The Myth of the Ten Lost Tribes

Source Museum of the Jewish People
An imaginary depiction of Nathan of Gaza leading the Tribes
of Israel from Exile to the Land of Israel.
From a broadsheet, Germany, 1666
The Oster Documentation Center, ANU – Museum of the Jewish People

Haim F. Ghiuzeli

Media – After the death of King Solomon (d.928 BCE), his realm was divided into the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judea. The territory of the Kingdom of Israel covered most of the central and northern Land of Israel and was inhabited by descendants of ten of the original twelve tribes that conquered the land of Canaan under the leadership of Joshua: Asher, Dan, Ephraim, Gad, Issachar, Manasseh, Naphtali, Reuben, Simeon, and Zebulon. The Kingdom of Judea centred on Jerusalem and the Judean highlands and comprised the remaining two tribes of Judah and Benjamin. The Kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BCE, and in line with the general policy of the Assyrians, its inhabitants were deported to other regions of their empire. The Ten Tribes either assimilated into other peoples and tribes inside the Assyrian empire or were incorporated into the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, when they too were deported to Babylonia, following the capture of Jerusalem by the Babylonians under Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE (Ezekiel: 37:21-23).

Bene Israel family in Bombay, India, c.1890
Photo: Carmel Berkson, India
The Oster Documentation Center, ANU – Museum of the Jewish People
Carmel Berkson Collection, India

The mysterious disappearance of the Ten Tribes of Israel nurtured the belief according to which their location will eventually be discovered and they will return to the Land of Israel, as the ancestors of the modern Jews, the tribes of Judah and Benjamin did when the Babylonian empire was destroyed by the Persians. This belief had its roots in the interpretations of several biblical texts, especially I Chronicles (5:26) and various prophecies (Isaiah 11:11-12, among others) as well some references found in the Apocrypha (II Esdras 13:39-50).

The fate of the Ten Tribes was discussed by the sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud. Their opinions diverged between that expressed by Rabbi Akiba, who believed that the Ten Tribes would not return, and that of Rabbi Eliezer, who argued that the Ten Tribes would eventually return (Mishnah, Sanhedrin 10:3; for additional references see Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 147b, and Numbers Rabba 9:7). The supposed location of the Ten Lost Tribes became a subject of much speculation in itself. Gradually a legend was formed that claimed that the Ten Lost Tribes live in a region situated beyond the miraculous and impassable river of Sambatyon who flows for the six days of the week and stops on Shabbat, when the Ten Tribes are forbidden to travel. References to this theme may be found in Jewish classical texts (Genesis Rabba 73:6; Sanhedrin 10:6/29b). The legend is also mentioned by Josephus Flavius (Wars: 7:96-97) and the Greek author Pliny the Elder (Historia Naturalis 31:24).

Middle Ages

The myth of the Ten Lost Tribes prompted many Jews and non-Jews to actively search for the location of the Ten Tribes as their return to the Land of Israel was recognized as one of the missions that would be accomplished in the Messianic days and a sign of the general redemption and salvation. During the Middle Ages the best known examples of statements about the location of the Ten Lost Tribes belong to Eldad ha-Dani, a 9th century Jewish traveler who asserted to be himself a descendant of the Tribe of Dani. According to Eldad ha-Dani, the Ten Lost Tribes are located “beyond the rivers of Abyssinia” on the bank of the Sambatyon river. Benjamin of Tudela, a 12th century Jewish traveler from Spain, relates that the Jews of Persia believe that four tribes of Israel – Asher, Dan, Naphtali, and Zebulon, live beyond the river Gozan in the towns of Nissabur, a mountainous country situated at twenty day’s journey.

