History of the Turkish Jews
By Naim Guleryuz
On the midnight of August 2nd 1492, when Colombus 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
The Jews forced either to convert to Christianism or to "leave" the
country under menace "they dare not return... not so much as to take a
step on them not trepass upon them in any manner whatsoever" left their
land, their property, their belongings all that was theirs and familiar
to them rather than abadon their beliefs, their traditions, their
In the faraway Ottoman Empire, one ruler extended an immediate welcome
to the persecuted Jews of Spain, the Sepharadim. He was the Sultan
As we approach 1992, the Discovery year for all those connected to the
American continents North, Central and South world Jewry is concerned
with commemorating not only the expulsion, but also seven centuries of
the Jewish life in Spain, flourishing under Moslem rule, and the 500th
anniversary of the official welcome extended by the Ottoman Empire in
This humanitarianism is 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
In 1992, Turkish Jewry will celebrate 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
will commemorate the longevity and prosperity of the Jewish community.
As a whole, the celebration aims to demonstrate the richness and
security of life Jews have found in the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish
Republic over these morethanfive centuries, and show that indeed it is
not impossible for people of different creeds to live together
peacefully under one flag.
A History Predating 1492
The history of the Jews in Anatolia started many centuries before the
migration of Sephardic Jews. Remnants of Jewish settlement 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."
Ancient synagogue ruins have been found in Sardis, near Izmir, 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
Jewish comunities in Anatolia flourished and continued to prosper
through the Turkish conquest. When the Ottomans captured Bursa in 1324
and made it their capital, they found a Jewish community oppressed
under Byzantine rule. The Jews welcomed the Ottomans as saviors. Sultan
Orhan gave them permission to build the Etz ha-Hayyim (Tree of Life)
synagogue which remained in service until 50 years ago.
Early 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)
Ottoman 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 coreligionists to lease the torments they were enduring in
Christiandom and to seek safety and prosperity in Turkey". (3)
When Mehmet II "the Conqueror" took Constantinople in 1453, he
encountered an oppressed Romaniot (Byzantine) Jewish community which
welcomed him with enthousiasm. 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)
In 1470, Jews expelled from Bavaria by Ludvig X found refuge in the Ottoman Empire. (5)
A Haven for Sephardic Jews
Sultan 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 encouranged, assisted and sometimes even compelled".
Immanual 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".
The arrival of the Sephardis altered the structure of the community and
the original group of Romaniote Jews was totally absorbed.
Over 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.
By 1477, Jewish households in Istanbul numbered 1647 or 11% of the
total. Half a century later, 8070 Jewish houses were listed in the
The Life of Ottoman Jews
For 300 years following the expulsion, the prosperity and creativity of
the Ottoman Jews rivaled that of the Golden Age of Spain. Four Turkish
cities: Istanbul, Izmir, Safed and Salonica became the centers of
Most of the court physicians were Jews: Hakim Yakoub, Joseph and Moshe
Hamon, Daniel Fonseca, Gabriel Buenauentura to name only very few ones.
One 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 .
Ottoman diplomacy was often carried out by Jews. Joseph Nasi, appointed
the Duke of Naxos, was the former Portuguese Marrano Joao Miques.
Another Portuguese Marrano, Aluaro Mandes, 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.
Left: Jewish Doctor - 1568 (Woodcut from "Nicolay de Nicolay", page
185), Middle: Dona Gracia Nasi & Joseph Nasi (Woodcut from "Les
Demiers Jours de Shylock", page 88), Right: Prayer offered for the
Victory of Turkish armies in the war against Russia with the presence
of the Sadrazam (Prime Minister) Ibrahim Edhem Pasha Ahrida Synagogue
(London Illustrated News 9.6.1877)
In the free air of the Ottoman Empire, Jewish litterature 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
On 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 in truth...".
Under Ottoman tradition, each nonMoslem 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
An 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.
Equality and a New Republic
Efforts at reform of the Ottoman Empire led to the prodamation of the
Hatti Humayun in 1856, which made all Ottoman citizens, Moslem and
nonMoslem alike, equal under the law. As a result, leadership of the
community began to shift away from the religious figure to secular
World 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.
Recognized in 1923 by the Treaty of Lausanne as a fully independent
state within its presentday borders, Turkey accorded minority rights to
the three principal nonMoslem 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.
"Etz ha-Hayim" Synagogue before it burnt in 1941.
Visit of late Chief Rabbi Haim Bedjerano. (Ortakoy - Istanbul)
During 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; ConsulGenerals Fikret Sefik Ozdoganci, Bedii Arbel,
Selahattin Ulkumen; Consuls Namik Kemal Yolga and Necdet Kent, just to
name only few of them (7) spent all their efforts to save from the
Holocaust the Turkish Jews in those countries, and succeeded. Mr.
