The lost Jewish history of Rawalpindi

Published: February 23, 2016

This stunning building, once used as a synagogue and assembly hall, is now in shambles. PHOTO: SAIF TAHIR

While roaming the streets of Babu Mohallah, one singles out this old yellow building with its distinct features. The abundance of old and new buildings of Nishtar Street fails to overshadow the tall, three story building with peculiar texture and strong colonial features. What makes this old yellowish facade even more intriguing is the Star of David’s situated on its top that have survived almost a century despite the predisposed hatred and revulsion. The building, former coal centre and the present Rehman Manzil, is the only intact Jewish architecture in Rawalpindi. 

Rawalpindi, a 1000 BC historical city, General Headquarters of Pakistan Army and the twin city of Islamabad has a lot more to tell than its bureaucratic ties and military tales.

Babu Mohallah is one of the oldest neighbourhoods and business hubs of the city. Known today as Asia’s leading car parts market, its rich and diverse cultural heritage makes it deceptively fascinating. On one side stands the grand Bohra Mosque with a thriving Bohra community. Right next to it you’ll find an old Victorian church and a Hindu temple right in the back street. The Jewish building on Nishtar Street lies in the middle.

Photo: Saif Tahir

Compared to other colonial and pre-partition buildings in the area, the exterior of this building indicates that it has been maintained. Along with the David stars that smile proudly at onlookers, the building is adorned with bat wings (symbolising good luck) along with the iconic Masonic compass symbols embellishing the doors. The building resembles a synagogue in India that was constructed by the Jews from Iraq and Iran in the late 1800s. The affluence and grandeur of a wealthy class is quite marked and parallel in the two infrastructures.

The history of Jews in Rawalpindi dates back to 1839 when many Jewish families from Mashhad fled to save themselves from the persecutions and settled in various parts of subcontinent including Peshawar and Rawalpindi. Since they were traders, Babu Mohallah (at that time a business centre) in a location close to the railway station, urged them to settle within this area. According to 1901 census and Rawalpindi Gazette, Mashhadi Jews were a thriving tribe of Rawalpindi. However, after partition, many families migrated to Bombay and the rest left gradually in the late 60s. At present, the word ‘Jews’ is only limited to an old British administrative gazette in TMA building opposite Gordon College which is not open to the general public and academics.

This stunning building, once used as a synagogue and assembly hall, is now in shambles. It is occupied by three families who refuse to talk to visitors and discourage them looking inside. The locals say this area used to comprise of other such buildings; they were either demolished or renovated to curb the identity and with the passage of time new plazas and multi-story residential buildings took their place. A similar building still exists in Ahata Mitho Khan which used to have the same carvings and David stars but was recently renovated and converted into a spare part market – Khan Market.

Despite some articles on the Jews that reside in Karachi and a slight mention of Mashhadi Jews, there’s apparently no information on Rawalpindi Jews, their life styles and worship. The area, being in close proximity to the GHQ and religious sites, is also quite socially sensitive. The locals are resilient in talking about the community – some because of hatred, and some because of fear. This act of defiance doesn’t just lie among the locals, but is also rooted within the government. While wandering among the streets, you will be stopped and questioned by officials. The locals also resist talking about the history and shed very limited information. However, an old resident who was born in the neighbourhood in the late 30s said something astonishing,

“There were Jews living in the city till late 90’s. Although the family moved to some other city, they still come and visit these streets.”

Most of us are practically unaware of the fact that Jews were once an active part of our community and even now continue to reside in this country. In 2013, the electoral list exhibited an astonishing number of 809 people who declared themselves as Jews. Pakistan, a non-Arab country that was never technically in war against the Jewish state, is one of its staunch opponents. There are a number of Jewish families living in Tel Aviv who distinguish themselves as Pakistani. Despite undeclared defense ties and cooperation, our hostility towards the Jews is virulent; our dislike is evident in just our attitude towards their infrastructure (which is just as integral to our own history!).

These buildings are rich with history, lineage and culture. We have a duty to preserve it for generations to follow rather than treating them the way we treat our minorities, as a British journalist aptly put it,

“To be a Jew is to be a scapegoat – as unnerving an experience in Pakistan.”

Saif Tahir

Saif Tahir

A passionate photographer, traveler and faculty member in Humanities and Social Sciences, Bahria University Islamabad

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Agrippa – The Skeptic

    “The locals are resilient about …). You probably mean reticent.Recommend

  • Allah Hafiz

    Rawalpindi, a 1000 BC historical city, General Headquarters of Pakistan Army and the twin city of Islamabad has a lot more to tell than its bureaucratic ties and military tales……..

