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Clues found on an ancient silk road

13 May 2016

New evidence is likely to revolutionise people’s understanding of Jewish history, says David Keys

GENETIC research carried out at a British university is helping to reveal the much under-appreciated complexity of the history of the Jewish people. It also has huge implications for understanding how religions developed in ancient and early-medieval times.

The research suggests that in the first millennium AD, Christianity was not the only religion with origins in the Middle East to spread through widespread conversion. Contrary to popular belief, it suggests that Judaism also grew in that way.

The work — the largest genomic study ever carried out on Ashkenazic (Northern and Eastern European) Jews — indicates that a substantial element of the Jewish population is descended from people from what is now northern Turkey.


THE study, carried out by Dr Eran Elhaik, of the Universityof Sheffield, says that many Ashkenazic Jews are the descendants of Greeks, Iranians, and others who colonised northern Anatolia (northern Turkey) more than 2000 years ago, and were then converted to Judaism, probably in the first few centuries, after contact with Jews from Persia (at that stage, the Persian Empire was home to the world’s largest Jewish communities).

The research is based on genetic, historical, and place-name evidence. For his genetic research, Dr Elhaik used a Geographic Population Structure computer-modelling system to convert Ashkenazic Jewish DNA data into geographical information.

Dr Elhaik, an Israeli-born geneticist, believes that three surviving Turkish villages — Iskenaz, Eskenaz, and Ashanaz — on the western part of an ancient Silk Road route, were part of the original Ashkenazic homeland. The word “Ashkenaz” may have originally come from Ashguza, which is the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian name for the Iron Age Eurasian steppeland people, the Scythians.

Referring to the names of the three Turkish villages, Dr Elhaik argues that “north-east Turkey is the only place in the world where these place-names exist”.


THE new genomic data is the first scientific evidence to confirm scattered and little-known historical and other information, which hints at widespread conversion to Judaism in the first millennium.

The best-known large-scale conversion of this kind took place by the early ninth century, when the elites — and possibly others — within a vast Turkic state (the Khazar Empire, in what is now Ukraine and southern Russia) converted to Judaism.

The conversion apparently took place for geopolitical reasons: Turkic paganism made the Khazar State a military target for neighbouring Muslim and Christian empires. But conversion to either of those two larger religions would have risked provoking the enmity of the faith that had been rejected in favour of its rival. Judaism, therefore, appears to have been a diplomatic compromise.

It is likely that many of the converted Jews from what is now northern Turkey (that is, those identified by the new genetic research) eventually made their way to Europe via the Khazar Empire, especially after that empire collapsed in or around the late tenth century.


THE genetic research has also identified a strong European element within the Ashkenazic Jewish genome. This is consistent with linguistic and other cultural evidence of substantial Slav conversions.

Between the seventh and tenth centuries, some pagan Germanic groups systematically raided Slav and other peoples to enslave them and sell them commercially.

The Jews, like many other peoples, bought slaves, but, from the sixth century onwards, were prohibited by the Talmud from keeping them for more than a year. Under Talmudic law, all slaves had to convert to Judaism if they wished to continue to serve their Jewish owners. Jews, however, were also prohibited from holding Jewish slaves. So, for pagan slaves to gain their freedom and continue working for their Jewish patrons as free men, they had to convert.

It was an attractive way for slaves to win their freedom, and large numbers of them almost certainly used it.

Other factors also prompted conversion. In some places — perhaps especially in Iran, Anatolia, and possibly Mesopotamia — it is thought that many non-Jews saw the mercantile success of the Jewish community and wanted to share in it.

In some places — for example, in the early first millennium in Anatolia, and in the Crimea — non-Jews associated themselves closely with Judaism for mainly pro-monotheistic religious reasons, and were often known simply as God-fearers.

In North Africa, for as yet unknown reasons, various Berber tribal groups appear to have converted en masse; and, in Yemen, at least the political elite converted, probably for geopolitical and mercantile reasons (perhaps partly to ensure support from pro-Jewish Persia against Christian Ethiopia).


THE new genetic research not only helps to demonstrate that Judaism appears to have competed with Christianity in terms of conversions, but also strongly suggests that conversion was a significant factor in the expansion of Jewish populations, and thus helped the faith’s survival.

Further research is now planned to try to measure the precise size of the Semitic genetic input into the Jewish genome.

Scientific, historical, and linguistic investigations are gradually revealing the extraordinarily complex and diverse story of the Jewish people. As new research yields ever more data, it is a story that is likely to become ever more fascinating and surprising.


David Keys is the archaeology correspondent of The Independent.

The academic paper by Dr Elhaik and others from Genome Biology and Evolution is available at http://gbe.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2016/03/03/gbe.evw046.full.pdf+html.

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