Ottoman Empire: Jews

Figure 1.--This is ascene from Murad III's "Book of Frstivals". Ottoman Court entertainers included many Jews. Here we see a scene placed in the Istabuk Hippodrome. (Notice the column and three-headed serpent. The three people with red fez-type hats are Jews. This was a headwear style often, but not always worn by Jews. They seem to be a father-son act wih the boys costumed as mounted warriors.

Jewish communities were established throughout the Roman Empire after the failure of the Jewish revolt and the Roman supression of the Jews. Several of the communities were established in Anatolia (often referred to as Asia Minor). Other Jewish communities were esablished in the Balkans and Levant which for a ime were contrilled by Byzantium. Generally these communities did not experience the severe repression that the Roman Catholic Church directed at the Jews. Gradually Byzantium was overwealmed, first by the Arabs and than by the Ottoman Turks. As the Ottomans occupied Anatolia and other areas formerly controlled by Byzantium, Jews came under their control. The great Byzantine capital, Constantinople, finally fell (1453). More Jews entered the Empire when the Ottomans offered refuge to the Jews expelled by Spain and Portugal--the Sephardic Jews. As the Ottoman Empire expanded, Turks became a minority in an Empire populated by Balkan Christians and Muslim Arabs. The Ottomans also held people from these areas with some suspicion, fearing the development of nationalist movements. The Jews on the other hand were a small minority. Thus they were often favored by sultans who often placed great trust in them. Ottoman rule in many cases help protect Jews from sometimes antagonistic local populations. Thus the situation of Jews in the Ottoman east was very different than in the Christian west.

Early Jewish Community

There are traces of Jewish presence in Anatolia and the Agean area (4th century BC). Few details are available, but the presence of Jews predates the Roman era. This may have been primarily small merchant communities with roots in Palestine. They could also the descendents of Jews exiled by the Assyrians and Babylonians. What ever their origin, archeologists have found remanants of what they believe were Jewish communities in the Agean basin. The Roman-Jewish historian Josephus Flavius reports thsat that Aristotle "met Jewish people with whom he had an exchange of views during his trip across Asia Minor." We are not sure what his source was for this. One of the most important Archeologial finds is at Sardis near modern Izmir (about 220 BC). Indication of another Jewish community has been noted at near Bursa in southeastern Turkey as well as other sites along the Aegean, Mediterranean and Black Sea coasts.

Jews in the Roman Empire

Little information exists on Jews in Rome during the Republic. Archeologists have found a bronze column in Ankara which confirms that the Emperor Augustus recognized the Jews of Asia Minor as an acceptable religiouus community. Despite the supression of the Jewish Revolt and the exile of the Jews, Roman emperors recognized Judiasm as a legal religion. The Roman legions reimposed Roman rule (70 AD). They retook Jerusalem, kiling Jews and destroying the Temple. They also expelled the Jews from Judea and Samaria. Jewish communities were established throughout the Roman Empire after the failure of the Jewish revolt and the Roman supression of the Jews. Several of the communities were established in Anatolia (often referred to as Asia Minor). Other Jewish communities were esablished in the Balkans and Levant. Early Christians often emerged out of these Jewish communities. Recognition of the Jews was a status not conferred on the Christians, at first seen as a Jewish sect. Roman emperors to varying degrees supressed the Christians. The situation of the Jews changed with the assent of Constantine (4th century AD). Roman general Constantine seized control of the Empire and converted to Christianity. Gradually after his conversion, Christianity changed from a supressed sect to the state religion of the Empire. Relations between Jews and Christians had varied. Christinity emerged from the Jewsish community. Some Jews (like Paul) attempted to supress the Christians, but eventually more benign relations developed. This began to change when Christianity becamne the state religion. Christian emperors began to look on the Jews as subversive for their refusal to accept Jesus as the Messiah. In addition, Christians thnks to St. Paul became a gentile religion. Thus Christians begn to see the Jews as a foreign group in thei midst. Many Church and state officials wanted to force the Jews to convert. St Augustine argued for a different approach. Augustine argued that the Jews should not be killed or even forced to convert. Rather he felt that they should be degraded and humiliated and live in poverty. This would be a just punishment for refusing to accept Christ. While Augustine's assessment is today seen as harsh and unjust, his influence probably saved the Jews from total annihilation in Western Christendom. With the fall of Rome (5th century), this was the view of the Jews that became prevalebnt in feudal Europe. Despite the influence of Augustine, Christian treatment of the Jews was relatively benign in the early Feudal period.

