Jewish History in Turkey

Jews has long been living in this soil. Southeastern and Eastern Turkey have same sites that are mentioned in the Testament.

Garden of Eden is in Eastern Turkey. The Rivers Tigris and Euphrates originates from Eastern Turkey.

Mount Ararat (Ağrı) that Noah’s ark came to rest on is in the eastern corner of Turkey near by borders of Armenia, Azerbaijan and Iran.

Haran (Harran) where Abraham (at that time Abram) came from Ur, settled in there and set out for the land of Canaan is in Southeastern Turkey nearby the Syrian border.

Carchemish (Karkamış) on the Euphrates is in Southeastern Turkey nearby the Syrian border too.

Neco, king of Egypt went up to fight at Charchemish on the Euphrates and Josiah, King of Judah marched out to meet him in battle. Egyptian archers shot King Josiah and he was taken to Jerusalem and died.

The Babylonian Emperor Nebuchadnezzar II occupied Jerusalem in 587 B.C. and carried into exile to Babylon the remnant, who escaped from the sword. Earlier Assyrian Emperors Sargon II in 722-721 B.C. and his son Sennacherib in 701 B.C. had invaded Samaria, Israel and Judea and some Israelites were resettled in Assyrian Empire. Babylonian captivity ended with the invasion of Persian Emperor Cyrus II in 539 B.C.

Assyrian and Babylonian Empires included southeastern part of Turkey as well. Especially the areas nearby the Iraqi and Syrian border were the essential areas of them. That is why when Assyrians and Babylonians took the people of Israel, Judah away they scattered them in southeastern Turkey too.

Under Persian Empire that was from Northern Greece to India and Central Asia and Asia Minor was essential part of the Empire. We can believe that some Jews lived all over the centers of the Empire. Also after the Persian liberty, many Jews did not return to their original homeland.  They stayed where they were for decades or centuries already.

The campaign of Alexander the Great started after crossing of Dardanelle in 334 B.C. and all the lands under Persian control became under Macedonian rule. His empire did not survive long and Kingdom of Seleucids took its place in the centre. Babylon, then Seleucia and then Antioch in Turkey became capital of it. Along with Greek, Aramaic was the administrative language of the state. Jews resisted the Hellenization other wise they lived in the Hellenistic countries peacefully.

Western Turkey became part of the Roman soil in 133 B.C. and Roman general Pompei invaded Antioch in 64 B.C. and Jerusalem in following year. For long centuries, Jews lived under Roman rule and there were Jewish population all over Asia Minor but especially in western and southern part.

Some of those Jews took part in trade very successfully and they became important representatives of their cities. This brought them citizenship. Jews in diaspora was in peace but in their homeland they were majority and the knowledge of their early kingdoms motivated them for reestablishment of their own kingdom. Pagan acts of the Roman rule were another reason for various uprisings. First wide uprising was in 66 A.D. and in 70 A.D.; Romans stopped it by destroying Jerusalem in the time of Vespasian.

In 133 A.D. Hadrian destroyed Bar Kochba uprising and they were not allowed to live in Jerusalem anymore. These unrests in Judaea caused more immigration of the Jews to the trade centers of the Asia Minor.

Jewish element in all over Roman trade centers became more and more essential. Some people of Asia Minor were converted into Judaism and they started to follow Mosaic Law. Many rich communities were established. Many Jews were born Roman citizen already for generations. Sardis Synagogue is a good example of this period. Interestingly we can see lion statues and beautiful mosaics on the floors and walls.

Meanwhile Christian preachers were all over Asia Minor. Paul, Peter, John, Andrew, Philip were busy in Asia Minor. Because they were all Hebrews, they went to the Synagogues in the trade centers of Asia Minor. Many Jews were converted into Christianity.

Under Caracalla in 212 A.D. all free inhabitants -certainly Jews as well- of the provinces received full Roman citizenship.

In 4th century, Christianity became state religion and Jews became the objects of public hatred. Their status became lower to lesser citizenship. Along with pagan temples, many synagogues were either destroyed or converted into churches. There were forced convertments time to time. These made Roman Jews (Romaniot) population lesser.

Nevertheless, this policy was not that successful in southeastern part of Turkey near to Syria. There were unrest of the Jews and persecution of the Byzantine rule in the area. Because of this, the Jews of the region collaborated with the new invading powers along with the monophysite Christians of the area: First Sassanids and then Arabs.

After 11th century, Turks conquered Turkey and many tribes and then artisans moved from Central Asia to Turkey.

As Hazarite Kingdom suggests, there were Jewish Turkic tribal people and as Marco Polo explains us there were Jewish city folk in the cities. Semarkand had 50.000 Jews at that time.
We must believe along with Muslim, Christian and pagan Turkic Iranian and Mongolian people some Jewish people came and settled in Turkey.

Starting with the end of the 11th century Crusader campaigns made their route into Turkey. Crusaders did not attack just Islam. In western Europe where they started their march, in Balkan Peninsula where they entered Eastern Roman (Byzantine) soil, in Asia Minor, in Syria and in Palestine they attack to the Jews along with other Christians, from other sects. (Even Catholic Hungarians were not saved.

