Navigate to History section

Forging History

In the second installment of his column, our ‘History Detective’ columnist dives into the falsifications of Abraham Firkovich, who invented an entire history that most Jews have never heard of

Dan Shapira
June 24, 2021
Tablet Magazine/original image: Wikipedia
Eupatorian Kenassas of Crimean KaraitesTablet Magazine/original image: Wikipedia
Tablet Magazine/original image: Wikipedia
Eupatorian Kenassas of Crimean KaraitesTablet Magazine/original image: Wikipedia
The first part of this ‘History Detective’ column can be found here.
The first part of this ‘History Detective’ column can be found here.

On the holiday of Šemini ʿAṣereth in 1839, Firkowicz and Beim arrived in Çufut-Qalʿeh and began searching the local Karaite archives. Beim, according to Firkowicz’s testimony, was able to find the astronomic and religious writings of a late-18th-century Karaite luminary, but Firkowicz, found, on the first evening, several biblical manuscripts of unheard antiquity, some of them containing colophons and marginalia testifying to the Karaite presence in the Crimean Peninsula more than a millennium earlier, as well as to the Khazar conversion to the Karaite version of Judaism.

From Çufut-Qalʿeh, Firkowicz and Beim left for Mangup and then to Qarasubazar. At the last place, armed with written permission received from the Russian authorities and assisted by a couple of Tatar policemen and their Russian commander, they emptied the ancient genizah of the Rabbanite Qrımçaq, or Krymchak, Jews, notwithstanding their vocal protests. Firkowicz was well acquainted with their literary treasures due to his previous contacts with the Qrımçaqs. From Qarasubazar Firkowicz went to Sulkhat, or Solhat, the first Mongol, and later Muslim, capital of the Crimea, previously home to a large Jewish community consisting of both Rabbanite and Karaite Jews.

It seems that it was in the cemetery of Sulkhat that Firkowicz realized what his work method should be—and indeed, ancient graves with Hebrew inscriptions were discovered almost immediately. The problem was that the dates on the inscriptions were much older than the town itself, though Firkowicz was unaware of that fact. From Sulkhat, he went to Keffe (Capha, Feodosia, Theodosia), and here, too, he found more ancient manuscripts. A check of these findings made by this author some 20 years ago revealed that some of the texts containing sensational historical information about Khazars and Karaites a millennium ago consisted of tight long strips sewn into late-18th-century scrolls.

Triumphant with his findings, Firkowicz returned to Çufut-Qalʿeh, where his old teacher-enemy-companion M. Sultanski was serving as the head of the Karaite community, and entered the cemetery. There, after several days of work, he unearthed dozens of ancient inscriptions that he claimed dated back to the Khazar era, among them the grave of Yiṣḥaq Sangari, whom he now believed to be the man who had converted the Khazars to Karaite Judaism. His aim was achieved; the answers to the questions of the governor were in his hands. The entire journey of historical discovery had taken him a little more than a month.

To be sure, the tomb inscription he found read ‘Isaac Sangaru PʺG’ (יצחק סנגרו פ"ג). The inscription was meant to be that of the Jewish scholar (ḥaber), the collocutor with the Khazar king in the Book of the Kuzari, written by Rabbi Judah Halevi (c. 1075-1141). According to the book (which is a series of theological and philosophical dialogues with no known basis in historical reality), this ḥaber had the king converted to the true religion of Judaism. In the Hebrew literature that followed the Book of the Kuzari, the anonymous ḥaber was identified with a person by the name of R. Isaac Sangari, about whom nothing else was known. One of the first people to use this name was Nachmanides (1194-1270) in about 1263.

The sources available to Firkowicz on the Khazars would have included the following: the Book of the Kuzari (as it seems from the list of books possessed by Firkowicz in the 1830s, he owned a Venice edition of the work); the short version of the epistle sent by Joseph, the king of the Khazars, to Ḥasday Ibn Shaprut, as published in Constantinople by ‘Aqrish around 1577; and the information from the Russian chronicles on the Khazars that was widely discussed in the Russian newspapers of the 1830s. In his book, Massah u-Meribah (1838), Firkowicz still considered the ḥaber from Judah Halevi’s Book of the Kuzari as a Rabbanite Jew and an enemy of Karaism; he did not yet know the Jewish scholar by his name or anything about his Karaism.

