Timur Natalemov, the keeper of two 19th-century synagogues in the far-flung hamlet of Oghuz, northern Azerbaijan, passed away on February 24.
He was 66 years old, a family member informed JNS.
With between 10,000 and 30,000 Jews, Azerbaijan, a country of 10.4 million, has the highest concentration of Jews among Muslim nations.
Namatelov told this writer during a visit in 2022 that it was the uncommon and daring traveler who ventured to Oghuz to study more about Azerbaijan’s Jewish past.
He would guide synagogue tours for those who did arrive, mainly from Israel and Europe.
Nearby, Chechnya’s Oghuz had a substantial Jewish population, but there are only about 30 and 40 Jews there now. They are known as Jews of the Caucasus Mountains or Mountain Jews.
Azerbaijan has four synagogues in addition to the two in Oghuz.
Neighbors knew to call Natalemov when tourists interested in learning more about Jewish Oghuz history showed up at the two locked synagogues on days other than Shabbat.
He was well-known in the 7,000-person village and was usually glad to show visitors around.
He gave them yarmulkes at the end of the excursions and asked that people wear them anytime they went to Jerusalem’s Western Wall.
The Lower Quarter and the Ashagi Mahalla Synagogue on Gudrat Aghakishiyev Street were under Natalemov’s jurisdiction.
The original wooden platforms that supported the two-story building are still present, along with the grave of the architect who designed the 1849 shul.
The Upper Quarter, also known as the Yukhari Mahalla Synagogue, was constructed in 1897 under Rabbi Baruch Ben Chanuk’s direction.
Both shuls are easily distinguished by the blue menorahs painted on their gates.
Natalemov would reassure visitors that Jews were not concerned about the safety of their places of worship. Antisemitism wasn’t a concern for them.
He would kindly request visitors to take off their shoes before entering a synagogue; however, he did not require security gadgets or metal detectors for access.
The number of Jews in Oghuz reached its highest in the 1930s at 2,000. When Natalemov’s parents were alive, a typhus outbreak claimed many lives, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
Jewish tombstones with faces etched on them are uncommon in Jewish cemeteries in the mountains.