Karaims are the smallest nation of Turkic decent that presently live in Lithuania. The Karaim language derives from the family of Turkic languages of the western Kipchak group and is close to the Karachay-Balkar, Kumyk, as well as to the Crimean Tatar language. The Karaim language is still a live language in Lithuania; it is used by Karaims in daily life and in liturgical matters. At the end of the 14th century, continuing the expansionist policy, the Grand Duke of Lithuania Vytautas the Great reached the Crimean Peninsula. He brought 383 Karaim families to Lithuania from there and settled them in Trakai, in the north-western part of the town. Some time later, Karaim settlements appeared also in the northern part of Lithuania. In Trakai, Karaims served as guards of the ducal castles; they were also engaged in agriculture, trade, and crafts. At that time, Trakai was a multinational town divided into several areas according to national and religious belonging of the residents. In 1441, the Grand Duke of Lithuania Casimir IV Jagiellon granted the Magdeburg rights to the Karaims. According to this privilege, the Karaims were governed by one leader, who was subordinate directly to the Grand Duke of Lithuania, or his court.
Since 1850, Lithuanian Karaims were subordinate to the Crimean Karaite clergy board. In 1863, the Tsar issued an order to establish the second Karaite clergy board with a separate spiritual leader for Russian provinces. Such a board was established in Trakai in 1869; Boguslav Kaplanovsky (1806–1898) took the position of hachan – the supreme Karaim religious and secular authority. After the World War I, the representatives of Karaims from Vilnius and Trakai were deeply concerned about the national and religious problems and decided to consolidate with Karaim communities of Galich and Luck. In autumn 1927, the first assembly of Polish Karaims took place in Trakai; Seraya Shapshal (1873–1961), a prominent public figure, academic-orientalist, who lived in Istanbul at that time, was elected the supreme spiritual leader of the Karaims. The consecration ceremony took place in Vilnius, in 1928. After becoming the hachan, S. Shapshal started collecting valuable items of Karaim cultural heritage with an intention to establish a national museum.
In 1938, the Polish government assigned 33 000 zloty for building a Karaim museum in Trakai. The construction works started under the supervision of the architect J. Borowski; the Karaims actively participated in these works. On the 6th of July 1938, the ceremony of consecration of the foundation stone of the museum took place; the government and public representatives from Vilnius and Trakai took part in the ceremony. In 1939, the World War II stopped the building works. The collection of S. Shapshal remained in his apartment in Vilnius, and it operated as a Karaim museum till the beginning of 1951. Later in the year, the museum was closed and the exhibits were handed over to the Lithuanian Academy of Science and to the Museum of Lithuanian History and Ethnography. After the closure of the Karaim museum, S. Shapshal worked at the Institute of History of the Lithuanian Academy of Sciences. S. Shapshal died in 1967 and was buried in the Karaite Cemetery in Vilnius, Liepkalnis. In 1967, the first Karaim exhibition was opened at Trakai History Museum; the collection accumulated by S. Shapshal made the basis of the exhibition.
The Karaim religion, Karaism, as a separate religious movement, began in the 8th-century Persia. Karaism is based on the Old Testament not including any later additions and commentaries. It allows individual interpretations, independent from any authorities. Such interpretation of the Holy Script is the main principle of Karaism, and the Decalogue is the main moral standard. When the centre of Karaism was moved from Baghdad to Jerusalem (at the end of the 8th century) this religion started spreading to other countries. Some Turkic tribes that lived in the Crimea and in the lowlands of the Volga River, converted to Karaism. Eventually the same language, religion and customs united those tribes into Karaim nation. Their descendants presently live in Lithuania, Poland, and the Crimean Peninsula. A Karaite temple is called ‘kenesa’; the clergymen are divided into junior, called ‘hazzan’, and senior – ‘ullu hazzan’; the highest hierarch is called ‘hachan’.
The oldest written sources in the Karaim language that survived to the present day are manuscripts of theology and law, as well as religious anthems. Hand-written books were very popular among the Karaim people. Karaim families in the Crimea and Lithuania had similar hand-written books, which varied in content. They were called ‘medjuma’ (in Arabic ‘medjuma’ means ‘collection’). Along the prayers and ceremonial texts there have been many literary and folklore texts recorded in the manuscripts. Since the late 19th century, Lithuanian Karaims used the prayer book edited by Feliks Malecki, published in Vilnius in 1890. Some time later, Karaite prayers were collected and published in one volume by Simonas Firkovičius (1897–1982). In 1993, the senior preacher Mykolas Firkovi
ius collected and published a book of daily and festive prayers, which is used by Karaims presently. In 1994, he also published a book of psalms and a textbook for learning the Karaim language.
FESTIVALS AND TRADITIONS
Karaims define annual festivals according to lunar calendar. The first great festival in the year is Easter; it is celebrated the whole week, and it is also the commemoration of the Exodus and the liberation from Egypt. In the preparation for Easter, Karaims bake a large amount of scones from unleavened dough, called ‘tymbyl’. The dough was rather hard to knead, therefore a special table with a wooden kneader was used for this. Easter Sunday is called ‘San Bashy’. Seven weeks after that day was another festival – Whit Sunday (Pentecost). The festival is always celebrated on Sunday, on the fiftieth day after Easter Sunday and is called the day of cheese. The cake baked for that day is called ‘katlama’; it has 7 layers of curd, which symbolizes the seven weeks after Easter. The inside of the premises are decorated with greenery. In autumn (September–October) Karaims celebrate the Feast of Trumpets, which is also the New Year Festival, the start of the new agricultural year. Until the World War II, Karaims celebrated the ancient festival – the Sickle Day.
Fasting has a great importance in Karaism. There are 6 fasts in the year. The first one is related to All Saints Day and takes place in June and July. At the beginning of the fasting all the community gathers in kenesa, where Holy Mass is served to celebrate the dead. After that Karaims go to the cemetery to visit the graves of their relatives. Karaims do not burn candles at their graveyards, but leave flowers there. When coming to the grave, one has to greet the dead and when leaving, to say goodbye by touching the gravestone with a napkin. The fasting lasts for one month until the Day of Sacrifice. Only after the fast is finished, Karaims are allowed to have weddings and other celebrations. Wedding ceremony is the most festive ritual of the Karaim family; it has been preserved to the present day. The wedding consists of the engagement that has legal power and takes place in the house of the bride; then follows the wedding ceremony in kenesa, and wedding party, usually, with the participation of all the community members. After the birth of a child, his name is announced in kenesa after some special prayers.