Firkowicz’s theological approach to this ḥaber changed between 1838 and the end of 1839, and on 15 September 1848, Firkowicz would write the following in a Russian report that he delivered to the Society for the Study of the Antiquities of Odessa:

This book [the Book of the Kuzari] was edited [!] in 740 by Isaac Sangari, under the title ‘A Dissertation [dissertaciju] with [!] the King of the Khazars on the Foundation of a Pure Biblical Religion’. The book found its way to one of the Talmudists by the name of YudaLevi [!] some 400 years later, and he [i.e., Judah Halevy] reworked it for his own needs. However, at the time of Sangari, that sect [etago sektarstva, i.e., Rabbanite Judaism] did not exist yet in Taurida [i.e., the Crimea and New Russia/South Russia].

The Book of the Kuzari connects the conversion of the king to Judaism with a place called Warsân, or Warshân. This spelling is similar in Hebrew to Krsân (erroneously written as Ḥurâsân in some of the versions of the Book of the Kuzari), and this name, in turn, is close to Koršun, the former Russian name for ancient Chersones (Aqyar, Sevastopol). Although he was familiar with these forms, Firkowicz was inconsistent in the way he spelled them. He derived the ancient Russian name for the city, that is, Koršun, from the name of the ancient Persian king, Cyrus (Kóresh in Hebrew), who was later to acquire a place for himself in Firkowicz’s theories about the appearance of the Karaites in the Crimea. According to him, Cyrus gave the Karaites the Crimea as a gift (kirim) and they named the city of Chersones/Koršun after the king. At the same time, according to the Russian chronicle known as the Chronicle of Nestor, or Povest’ vremennyx let, the prince of Kiev, Volodymir/Vladimir, was converted to Christianity in Chersones. Firkowicz was aware of a Karaite “tradition” connecting Volodymir (which Firkowicz spelled in this Ukrainian form) to Isaac Sangari. In the introduction to his book, Abnei Zikkaron, Firkowicz quotes a “tradition” by Eliahu Yefet, one of the leaders of the community of Çufut-Qalʿeh, saying that Sangari was buried in Chersones.

Whatever the case, Firkowicz was determined to search for Sangari’s tomb in Chersones, but the area had been declared a closed military zone, with access prohibited to Jews due to the works in the naval port. If he could not have it found in Chersones, why not try another place? He looked for the tomb in Mangup in the Crimea, but in vain.

However, if one is determined enough to find something, then it will be found eventually. In the autumn of 1839, Firkowicz discovered Sangari’s tomb in the ancient section of the cemetery of Çufut-Qalʿeh. In Firkowicz’ opinion, the fact that the gravestone of ‘Isaac Sangaru PʺG’ was found in the Karaite cemetery proved that this ḥaber was a Karaite and therefore that the Khazars who were converted to Judaism became Karaites rather than Rabbanites.

It is noteworthy that in his will, Firkowicz asked to be interred next to ‘the tomb’ of this ḥaber, but his request was not granted; when he died in 1874 (on Sunday, 22 Sivan 5634), he was buried alongside his beloved wife, Ḥannah, close to the entrance of Çufut-Qalʿeh Cemetery and in a Rabbanite manner, facing eastwards. Yet when his book, Abnei Zikkaron, was published in 1872, the area close to the tombstone of the ḥaber was considered an honorable place to be buried (we have a large tomb inscription of an important lady buried next to this ḥaber in 1873, mentioning the ḥaber’s tomb).

In his reports about his discoveries, which he sent to the maskils of Europe, Firkowicz first insisted that the inscription on the tomb of this ḥaber read YṢḤQ SNGRW PʺG, i.e., something like Sangaro, not Sangari. Western scholars recognized quite quickly that this form was the result of a misprint in Johannes Buxtorf’s Basle edition of the Book of the Kuzari, published in1660.

