Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Karaim, Kena, and Kopecks: Henna Among Crimean Karaites

I got a wonderful question on my Tumblr a few days ago and I thought I’d feature the answer here too.
 “Hi!! Do you have any record of Crimean Karaite henna traditions? All I have to go on is your post about henna customs in Turkey/the Balkans, and also in an article about modern Crimean Karaites it said the woman being interviewed had hennaed hair.”

A great question! Before I jump into the answer, some background for people unfamiliar with Crimean Karaites:

The Karaites are a sect of Judaism which attempts to live only according to the TaNaKh [Hebrew Bible], and does not recognize the halakhic [legal] authority of the Talmud or later Rabbinic thought; non-Karaite Jews are referred to as Rabbanites. Today, most Karaites live now live in Israel or the United States; in the past, there were large Karaite communities in Egypt, Turkey, and Iraq, as well as many Karaite Jews in the Crimean peninsula (as well as pockets in Lithuania and mainland Ukraine).

Henna traditions among Egyptian Karaites were previously featured here; now we’ll investigate henna among Crimean Karaites, known as Karaim or Krymkaraylar (there was also a Rabbanite Jewish community in Crimea, known as Krymchaks). How the Jews (Karaite or Rabbanite) got to the Crimean Peninsula is a blogpost for another time... Suffice it to say that according to the 1897 Russian Imperial Census there were 12,894 Karaites in the Russian Empire, of which 5,400 lived in the Crimean Peninsula, 800 in Lithuania, 200 in Volhynia, and the remainder elsewhere. Today there are perhaps four thousand European Karaites, with about a thousand living in Europe and the remainder living in Israel or North America.

A Karaite kenesa [synagogue], Vilnius, built in 1921.

It might be surprising that we would look for henna traditions among Crimean Karaites. After all, Crimea sits in the Black Sea between Russia and the Ukraine, not places traditionally associated with henna. But it’s important to remember that the Crimean peninsula was a vassal state of the Ottoman Empire under the Crimean Tatars until 1783, and even after it became part of Russia, there was still a heavy cultural influence from Turkey. And of course, no matter how much I learn about henna, I am always surprised by how far it has travelled and how diverse its traditions are!

The Karaite scholar Abraham Firkovitch
(seated) with other Karaites, from
Description ethnographique des Peuples
de la Russie
(Theodore de Pauly, 1862).
So while we don’t have a large number of sources on Crimean Karaite henna, there are several important descriptions. The Jewish bibliophile and historian Ephraim Deinard, in his 1878 travelogue Masa Qrim: Qorot Benei Yisrael baHatzi haI Qrim [A Journey to Crimea: The History of the Jews in the Crimean Peninsula], describes the importance of henna to Karaim, Krymchak Jews, and Muslim Tatars alike (pg. 26):
“The Tatar women, from the day of their birth [onward], anoint their hair, hands, and feet with a red dye (kena) for beauty. This colour is sacred to them because they believe if the woman dies while the colour is still on her, then she will be led on a straight path to Paradise. For this reason many men will also henna their toes, and the women of the Karaim and the Krymchaks do the same…”
Later on Deinard describes henna as part of the preparations for a Jewish wedding (it seems like he’s talking about the Rabbanite Krymchaks here, not Karaites, although it seems reasonable that this was a shared practice); he notes that the henna was sent with the bride to be used in the bathhouse, as was often the case, and that it was the responsibility of the groom's family to pay for it (pg. 141):
"The groom must send the bride every week no less than 20 kopecks, for which there is a fair reckoning: ten kopecks for the proceedings at the bathhouse, six to buy the kena dye to colour her hair, fingernails and toenails, which she can only do in the bathhouse, and for the makiz dye to clean the teeth (?), and four to buy soap and pay for the bath attendant."

If you're curious, as far as I can accurately calculate, the exchange rate in the 1870s was approximately $0.80 USD for 1 ruble (100 kopecks), so 6 kopecks in 1878 converts to about $1.16 USD today. Not bad...