Jews in Byzantium

Emperor Constantine after seizing control of the Roman Empire built a new capital at Byzantium, then a small fishing village. It became the great Byzantine capital of Constantinopkle (İstanbul). Roman emperors decided that one answer to the difficulties the Empire was experiencing was to slit it. When Rome fell to barbarian hordes (476 AD), the Western Empire collapsed. The Eastern Empire was able to resist the barbarians, although with considerable difficulty. It became known as the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine or Orthodox Church viewed the Jews differently than the western Roman Catholic Church. There were more Jews in the Eastern Empire. Church and state officials treated them more harshly. Jews were afforded legal protection as long as they did not proselytize Christians. The Byzantines placed many limitatins on Jews which made it more difficult for them to survive. They barred Jews from holding public office. Thus the Byzantine Jews survived in often severe poverty. The Byzantines alsp prohibited the construction of new synagogues. Justinian wanted a standard religion to avoid relgious connflict. He insisted that Chritians develop an agreed upon theology. He also adopted a policy of voluntary onversion for Jews. Subsequent emperors ordered the to be convert and baptized. They granted tax breaks to Jews who voluntarily complied. The Byzantines made, however, little progress in converting the Jews in the Empire. Some Jew made an alliance with the Persians who invaded Palestine (614). They defeated the small Byzantine garrison at Jerusalem. The Jews thus controlled Jerusalem for 3 years. The Persians and Byzantines made peace. Emperor Heraclius was able to retake Jerusalem and exiled those Jews who were not slaughtered (617). [Katz] Arab warriers conquered large areas of the Byzantine and then largely Christian Middle East (7th century). This brough large numbers of Byzantine Jews under Muslim control. Subsequently the Ottoman Turks would seize control of much of Anatolia. Constantinople itself survived for centuries. For most Jews the Islamic conquests brouht more enlightened, tolerant rule, although they were still seen as inferior by the population which gradually converted to Islam.

Jews in the Early Ottoman Empire

Gradually Byzantium was overwealmed, first by the Arabs and than by the Ottoman Turks. As the Ottomans occupied Anatolia and other areas formerly controlled by Byzantium, Jews came under their control. The Ottomans took Bursa from the Byzantines and made it their first major capital (1324). They found a Jewish community that had been oppressed by the Christian Byzantines. The Jews of Bursa greeted the Ottomans as liberators. Sultan Orhan allowed them to build a new synagogue that the Bzantines had denied permission. The resulting Etz ha-Hayyim (Tree of Life) synagogue was in constant use for six centuries until the 1950s. The Ottoman Empire became a refugee for European Jews oppressed and often viciously attacked in Christian Europe. With expanding control of Anatolia, the Ottomans established a new capital at Edirne (early 14th century). The Ottomans excepted Jewish refugeees from Europe. This included Karaites. [Epstine] Successive waves of expelled Jews found refuge with the Ottomans: Hungary (1376), from France--Charles VI (1394), and Sicily (early 15th century). Venetian suppresion of the Jews in Salonika drove them to Ottomon-controlled Edirne (1420s). [Nehama] The Ottomans not only accepted Jewish immigrants, they actively encouraged Jews to settle within the Empire. Rabbi Yitzhak Sarfati wrote from the Ottoman capital (Edirne) to Jewish communities in Europe encouraging them "to lease the torments they were enduring in Christiandom and to seek safety and prosperity in Turkey" (early 15th century). [Lewis] The Ottomas conquered much of the territory of the Byzantine Empire, but the Byzantine Navy and the walls of Constantinople staved off final defeat. Sultan Mehmet II "the Conqueror" finall breached the walls of the great Byzantine capital (1453). The fall of Constantinople shocked the Christian world. It was seen as a great tragedy for Christiandom. The Romaniot (Byzantine) Jewish community saw the Ottomans in a different light. Mehmet II issued a proclamation to 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) King Ludvig X of Bavaria expelled the Jews in his kingdom (1470). Many found refuge in the Ottoman Empire. [Galante]

Spain and Portugal Expell the Jews (1492 ad 1496)