Firkowicz hastily submitted his reports to the Russian authorities, apparently without having any consultation with the heads of the community, including his patron, Babowicz. At the same time, Beim informed Beṣalel Stern in Odessa and the maskilim in Europe of the sensational revelations. As a result of Firkowicz’s hubris, Babowicz stopped paying him, and Firkowicz found himself, once again, in an impossible situation: Instead of having brought him back into the Karaite leadership, his journey in the Crimea had made him even more isolated and rejected. Meanwhile, important scholars in the scientific journals in Europe expressed grave doubts about the authenticity and even the probability of Firkowicz’s findings, and they decided to send Beṣalel Stern to check the material in situ.

Meanwhile, a new Turkic translation of the whole Bible was underway, sponsored by Yiṣḥaq Cohen’s brother-in-law Mordekhay Tırışqan; Firkowicz was not invited to participate in this endeavor. Instead, in 1840 he went, accompanied by Mordekhay Tırışqan’s adolescent son Yiṣḥaq, to the Caucasus.

It was while at Derbend on the Caspian Sea, in 1841, that Firkowicz acquired a huge leather Torah scroll written in a Persian post-Mongol hand (now MS Evr I A 1 at the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg). This Torah scroll was sold or given to Firkowicz because it was no longer wanted: having been brought to the area from Iran in the early 19th century by an Iranian Jew named Dimašqi (of Damascus), who tried to sell it there, the scroll was found to be pasul or invalid according to Jewish law. Nobody needed it, but it was impossible to throw it away since it was a sacred object, however “improper” it might be.

It was on the last folio of this manuscript that Firkowicz “found” the so-called Derbend Document, a lengthy marginal note of sensational historical character. The contents of this “document,” which seems to have been written by Firkowicz himself, relate to the Hebrews of the Judaean Kingdom who came to the help of their Israeli brethren in Samaria and were taken with them to Media (in Hebrew Maday) in Assyrian captivity. There they learnt the Median language.

It is true that the Crimean Karaites called the Crimean Tatars “Maday,” i.e., Medes. However, the actual meaning of the term was “ruffians, idiots.” The language spoken in the 19th century in ancient Media, which is now Iranian Azerbaijan, was Turkic, which is very close to a variety of Crimean Tatar. This explains why the author of the “document” thought that the “Median” learned by Judaeans in their captivity was a kind of what we call Azeri. After Cambyses (the name appears in its German/Russian form) subsequently gave the Crimea to these Judaeans as a gift, they taught the local inhabitants their “Median”—which is why the Crimean Tatars, or “Madays,” supposedly speak what they speak.

The Khazars also appear on the scene in this “document”: Prince Volodymir the Saint of Kyiv asks the Karaite prince David of the Crimea to send him rabbis to teach him the true religion (this motif is apparently taken from the Russian Primary Chronicle, albeit with a wrong date, as was common in the 1840s). This concoction became one of the cornerstones of Firkowicz’s theories, together with the tombstone inscriptions from the Crimea, where Firkowicz “found” graves of the people mentioned in this text and forged colophons and marginalia supposedly written by the people buried in Çufut-Qalʿeh and Mangup on old biblical manuscripts he actually collected in various places in the 1840s (in 1842 Beṣalel Stern examined the cemetery of Çufut-Qalʿeh and was very ambiguous about what he saw there, which is a story in itself).

In 1844, Firkowicz traveled to Keffe (Feodosia) where he discovered some genuinely ancient fragments of manuscripts, apparently of Rabbanite origin, and some tomb inscriptions. It seems that some important items in his collections which are not forgeries come from the Rabbanite genizah of Keffe, which was also visited a couple of years earlier by a German researcher who was given some fragments, apparently from the same manuscripts as those found later by Firkowicz.

