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 Minor.
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)
Next > A Haven for Sephardic Jews
(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