If you’ve been to Trakai, you’ve heard of them… but who are they?
For more than six hundred years, Karaim has been spoken as a community language in the territory of today’s Lithuania and Ukraine. Wikipedia informs us that due to the political measures taken by the post-war Soviet regime, the communities were dispersed and their language has become endangered. The number of Karaims in Lithuania is about two hundred but only a fourth of them, mostly members of the eldest generation, still have competence in the language. Karaim also plays an important role in religious practice, since songs and prayers are both in Karaim and Hebrew.
Also called Karaites, this ethnic group practices a form of Karaite Judaism, and prays at houses of worship called Kenesas. Currently there are two Kenesas in Lithuania: one in Trakai and one in Vilnius. The Karaim community in Trakai is the liveliest one. Until the 19th century, they enjoyed a separate town charter in Trakai where there is a Karaim museum. Many visitors to Trakai, with its famous island castle, try the local Karaim food called “kibinai” – meat-filled pastries. Their wedding customs have been listed as a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Property.
Recently, the website bernardinai.lt featured an in-depth article on the old Karaim churches in Lithuania.
Lithuanian Karaims have lived in Lithuania and retained their culture there since 1397. It is thought that about 370 Karaim families were first brought to Lithuania from Crimea by Vytautas Magnus. The settled in Trakai. Later there were small communities in Biržai, Pasvalys, Naujamiestis and Upytė. In Trakai the Karaim guarded the Grand Duke’s castle and were Vytautas’s personal guards. For their service they were granted land, the remains of which still belong to them today.
Their first church or kenesa was built at Trakai at the end of the 14th-early 15th century. This kenesa is the oldest, one of the two still open in Lithuania. Over the centuries it burned down more than once (the last fire was in 1812), but was reconstructed. During the Soviet occupation, this kenesa was the only functioning Karaim house of worship in all of Europe, although beginning in the 1960’s the congregation was no longer allowed to use it. It began to deteriorate and was only restored in 1997 for the 600th anniversary of the settlement of Karaims in Lithuania.
The architecture and interior design of the kenesa is in the Karaim tradition. It has three front windows, as do most of the typical Karaim houses in the area. High on each wall of the kenesa is a stained glass window. On the tin roof is a small square tower with four windows and a spire topped with a metal ball. The interior of the church is decorated with characteristic Karaim folk art, geometric and nature motifs, and the floor is covered in carpets. During the winter months, worshippers attend the newer kenesa in the Žvėrynas district of Vilnius.
The ruins of another kenesa are found in the old section of Moluvėnai, a small community near Trakai, where Russian Czar Alexander II granted the Karaims 160 hectares of land. After the death of Karaim religious leader Isaakas Boguslavas Kaplanovskis who built a the church there, it was renovated as a house, and no typical design details remained. Basic restoration was done in 1935, but it was allowed to deteriorate during the Soviet era and is still completely closed down, doors and windows bricked in and surrounded by the detritus of a collective farm.
The kenesa in the Žvėrynas district of Vilnius is the largest and most beautiful in Lithuania, built between 1911 and 1923 in an area where most Karaims lived. In the first half of the 20th century the Karaim community in Vilnius numbered about 300. It is thought that they had moved to Vilnius for economic reasons, as it was difficult to find work in the countryside. An active group of Karaims applied to the city and was granted a plot of land to build a church. Due to a shortage of finances, the Karaim community appealed to Karaims abroad, who responded generously and enabled construction to be finished in 1923.
Closed by the USSR Council on Religious Cults in 1949, it was returned to the Karaim community in 1988. Restoration work began and the kenesa was open to the faithful once again in 1993.
Information from bernardinai.lt