In the mid-1840s, Firkowicz worked on subsequent drafts of his book Avnei Zikkaron, an edition of the tomb inscriptions from Çufut-Qalʿeh and other Crimean localities, and on its companion book, Naḥal-Qedumim, dealing with manuscript evidence strengthening the authenticity of the tombstone inscriptions and vice versa. Both books were supposed to reconstruct Karaite history, as was necessary in light of the “Governor’s Questions” from 1839. There are numerous drafts of the first book arranged both topographically and chronologically, and there are hand-prepared rough maps, or, rather, plans, of the cemeteries, with the tombs located and briefly described.

It should be noted that the drafts of Avnei Zikkaron, as well as the maps prepared by Firkowicz, contain many more tombs than would have been published by him in 1872; apparently, he was forced to reduce the volume of the book. This material proves that Firkowicz knew the Çufut-Qalʿeh cemetery to perfection, and there could hardly be any tombs of interest missed by him. Comparing the drafts against the printed version of Avnei Zikkaron (1872) and against themselves one finds that several tombs appear, disappear, reappear and even change their dates following the same pattern—changes in Firkowicz historical reconstructions as reflected in new colophons arising.

Firkowicz published his book Abnei Zikkaron (The Stones of Remembrance) in Wilna/Vilnius in 1872, almost 33 years after he had begun to study tombstone inscriptions. The book is a collection of Hebrew inscriptions from the Crimea with an extensive introduction, which is actually his autobiography from 1830 till 1848. Even the title of the book was plagiarised—from Abnei Zikkaron, Prague, 1841, by Samuel David Luzzatto (1800–1865), in which tomb inscriptions from the cemetery of Toledo were published. In Firkowicz’s version, there are 564 inscriptions from the Çufut-Qalʿeh cemetery. Around 400 of the inscriptions published still exist in the cemetery. Dozens have been lost since then, and a few never actually existed, it seems, but were merely created by Firkowicz “on paper.” In quite a few of the cases, he created duplicates of the same inscription, publishing them twice and ascribing them to different dates, with gaps of hundreds of years.

Of all those inscriptions that were published, about a third of them (around 160) have a date formed from a Hebrew biblical verse (a chronogram). Almost all of the tombstone inscriptions of this type that still exist now were published by Firkowicz. These inscriptions are characterized by the fact that counting the date depends on the purely arbitrary choice of the word whose letters are to be counted to make the date since Hebrew letters are also used as digits. This creates considerable leeway for “forgery.” As for the “normal” Hebrew dates, they look like תשע"ט / TŠ‘Ṭ, or התשע"ט / HTŠ‘Ṭ, which stand for [1-20]18/9 and 2018/9 CE respectively. In the second example, H / ה can be omitted since we know which Hebrew millennium we are in: H / ה, when appearing as the first letter in the date, stands for 5,000, while D / ד in the same position stands for 4,000 (so changing H / ה to D / ד, we get to the previous millennium and can make a date look 1,000 years older).

Among the existing tomb inscriptions published by Firkowicz and dated by the usual way of substituting Hebrew letters for dates, 124 have a date beginning in HT (5400 or 400), 33 beginning in TT (800), two beginning in HR (5200 or 200), 12 beginning in TR (600), 19 in HŠ (5300 or 300), 46 beginning in TŠ (700), 81 beginning in TQ (500), and one (and possibly two more) beginning in HQ (5100 or 100). Using this technique, Firkowicz changed the dates of the deaths of dozens of Crimean Jews from the 17th/18th to the seventh/12th centuries, which supported his fancies about Karaite history on the Crimean peninsula.

In several cases, Firkowicz published inscriptions changing the names of the deceased or parts of the dates, adding or skipping words or even whole lines; only in a couple of cases did he (or his associates) create a completely new inscription (the inscriptions that were forged are very short, sometimes just a word without the date).

Firkowicz created criss-cross connections between the persons whose tomb inscriptions he had changed and forged, supplying them with new biographies, ascribing them books they had never written, and in many cases forging their signatures on biblical scrolls as well as texts they had supposedly written. His forgeries were politically motivated in most cases, but sometimes he simply seemed to enjoy creating such inscriptions with his chisel.