    This seems Hilarious….city is 1000 BC year old….can the author or somebody please tell which were the people that lived in 1000 BC in Rawalpindi,Hindu,Christian Muslim etc..etc….or somebody else….i am seriously curious to know this…and coming onto Jews…Let them live peacefully….Infact Jews are thankful they have not met the fate of ahmediyaa….Recommend

  • LollywoodKaFan

    The book and ideology is 1400 years old at which time…Earth was Flat and Sun revolve around the earth….than how come this city established in 1000 BC….Recommend

  • Jamil M Chaudri

    Perhaps you should know that the concept of scapegoats was a Jewish invention. They committed the sins and the goat was made to pay for it.
    And stop spreading falsehoods. No Paki has “virulent hostility” towards Jews. If you had used the word Zionist, I might have (just about) accepted it. Judaism is a religion; Zionism is a political creed at the same level as Nazism, Communism, Fascism. Zionist hate even Jews who do not subscribe to their perverted philosophy.Recommend

  • Amina

    Thank you for highlighting this. Sadly we are a people in denial of our history and culture. Maybe one day we Pakistanis will happily co exist no matter what our ethnicity, or religious background. Recommend

  • Vishwaroopam

    All religions of world coexisted in India because of majority Hindus.Now most of the parsis and jews have left pakistanRecommend

  • wb

    Moral of the story. Nobody can live in peace with Muslims. And that includes Muslims also.Recommend

  • Altaf Khan

    Do you think an ordinary pakistani would be able to distinguish between a jew and a zionist?Recommend

  • Lotus

    In Karachi also there was a sizeable Jewish population upto the late 70s.They used to live freely in the city,going on with their business and worshiping in their synagogue located at ex Lawerence Road.There was a famous Jews family,the Solomons,whose daughter got fame as a dancer in the night clubs of those days.Her name was Lilly Solomon,then after they emigrated to Israel,their son Issac played in the Isreali cricket team.The Solomon children attended my school Happy Dale School in Nazimabad. Jews also had shops in Empress Market,Karachi.Thise were peaceful says with no dangers of religious prosecutions.Recommend

  • Despicable

    Keeping with the sinister thinking that US Govts possess you have tried to emulate your rulers. Just mind your own business and leave to live with your Jews if you miss them. We don’t.Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    Before ahmedia it was HinduSikh and soon Shia & Barelwi. Recommend

  • Salim Alvi

    Why worry about distant opportunitist Jews? many of them have taken alien Semitic (corrupted Jewish) and Mongolian names and identity so that they can go on plundering and killing their own brothers and sisters in the service of their masters and ideologies.Recommend

  • Solomon2

    “…stop spreading falsehoods. No Paki has “virulent hostility” towards Jews.”

    Yet Pakistan’s Jews have all departed. Dr. Chaudri, why should your sweeping claims be believed over those of the author?Recommend

  • Blue eyes

    Yup. The Lawrence Road Synagogue was the heart of the Jewish community. A good no of Jews in Karachi married off with the Kutchi community in Karachi while others left for Israel , US, Canada ++.A good no of people of Jewish background -Jewish mothers – still live in Karachi & hold senior positions in the business & financial sector. I recall my friend Shimon studying at St. Patricks & our meetups at the Synagogue. The Ark used to be at the entrance .Ah, thanks Lotus for taking me back in the memory lane. A good number of graves of the Jewish community still exist in the Kutchi graveyard & during my last visit I checked out four with the Hebrew inscriptions.Recommend

  • wayne c

    Lotus, could you pls email me? [email protected]Recommend

  • brar

    pity on you you know nothing except hating every one.Recommend

  • Khan

    Sorry, but they are not Muslims who hurt others, don’t follow the teachings of Holy Quran. They are aliens, who are unaware of Islam, yet they call themselves Muslims and those are mere rhetorics = Our present Sectarian Society(Shia, Sunni, Wahabi, salafi).Recommend

  • necromancer

    Yes and most of Indian Jews have also left for Israel. Just to keep you updated.Recommend

  • wayne c

    You are right Solomon2. Where have all the Jews gone? They knew what was coming; sadly most of them left in the 50’s thru to the 70’s. Only one man openly claims to be a Jew. The old Jewish cemetery is the only legacy left and is in danger of being taken over by land developers.Recommend

  • wb

    Oh man! Aren’t you in serious need of an injection of common sense and a good doze of truth serum?!!Recommend

  • Jamil M Chaudri

    I was not commenting on something said by an “ordinary Pakistani; I was addressing the reporter, who could either be remarkably uninformed or regurgitating something according to “his masters voice”.Recommend

  • Jamil M Chaudri

    Because my claim happens to be the truth and not Zionist spread propaganda. I happen to have studied the history of the Zionism and Zionists and the occupation of the lands of Palestine. I happen to have Jewish friends, and fellow co-workers. I have been invited to the synagogue. It is not I with sweeping claims, but the author of the article, for he writes without authority (knowledge).Recommend

