At the beginning of the 18th century the Jews of Baghdad began emigrating to India, and a portion of these eventually wound up making it to China. At the end of the 19th century, an emigration to Palestine began.
For a long time Baghdad was a great way-station for goods shipped out of India and Persia, which were destined to pass through Aleppo, along the Euphrates, through Damascus and the desert, on their way to Europe. But the opening of the Suez Canal brought down the importance of Aleppo and Damascus. Baghdad however was able to recover [Translator’s Note: from the loss of trade now diverted to Suez].
Basra, an important commercial center in the south of Iraq, experienced a change of fortunes during the Great War [World War I]. The Jewish population grew from 7,000 to 12,000. After the World War, however, the importance of the city sank, due to competition from the Persian Mohammerah. Basra fought mightily for its very existence.
The last census of 1920 showed a population of about three million, of whom 87,000, or about 3.1%, were Jews. The country was divided into three sections: Baghdad with about 62,500 Jews, Basra with about 10,000, and Mosul with about 14,800.
Baghdad [was] known for the products of its Hebrew publishing houses. In the 1860s a newspaper in Hebrew and Arabic was launched.
Kurdistan is a land in near-Asia [southwest Asia], which lies in the border regions of Turkey, Iraq, and Persia. Kurdish Jews regard themselves as descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. In the 12th century they were taken in by the messianic movement which was led and inspired by David Alroy. Benjamin of Tudela [in the Middle Ages] estimated the Jewish population of Kurdistan at 25,000 souls. Centuries lapsed without any news from this population of indigenous and assimilated Jews, who live in the mountains, and whose outward appearance cannot in any way be distinguished from those of the non-Jews of the region. From the middle of the 19th century Jewish research travelers visited these mountains Jews and disseminated some light about their lives, families, language, culture, and their economic and social circumstances.
The Kurdish Jews speak an Aramaic idiom, which varies in isolated districts. They have their rabbis, whose main occupation it is to consecrate amulets against disease, bad dreams, the evil eye and other such things. In Kurdish regions there are gravesites of prophets, to which the Jewish population makes pilgrimages. J.J. Benjamin described the ceremonies at the grave of the Prophet Nachum in Alkusch. Jews come on pilgrimage from far away to this sepulcher, which is covered with gold-inlaid fabric and gold coins.
Kurdish Jewish women go about unveiled, and wear colorful dresses, tall turbans, ear and nose rings, and arm and leg bands.
The Kurdish Jews are at the service of the Kurdish Aga, a feudal baron. They engage themselves as dyers, tanners, weavers, carters, blacksmiths, and rivermen. Reports from travelers have it that the non-Jewish Kurds obtain jewelry for their wives manufactured by itinerant Jewish goldsmiths. Gold and silver craftwork is regarded highly among the Jews. Next to that is winemaking, and peddling on a small or large scale. One sees the mountain Jews as agricultural workers in the service of the Kurdish nobility, and as shepherds.
Before the World War, there was a count of 18,000 Kurdish Jews. After the war a majority emigrated to Palestine. About 40 percent of the Jews from urban districts moved to Palestine. About half of the Kurdish immigrants, whose overall numbers in 1933 were estimated to be about 5,000, settled in Jerusalem. A portion of them moved to Tiberias, Safed, Jaffa, and into settlements in the Galilee.