In 1853 Firkowicz traveled to Wilna, the center of Jewish printing, with a clear determination to have his already prepared Avnei Zikkaron published. Another reason for this journey was apparently to check the growing efforts of the Northern Karaites (those in Lithuania and Wolhynia) to get rid of the Crimean primacy in religious and administrative matters. For this reason, a group of prominent Troki Karaites, led by M. Kaplanowski and Y. Kobecki, had begun assembling medieval documents proving the rights and privileges of the Lithuanian Karaites, in order to present them to the Russian authorities. Meanwhile, the Crimean, or Oriental, war has begun, and Firkowicz was stuck in and around Wilna. Babowicz died in a plague in 1855, the war ended, a new czar had to fix the damage of the older regime.

In the late summer and fall of 1856, the Lithuanian Karaites appointed Firkowicz to represent them vis-à-vis the Russian authorities. He was present at the coronation of the new czar, Alexander II, at Moscow, where he submitted to the monarch a Hebrew poem dedicated to the event. Later he was granted imperial honors for this poem, and it seems that the coronation was a turning point in Firkowicz’s career. In 1856, we found him at St. Petersburg. Here, he and his son-in-law, Gabriel, tried to interest the Imperial Russian Library in their collection.

Three facts should be observed here: (1) the Firkowiczes did not have the entire collection at their disposal while in St. Petersburg; (2) the proposal occurred in the best atmosphere possible, for C. Tischendorf had just sold his precious Sinaitic manuscripts to the same library, having aroused general public havoc; (3) it seems that the deaths of Śimḥah and his brother Naḥamu Babowicz made this transaction possible, for they apparently had the right to considerable slices of the collection, being Firkowicz’s patrons and sponsors for so many years. In their attempt to promote the sale, Daniel Chwolsson, who signed with the Firkowiczes a contract obliging him to edit the manuscripts, for good pay, assisted the Firkowiczes.

Firkowicz declared that the readings of his manuscripts show a closeness to those of the Septuagint and that some of his material dates to the time of the Savior. In addition, he organized a well-orchestrated public relations campaign in Russian newspapers, where articles about him, the religious value of his collection, and about Karaites—juxtaposed to the negatively described Rabbanites—were published. At the same time, Firkowicz continued to lobby for Karaite rights, and submitted a memorandum called On the Origin of the Karaite Sect, which was published by the Second Department of the Imperial Office (the Third Department being the Secret Police). In this work, he stated that the Karaims (Karaites) and the Jews (the Rabbanites) were of different origins, and for this reason, the “Karaims” requested to be totally differentiated from the Jews and to be called “Russian Karaim”s (or, “Karaim Russians”; russkije karaimy) of the Old Testament. Firkowicz also requested that the Karaites be granted the rights of the Russian nobles, but this request was, of course, rejected.

Nevertheless, in 1863 the word “Jew” was officially removed from the members of the Karaite community, who were granted the same rights as the native Russian Orthodox population. And this is how the gradual process of their de-Judaization began.

The emancipation of the Russian Karaites, which was seen as having been achieved at the expense of the rest of Russian Jewry and was accompanied by an anti-Rabbanite campaign, provoked a bitter split with the rest of the Russian Jews. One should understand that Firkowicz was driven not by separatist motifs, but rather by a religiously burdened desire to demonstrate to the Rabbanites that even “Edom,” the Christian rulers of this age, recognize the truth of the Karaite version of Judaism.

On July 3, 1862, the members of the special academic commission recommended the purchase of the collection for the Imperial Library. Nevertheless, some prominent members of the commission stated that they had serious doubt as to the authenticity of numerous items in the collection. They stated that the Firkowiczes intentionally inflated the number of items offered for sale, having divided them into smaller pieces. They also noted that some of the colophons and marginalia regarded by the sellers as the most precious, were forged, also noting, nevertheless, that forgery of this kind was common already in the Middle Ages. Additionally, they noted that some of the colophons and marginalia could be checked accurately, while others did not hold water; that the “Derbend Document” and the note on the Karaites liberation from the yoke of the Goths in the Crimea in 805 CE were suspicious; that the text telling of the embassy of St. Volodimir to a Karaite prince in the Crimea was based on the doubtful data in the Russian Primary Chronicle (Nestor’s Letopis); that some of the key geographical identifications by Firkowicz were plainly ridiculous; and that the Firkowiczes exaggerated the antiquity of the material in their collection. Yet, all in all, they decided that the collection was of great value, and it was sold on July 10, 1862, with the condition that the “Odessa collections” would be joined to it—although it remains unclear how A. Firkowicz could sell something belonging to a state museum—and some other items. The total sum paid was 125,000 rubles (it remains unclear whether paper money or silver rubles was meant, and the differences between the rates can be tremendous). In any case, it was a scandalously high price.