  • Jamil M Chaudri

    Every Paki should remember that Express News is a propaganda arm of the NYT. The NYT is bent on creating an image of Pakistan as a nation beyond redemption. While America hates political creeds like Communism, Nazism, they want to display Pakis as intolerant of (non Muslim) religious traditions. The mission of this article is to denigrate the traditions of Muslim rule in Spain (where Jews prospered); Of the Sultans of Turkey who gave refuge to Jews thrown out of Spain. Walk down the main street of Sarajevo and see the splendid Synagogue built by the Jewish refuges from Spain, only a few metres for the Main Mosque.Recommend

  • Hazel Kahan

    Oh, good, Wayne. I thought of you and was going to forward this to you!Recommend

  • Umar

    I suggest you study the history of Taxila which probably is much older. Rawalpindi is just 9 miles away.Recommend

  • Ajmal

    why not,it’s not a rocket science.Recommend

  • fze

    All? In the above article it is stated that according to 2013 electoral list 809 people identified themselves as Jews. What do you have to say now?Recommend

  • Jamil M Chaudri

    I take it that the author is purporting that what we see on the façade of the building is Stars of David. Maybe. Unless a better picture is presented, it could easily be a Hexagram, which is a symbol of Masonry. During the Brutish occupation of the Punjab much devilry took place there.Recommend

  • Lotus

    There was a Jew grave yard in front of the Radio Pakistan building on M A Jinnah road.Then some one built a building on top of the graves,without dismantling these.I had seen people going to these graves for religious reasons,I was myself only a little boy so did not comprehend all of it.Jews were also in Afghanistan and in NWFP (KPK) region in even after partition of Indo Pak.Now only memories remain of those peaceful days,but only lasting in this generation,then it will be all lost to history books.Recommend

  • Lotus

    Clarification:Commercial /shopping cum residential building in front of old Radio Pakistan Building on Old Bunder Road ,now M A Jinnah Road,Karachi.Recommend

  • wb

    They did not run away from persecution. They just went for greener pastures and of course a homeland. Just to keep you undated.Recommend

  • Jamil M Chaudri

    The Jewish population of what constitutes the Islamic
    Republic were part of the British Occupiers (of British India). So I ask you where have all the English, Scots,and Irish gone? There were about 10’000 of them in the Islamic Republic in 1947. The first Commander-in-Chief of Paki Army was a Brutish. The first two governors of NWFP were Brutish, etc. People of Jewish faith served in the colonial administration; among the merchant class, good few were Jewish.
    Also, after Mr Hitler took over Germany, a lot of Jews of
    German origin, sought refuge in Brutish Colonies.

    From ancient times, Jewish faith has been present in India,
    but in the South – the adherents came by sea, and some locals joined them in faith. Here is a popular reference:

    In Afghania, to the north, some tribes even claim to be descendants of the tribes that scattered after the fall of Samaria. For example, there were small communities in
    Herat, and Ghazna. I quote from popular text, about this community: “Afghanistan was the only Muslim country that allowed Jewish families to emigrate without revoking their citizenship first. Afghan Jews left the country en masse in the
    1960s, their exile to New York and Tel Aviv was motivated by a search for a better life but not because of religious persecution”

    In what is now the Islamic Republic, there were NO INDIGENOUS Jews. The Jews in Pakia were the camp followers of the (Brutish) Empire. When the Empire
    folded camp, the camp-followers also departed: NO CAMP, NO CAMP-FOLLOWERS.

    Wherever, people of a faith settle, even in a transient way,
    they build their places of worship.

    I was in Serbia, three years ago. On a guided tour of Beograd, the guide told us that during the period of Turkish rule, there were 600 mosques in Beograd. (By the way, it seems to be an inflated number). While I was there, there was ONLY ONE functional Mosque. I did go there
    and offer the Friday prayers. Note, Beograd is the capital of a state where 5% of the population are Muslim! By the
    way, although most traces of Turkish rule have been erased, the Turba of Damad Ali Pasha, the Conqueror of Morea, stands there. (I did offer the fatiah, there).

    The Jews in the lands of the Islamic Republic probably built
    A FEW places of worship for their transient stay.

