said that they might be come from Mosul or somewhere in Iraq, but he really was not sure where exactly they came from before Başkale. Additionally he stated before migration there were 150 or 200 Jews in the city. Another interviewee, Eliyahu Ilim, was born in Van in 1951 but his parents came from Başkale. He mentioned about 50-60 Jewish families that migrated to Van. Eldad Yakişan, another member of Jews of Başkale, referred to 200 Jews, whrereas according to the official census in 1945 there were 132 Jews, and in 1955 there were 76 Jews living in Van.

Furthermore, Avigdor Şekerci, son of the lase rabbi of the Başkale Jewish community, explained that his family originally came from urmia, a northwestern city of Iran, at the second half or end of the nineteenth century. He said some Jews of Başkale could have come from Urmia, some of the Jews came from Iraq, someme from Iran, and some from Tbilisi in Georgia; all the Jews from Neighboring regions mentioned earlier were united in Başkale. Besides he said that they were speaking the language Aramit (Aramaic) and added that Torah was written in their language.

In addition to that, when they migrated from the city first they went to Istanbul then to Israel. So, Jews of Istanbul started to call them Gurci or Gürcü since some Jews of Başkale might be come from Tbilisi in Georgia. To explain, Eliyahu Ilim said his father came from Tbilisi. When Eliyahu Ilim noticed, he asked the question to himself “I wonder if we are Russian?” And interestingly he added that his father would never say Rus (Russian), in other words never said Rusya (Russia), because he was scared of Russia very much. Instead of Russian, he was always saying “Blue-eyed”. When he told a story he always said “Blue-eyed did this”.

Accordingly, apparently it seems like background of Başkale Jewish community does not go back to ancient times. I do not ignore the history of where originally they came from. They called themselves Nash Didan (our people, the people who speak our language). The language they spoke, called Lishan Didan (our language), is a Jewish Neo-Aramaic dialect, sub-dialect of Near Eastern Neo-Aramaic dielects (NENA) which are spoken in Persian Azerbaijan, the “adjoining regions” of Van and Hakkari in southeast of Turkey including communities in Başkale, Yuksekova, Urmia, Salmas and Mahabad, and lastly in Georgia. The dialect is spoken by nearly 5,000 people of which most now live in Israel. Since the dialect borrowed many words from Kurdish and some Turkish, Arabic and eastern Farsi “erroneously” called Judeo-Kurdish or Azerbaijani Kurdish. According to our interviewees, their existence in Başkale has a history of 150-200 years. Therefore it will not be a mistake to say they established a new community in Başkale.

This article was quoted from the book “Jews of Turkey, Migration, Culture and Memory“, 2019 – by Süleyman Şanli. Publish with the kind permission of the author.

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