The medieval speculations about the fate of the lost tribes were enhanced by the Christian traditions about Prester John, a powerful ruler of vast regions believed to be located in either the Far East or in Africa. Most medieval Christian commentaries about Prester John contain references to the Ten Lost Tribes, many of them quite similar to the descriptions of Eldad ha-Dani. R. Obadiah ben Abraham of Bertinoro in northern Italy, a pilgrim to Jerusalem at the end of the 15th century, noted the information he gathered about the Ten Lost Tribes, especially about descendants of the Tribe of Dan who are at constant warfare with Prester John. Obadiah of Bertinoro also claimed that according to the information he received from the Jews of Aden, in Yemen, as well as from Muslim traders, the lost tribes live beyond the Sambatyon River which can be reached after a fifty day’s journey into the desert from Aden.

Modern Era
The interest in the fate of the Ten Lost Tribes received a new impetus from a number of developments, among them the growth of the Kabbalah and of the Jewish mysticism after the 16th century, including various messianic movements, of them that of Shabbetai Zvi (1626-1676) having the strongest impact. The great geographical discoveries and the European contact with previously unknown regions and populations also contributed to an increased interest in the quest for the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. The Jerusalem kabbalist R. Abraham ben Eliezer ha-Levi in a letter from 1528 describes the Jews of Ethiopia as descendants from the tribes of Dan and Gad while in a letter to R. Israel Ashkenazi of Jerusalem there is mention of a man claiming to belong to the Ten Lost Tribes and who testified that the Ten Lost Tribes do not have any knowledge of the Oral Law. David Reubeni, a 16th century Jewish adventurer, managed to be received by Emperor Charles V in Regensburg along with the false messiah Solomon Molcho (1500-1532), and claimed to represent a relative of King Joseph who ruled over the tribes of Reuben, Gad and half Manasseh. David Reubeni eventually died in a Spanish prison in 1538, but his extraordinary story prompted Abraham ben Mordechai Farissol (c.1451-c.1525), the first Jewish author to mention the newly discovered American continent, to dedicate an entire chapter of his tractate to the subject of the Ten Lost Tribes – (Igeret Orhot Olam, Venice, 1586).

In the 17th century, the myth of the Ten Lost Tribes became a central theme of Sabbatean propaganda – Shabbetai Zvi; the false messiah is depicted as commander of the Ten Tribes. At the same period, R. Manasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam (1604-1657) in his book Mikve Israel (Hope of Israel, London, 1652) brings the testimony of the Portuguese crypto-Jew, Aaron Levi (known as Antonio de Montezinos), who claimed to have encountered during his travels to South America (Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela) Indian tribes practicing some Jewish rituals and who allegedly were descendants of the tribes of Reuben and Levi. Manasseh ben Israel used the legend of the lost tribes in pleading successfully for the admission of Jews into England during Oliver Cromwell’s regime.

The 19th century saw a renewed interest into the fate of the Ten Lost Tribes by Jews. Some Jewish communities sent emissaries to search for the Ten Lost Tribes; other seekers were private individuals who undertook to disclose the place of the Ten Lost Tribes. Of them a special mention should be made of Joseph Israel (1818-1864), a Romanian-born Jewish adventurer and great admirer of Benjamin of Tudela to the extent that he changed his name to Benjamin the Second. Joseph Israel traveled between 1845 to 1859, from Istanbul, Turkey, to Egypt, Syria, Land of Israel, Kurdistan, Mesopotamia, Persia, Afghanistan, India, and after 1859 to North America, searching and inquiring everywhere for the Ten Lost Tribes. Joseph Israel met various Jewish communities and collected valuable information about their way of life and traditions. Among the Jewish communities of Asia, he met of the Bene Israel in India who in Israel’s opinion were descendants of of the Ten Tribes.

Jewish travelers from the Land of Israel that set out in search of the Ten Lost Tribes in the 19th century include Rabbi Baruch of Pinsk, who was murdered in Yemen having left Safed in 1830; Isaac son of Chaim Baruch Halevi (d. 1886) who traveled from Tiberias to India hoping to find the Sambatyon river; Ezekiel Asche, a German-born physician who left Jerusalem in 1848 and disappeared in Ethiopia, having traveled through Egypt and Yemen; and Rabbi Moshe Yaffe of Hebron who disappeared during his second visit to India in 1848.

