Lailashi New Jewish Cemetery
There were two Jewish cemeteries in Lailashi. The New Jewish Cemetery is located between the village of Ghu and Lailashi. Today, the cemetery is not fenced but is well maintained. The inscriptions on the tombstones are largely legible and most of them date to the mid-19th century. The earliest legible gravestone is dated 1865. The cemetery has not been active since 1974, though several Jews from Kutaisi were buried there in the 1980’s.
Lailashi is a village in Racha-Lechkhumi in northwestern Georgia. The village is in the Kvemo Svaneti region, in the valley of the Lajanuri river, and sits at an altitude of 900 metres above sea level. The proximity of Lailashi to the Lailashi caravan road led to the settlement and coexistence of Jews, Armenians, and Greeks there, as well as Georgians in the early feudal era. The village of Lailashi is known for archaeological discoveries made in the area, including unearthed bronze axes (9th-8th centuries BCE) which prove the existence of a settlement since the Bronze Age. In the Medieval period, Lailashi served as a guardian of the Georgian treasury.
Lailashi was the largest Jewish settlement in Western Georgia. Jews began to settle in the village in 17th century following the Turkish invasion of Akhaltsikhe and subsequent persecution of Akhaltsikhe’s Jews. Some argue that the etymological meaning of the village itself is Jewish in origin as ‘Laila’ means night in Hebrew. The Jews who settled in Lailashi established handicraft and trade shops. In the first half of the 19th century, Lailashi was an important trade centre in Lechkhumi and trading was dominated by local Jews and Armenians. In 1904 a large fire broke out in the village in which 150 wooden houses were completely destroyed. Lailashi was also an important religious centre for people of different religions. The Georgian Orthodox Church managed the village cemetery, and an Armenian church was in the centre of the village next to which was the local synagogue which was built by local Jews. The exact reconstruction date of the first synagogue in Lailashi is unknown. Though, according to a note made by the researcher I. Chorniy, who visited Lailashi in 1869, the synagogue was presumably built in the 1860’s. Yet an archival document from 1946 stated that the synagogue was built in 1800. In 1910, the Jewish community built a second synagogue, which was closed in 1924 and was then converted into a club-library. According to the 1897 census, there were 441 Jews living in Lailashi village. At the beginning of the 20th century, Lailashi was home to 1,200 Jews, who accounted for most of the village’s population. Jews had their own quarter in the village, in which a two-story synagogue was located.
In the 1930’s, owing to difficult economic conditions, people living Lailashi population began to move elsewhere, mainly to cities such as Kutaisi. After the establishment of the Soviet government, the Lailashi synagogues were closed (1923-24), and prayer was banned. Later, the first synagogue was returned to the community the second was converted into a club-library. Around this time, the Jews of Lailashi relocated to different cities in Georgia. According to data, 235 Jews lived in Lailashi in 1939, 39 in 1959, and only 20 Jews in 1970. Today, no Jew lives in Lailashi. Once vibrant, but now abandoned, the Lailashi Synagogue housed an important text – the Lailashi Bible (c. 10th century), a handwritten version of the Torah, accompanied by comments and colorful geometrical decorative figures. It is now kept at the Georgian National Centre of Manuscripts, which also houses the Bible of Breti. The manuscript is written on parchment and paleographic analysis of the manuscript suggests the manuscript was created in the 10th-11th century. The Lailashi Codex was allegedly written by different sofers in various periods and places: Palestine, Egypt, and even in Persia. It was presumably brought to Georgia during the large migration wave of Jews to Georgia. According to legend, the Lailashi Codex was brought to Georgia on the wigs of angels. The villagers saw a floating book in an unnamed river and rescued it from the stream. This unique Codex was believed to have magic powers and miraculous features. It became a central worship item for both Jews and Georgians. The painting by Georgian painter David Gvelesiani depicts the miraculous arrival of the Hebrew Bible to Georgia.