    So, instead of fulminating: where are the Jews? Read a bit
    of History, and you might discover some interesting facts.Recommend

  • Jamil M Chaudri

    The author, Mr Tahir, writes: “Despite undeclared defense ties and cooperation, our hostility towards the Jews is virulent”. Since Mr Tahir seems to be informed on undeclared defence ties, I have some questions to ask him: (1): How did you find out about these ties? Did CIA or Mossad, or RAW fill you in?
    It is common practice of those doing something they are ashamed of, to try to keep their doings secret. But it is your duty as a journalist to expose these wrong doings. In your case, it seems to me that if you find out somebody were embezzling, instead of exposing the embezzler, you would like embezzling to be no longer a crime.
    Such flows in your statements/reasoning makes me wonder as to whether you have a visceral hatred of the Paki state/people, for you are scapegoating them for the crimes they did not even commit.Recommend

  • fze

    Read the article carefully. 809 Jews in Pakistan still residing and openly declaring themselves as such. Recommend

  • Milind A

    The Indian Jews that left our motherland, left probably because of their affinity to Israel or lack of development in India, not because of religious persecution. Many of them the Bene Israelis etc still keep in touch with India and maintain their customs/language (Marathi etc) they acquired over the last 2 millenniums. We do have synagogues and a few Jews around.. These are not under threat from Hindus, but yes your Ajmal Kasab did attack Chabad house in Mumbai… Keep yourself updated, rather than making sweeping statements.Recommend

  • Solomon2

    I am not sure the electoral list is accurate. Even if it is, there is no evidence these Jews can exist openly in Pakistani society, nor associate with each other. If Jews still exist in Pakistan they are thus both invisible and intangible – ghosts is the correct word, yes?Recommend

  • Solomon2

    “my claim happens to be the truth and not Zionist spread propaganda -”

    You’re in the U.S., right? The author is a Pakistani in Pakistan. From far away you are accusing the author of spreading what you consider “Zionist propaganda” when to him he is describing local conditions. Your assertion of “truth” thus seems to be based on ideological distaste of Zionism, not facts on the ground. So isn’t it most likely your knowledge of the Jews of Rawalpindi and their fate is inferior to his?Recommend

  • Asy ma wail !

    Why would you bring authentic knowledge to refute someone who had all of his brain acquired from Youtube comments? Let them feel good about it for a moment :)Recommend

  • Abdul Qasim Ahmad

    The Israeli muslims are have snatched the jewish homeland in Palastine and are now using barrel bombs and chemical weapons against the indigenous population while simultaneously maintaining a nuclear program under the eyes of the west. How horrible. The muslims are such barbarians they should return to the 14th century. I have also heard that Marine Le Pen and Trump have also converted to Islam. They used to be such great secular people look at what Islam has done to them.Recommend

  • Abdul Qasim Ahmad

    I fail to understand how you can justify the persecution of an Indian minority in Indian occupied Kashmir. Hindus and parsis from Balochistan fled the area not due to religious intolerance but due to secular ethnic violence. how come buddhism is coexisting with a center-right Muslim government in Malaysia or in Brunei and how come secular Angola and the Central African Republic is persecuting its muslim minority. PEGIDA and Rising Dawn are not muslims mind you.Recommend

  • Jamil M Chaudri

    Mr Tahir, here is a new topic for your pseudo (manufactured falsehood) laments. Read the case of Yemeni Jews as reported in the Zionist propaganda-blatt (NYT); Here are two paragraphs:

    First the historical: ““From Operation Magic Carpet in 1949 until the present day, the Jewish Agency has helped bring Yemenite Jewry home to Israel,” Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet dissident who is the chairman of the agency, said in a statement. He was referring to the airlifts of 1949 and 1950 that brought nearly 50,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel soon after the country was established.

    And now the present: “They were among a final group of 19 Yemeni Jews who were spirited out of their war-torn country in recent days, the Jewish Agency for Israelannounced on Monday, bringing a monthslong clandestine rescue operation to a close.”
    You could be paid, handsomely, for a new article with a title such as “Where have the Yemeni Jews gone”.Recommend

  • Jamil M Chaudri

    Mr Tahir, are you sure you are a member of Faculty at Bahria University. Somebody told me that your name does not appear on their Humanities and Social Sciences Faculty List. I was intrigued by such an assertion, so I tried to check it. The site: certainly does not have you on the list. Perhaps Bahria maintains two lists, one for public announcements and one for salary cheques.Recommend

  • Ali Khan

    The ‘Star of David’ that is mentioned, was a common adornment on buildings in Rawalpindi. That star alone does not make a building a Jewish place. The Rawalpindi Railway Station had many such stars. Many houses had them. The Swastika was also common. That does not make a building a Nazi head quarters. There should be documentary or anecdotal evidence in order to confirm. This could very well be accurateRecommend

  • Waseem Bahadur

    unfortunately some of our major cities Rawalpindi, Lahore, Peshawar, Karachi and others lost their history with time due to lack of interest of the authorities. Countries are promoting their histories through preserving and opening them for public and create an economic activity. These places should be restored and preserved. Their old muhalas are great attraction.Recommend

  • Sabih Nawab

    you are referring to Iqbal Center where there is a famous Methai Shop Dilpasand now. There was also a Jewish/Parsi’s Theosophical Hall right across Radio Pakistan.Recommend

  • Yousuf

    Heritage should be preserved and communities should be protectedRecommend