Moses ben Isaac Edrehi (1774-c.1842), a Moroccan-born rabbi and kabbalist who lived for many years in Amsterdam and London and eventually immigrated to the Land of Israel is the author of two works dealing with the quest for the Ten Lost Tribes. Ma’aseh Nissim (originally published in Hebrew and German in Amsterdam in 1809), is a mythical description of the Sambatyon river who was later published in London in 1834, along with An historical account of the ten tribes, settled beyond the river Sambatyon in teh Eastl with many other curious matters relating to the state of the Israelites in various parts of the world, published in London in 1836.

The quest for the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel has been conducted by Jews, Christians and Muslims, in practically every corner of the earth. As a matter of fact during the last centuries this search turned into a theme that has reoccurred occasionally with many Christian travelers, missionaries, authors, and explorers belonging to the Roman Catholic Church as well as to various Protestant denominations. Jewish motifs and beliefs were adopted by non-Jews while Jews accepted some concepts and ideas developed by non-Jewish seekers of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

At various periods, indigenous tribes and peoples over all continents were identified as possible descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes. The supposed offspring of the Ten Lost Tribes have included different ethnic groups living in Asia – Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Burma (Myanmar), Kurdistan, Kashmir, China, Japan; in various countries and regions of West Africa – Mali, Ghana, Nigeria; in Southern Africa – Zimbabwe, Lesotho, South Africa, Mozambique, in East Africa – Uganda, Ethiopia, Eritrea; in Europe – the Celts of the British Isles; in Oceania – the native people of New Zealand; in South America – Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela; and in North America, where various native American nations as well as the Mormons were linked to the Ten Lost Tribes. Occasionally, beliefs disseminated by European travellers, Jews and Christians alike, were eventually adopted by some of the indigenous ethnic groups and sometimes, after being further elaborated by them, evolved into an integral part of their ethos and identity.

The New World

The discovery of the American continent with its various populations generated among the Jews and the Christians alike a number of speculations about the supposed Israelite origin of the American Indians. The Spanish bishop Bartolomeo de Las Casas (1484-1566), a fervent defender of the rights of the native nations of the Americas, forwarded a theory according to which the American Indians were descendants from the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel. The same idea was advanced by some English missionaries. Thomas Thorowgood is his book Jewes in America, or Probabilities that the Americans are of the Race (London, 1650) strongly supported the idea of relating the American Indians to the ancient Israelites. Although Thorowgood’s theory was disputed soon after its publication, among others by members of the clergy, it nevertheless did not loss its attractiveness for other seekers of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel who continued to raise new ideas and speculations in support of the Israelite origin of all or part of Native American nations in both the Northern and Southern American continents.

In South America the hypothesis connecting the American Indians to the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel was advanced mainly by Spanish missionaries and travellers while coming across impressive archaeological remains of the pre-Columbian civilizations or investigating the way of life of local tribes believed to recognize various costumes and beliefs that they related to the Bible and Judaism. Most reports referred to native tribes living in regions that today are part of Bolivia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Peru, but also in the countries of Central America, especially Mexico. Among the prominent expositors of those theories a mention should be made of Father Diego Duran (d.c.1588), author of The Aztecs: the History of the Indies of New Spain, Father Gregorio Garcia and his Origen de Los Indios de la Nuevo Mundo (Madrid, 1729).

The supposed connection between the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel and the Native American nations of North America gained support during the 18th century with the increase of European exploration of the continent. James Adair (1709-1783), a trader with the Indians who lived amongst them for forty years was one of the earliest to believe in a connection between the Ten Lost Tribes and the various Indian tribes of North America, a theory that he formulated in his History of the American Indians (London, 1775). At the same period, this theory also received the support by Charles Beaty, a missionary to the territories west of the Allegheny Mountains, who detailed it in his Journal of a Two Months Tour with a View of Promoting Religion among the Frontier Inhabitants of Pennsylvania, and of Introducing Christianity among the Indians to the Westward of the Allegheny Mountains, (London, 1768).