After centuries of struggle, their Catholic Majectes Ferdinand and Isabella finally completed the Reconquista--the Moorish kingdom of Grenada fell to a Christian army (1492). Two other events occurred in that same year. Columbus financed by the same two royals departed on his voyage of discovery (August 1492). Ferdinand and Isabella also expelled Jews amd Muslims from their kingdoms. Columbus sailing was complicated because the major ports of Cadiz and Seville were clogged with Jews forced from Spain. As a result, Columbus sailed from the small port of Palos. Ferdinand and Isabella had also authorized the Inquisition in their dominions. The expulsion Edict was more step in purifying Spain. The Spanish Jews were forced to either convert or leave Spain. Ferdinand and Isabella warned in their Edict "they dare not return ... not so much as to take a step on them not trepass upon them in any manner whatsoever". The Jews were forced to abandon their land, property, and belongings. This ended seven centuries of Jewish life in Spain. The Jews had flourished under Moorish rule. Spain during the Moorish era had been one of the culturally most importantv areas of Europe. Four years later the Portuguese king expelled that country's Jews (1496).

Sephardic Refugees

More Jews entered the Empire when the Ottomans offered refuge to the Jews expelled by Spain and Portugal--the Sephardic Jews. The word Sepharad is found in the Bible. [Obadiah 1:20] It refers to a region near Sardis. Here Jewish exiles were brought after Nebuchadnezzar captured Jerusalem. Jews late er applied this name to Spain. Thus the Jews expelled from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1496) are referred to as the Sepharadim. Sultan Beyazid II extended an invitation to the persecuted Jews and Muslims. The Sultan ordered the governors of the provinces of the Ottoman Empire, which at the time include North Africa accross the Straits of Gibraltar, "not to refuse the Jews entry or cause them difficulties, but to receive them cordially". [Danon] Another historian reports that the Sultan did not just passively acceot Jewish refugees, but "encouranged, assisted and sometimes even compelled" them. [Lewis] The Sultan was appareantly grateful for the Spanish action. He is reported yo hace said, "the Catholic monarch Ferdinand was wrongly considered as wise, since he impoverished Spain by the expulsion of the Jews, and enriched Turkey". [Aboab] Most of the Sephardic Jews settled in the Eropean areas of the Ottomon Empire.

Other Refugees (16th Century)

While the Sephardic Jews were the largest group of European Jews given refuge by the Ottoman. There were smaller groups that followed. The popes in Italy were attempting to expand their territory, the acquired several new Italian cities. One action taken was expelling the Jews in the city. The Pope in one such action expelled the Jews of Apulia (1537). King Ferdinand of Bohemia expelled the Jews (1542). [Graetz] They were given refuge by the Ottomans. Many Jews had escaped expulsion in the Papal states by outwardly converting. They were referred to as Marranos. The Inquisition in Spain hunted down those who had not truly converted. The Roman Inquisition was less determined. A series of popes had turned a blind eye to the Marranos: Clement VII (1523–34), Paul III (1534–49), and Julius III (1550–55). The Marrano community in Ancona, an important seaport, was particularly prominant. The papacy even guaranteed them that if accused of apostasy, papal authorities would assess the charges. The situation changed with the Reformation and Catholic Counter Reformstion. There was less willingness to tolerate any deviation from Catholic purity. Popr Paul IV withdrew papal protection and began an intensive investigation. Authorities found many instances of apostacy. Authorities burned 25 Marranos alive and condemned 26 others to the galleys (1556). Another 30 escaped proceution only by bribing authorities. The great Ottoman leader, Suleyman "the Magnificent", took up the case of the Ancona Marranos. He personally wrote to Pope Paul IV asking for their release, declaring them to be Ottoman citizens. The Pope not wishing to antagonize the Sultan over a group of Jews, agreed to release the Marranos who were Ottoman citizens.

Religious Toleration

One totable aspect of the Ottoman Empire was the degree to which it tolerated religious and cultural diversity. The Ottoman Turks were a minority in the vast empire they carved out in the Middle East, the Balkans, and North Africa. The Empire was compsed of many different nationalities and religious groups. At a time when Western Europe expelled, persecuted, killed, or tried to convert Jews, Ottomans persued a very different course. The Ottomans also tolerated Christianity, a much larger group. This is not fully understood today. This is in part because the declining Ottoman Empire in the 19th century persued oppressive policies in the Balkans to prevent the rising tide of nationalism and desire for independence. The Ottomons could be brutal with groups which opposed their rule, but for mmuch of the history of the Empire there was a notable level of religious toleration in comparison to the Christian West. The Ottoman record of course is mared by the tragic Armenian Genocide carried out by the Young Turks.

