The Ottoman Empire

How Jews lived under the Turks.

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The Ottoman Empire emerged as a great political and military power in the early 14th century—but only in the wake of the expulsion of the Jews of Spain did the Ottoman Empire become a Jewish center. Tens of thousands of Jewish refugees from the Iberian peninsula made Salonika, Constantinople and other cities of the Ottoman Empire their new home, bringing with them the latest European developments in technology, medicine and artisanry.

However, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Ottoman Empire and its Jewish community entered a period of decline that would continue until the “sick man of Europe,” as the Ottoman Empire came to be known, met its demise after World War I. The following article is reprinted with permission from Eli Barnavi’s A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.

The Ottomans began to emerge as a great political and military power from the early fourteenth century. Uthman, founder of a dynasty, came from a small Turkish principality, which in time grew into a vast empire. The swords of his successors brought to an end the centuries‑long Greek influence in the south of the Mediterra­nean basin, replacing it with Muslim domination. Extending deep into the European continent, Ottoman expansion turned Vienna into an outpost of Christendom.

 

The Greek‑speaking Jewish communities, which the immigrants from Spain and Portugal later called "Romaniots" or "Gregos," were all under Ottoman rule at the time of the fall of Constantinople--renamed Istanbul--in 1453. The Arabic‑speaking Jews ("Mustarabs" in the idiom of the Iberian refugees), were the other important indigenous group. They lived in "Arabistan"--countries conquered mainly during the reign of Selim I (1512‑1520) and of his son Suleiman the Magnificent (1520‑1566). For all the Jews the conquest was a salvation, as their situation in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries under Byzantine and Mamluk rule had been extremely difficult.

Then, in the wake of the expulsion from Spain (1492) and the forced conversion in Portugal (1497), tens of thousands of Iberian Jews arrived in Ottoman territories. As all that was required of them was the payment of a poll‑tax and acknowledgement of' the superiority of Islam, the empire became a haven for these refugees.

From early in the sixteenth century, the Jewish community in the Ottoman Empire became largest in the world. Constantinople and Salonika each had a community of approximately 20,000 people. Immigration from the Iberian peninsula, arriving in several waves throughout the sixteenth century, also transformed the character of Ottoman Jewry. Far more numerous than the local Jews, the Spaniards and the Portuguese soon submerged the Romaniots, and the indigenous population was assimilated into the culture and community of the new immigrants.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University