In the 19th century a connection with the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel was made again by the believers of the Jesus Christ Church of the Latter-Day Saints. Believing to be descendants of Israel, the Mormons identify themselves with all tribes of Israel and while most are regarded as sons of Joseph through his son Ephraim, some see themselves as belonging to other tribes of Israel.

Other 19th century supporters of the link between the Ten Lost Tribes and Native Americans include E. Boudinot (1740-1821), author of A Star in the West, or A humble attempt to discover the long lost ten tribes of Israel, preparatory to their return to their beloved city, Jerusalem. (Trenton, NJ, 1816), Ethan Smith (1762-1849), author of View of the Hebrews (Poultney, VT, 1825), Israel Worsley (1768-1836) whose View of the American Indians, Their General Character, Customs, Language, Public Festivals, Religious Rites, and Traditions Showing Them to Be Descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel was published in London in 1828. Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785-1851), a Jewish American journalist, best remembered today for his plan to establish Ararat, a Jewish state in North America, was another follower of the theory linking the Ten Lost Tribes to the native nations of America. Noah published his ideas in Discourse on The Evidences of the American Indians being Descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel delivered before the Mercantile Library Association, Clinton Hall (New York, 1837).

Central Asia
The traditional quest for the Ten Lost Tribes centered for many hundreds of years in the regions of Central Asia, close to the borders of the Assyrian Empire of the Antiquity. As a result many ethnic groups living in the region of the Caucasus, Central Asia, and Afghanistan, have long been described as descendants from the Ten Lost Tribes. Giles Fletcher (1548-1611), an English poet and envoy at the Russian court of Moscow in the second half of the 16th century, disseminated a theory according to which the Tatars of Central Asia are descendants from the Ten Lost Tribes. Fletcher’s theory continued medieval beliefs about the origin of the Tatars, first mentioned in the chronicle of the 13th century English monk, Matthew of Paris (d.1259), and again in a work by Thomas Bradwardin (1290-1349). The supposed connection between the Ten Lost Tribes and the Tatars continued to be entertained in the 18th century by Aaron Hill, another Englishman.

Southern Russia and the areas around the Caspian Sea were at the center of the Khazar Empire of the early Middle Ages. The conversion to Judaism of some Khazar rulers served as basis for many speculations about a possible connection between this people of Turkish-Mongol origin and the Ten Lost Tribes. Moreover, Jewish communities in the Caucasus like the Jews of Georgia or the Jews of Dagestan, also known as the Mountain Jews, were connected to the Ten Lost Tribes. These theories were advanced in the 19th century by Reverend Jacob Samuel, a Jew converted to Christianity who became a missionary to the Jews of India, Persia, and Arabia.

Following his contacts with the Jews of Dagestan, Jacob Samuel claimed that they are descendants from the Ten Lost Tribes, although the Jews of Dagestan themselves did not have such a belief, as stated by Jacob Samuel himself. His theories were published in An appeal on behalf of the Jews scattered in India, Persia, and Arabia (London, 1840) However, the Jews of Dagestan began to adopt this theory towards the end of the 19th century, when again they were regarded as descendants from the Ten Lost Tribes, this time by Russian Jews who started traveling and settling in the Caucasus.