Ottoman Jewish Community

The Sephardis arrived in such numbers that they altered the nature of Ottoman Jewery. The original Romaniote Jews were overwealmed and absorbed by the Sephardis. Other European Jews continued o flow into Ottomon territory. One report indicates that there was 1,677 Jewish households in Istanbul, 11 percent of the total (1477). Only 50 years later, the number had risen to 8,070 Jewish household. The largest Ottoman Jewish communities were located in Istanbul, Izmir, Safed and Salonica. They were also dominated by Sephardic Jews.

Position of the Jews

As the Ottoman Empire expanded, Turks became a minority in an Empire populated by Balkan Christians and Muslim Arabs. The Ottomans also held people from these areas with some suspicion, fearing the development of nationalist movements. The Jews on the other hand were a small minority. Thus they were often favored by sultans who often placed great trust in them. Ottoman rule in many cases help protect Jews from sometimes antagonistic local populations. Thus the situation of Jews in the Ottoman east was very different than in the Christian west.

Jewish Contribution

Jews came to play an important role in trade and commerce, both within and outside the Ottoman Empire. Here they were useful because of their international contacts and mastery of European languages. Ottoman Sultans conferred important state posts to Jews. One area in which Jews were especially important was diplomacy. I am not entirely sure why Jew were so important in this area. Sultans may have been able to trust Jew more than other subjects. Foreign contacts and mastery of foreign languages may have been other factors. One important Ottoman diplomat was Portuguese Marrano Joao Miques was Joseph Nasi rewarded by the appointed to be the Duke of Naxos. The Sultan rewarded another Portuguese Marrano, Aluaro Mandes, by making him Duke of Mytylene. Another Jew, Salamon ben Nathan Eskenazi, helped to establish diplomatic relations with Britain. Interestingly, Jewish women had some influence in the Sultan's court. An area to which Turkish women were largely excluded. Two such women were Doña Gracia Mendes Nasi "La Seniora" and Esther Kyra. Doña Gracia was the head of a financial consortium based in Istambul. Another area in which Jews were especially important was medicine. Jewish doctors commonly served in the courts of Ottoman sultans and in the Ottoman army. Many if not most of the court physicians were Jews, including Hakim Yakoub, Joseph and Moshe Hamon, Daniel Fonseca, and Gabriel Buenauentura. There were many others. Their position as the Sultn's doctors gave them the opportunity to seek his favor in various areas. Again I am not entirely sure why Jews were so prominant in Ottoman medecine. They may have been more learnered than Muslim physcians. Or perhaps the sultans trusted them more. It was a Sephardic refugee that brought the first printing press to the Empire. David and Samuel ibn Nahmias set up a Hebrew printing press in Istanbul (1493). Jews were involved in trades and we note Jewish entertainers (figure 1).

Jewish Culture

Jews in the Ottoman Empire were allowed to practice their religion more freely than in the Chritian west. The Ottomans were also more tolerant of Jewish cultural development. Thus Jewish culture developed to a degree not seen since the Goldren years of the Omayyad emirate in Spain--Cordova (756-1031). Jewish litterature flourished. Joseph Caro pieced together the Shulhan Arouh. Shlomo haLevi Alkabes wrote the Lekhah Dodi, a moving hymn which manages to welcomes the Sabbath according to both Sephardic and Ashkenazi ritual. Jacob Culi created the well known MeAm Loez. Rabbi Abraham ben Isaac Assa established his reputation as the founder of Judeo-Spanish literature.

Sabetay Sevi Schism (17th Century)

One of the major events in the history of Ottoman Jews was the Sabetay Sevi schism. he founded the Jewish Sabbatean movement as well as inspiring other similar sects, such as the Donmeh. Sevi who was from Izmir claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah. Rabbi Sabetay Sevi as a very young man declared himself the messiah (1648). This led to great turmoil in the Jewish community Thousands of Jews within and even outside the Ottomon Empire accepted his relevation. Sultan Mehmed IV summons him. A death penalty seemed likely. Doctor Abravanel (Hayati Zade), a former Jew. pleads his case and advised Sevi to convert. A pleased Sultan conferred the title Efendi on him.


