All these brutalities may make us think that the strong and powerful always try to dominate and treat unjustly the less powerful. The fact is, however, that some societies have displayed great mercy and tolerance to the people under their rule regardless of their belief and race. This article tries to give some information about the tolerance of the Ottomans toward minorities, especially the Jews who were mistreated under the Byzantine dominion. They experienced expulsion from Spain after which they were accepted in the Ottoman lands and lived in peace and comfort.
Let us first look at the lives of the Jews during the Byzantines.
Jews of Byzantium
Jews were well-treated in Byzantium. The people of Byzantium did not like the Jews for religious reasons. They regarded them as damned by God since they denied the words of God and allegedly killed Jesus. They thus subjected the Jews to restriction and persecution:
Byzantine Jews were nominally free to follow their own faith, but the Byzantine Emperors excluded Jews from rights of full citizenship and restricted the locations of their settlement and synagogues as well as their rights to engage in trade and professions (Shaw, 1991, p.18).
After Christianity was declared to be the religion of the state by Theodosius 11(408 - 450), conditions for the Jews in Byzantine Empire became worse. Theodosius excluded the Jews from most of the privileges of citizenship while imposing all sorts of burdens on them. He prohibited them from building new synagogues. Soon afterwards, during the reign of Emperor Maurice, all synagogues were changed into churches and Jews were ordered to be forcibly converted to Christianity.
The situation became even worse for the Jews as the Byzantine Empire declined. In order to restore religious unity within the collapsing empire, rulers increased the pressure upon the Jews by reissuing the old legal restrictions and condemning anyone who happened to favour Jews by allowing them to live and work beside Christians (ibid., pp.2l-3).
Jews of the Ottoman State
The collapse of Byzantium was a fortunate event for the Jews under its dominion. Even before the Ottoman State was born, as Seljuk Turks established their state around central Anatolia in the twelfth century, Byzantine Jewry sprang rapidly to their assistance welcoming the tolerance and prosperity which the rule of Islam offered them. Thousands of Jews fled from Byzantine persecution to Seljuk protection. In the following century, Ottoman Turks established their principality in north-western Anatolia. Within two centuries Ottomans had taken over most of western Anatolia and gained control of Syria, Iraq and Egypt in the East. In the West they expanded through South-eastern Europe all the way to Vienna. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent extended the Ottoman rule across North Africa almost to the Atlantic and controlled much of Caucasia.
This Ottoman expansion marked a very substantial change for the Jews of the Middle East and Europe. In complete contrast to their situation under the Byzantines, Jews entering the Ottoman dominions were allowed to practice whatever profession they wished, to engage in trade and commerce without restriction and to possess landed property and buildings in town and country (ibid., p.26). After Sultan Mehmed II conquered Istanbul in 1453, he allowed Jews to settle in Istanbul and carry out their commerce. From the start, Sultan Mehmed II encouraged the emigration of Jews from Europe even more than the Jews already living in the expanding Ottoman Empire itself. Just as the Jews of England, France, Germany, Spain, and even Poland and Lithuania were being subjected to increasing persecution, blood libels, massacres, and deportations, the Turkish rulers of the expanding Ottoman state actively encouraged them to come and live under conditions of tolerance and freedom. Mehmed II himself is said to have issued a proclamation to all Jews:
“Who among you of all my people that is with me, may his God he with him, let him ascend to Istanbul, the site of my imperial throne. Let him dwell in the best of the land, each beneath his vine and beneath his fig tree, with silver and with gold, with wealth and with cattle. Let him dwell in the land, trade in it, and take possession of it.’’
As a result of these efforts, during the three decades following the Ottoman conquest, according to a Turkish register, Istanbul’s population increased to 16,326 households including 1,647 Jewish households. By the mid-l6th century, according to a similar census in 1535, 8,070 Jewish households were listed in the capital city. The city’s Jews numbered some 40,000 - a tenth of the population. Salonica, which had no Jewish population represented in the census of 1478, had 2,645 Jewish households by 1535. (Kedourie, 1992, p.165).
Similar increases were to be found in many Ottoman centres in the Balkans and Asia Minor because the Turks trusted them. They preceded the Greeks and Armenians as bankers, physicians and interpreters, and eventually gathered most of the empire’s trade into their hands (Thubron, 1978, p.189).