Salahattin Ulkumen, Consul General at Rhodes in 1943 1944, has been
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.
Turkish Jews Today
The present size of Jewish Community is estimated at around 26.000. The
vast majority live in Istanbul, with a community of about 2.500 in
Izmir and other smaller groups located in Adana, Ankara, Bursa,
Canakkale, Iskenderun, Kirklareli etc. Sephardis make up 96% of the
Community, with Ashkenazis accounting for the rest. There are about 100
Karaites, an independent group who does not accept the authority of the
Turkish Jews are legally represented, as they have been for many
centuries, by the Hahambasi, the Chief Rabbi. Rav David Asseo, Chief
Rabbi since elected in 1961, is assisted by a religious Council made up
of a Rosh Bet Din and three Hahamim. Thirtyfive Lay Counsellors look
after the secular affairs of the Community and an Executive Commitee of
fourteen, the president of which must be elected from among the Lay
Counselors, runs the daily affairs.
Left: Turkish Crescent & Star on the top of the Ehal "La Sinyora" Synagogue (Izmir). Right: Ankara Synagogue
"Menorah" with Crescent & Star (Izmir)
Left: "Rimonim" with Crescent & Star (Izmir - Istanbul). Right:
House bearing both "Magen David" and Moslem "Mashallah" (Galata -
Synagogues are classified as religious foundations (Vakifs). There are
16 synagogues in use in Istanbul today. Three are in service in holiday
ressorts, 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.
Education, Language and Social Life
Most Jewish children attend state schools or private Turkish or foreign
language schools, and many are enrolled in the universities.
Additionally, the Community maintains a primary school for 300 pupils
and a secondary school for 250 students in Istanbul, and an elementary
school for 140 children in Izmir. Turkish is the language of
instruction, and Hebrew is taught 35 hours a week.
While younger Jews speak Turkish as their native language, the older
generation is more at home speaking in French or JudeoSpanish (Ladino).
A conscious effort is spent to preserve the heritage of JudeoSpanish.
For long years Turkish Jews have had their own press. La Buena
Esperansa and La Puerta dew Oriente started in Izmir in 1843 and Or
Israel started to be published in Istanbul ten years later. Now one
newspaper survives: SALOM (Shalom), an eightpage weekly with seven
pages written in Turkish and one in JudeoSpanish.
A 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.
Two Jewish hospitals the 98 bed Or haHayim in Istanbul and the 22 bed
Karatas Hospital 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.
Social clubs containing librairies, cultural and sports facilities, discotheques give young people the chance to meet.
The Jewish Community is of course a very small group in Turkey today,
considering that the total population which is 99% Moslem exceeds 57
million. But in spite of their number the Jews have distinguished
themselves. There are several ewish professors teaching at the
universities of Istanbul and Ankara, and many Turkish Jews are
prominent in business, industry and the liberal professions.
The Quincentennial Foundation
1992 marks the five hundreth anniversary of this most gracious welcome
of Sephardim to Turkish lands. Turkish Jews felt it was both fitting
and proper to launch an extensive celebration in Turkey, in the United
States and in Europe.
Jewish history is full of sad events which are marked by commemorations
and memorial services. But now there was a major event to celebrate. To
celebrate both the 500th anniversary of the welcoming of the Sephardic
Jews to the Ottoman Empire and the five centuries of continous and
peaceful life in Turkey.
The Quincentennial Foundation was established in 1989 by a group of 113
Turkish citizens, Jews and Moslems alike. Founded and headquarted in
Istanbul the Quincentennial Foundation is planning a threeyear (1990 -
1992) cultural and academic program both within Turkey and abroad
mainly in the U.S, Canada and Mexico on the American continent; France,
United Kingdom and Italy in Europe.
The Foundation embarked on a very ambitious program as befits the
greatness of the occasion. What Turkish Jews lack in numbers they make
up in enthousiasm and commitment. And they toward their vision with
This program has been designed to bring the diverse and rich legacy of Turkish Jewry to a greater audience
(1) Mark Alan Epstein, "The Ottoman Jewish Communuties and their role in the 15th and 16th centuries"
(2) Joseph Nehama, "Histoire des Israelites de Salonique"
(3) Bernard Lewis, "The Jews of Islam"
(4) Encyclopedia Judaica, Volume 16 page 1532
(5) Avram Galante, "Histoire des Juifs d'lstanbul", Volume 2
(6) Abraham Danon, in the Review Yossef Daath No. 4
(7) Immanual Aboab, "A Consolacam as Tribulacoes de Israel, III Israel"
(8) H. Graetz, "History of the Jews"