Various tribes of Afghanistan, especially the Pathans, have received perhaps the largest amount of attention from the seekers of Ten Lost Tribes. The theory was originally advanced by European travelers to the region, but it was later adopted by some Jews. They believe that Afghanistan is probably the most suitable place for a search for the Ten Lost Tribes, and even by some local Muslim inhabitants of Afghanistan. The earliest theory about the Ten Lost Tribes origin of Afghan tribes was lanced already towards the end of the 18th century by Sir William Jones (1746-1794), an early researcher of Indian studies, in an introduction that he wrote to the English translation of the “Secrets of the Afghans” by Henry Vasittart (1732-1770), the British governor of Bengal and one of the first Europeans with an interest in Afghan history and traditions. This theory found a strong supporter in Henry Walter Bellew (1834-1892), an Indian born English surgeon with a distinguished career in the British administration of India. Bellew elaborated extensively about the possible connection between various ethnic groups of Afghanistan and the Ten Lost Tribes and tried to prove his assumptions by suggesting a likeness between biblical and historic place names, Hebrew words and given names and local place names in Afghanistan and some words from the languages and dialects spoken in that country. He also advanced a supposed similarity of customs and habits between the two peoples and, typically for a 19th century researcher, even endeavored to establish a resemblance between the physiognomy of Afghan tribes and that of the “Jewish type”. Bellew was succeeded by many travelers and explorers to Afghanistan and the neighboring areas who occasionally suggested new elements that could enhance the belief in a link between the tribes of Afghanistan and the Ten Lost Tribes.


The Japanese have been considered by some early travelers and explorers to be descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes. This theory was formulated by N. McLeod, a Scottish missionary who arrived in Japan in 1867. McLeod detailed his observations, interpretations and speculations in Epitome of the Ancient History of Japan, a book published in Nagasaki in 1875. He described what he thought to be proofs of the origin of the Japanese people from the Ten Lost Tribes. He endeavored in an elaborate way to reconstruct and explain the ancient Japanese history according to his interpretation of the Bible and its sacred history. McLeod’s ideas were adopted by a number of European Christian missionaries, but they also became popular with some Japanese, especially among those who converted to Christianity. Bishop Juji Nakada (1869-1939), of the Holiness Church Movement, Dr. Zen’ichiro Oyabe, and Dr. Chikao Fujisawa, a lecturer at Nihon University, were among the most outspoken supporters of the theory linking the origin of the Japanese people to the Ten Lost Tribes. They described their findings and beliefs in books published in Japan during the first half of the 20tyh century.

British Isles
The supposed connection between the people of the British Isles and the Ten Lost Tribes started with the ideas of Richard Brothers (1757-1824). This Canadian-born, self-proclaimed prophet, who spent his later years of life incarcerated in a lunatic asylum, founded a millenarian movement that towards the end of the 18th century attracted many adherents in England. According to Brothers, salvation would include the Jews’ return to the Land of Israel, including that of the Ten Lost Tribes. In his opinion descendants of the Ten Lost Tribes can be found among the inhabitants of the British Isles. This idea was later on developed by John Finleyson, a Scottish lawyer, in a book he published in 1849, by Ralph Wedgwood, in a separate book published in 1814, and William Henry Poole (b. 1820) in Anglo-Israel; The Saxon race proved to be the lost tribes of Israel (Toronto, 1889). However, it was John Wilson (d.1871), an Irishman, who turned these ideas into the movement of British Israelism. He and his followers strove to discover and describe the historic connection between the Ten Lost Tribes and the British people, via various waves of migrations and immigrations from Central Asia to the north shores of the Black Sea and ultimately to Britain. The movement consequently gained many adherents in Britain and from there it spread to other English speaking countries, especially to the US. British Israelism continued to flourish in the first half of the 20th century and still has followers in many countries.

Jewish Communities and the Ten Lost Tribes
Traditions and legends speaking about a supposed origin from the Ten Lost Tribes can be found among various Jewish communities in the Diaspora and immigrants to Israel. The contacts that could be established between European Jewish communities and non-European Jewish communities in Asia and Africa in the modern ages, led to an increased curiosity into the origin and traditions of some Jewish communities living at the outskirts of the traditional area of settlement of the Jewish communities during the Middle Ages and early modern times. For instance, the Jews of Bukhara, in Central Asia, a region that at the beginning of the 19th century came under Russian domination, received in 1802 a letter from the Jews of Shklov, in Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire, asking them whether they were descendants from the Ten Lost Tribes.