One of the most hateful Christian charges agaunst Jews was the Blood Libel. The Jews were not the only groyp so accused, but the accusations against the Jews were the most persistent over time and the most widely believed. The blood libel is the allegation based on rumor and myth that Jews killed Christians and other non-Jews to obtain blood for their Passover matzahs and to use in other rituals. These allegations were especially potent in the superstious atmosphere of medieval Europe and sensationalized rumors often led to attacks on individual Jews as as well as Jewish communities. Sultan Abdulmecid issued a famous ferman condemning Blood Libel Accusations against Jews. He proclaimed "... 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...". [October 27, 1840]

Ottoman Religious Communities

Within the Ottoman Empire, recognized non-Muslim religious communities were permitted to set up and operate their own institutions. This included a rage of religious and comminity institutins, including schools. The Ottoman Empire by the 19th century had fallen behind Europe in a range of areas, especially science and industry. A major reason for this was Islam which was not condusive to modern learning. At a time when scietific discoveries and industrial developmnt was fundamentally reshaping Europe, the Ottomans continued an almost medieval exisence, There were no modern schools or universities in the Empire. The schools that did exist focused primarily on religion. Schools for the varius other religius communities alsl languished. Abraham de Camondo established the first modern school in the Jewish community--La Escola. Thi resulted in a bitter dispute between conservative and secular rabbis. Finally Sultan Abdulaziz was forced yo intervene to settle the matter (1864). The Takkanot haKehilla (By-laws of the Jewish Community) was published to precisely define he structure of the Ottoman Jewish community (1864).

Attempts at Reform

A series of military disaters largelly at the hands of Russia, forced the Ottoman Empire to persue attempts at reform. The Sultan proclaimed the Hatti Humayun (1856). This made all Ottoman citizens, both Moslem and non-Moslem, for the first time equal under the law. Gradually the influence of religious leaders began to decline as secular leaders began to acquire greater influence. The reforms promulgated did not begin to address the major problems of the Empire. There was no way to satisfy the desire for independence among Christian subjects in the Balkans. And there were simply not individuals with modern educations that could bring the Empire into the modern age to compete with powers like Austria and Russia.


One small province of the Ottoman Empire was Palestine. The small Jewish population of the province was tolerated by Ottoman authorities. They also allowed small numbers of Zionist settlers to emigrate.

Turkish Republic

The Ottomn Empire entered World War I on the side of the Central Powers (1914). Ottoman officials hoped with German assistance to regain territory lost to the Russians. Ottoman armies experienced a series of disastrous defeats. The Russians destroyed a Turkish army in the Caucauses. The disaster was a factor in the Armenian Genocide (1915-16). The British and French failed at Galipoli (1915), but British offensives in Palestine and Mesopotami ended Ottoman rule of Arab lands. The War destoyed the Empire. It was replaced by a new Turkish Republic created by the Young Turks. After losing the Christian Balkans and the Arab lands and with the destructin of the Aremenians, the new Turkey was more ethnically homogenious, although there were still Greek and Kurdish minorities as well as the Jewish community. The Turkish people elected Mustafa Kemal Ataturk as the first president. The Republic abolished the Caliphate and adopted a secular constitution. The Young Turks rejected a treaty imposed by the Allies and a new treaty was negotiated--the Treaty of Lausanne (1923). A war with Greece resulted in the expulsion of the Greeks. The Republic extended minority rights to the three principal non-Muslim religious minorities. They were given the right to operate their own schools, social institutions, and administers funds. The Republic prepared to adopt anew Civil Code based on Swiss law (1926). The Jewish Community as a result renounced its minority status protections. After the NAZIs seized power in Germany (1933), Ataturk offered refuge to German Jewish professors. These Jewish scholars layed a major role in building a modern university system in Turkey. [Shaw] Turkey remained neutral through most of World war II (1939-45). Both the Allies and NAZIs attempted to bring Turkey into the war. The Germans courted the Turkish and other Islamic minorities after invading the Soviet Union (1941). NAZI diplomats believed that they had convinced the Turks to enter the War. The Soviet victory at Stalingrad ended any chance of that. Turkey resisted the NAZI Holocaust. allowed Jews fleeing the NAZIs to pass through their territory, but did not allow any large number of Jewish refugees to stay in the country. The Turks refused NAZI requests to deport their Jews.


Aboab, Immanual. "A Consolacam as Tribulacoes de Israel, III Israel".

Danon, Abraham. Review Yossef Daath, No. 4.

Epstein, Mark Alan The Ottoman Jewish Communuties and their role in the 15th and 16th centuries.

Galante, Avram. Histoire des Juifs d'lstanbul Vol. II.

Graetz, H. History of the Jews.

Lewis, Bernard. The Jews of Islam.

Nehama, Joseph. Histoire des Israelites de Salonique


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Created: 9:19 PM 7/11/2007
Last updated: 3:20 AM 7/17/2007