In June 1863, Firkowicz took nine tomb inscriptions from the Çufut-Qalʿeh cemetery and transferred them to St. Petersburg; at about the same time the “Odessa Collections” arrived, but some suspicious items were missing. The high sum paid for the collection raised much criticism in the Russian public and in academic circles, and numerous newspapers published letters by people claiming that they know that Firkowicz was engaged in forgeries and that this fact “is known to everyone in Southern Russia.” Under these circumstances Firkowicz felt compelled to fight back and for several weeks he worked on his famous open letter, “Reply to Hausner,” which is (together with its numerous drafts) an indispensable source for his biography.

As a consequence of the successful sale and his failure to get elected as the head of the Northern Karaites, Firkowicz began to plan another journey to the East, in a quest after ancient manuscripts. The destinations remained the same as in 1830—the Karaite communities of Jerusalem, Hebron, Hît, Damascus, and Egypt. This time, he was able to make use of his extraordinary position as a renowned researcher and collector, and he indeed equipped himself with letters of recommendation from the Russian authorities, Russian agents in the East, and Ottoman firmans. His elderly wife, Ḥannah, accompanied Firkowicz in his journey, and some time later, his grandson Šemuʾel joined him in the East.

In the middle of the autumn month Tishrei, Firkowicz bought some manuscripts in Istanbul, and by the end of the same month, he was again in Jerusalem. After having rebuilt, with his own money, the ʿAnan b. David ha-Naśî Synagogue there, he placed his own inscription mocking those left decades before by his old enemy, Yiṣḥaq Cohen of Istanbul. From Jerusalem, Firkowicz departed to Syria. During the month of Kislev, Avraham and Šemuʾel Firkowicz acquired numerous manuscripts, having made an abortive attempt to buy the famous Bible manuscript Kether Aram Ṣoba in Aleppo. For good money, Firkowicz was, however, able to examine this manuscript, to copy its colophons and marginalia, and to describe it in his letters.

It was at this point his fortunes reversed again, as he ran short of money—having spent too much on curiosities and on gaining the permission to work on the Kether Aram Ṣoba. His letters from this period are one obsessive appeal for money that he had hoped to receive from his son-in-law Gabriel. The reason for this unsupportive attitude by Gabriel was rather simple—he lost almost all the money received for the manuscripts sold to the Imperial Library in business speculations. After having received a loan at Aleppo, Firkowicz decided, for the meanwhile, not to go to Hît and wrote instead a letter to thither community, asking them to send a representative to Damascus. He also planned to transfer this community to Jerusalem and there is a signed agreement about their settlement. After a short visit in Antioch, where he bought some antiquities, he departed for Alexandretta to get a ship there sailing for Beirut. It was a hard journey for anyone, especially for a 76-year-old. In Alexandretta he discovered that the hoped-for money had not arrived from Russia, and he was forced to leave some of his acquisitions there as guarantees.

While back in Jerusalem, Firkowicz bought manuscripts, including some from the famous Jerusalem collector and traveler Yaʿaqov Sappir who had just returned from his archeographic journey to Yemen. We know for certain that there was some contact between Moses Wilhelm Shapira (1830-1884) and Firkowicz in Jerusalem in 1864, but no specific importance can be attributed to this; Firkowicz visited Shapira’s antique shop in Jerusalem and possibly acquired something there, but that is all.

