Jewish History in Anatolia


In memory of Nedim Yahya, a committee member of the Quincentennial Foundation, who died September 22, 1997.

By Molly McAnailly Burke / Turkish Daily News

Istanbul - By now everyone must be aware that Turkey is a pivot point for the world's three great monotheistic religions: Islam, Judaism and Christianity. But because it is predominantly Muslim, many people today are unaware just how much Old Testament history is located in modern Turkey. Mount Ararat (Agri Dag), where Noah and his family ran aground after the deluge, is located in the east of the country, near Dogubayazit. Noah's descendants covered most of Anatolia, and one of them, Canaan's son Heth, is thought to be a progenitor of the Hittites.

Abraham, the earliest of the Hebrew patriarchs, is believed by Muslims to have been born in a cave in today's Urfa and almost certainly lived in Harran in the 18th century BC. Later it was a refuge for Jacob when he was escaping from Esau; Jacob's well is still there today. Even the Garden of Eden is thought by some to have been in Turkey, since this is where the Tigris and Euphrates rise.

Yet today's main religions were often built on the foundations of earlier, proto-monotheistic beliefs which have since faded away but nonetheless left their mark. Four thousand years ago the Hittites' primary deity was the weather god Teshub, and there were Moon-God worshipping Sabians all over what is now southeastern Turkey, their temple in Harran considered the greatest in Mesopotamia. There were Persian-originated Mithraists as well worshipping the God of Light at Nemrut Dagi, Pergamum and Olympus.

Jewish communities exerted considerable influence on the trade routes of Anatolia from very early times, and though it has never been other than a minority religion many ancient biblical sites are in this country. The Jewish bible (known to Christians as the Old Testament) is a collection of writings that go back to the 10th century BC and share many legends in common with Christianity and Islam, such as the Flood and the landing of Noah on a mountain top (Ararat for Jews and Christians, Cudi Dagi for Muslims).

The sons of Noah

Noah had three sons, Ham, Shem and Japheth; according to Genesis 10, the latter left descendants between Persia, Syria and most of Eastern Anatolia. Ham's people travelled along the coasts of North Africa and into the region between the Tigris and the Euphrates.

Noah's grandson Asshur was the ancestor of the great Assyrians who built their empire along the northern Tigris (Dicle). Another grandson Arphaxd was an ancestor of Abraham. Heth, son of Canaan, is presumed to be the father of the Hittites who ruled central Anatolia from the second millennium into the 6th cent BC and there are a number of references to this civilization in the bible.

The Assyrians captured northern Israel in 722 BC, and two years later King Sargon resettled over 27,000 Israelites in northern Mesopotamia. In 560 BC the Babylonians conquered Judah, and again many Israelites were deported, exiled or "dispersed" to other lands. As they strove to maintain their heritage and identity they became known as the Jews of the diaspora. Some returned to rebuild Jerusalem, while others built centers of Jewish culture in the Mesopotamian regions.

But the greatest expansion of the diaspora occurred after the conquests of Alexander the Great (332-323 BC) and migration from Palestine was encouraged. The destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70 caused another wave. It is thought that by the 2nd century A.D. there may have been a million Jews settled in Asia Minor, located in most of the major trading cities.

The synagogue of Sardis, about fifty miles inland from Izmir, was once one of the largest in history, built first in 220 B.C. and rebuilt in the 3rd century A.D. The enormous hall was part of the municipal bath-gymnasium complex, lavishly decorated inside with mosaic floors and marbled walls. Though later destroyed by earthquake, much of the magnificent original floor-tiles remain and attract tourists from all over the world. A partial reconstruction was undertaken in the 1970's indicating the high standing of the community.

The beautifully restored ancient Greek city of Ephesus is still one of the wonders of the world, and was dedicated to the goddess Artemis. It was also a significant stopping point during the Jewish diaspora of 60-120 A.D. At the southern tip of the city flows the Maeander River, whose valley has witnessed the rise and fall of seven great historical cities including Priene, Miletos, Didyma and Aphrodisias, many of whose synagogues still remain.

