The Jewish Story of Oghuz, Azerbaijan

Oghuz is known as a place where the Muslims and Jews have always lived in peace. During the years 1930-1933, the Jewish population of Oghuz reached between 2000 and 2500. In the late 1930’s, the city fell victim to typhus infection, causing 200-250 of the residents to die. They were buried in the Jewish cemetery, which today can be found today near the graves of Nabat and Rabay Babayevs in the center of the cemetery. The second time when the Jewish population of Oghuz rapidly decreased was when they started leaving the city during World War II, when many families moved to Yevlakh, Ganja, Baku and Tiflis. The majority of the Jewish population of Oghuz moved to Israel in the early 1990’s when the USSR fell and the country was going through economic hardships of the Perestroika period. 

Today some families remain in Oghuz, although they are closely tied to Israel and some Jewish settlements in Russia. They live in houses which are very similar to the Azerbaijani houses architecturally, but have some Jewish symbols such as the images of lions and menorahs on their walls. Another distinguishing feature of these houses is that they usually face Southwest, the direction of Jerusalem. The houses are built in Jewish districts and the closer to the synagogues, the more prestigious the place is considered. This place has always been proud of having peaceful relationships between the Jewish and Azerbaijani people. Eldar m. recalls a story that his grandmother told:

“Many mass killings were happening in Oghuz in 1918-1920. My grandmother was a kid back then. Her mother was helping their neighbors to make vodka and they were also cooking chicken on a bonfire. Suddenly they heard that Turks (Turks may refer to Azerbaijanis or the Turkish soldiers) were coming and got scared. There were two reasons for that: 1) There is a famous belief that Jews use a child’s blood on Passover for carrying out some rituals and some kids were killed by the Armenians some time in advance Passover; 2) Some Armenians had killed some Muslims and blamed the Jews for that and there was some tension related to that. However, when the Turks arrived they realized that this was a Jewish group and declared that they had no problems with them. They only asked if they could take the chicken that was boiling on the bonfire, because they were hungry.”

Today, apart from the Jewish homes, there are two synagogues, as well as a new and an old Jewish cemetery in Oghuz. The synagogues are named simply the Upper and the Lower due to their location in the city. Interestingly, there is only one mosque in the city.  According to the local rabbis and Imam Shovkat Jalilov (effendi), many traditions of Muslims and Jews in Oghuz are the same. The Muslim population of the town keep some traditions of Passover and the Jewish people do the same about Ramadan and Eid al-Adha. Mixed marriages are common and funerals and wedding ceremonies seem very similar. 

Imam Shovkat also recalls a well-known man in Oghuz – Qarib Yuzbashi Mammadkarim oghlu (1870-) (Qərib Yüzbaşı Məmmədkərim oğlu), who was a member of the parliament of Azerbaijan Democratic Republic in 1918-1920 and a member of the Land Commission. He did a lot of philanthropic work and was well-respected for helping the Jewish community of Oghuz, even saving them from starvation a few times. Thanks to his deeds, the Jewish community of Oghuz saved him from prosecution during the Russian occupation in the 1920’s.