When Ottoman power was established is Asia Minor and Balkans Romaniot Jews were still a tiny minority. According to Benjamin of Tudela, a Jewish traveler in 12th century there were 2500 Jews in Constantinople.  At the stage of establishment of an empire Ottoman capitals BursaEdirne and finally Istanbul had small but influential Jewish communities. Jewish synagogue down to Bursa castle shows traces of this period. Even the physician of Mehmet II the Conqueror of Constantinople was a Jew.

Some Jewish communities from other cities came and settled in these towns, finally in Istanbul. In addition, some Ashkenazi Jews escaped Ottoman soil from Europe because of the persecutions.

The Reconquista of Isabella and Ferdinand in Spain caused world Jewry and Turkey a lot. Muslims and Jews of Spain were told to either be converted or leave the country. Many were converted but Inquisition followed them for centuries, many escaped to Portuguese but a few years later, they were expelled too. Big numbers moved to Ottoman territory in 1492 and following years. The Beyazid II welcomed them. In a few decades, they flourished and became important party of the Ottoman society.

Spain was called Sepharad in Hebrew. That is why this community came from Spain called Sephardic Jews. They assimilated Romaniot Jews that is why there is not any separate Romaniot congregation in modern time. In following decades, more converted Jews escaped from Spain, Portugal, Sicily and Italy and rejected their forced Christian religion.

Moshe Amon, Donna Grasia Nasi, Don Joseph (Yasef) Nasi ( Duke of Naxos), Ben Natan Eskenazi, Ester Kira are the top names of 16th century Golden Age of the Ottoman Empire and Ottoman Jews.

With the Sephardic Jewish migrations Selanik (Thessalonika), and Izmir became important Jewish centers as well. In 16th century, Selanik was the most populated Jewish town and Istanbul was the center of the Jewish culture in the world.

In addition, Jews were expelled from different part of Europe and pogroms were chasing them everywhere. That is why some Jews came from Eastern Europe by escaping Ottoman side of the border. Therefore, Ashkenazi community grew in number in Ottoman Empire too.

Jews were important part of cultural and economic life of the country. Top merchants, top physicians, even the physician of the Sultans were Jew. They were taking part in diplomacy too. Jewish communities produced many Torah, Talmud and Kabala experts that influenced other Jews in Europe too.

This increasing number of the Jews was interrupted by the incident of Sabatay Sevi (Zvi) (1626-76). He was a member of distinguished family of Izmir Sephardic community. He was a Talmud and Kabala expert. He was deeply influenced when he heard about Kmielnitzki massacre in Poland in 1648. He started to shout the name of God in the streets of Izmir and in synagogue. He also acted against the orders of the religion. Therefore, the Jewish community expelled him from Izmir.

He traveled in different provinces of the Ottoman Empire and in June 1665, he declared that he was Messiah and resurrection day was soon. This was heard very quickly in all over Ottoman Empire and further land from Amsterdam and Poland to Selanik and Yemen. Jewish communities were divided as his believers and unbelievers He sailed from Izmir in December 1665. He would go to Istanbul and would be the next king. Grand Vizier of the Ottoman Empire took him off the ship on the way, tried him in Divan in Topkapi Palace in Istanbul and he was put under arrest. His followers could still see him. However, another Jew from Poland came and saw him and he said he was not Messiah. He said Sabatay Sevi was preparing an uprising. Sevi was tried again and was converted to Islam. After him, some of his followers became Muslim too. He died in 1676 but still he influenced Jewish communities. There were Muslim or Jewish followers of him in different cities and provinces of Ottoman Empire and abroad in Amsterdam, Germany and Poland. Izmir, Edirne and Selanik became centre of this group. Turks called them “Convert” (Dönme).        

Sabatay Sevi incident damaged Jewish communities of the Ottoman Empire but actual damage was economic stagnation of the Ottoman Empire. Ottoman Empire was not any more the center of trade. Amsterdam became important center of the world trade and attracted Jews from different part of Europe and from Ottoman Empire. Decline of the Ottoman Empire meant decline of Ottoman Jews as well.

Declaration of the Constitutional Law in 1839 and 1856 guaranteed some equality for the religious minorities, including Jews. Modernization and Westernization certainly influenced Jews as well. Avraham de Kamondo, a rich banker, established a Western style school for Jewish children but criticized and even excommunicated by zealous Jews. There is the Kamondo Stairs in old banking street in Karakoy district and his mausoleum in Haskoy district of Istanbul.

Decline of the Ottoman Empire and division of provinces into separate states meant division of Ottoman Jewish population into different countries. When Ottomans lost Macedonia and Selanik to Bulgaria in Balkan Wars, they lost their big Jewish population too.

After the First World War and Independence War, the new Republic of Turkey was established and the Jewish population was just 80.000 in 13 millions. The Muslims and Converts of Selanik were brought to Turkey because of the population change between Turkey and Greece but Jews of Selanik was not included. Selanik under Greek rule was still important Jewish settlement and Jews of the town were taken to the extermination camps during the Second World War. 

With the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, big part of Turkish Jewish population moved to Israel that is why Turkey today has just 12.000 Jewish souls. They mainly live in Istanbul that has many synagogues of different congregations. Ahrida in Balat district of the Old Town is the most interesting one. Its history goes back to Byzantine period.

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