One of the traditions of the Bene Israel community of India asserts that this community descends from the tribe of Judah, while according to a concurrent tradition the Bene Israel are descendants from the tribe of Zebulon. The Jews of Cochin, India, although themselves do not uphold a belief in an Israelite origin, were occasionally described as descendants from the Ten Lost Tribes by early travelers, Jews and non-Jews alike, who visited them in the early 19th century.

In the Caucasus traditions and beliefs concerning possible origin from the Ten Lost Tribes have been documented among the Jews of Georgia, one of the oldest Jewish communities in the Diaspora.

In the late 18th century some members of the Karaite community of Crimea tried to prove that they are descendants from the Ten Lost Tribes and that they settled in that country already in the 7th century BCE. Their aim was to obtain tax and military exemptions from the Czarist authorities by arguing that unlike Rabbanic Jews, they were not guilty of the death of Jesus. The most prominent exponent of this theory was Abraham ben Samuel Firkovich (1786-1874), a Karaite scholar who, in his endeavors to prove the antiquity of the Crimean Karaite community, forged documents and archeological findings.

Perhaps the best example of traditions upholding beliefs of an origin from the Ten Lost Tribes can be found among the Jews of Ethiopia. The Beta Israel community of Ethiopia regarded themselves as descendants from the tribe of Dan. It should be pointed out that when Rabbi Ovadiah Yossef, the Sephardi Chief Rabbi of Israel, recognized the Jewishness of the Jews of Ethiopia in 1973, he too emphasised that they were descendants of the lost tribe of Dan.

The myth of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel is also a recurrent theme of the folklore of numerous Jewish communities in the Diaspora. Legends describing the fate of the Ten Lost Tribes, people who either belong to them or met them, the location and the features of the Sambatyon river as well as a belief in their eventual return to the Land of Israel are found among the traditions of the Jews of Morocco, Yemen, and Eastern Europe, among others.

Extending the Quest

The major events in the story of the Jewish people in the 20th century added a new impetus to the quest for the Ten Lost Tribes. The increased emigration and dispersion of Jews among practically all corners of the earth, the Holocaust, and the Establishment of the State of Israel and its subsequent absorption of Jewish mass immigration from all countries were all seen by many, Jews and non-Jews alike, as episodes of the Divine plan for the final redemption and salvation.

According to their view there will never be a true salvation without the return of the Ten Lost Tribes to the Land of Israel. Therefore the search for the Ten Lost Tribes is continuing those very days with new places and ethnic groups coming under the scrutiny of contemporary explorers and emissaries. Of them, Amishav (“My people returns”, in Hebrew), a Jerusalem based organization under the leadership of Rabbi Eliyahu Avihail has been particularly active in sending emissaries and researchers to the most remote regions of Asia, Africa, and Latin America in the search for the descendants of Ten Lost Tribes of Israel.

The Exhibition Beyond the Sambatyon: The Myth of the Ten Lost Tribes was shown at ANU – Museum of the Jewish People (then Beit Hatfutsot) from August to November 1991. Guest Curator: Dr. Shalva Weil; Curator-in-Charge: Sarah Harel Hoshen.

Exhibition Catalogue: Beyond the Sambatyon: The Myth of the Ten Lost Tribes. Feature essay: Dr. Shalva Weil. Editors: Sarah Harel-Hoshen, Yossi Avner. English translations: Chaya Galay, Simcha Shtull-Trauring. Exhibition catalog in English [of the exhibition held at Beth Hatefutsoth, Tel Aviv August 1991]. 1 v., 104 p., illus. (some col), 27 cm. Tel Aviv: Beth Hatefutsoth, Nahum Goldmann Museum of the Jewish Diaspora, 1991.

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