History of Turkish Jews
the midnight of August 2nd 1492, when Columbus
embarked on what would become his most famous
expedition to the New World, his fleet departed
from the relatively unknown seaport of Palos
because the shipping lanes of Cadiz and Seville
were clogged with Sephardic Jews expelled from
Spain by the Edict of Queen Isabella
and King Ferdinand of Spain.
Jews forced either to convert to Christianity or
to "leave" the country under menace "they
dare not return... not so much as to take a step
on them not trespass upon them in any manner
whatsoever" left their land, their
property, their belongings all that was theirs
and familiar to them rather than abandon their
beliefs, their traditions, their heritage.
the faraway Ottoman Empire, one ruler extended
an immediate welcome to the persecuted Jews of
Spain, the Sephardim. He was the Sultan
1992, the Discovery year for all those connected
to the American continents - North, Central and
South - world Jewry was concerned with
commemorating not only the expulsion, but also
seven centuries of the Jewish life in Spain,
flourishing under Muslim rule, and the 500th
anniversary of the official welcome extended by
the Ottoman Empire in 1492.
humanitarianism demonstrated at that time, was
consistent with the beneficence and goodwill
traditionally displayed by the Turkish
government and people towards those of different
creeds, cultures and backgrounds. Indeed, Turkey
could serve as a model to be emulated by any
nation which finds refugees from any of the four
corners of the world standing at its doors.
1992, Turkish Jewry celebrated not only the
anniversary of this gracious welcome, but also
the remarkable spirit of tolerance and
acceptance which has characterized the whole
Jewish experience in Turkey. The events being
planned - symposiums, conferences, concerts,
exhibitions, films and books, restoration of
ancient Synagogues etc - commemorated the
longevity and prosperity of the Jewish community.
As a whole, the celebration aimed to demonstrate
the richness and security of life Jews have
found in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish
Republic over seven centuries, and showed that
indeed it is not impossible for people of
different creeds to live together peacefully
under one flag.
History Predating 1492
history of the Jews in Anatolia started many
centuries before the migration of Sephardic Jews.
Remnants of Jewish settlements from the 4th
century B.C. have been uncovered in the Aegean
region. The historian Josephus Flavius relates
that Aristotle "met Jewish people with
whom he had an exchange of views during his trip
across Asia Minor."
synagogue ruins have been found in Sardis,
Miletus, Priene, Phocee, etc. dating from
220 B.C. and traces of other Jewish settlements
have been discovered near Bursa, in the
southeast and along the Aegean, Mediterranean
and Black Sea coasts. A bronze column found in
Ankara confirms the rights the Emperor Augustus
accorded the Jews of Asia Minor.
communities in Anatolia flourished and continued
to prosper through the Turkish conquest. When
the Ottomans captured Bursa in 1326 and made it
their capital, they found a Jewish community
oppressed under Byzantine rule. The Jews
welcomed the Ottomans as saviours. Sultan Orhan
gave them permission to build the Etz
ha-Hayyim (Tree of Life) synagogue
which remained in service until nineteen forties.
in the 14th century, when the Ottomans had
established their capital at Edirne, Jews from
Europe, including Karaites, migrated there. (1)
Similarly, Jews expelled from Hungary in 1376,
from France by Charles VI in September 1394, and
from Sicily early in the 15th century found
refuge in the Ottoman Empire. In the 1420s, Jews
from Salonika, then under Venetian control, fled
to Edirne. (2)
rule was much kinder than Byzantine rule had
been. In fact, from the early 15th century on,
the Ottomans actively encouraged Jewish
immigration. A letter sent by Rabbi Yitzhak
Sarfati (from Edirne) to Jewish communities
in Europe in the first part of the century "invited
his co-religionists to leave the torments they
were enduring in Christiandom and to seek safety
and prosperity in Turkey". (3)
Mehmet II "the Conqueror" took
Constantinople in 1453, he encountered an
oppressed Romaniot (Byzantine) Jewish community
which welcomed him with enthusiasm. Sultan
Mehmet II issued a proclamation to all Jews "...
to ascend the site of the Imperial Throne, to
dwell in the best of the land, each beneath his
Dine and his fig tree, with silver and with gold,
with wealth and with cattle...". (4)
1470, Jews expelled from Bavaria by Ludvig X
found refuge in the Ottoman Empire. (5)
Haven for Sephardic Jews
Bayazid II's offer of refuge gave new hope to
the persecuted Sephardim. In 1492, the Sultan
ordered the governors of the provinces of the
Ottoman Empire "not to refuse the Jews
entry or cause them difficulties, but to receive
them cordially"; (6) According to
Bernard Lewis, "the Jews were not just
permitted to settle in the Ottoman lands, but
were encouraged, assisted and sometimes even
Aboab attributes to Bayazid II the famous remark
that "the Catholic monarch Ferdinand
was wrongly considered as wise, since he
impoverished Spain by the expulsion of the Jews,
and enriched Turkey". (7)
arrival of the Sephardim altered the structure
of the community and the original group of
Romaniote Jews was totally absorbed.