The umbrella of humanity

Since Ottoman times Turkey has been consistently associated with religious freedom, which paved the way for today's secular state. In the 12th century, during the time of the 3rd Crusade the brilliant Ayyubite Muslim leader Saladin had the famous Spanish philosopher and writer Maimonides, a Jew, as his personal physician, a man responsible for transmitting early books on astronomy to the west which were considered revolutionary a thousand years after being written in Harran.

When the Ottomans captured Bursa from the Byzantines in 1324 they found an oppressed Jewish community who recognized the newcomers as liberators. Sultan Orhan gave them permission to build the Etz-ha-Hayyim synagogue which was in use until recent times.

In fact so hospitable were the Ottomans to Jewish refugees that, in the early 15th century Rabbi Yitzhak Sarfati of Edirne sent a letter to Jewish communities in Europe entreating them to leave behind the torments they had endured under Christianity "and seek safety and prosperity in Turkey" as part of their path back to the Holy Land.

In the summer of 1492, under the reign of the enlightened Sultan Beyazid II whose dream it was to make his empire an "umbrella of humanity," 150,000 Sephardim escaped death or conversion under the Edict of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand of Spain. They were officially welcomed into the Ottoman empire and settled in Istanbul, Edirne, Bursa, and many other cities, receiving land, tax exemptions, encouragement and assistance from the government. "The Catholic monarch Ferdinand was wrongly considered as wise" Bayazid II reportedly said, "since he impoverished his country with the expulsion of the Jews, and enriched ours." These new citizens established the first printing press in 1493, and as years went by, a number of famous Ottoman court physicians and diplomats were members of the Jewish community.

At the beginning of the 16th century the Jewish community of Istanbul numbered 30,000, making it the most important Jewish community in Europe. For many years there were more Jewish doctors in Istanbul than Muslim.

In the late 19th century Dr. Isik Pasa Molho, an Admiral in the Ottoman army, and Dr. Raphael Dalmediko, a Colonel, helped found the 98-bed Orahayim hospital, which still operates today.

One of the most important areas of Jewish settlement in Byzantine and Ottoman times was Balat, located along the upper reaches of the Golden Horn. Many of the people who lived here were from Macedonia, and during its "golden age" in the 18th and 19th centuries there were six synagogues. The oldest and most significant is the Ahrida, which predates the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul and has an altar shaped like Noah's ark.

Many Jewish denominations have also been represented in Istanbul. Aside from the Sephardim of Spain, there were Ashkenazi Jews who came from the Crimea and a Karaite minority who had a stronghold in an area near Galata tower. In 1900 the total Jewish community of Istanbul was 300,000.

In the 1930's, the revolutionary secularist leader, Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, invited many eminent Jewish professors to escape persecution in Germany and settle in Turkey, and during the war provided a safe passage for many to Palestine.

However, since the late 1940's the Jewish community of Turkey had dwindled considerably. Over 100,000 Turkish Jews now live in Israel, and the Turkish community numbers only about 27,000, most of whom live in Istanbul. Nonetheless it boasts a large modern high school in Ulus, 16 functioning synagogues, and a Quincentennial Museum dedicated to 500 years of peace and tolerance, as well as celebrating the illustrious Jewish citizens who have contributed to the rich tapestry of Turkish culture. The newspaper "Shalom" has about 4,000 subscribers, and is printed in Turkish and Ladino. They also have an excellent bookshop with Jewish guidebooks and history books about Turkey and Ottoman times.

Jewish tourists will enjoy a stroll around the ancient district of Galata, which is home to the Neve Shalom synagogue, where many weddings and Bar Mitvahs take place today.

Copyright 1997, Turkish Daily News. This article is redistributed with permission for personal use of readers. No part of this article may be reproduced, further distributed or archived without the prior permission of the publisher.