Dwindling minority treasures memory of grand duke

 

Trakai Letter: Looking like an elongated Cornish pasty, the kibinai is an unlikely culinary emblem for one of Europe's smallest and most exotic minorities.

This tasty and superbly portable mutton pie helped fortify the Karaites on their long journey from the Crimea to Lithuania, to guard the castle from which Grand Duke Vytautas ruled one of the biggest and most powerful countries in medieval Europe.

Vytautas helped consolidate Lithuanian control over what is now Belarus, most of Ukraine and areas of western Russia, and later went on to help defeat the Teutonic knights in 1410 at the epic Battle of Tannenberg.

But it was in 1399, after suffering a rare defeat to the mighty Mongol armies of the Golden Horde, that Vytautas returned home with what remained of his troops and with 380 Karaite families, whom he settled close to his beloved castle at Trakai.

Set on an island in Lake Galves, the fortress was loyally guarded by Karaite warriors, whose families and descendants became farmers and craftsmen in Trakai and a few other towns in Lithuania, notably Vilnius, its current capital.

About 25km from Vilnius, Trakai now draws a steady stream of day-trippers to the restored castle and the idyllic lake on which it sits, as well as to sample kibinai and see how the Karaites are faring 600 years after they arrived in northeastern Europe.

A few of their tidy wooden houses still face Trakai's main street, each with three windows, as tradition dictates - one for God, one for Vytautas and one for the owner.

But the gates are locked outside the Kenesa, the small, simple synagogue where Trakai's remaining 65 Karaites occasionally gather to practise their particular version of Judaism, which is believed to have originated in Mesopotamia, the land of modern-day Iraq.

From around the 8th century, a Karaite sect emerged that placed sole faith in the teachings of the Old Testament and rejected later written interpretations of the scripture contained in the Talmud and Mishnah.

Their religious texts were in Hebrew, while the spoken language of the Karaites who came north with Grand Duke Vytautas was Turkic, and closest to the tongue of the Crimean Tatars and the Kumyks and Balkars who live in the Russian Caucasus. In sepia photographs on the walls of Trakai's three-room museum, men wearing black robes, little square hats and neat moustaches stand among women and children with dark eyes and sallow faces, in images redolent of the Middle East rather than the Baltic; their music, dance, motifs and ornaments are also strongly Oriental.

The Karaites have survived six centuries of upheaval in a tumultuous corner of Europe, and were not specifically persecuted by a Soviet regime that occupied Lithuania in 1940 and, after a Nazi interlude, from 1945 until Moscow's empire collapsed in 1991.

But if their community has proved resilient to the political and military vagaries of life in Lithuania, it has been less able to withstand the strictures of Karaite belief.

They refuse to recognise a child of a mixed marriage as a genuine Karaite - a fact that has seen the number of recognised Karaites in Lithuania dwindle to about 260, only 32 of whom are younger than 16 years.

While they have almost always enjoyed good relations with their neighbours, the Karaites have resisted assimilation, and now their numbers are steadily falling along with knowledge of their language, cultural traditions and religious rites.

In Trakai people say that just a decade ago, Karaites gathered each week at the Kenesa, but now it is only major religious holidays that draw a crowd; and only a few dozen native speakers of the language survive, prompting Unesco to classify it as "seriously endangered".

Lithuania is proud of its Karaites, who offer a link between the little EU member of today and the country's golden era as a great continental power under Grand Duke Vytautas.

But it is unclear how long they can maintain their ethnic purity, under pressure from forces of globalisation that are eroding their language, culture and religion.

Just as tens of thousands of Lithuanians have moved to Ireland and Britain in the last two years, so the magnets of money and curiosity are also drawing young Karaites away from their insular community and out into the wider world, to continue a journey that began with Vytautas's invitation to follow him westward, more than 600 years ago.