the centuries an increasing number of European
Jews, escaping persecution in their native
countries, settled in the Ottoman Empire. In
1537 the Jews expelled from Apulia (Italy) after
the city fell under Papal control, in 1542 those
expelled from Bohemia by King Ferdinand found a
safe haven in the Ottoman Empire. (8) In March
of 1556, Sultan Suleyman "the Magnificent"
wrote a letter to Pope Paul IV asking for the
immediate release of the Ancona Marranos, which
he declared to be Ottoman citizens. The Pope had
no other alternative than to release them, the
Ottoman Empire being the "Super Power"
of those days.
1477, Jewish households in Istanbul numbered
1647 or 11% of the total. Half a century later,
8070 Jewish houses were listed in the city.
Life of Ottoman Jews
300 years following the expulsion, the
prosperity and creativity of the Ottoman Jews
rivalled that of the Golden Age of Spain. Four
Turkish cities: Istanbul, Izmir, Safed and
Salonica became the centres of Sephardic Jewry.
of the court physicians were Jews: Hakim
Yakoub, Joseph and Moshe Hamon, Daniel Fonseca,
Gabriel Buenaventura to name only very few.
of the most significant innovations that Jews
brought to the Ottoman Empire was the printing
press. In 1493, only one year after their
expulsion from Spain, David & Samuel ibn
Nahmias established the first Hebrew
printing press in Istanbul.
diplomacy was often carried out by Jews. Joseph
Nasi, appointed the Duke of Naxos, was the
former Portuguese Marrano Joao Miques. Another
Portuguese Marrano, Alvaro Mendes, was
named Duke of Mytylene in return of his
diplomatic services to the Sultan. Salamon
ben Nathan Eskenazi arranged the first
diplomatic ties with the British Empire. Jewish
women such as Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi
"La Seniora" and Esther Kyra
exercised considerable influence in the Court.
the free air of the Ottoman Empire, Jewish
literature flourished. Joseph Caro
compiled the Shulhan Arouh. Shlomo
haLevi Alkabes composed the Lekhah Dodi
a hymn which welcomes the Sabbath according to
both Sephardic and Ashkenazi ritual. Jacob
Culi began to write the famous MeAm
Loez. Rabbi Abraham ben Isaac Assa became
known as the father of Judeo-Spanish literature.
October 27,1840 Sultan Abdulmecid issued his
famous ferman concerning the "Blood
Libel Accusation" saying: "...
and for the love we bear to our subjects, we
cannot permit the Jewish nation, whose innocence
for the crime alleged against them is evident,
to be worried and tormented as a consequence of
accusations which have not the least foundation
Ottoman tradition, each non-Muslim religious
community was responsible for its own
institutions, including schools. In the early
19th century, Abraham de Camondo
established a modern school, "La Escola",
causing a serious conflict between conservative
and secular rabbis which was only settled by the
intervention of Sultan Abdulaziz in 1864. The
same year the Takkanot haKehilla (By-laws
of the Jewish Community) was published, defining
the structure of the Jewish community.
important event in the life of Ottoman Jews in
the 17th century was the schism led by Sabetay
Sevi, the pseudo Messiah who lived in Izmir
and later adopted Islam with his followers.
and a New Republic
at reform of the Ottoman Empire led to the
proclamation of the Hatt-ý Humayun in
1856, which made all Ottoman citizens, Muslim
and non-Muslim alike, equal under the law. As a
result, leadership of the community began to
shift away from the religious figure to secular
War I brought to an end the glory of the Ottoman
Empire. In its place rose the young Turkish
Republic. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk was
elected president, the Caliphate was abolished
and a secular constitution was adopted.
in 1923 by the Treaty of Lausanne as a
fully independent state within its present day
borders, Turkey accorded minority rights to the
three principal non-Muslim religious minorities
and permitted them to carry on with their own
schools, social institutions and funds. In 1926,
on the eve of Turkey's adoption of the Swiss
Civil Code, the Jewish Community renounced its
minority status on personal rights.
the tragic days of World War II, Turkey managed
to maintain its neutrality. As early as 1933
Ataturk invited numbers of prominent German
Jewish professors to flee Nazi Germany and
settle in Turkey. Before and during the war
years, these scholars contributed a great deal
to the development of the Turkish university
system. During World War II Turkey served as a
safe passage for many Jews fleeing the horrors
of the Nazism. While the Jewish communities of
Greece were wiped out almost completely by
Hitler, the Turkish Jews remained secure.
Several Turkish diplomats, Ambassadors Behic
Erkin and Numan Menemencioglu;
Consul-Generals Fikret Sefik Ozdoganci,
Bedii Arbel, Selahattin Ulkumen;
Consuls Namik Kemal Yolga and Necdet Kent,
just to name only few, made every effort to save
the Turkish Jews in the Nazi occupied countries,
from the Holocaust. They succeeded. Mr. Salahattin
Ulkumen, Consul General at Rhodes in
1943-1944, was recognized by the Yad Vashem as a
Righteous Gentile "Hassid Umot ha'Olam"
in June 1990. Turkey continues to be a shelter,
a haven for all those who have to flee the
dogmatism, intolerance and persecution.
present size of Jewish Community is estimated at
around 25.000. The vast majority live in
Istanbul, with a community of about 2.500 in
Izmir and other smaller groups located in Adana,
Ankara, Antakya, Bursa, Canakkale, Kirklareli
etc. Sephardim make up 96% of the Community,
with Ashkenazim accounting for the rest. There
are about 100 Karaites, an independent group who
does not accept the authority of the Chief
Jews are legally represented, as they have been
for many centuries, by the Hahambasi, the Chief
Rabbi. He is assisted by a religious Council
made up of five Hahamim. Fifty Lay Counsellors
look after the secular affairs of the Community
and an Executive Committee of fourteen runs the
daily matters. Representatives of Jewish
foundations and institutions meet four times a
year as a so-called ??think tank?? to exchange
opinions on different subjects concerning the
are classified as religious foundations (Vakifs).
There are 18 synagogues in use in Istanbul today.
Three are in service in holiday resorts, during
summer only. Some of them are very old,
especially Ahrida Synagogue in the
Balat area, which dates from middle15th century.
The 15th and 16th century Haskoy and Kuzguncuk
cemeteries in Istanbul are still in use today.
Museum of Turkish Jews?? (Türk Musevileri Müzesi),
the first such Museum in Turkey, has been
inaugurated on November 25,2001. (Details at the
end of this article)
Language and Social Life
Jewish children attend state schools or private
Turkish or foreign language schools, and many
are enrolled in the universities. Additionally,
the Community maintains in Istanbul a school
complex including elementary and secondary
schools for around 700 students. Turkish is the
language of instruction, and Hebrew is taught 3
to 5 hours a week.
younger Jews speak Turkish as their native
language, the over-70-years-old generation
is more at home speaking in French or Judeo-Spanish
(Ladino). A conscious effort is spent to
preserve the heritage of Judeo-Spanish.
many years Turkish Jews have had their own press.
La Buena Esperansa and La Puerta
del Oriente started in Izmir in 1843 and Or
Israel was first published in Istanbul ten
years later. Now one newspaper survives: SALOM
(Shalom), a fourteen to sixteen pages
weekly in Turkish with one page in Judeo-Spanish.
Community Calendar (Halila) is published by the
Chief Rabbinate every year and distributed free
of charge to all those who have paid their dues
(Kisba) to the welfare bodies. The Community
cannot levy taxes, but can request donations.
Jewish hospitals, the 98 bed Or-Ahayim in
Istanbul and the 22 bed KaratasHospital
in Izmir, serve the Community. Both cities have
homes for the aged (Moshav Zekinim) and several
welfare associations to assist the poor, the
sick, the needy children and orphans.
clubs containing libraries, cultural and sports
facilities, discotheques give young people the
chance to meet.
Jewish Community is of course a very small group
in Turkey today, considering that the total
population - 99% Muslim - exceeds 67 million.
But in spite of their number the Jews have
distinguished themselves. There are several
Jewish professors teaching at the Universities
of Istanbul and Ankara, and many Turkish Jews
are prominent in business, industry, liberal
professions and journalism.
Mark Alan Epstein, "The
Ottoman Jewish Communities and their role in the
15th and 16th centuries"
Joseph Nehama, "Histoire
des Israelites de Salonique"
Bernard Lewis, "The
Jews of Islam"
Encyclopedia Judaica, Volume
16 page 1532
Avram Galante, "Histoire
des Juifs d'lstanbul", Volume 2
Abraham Danon, Review
Yossef Daath No.4
Immanual Aboab, "A
Consolacam as Tribulacoes de Israel, III Israel"
H. Graetz, History of the