The use of henna to dye nails, skin, and hair among the Krymchaks was briefly noted by Max Rosenthal in the Jewish Encyclopedia (1904) and by Raphael Goldenstein in his rabbinical thesis (1916: 48). Another description of henna among the (Muslim) Tatars of the Crimea from the German botanist Peter Simon Pallas (1741-1811) adds some details on how it was mixed (pp. 349-251):
“[The women’s] fingers are adorned with rings, and the nails of their hands and feet tinged with Kna (Lawsonia), which is imported from Constantinople, and is sometimes mixed with vitriol [sulfate], to render the colour browner and more permanent; as it will thus continue about two months… They dye their hair of a reddish brown with Kna… and by a particular process, change the colour of their eye-brows and hair to a shining black…. [They] colour their hands and feet, as far as the wrist and ancle, of an orange hue, with kna. [To make the black dye] twenty-five of the best galls (Balamut) are boiled in oil, then dried, and reduced to a fine powder; to which are added three drachms of green vitriol [iron sulfate], one of cream of tartar, one of indigo, and a tea-cupful of Kna, or Lawsonia alcanna. The four first mentioned ingredients are well agitated with two pounds of water; and then the powder of Kna is gradually mixed with them so as to form a paste. With this composition, the hair is carefully anointed, so that the skin may not be blackened; and a kerchief is tied round it during the night. The next morning the hair is washed.”

We even have actual remains of Crimean Karaite henna! Seraya Szapszal (1873-1961), a Crimean Karaite hakham and scholar, included a sample of henna in his ethnographic collection (presented to the National Museum of Lithuania), which was done in the 1930s; the entry reads: “406: Plant dye kana (henna). Light brown powder used by Karaims to dye hair and fingernails” (Jočytė 2003: 76). If anyone's visiting Vilnius, go by the Museum and see if it's on display!

It seems that the henna was imported to Crimea by Krimchak Jewish merchants who would bring it from Turkey, three or four sacks at a time, along with silk scarves, fezzes, and other goods, according to Anatoly Michailovich Khazanov (1989: 6). Of course, the word “kana” or “kena” that they’re using for henna is a loanword from the Turkish kına (itself ultimately a loanword from Arabic).

Sacks of henna for sale in the Istanbul bazaar, 2007; photo by Egil Kvaleberg.

And of course, there’s the article that was mentioned, which does refer to a contemporary Crimean Karaite woman with hennaed hair, so at least some of these traditions are still alive.

A Karaim ketubbah [wedding contract],
Chufut-Kale (Crimea), 1855. 
Did they do designs? There's no evidence that they did... But there's no evidence that they didn't! And there's certainly nothing stopping contemporary Crimean Karaim from creating their own designs! There's certainly plenty of inspiration in other traditional folk arts. It is interesting, in particular, that Crimean Karaim maintained the custom of hand-illuminated ketubbot [wedding contracts] which disappeared among Ashkenazim after the Middle Ages.

One final Karaite connection, although somewhat distant, is that the famous medieval Karaite anthology by Judah Hadassi is called Eshkol haKofer, which literally means “a cluster of henna” (a phrase from Song of Songs). He’s playing, of course, on the other meanings of eshkol and kofer, to imply “I will judge the heretic” — but it’s a neat connection nonetheless (even if it does throw off my Google searches for “Karaite henna”).

I’m always on the lookout for more chances to learn about obscure or forgotten corners of the henna world — readers, if you have suggestions or questions, leave them in the comments!


  • Deinard, Ephraim. Masa Qrim: Qorot Benei Yisrael baHatzi haI Qrim [A Journey to Crimea: The History of the Jews in the Crimean Peninsula]. Warsaw: Isaac Goldman, 1878.
  • Goldenstein, Raphael. The Krimchaks: Their Life and Origin in the Crimea. Hebrew Union College Rabbinical Thesis, Cincinnati, 1916.
  • Jočytė, VitalijaSeraya Szapszal's Karaim Collection. National Museum of Lithuania, 2003.
  • Khazanov, Anatoly MichailovichThe Krymchaks: a Vanishing Group in the Soviet Union. Jerusalem: Hebrew University, 1989.
  • Pallas, Peter Simon. Travels Through the Southern Provinces of the Russian Empire, in the Years 1793 and 1794 (translated from the German by Francis William Blagdon). London: John Stockdale, 1812.
  • Rosenthal, Max. “The Krimchaks.” The Jewish Encyclopedia, Funk and Wagnalls, 1904.

No comments: