The Karaite

Most certainly not to be confused with the much larger world Judaic Karaite movement, the Lithuanian Karaite (or Karaim, or even sometimes Karaimic) are as perplexing as the confusion surrounding their name suggests. Settled in Trakai from the Crimea by Grand Duke Vytautas at the end of the 14th century, the Lithuanian Karaite form the chain in a bizarre link connecting the two distant and contradictory worlds of Lithuania and Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq), the birthplace of the original Karaite movement. The original Karaite were a puritanical Jewish splinter group who among other things rejected the Talmud and who somehow initiated the conversion to the Karaite faith of several Turkic tribes living on the Black Sea shores in the 13th century. It was some of these ethnically Turkic families who came to Trakai and other parts of the then Grand Duchy of Lithuania, first as bodyguards and later as successful farmers and market gardeners. Granted Magdeburg rights by Casimir IV (Lithuanian, Kazimieras) in 1441, the Lithuanian Karaite in Trakai have, much like Trakai itself, suffered swings of both good and bad fortune over the centuries, and have even found time to court controversy, namely during the Nazi occupation of Lithuania during WWII (1941-1944) when the then head of the Lithuanian and Polish Karaite movement Sereya Shapshala (1873-1961) famously handed over a list of the names of all Karaite members in order to protect them from the fate of the Jews. In the mid-1930s, Germany’s fledgling Nazi party formally defined the Karaite as not Jewish under the malevolent and sinister 1935 Reich Citizenship Law, a historical fact used by many Eastern European Jews during the Holocaust, who attempted to disguise themselves as Karaite in order to stay alive. Shapshala’s List as it became known effectively sealed the fate of many Lithuanian Jews, and continues to be an emotive blot on relations between the communities. Lithuanian Karaite religion is based on the Jewish faith with the above-mentioned differences. Originally all religious services were conducted in Hebrew inside a kenesa, which has many similarities to a synagogue but which also witnesses a number of startling disparities including the necessity to remove footwear before entering the building, something known universally in the Islamic faith but entirely alien to Judaism. The Lithuanian Karaite language that eventually replaced Hebrew as the official religious language is a unique intermingling of the original Turkic tongue spoken by the community mixed together with local Lithuanian and Polish inclusions. Like the Lithuanian Karaite themselves, the language is dying, with what few remaining members of the total Lithuanian count of around 250 Lithuanian Karaite integrating with Western society. At this rate it’s only a matter of time before the community and its culture are gone forever. Trakai remains the spiritual home of the Lithuanian Karaite movement, and shamelessly exploits the Karaite myth for the purposes of tourism. Visitors are treated to a watered-down version of Lithuanian Karaite culture including all of the sights listed here and not forgetting the infamous kibinai, the miniature Cornish pasty-type signature dish of Lithuanian Karaite cuisine and the traditional Lithuanian Karaite wooden houses along the street named after them complete with three windows facing the road. At present there remain about 50 Lithuanian Karaite living in Trakai. Those wanting to know more about a dying race of people, who it could be argued bridge the gap between the Jewish faith and Islam, should contact the Lithuanian Karaite Community House in Trakai via the community’s website at

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