NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – In 1880, a Russian military general welcomed refuge-seeking Mennonites to Tashkent, the capital of today’s Uzbekistan. In 2007, 127 years later, an Uzbek historian welcomed to Tashkent a Mennonite tour group looking for traces of their spiritual ancestors.
James Juhnke, professor emeritus of history at Bethel College, will present an illustrated program on the 2007 tour, which included the former Mennonite colonies of Chortitza and Molotschna in Ukraine as well as Uzbekistan, at Bethel’s Kauffman Museum Sunday, July 8, at 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. This is part of the museum’s regular Sunday-Afternoon-at-the-Museum programming. The talk will be repeated because of limited seating in the museum auditorium.
Juhnke along with Bethel associate professor of business and economics Sharon Eicher led the group of 25, about half of which had ancestors who were part of the “Great Trek” of 1880.
When the Mennonite pilgrims from Ukraine, traveling by wagon train, arrived in Central Asia, their venture was beset with disputes over group leadership and religious doctrine. Most of the followers of the visionary Claas Epp Jr. chose to move on to establish a settlement and await the Second Coming of Christ, which they anticipated toward the end of that decade.
In the spring of 1884, this group established a permanent (for about half a century) village near Khiva in the western part of today’s Uzbekistan, calling it Ak Metchet (White Mosque). The 2007 tour group traced the tortured route of Claas Epp’s followers from Tashkent across the “Hungry Steppe” to Samarkand, to the border of Bukhara at Serabulak, across Bukhara and the Kyzl Kum desert to Khiva, ending at Ak Metchet. Along the way, they visited sites where their spiritual ancestors had been.
Although no buildings remain standing from Mennonite settlement days at Ak Metchet, a shallow well and two fruit trees planted by Mennonites make the site clearly identifiable.
Local Uzbek villagers retain good memories of the Mennonite settlement and have in their homes many settlement artifacts such as chests, sewing machines, kitchen utensils and tools. The Mennonites, they said, were known as hard-working, honest people, excellent agriculturalists and craftsmen. Tour members noted that this positive image of Mennonites stands in contrast to North American stories that portray Ak Metchet primarily as an episode of failed millennialism.
In his July 8 talk, “Coming to terms with the Mennonite Great Trek,” Juhnke will offer more details and his own thoughts on the tour. The two identical presentations are free and open to the public. Kauffman Museum is located at 27th and North Main in North Newton. Call 316-283-1612 for more information.
Regular museum hours are 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, and 1:30-4:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. The museum is closed on Mondays and major holidays. Admission to the museum, which also includes admission to the permanent exhibits “Of Land and People,” “Mirror of the Martyrs” and “Mennonite Immigrant Furniture,” is $3 for adults and $1.50 for children ages 6-16. More information is available by calling the museum or visiting its Web site, kauffman.bethelks.edu.