Moses Wilhelm Shapira was a baptized Jew born in Kamienets-Podolsk. He came to the Holy Land in the footsteps of his very observant father, a pupil of the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797), in 1856, at the age of 25. In Jerusalem, however, “Moyshe Schapiro” converted to Anglicanism, lived in Christ Church near the Jaffa Gate, and in 1861 he set up a shop in Christian Quarter Road for the Christian pilgrim tourists.

Jerusalem of these days was a place crawling with book dealers, antique dealers, and forgers, with the boundaries between these not too clearly defined. Moses Wilhelm Shapira became one of the leading dealers on the antiquities market. His case is a very complicated one, but it is nonetheless important in the context of forgeries of historical and religious Jewish documents. Although we know that Shapira was engaged in different acts of petty forgery, such as producing souvenirs said to be authentic Moabite statuettes for tourists (and selling them to the British Museum as well), it was only after the Qumran Scrolls were unearthed that scholars realized the Palaeo-Hebrew “Leathers of Moab,” which contained a different text of Deuteronomy, might well be genuine. Shapira suggested that the British Museum should buy them from him, but it was rejected by it as a forgery—for Firkowicz’s forgeries had already given a bad name to sensationalist findings. We should bear in mind that Shapira was purely a businessman and never pretended to be a scholar. Unlike Firkowicz’s, Shapira’s alleged forgeries appealed to religious feelings and were not presumed to be of any particular “historical” value.

Firkowicz then decided to go to Sichem, where only a few book hunters had been previously successful. With a combination of pressure on the community leaders, some bribery and apparently emphasizing the similarities between the Karaites and Samaritans and promising to send them the beautiful Karaite brides from the Crimea, Firkowicz was able to acquire the biggest Samaritan collection ever. In the month of Iyyar, 1864, he and his nephew set off for Egypt, where he was fortunate enough to purchase the contents of an old Karaite genizah.

Upon his return to Russia, he settled down in Çufut-Qalʿeh where he was one of the city’s few residents, and Russian tourists and strangers visited him often. The Karaite community frowned upon him, especially after he married a 17-year-old orphan, named Šelomith, and had a daughter from her (Šelomith and her daughter have disappeared from Firkowicz genealogical trees).

During his lifetime, he had become one of the tourist attractions of the Crimean Peninsula. He adopted the manners of a biblical Hebrew patriarch, which greatly impressed visitors. However, as emerges from archival material acquired by the Ben-Zvi Institute, he suffered from want and from the contemptuous attitude of the leaders of the Karaite community toward him, some of whom called him “this ever-lying old man.” However, after the obligatory military service for Christians and Jews was introduced during the “Great Reforms,” there was a pathetic, abortive attempt, running, as it was, counter to the zeitgeist, to mobilize Firkowicz for another lobbying campaign to release the Karaites from the service. By the end of his life, he was completely alone, surrounded by the dead, as it were—his friends and, mostly, enemies—and by those fathomable ancient dead “from the Year of Salvation of Israel” (a hint at Jesus’ birth) with whom he had populated the Jewish cemetery of Çufut-Qalʿeh. He died in 1873, after an active life up to his last day, only a few years before the pogroms, the start of massive Jewish emigration to America, the first Palestinophile organizations, and the publication of Auto-Emancipation (1882), the program of Jewish self-liberation, written by Leon Pinsker, the son of his friend and colleague Śimḥah Pinsker.

Abraham Firkowicz could possibly be considered a writer of fantasy literature working with real objects at a time when modern secular Hebrew literature did not even exist, let alone have any kind of genres. A Jewish Tolkien with a chisel before there was any modern Jewish literature at all, he was buried next to his literary heroes in a Jurassic Park of his own making, one might say.

Dan Shapira is an interdisciplinary historian and philologist at Bar-Ilan University. He is working presently on medieval and early modern Jewish minority communities, the Crimea, and the Khazars.

Thank you for reading Tablet.

The Jewish world needs a place like Tablet where varying—even conflicting—viewpoints can exist side by side. Our times demand an engagement with big ideas and not a retreat from them. Help us do what we do.