Friday, October 23, 2009

Jews of Turkey

Ever counted the numerous synagogues in Turkey? Be sure, there are many. Taking into account that the history of Jewish people in Turkey goes back more than 2,400 years, this is not very surprising.

Still, according to a report on religious minorities in Turkey prepared by the Foreign Ministry in December 2008, there are only around 25,000 Jews living in Turkey today, the vast majority of whom reside in İstanbul, with a community of about 2,500 in İzmir and other smaller groups located in Adana, Ankara, Bursa, Çanakkale and İskenderun.


Thus, it is high time to take a deeper look at the Jewish community in Turkey today. Let's discover what its roots and beliefs are and explore some stories that may reveal essential aspects of Jewish history on what is now Turkish soil.


Indeed, Jewish communities have inhabited Asia Minor since the fourth century B.C.; remnants of Jewish settlements have been discovered along the Turkish Mediterranean and Aegean coasts as well as near Bursa, in the Southeast and in the Black Sea region. The ancient ruins in Sardis, east of İzmir, are surely worth a trip in this regard. Its synagogue, impressive especially because of its well-preserved floor mosaics and its colored stone walls, was established during the Roman era.


Jewish life in modern-day Turkey began flourishing under Ottoman rule. Recognized as a separate "millet," a kind of legally protected religious minority group in the empire's governmental system, Jews were free to run their own religious, cultural and educational institutions. The Etz ha-Hayyim synagogue in Bursa -- the empire's capital for many years -- was the first Jewish house of worship established under Ottoman rule and was in use for more than 600 years.


İstanbul in particular experienced a wave of Jewish immigration in the mid-15th century. After the Ottoman conquest of the city from the Byzantines, their diverse skills were needed to transform the city into a flourishing capital. Hence, Jews from all over the empire -- mainly from the Balkans and from Anatolia -- were resettled in the city.


According to the Jewish Virtual Library Web site, Jewish households in İstanbul numbered 1,647 in the year 1477, making up an estimated 11 percent of the total population of İstanbul. Half a century later 8,070 Jewish houses were listed in the city, and during the 16th and 17th century, it is even estimated that İstanbul had a Jewish community of 30,000 individuals. Communities also developed in western and northern Anatolia, notably in Bursa, İzmir, Aydın, Tokat and Amasya.


The rapid increase can be explained by a great influx of Sephardic Jews (Jews from Spain) into the empire. Sultan Bayezid II, in 1492, issued a decree to invite the community, therewith saving them from strong pressures in Spain, where King Ferdinand wanted them to convert to Christianity or to leave. In a short time, the Sephardic Jews became the predominant power of the empire's foreign communities in commerce and trade as well as in diplomacy. (TZ)


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