The following quotes provide clear evidence that Jews of that time were happy with the Ottoman Empire as well. Rabbi Isaac Tzarfati invited the Jews who were suffering in Germany to the Turkish state:
“…Listen my brethren, to the counsel I will give you. I, too, was born in Germany and studied Torah with the German rabbis. I was driven out of my native country and came into the Turkish land, which is blessed by God and filled with all good things. Here I found rest and happiness. Turkey can also become for you the land of peace. ..If you who live in Germany knew even a tenth of what God has blessed us with in this land, you would not consider any difficulties, you would set out to come to us...Here in the land of the Turks we have nothing to complain of. We possess great fortunes; much gold and silver are in our hands. We are not oppressed with heavy taxes, and our commerce is free and unhindered. Rich are the fruits of the earth. Everything is cheap, and everyone of us lives in peace and freedom. Here the Jew is not compelled to wear a yellow hat as a badge of shame, as is the case in Germany...Arise my brethren, give up your lands, collect your forces, and come to us. Here you will be free of your enemies, here you will find rest...(Shaw, 1991, p.32).”
The most significant example of tolerance Ottomans displayed for the minorities, especially the Jews, is that they opened their land to those who were expelled from Portugal and Spain.
Jews found refuge in Ottoman lands
During the 15th century in Europe, slavery, race discrimination, religious intolerance and the cruelties and atrocities of the inquisition resulted in the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Christians were becoming more powerful and grew confident in the wake of victories over Muslims. The defeat of the Muslims in Spain made things difficult for the Jews who had been living in peace under the rule of Andalusian Muslims. They now faced restrictions and difficulties. As Christian rule solidified, there was less need for Jews, and since they were accused of the death of Jesus, Spanish Jews were subjected to the same persecutions by Christians as had taken place elsewhere in Western Europe. These persecutions and restrictions culminated in a decree of expulsion. After Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain had accepted the capitulation of the city of Granada, they decreed the expulsion of the Jewish population from their united realms.
Since the Jews in Western Europe were already under pressure, the neighboring states of Spain did not seem to be happy about large-scale immigration of Jews. Sultan Bayezid, the ruler of the Ottomans at that time, heard of the evil nature of the king of Spain and the inflictions on the Jews who were seeking refuge and a resting place. He took pity on them, wrote letters and proclaimed that the Jews were to be given a gracious welcome. Despite considerable religious conservatism of his own, Bayezid went on to decree that all Jews fleeing from Spain should be admitted to his dominions without restriction, and with the same inducements that had been offered during the reign of his predecessor. Ottoman officers were ordered to do everything they could to facilitate the entry of Iberian Jews into Ottoman territory, and strict punishments were provided against all those who mistreated the immigrants or caused them any sort of damage (ibid., p.33).
It is estimated that 250,000 Jews came from the Iberian peninsula to the Ottoman realms and settled in all parts of the Sultans territory including modern Hungary, Rumania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Greece, Egypt, and in Anatolia at Bursa, Gallipoli, Manisa, Izmir (Smyrna), Tokat and Amasya. But most commonly they settled in places that became the centres of Jewish life in the Ottoman State in the capital, Istanbul, in Eastern Thrace at Edirne (Adrenapolis), along the shores of the Aegean at Salonica. This made the Ottoman Jewish community not only the largest but also the most prosperous Jewish community in the world, during the sixteenth and early seventieth centuries, a period which constituted the golden age of Ottoman Jewry.
The Ottoman Jews did indeed live in great relief and comfort. They were allowed to follow their religious requirements and build their own synagogues as well as being free to deal in commerce. There is no evidence that shows Jews were forced to change their religion. However, a considerable number of them willingly converted to Islam.
The reason why the Ottomans displayed such tolerance to all minorities under their dominion and why they allowed Jews to enter their territory and live peacefully though they gained no benefit from doing so originates from their religious values.
Islam takes into consideration that Jews, like Muslims and Christians, were a people to whom a Divine Book was sent, although they corrupted it in the course of time. Great figures of the old Testament, like Aron, David, Solomon and Job, are all prophets and, like Jesus Christ, are mentioned in the Qur’an. God chose Moses as the Messenger for the Children of Israel. Jews, like Christians, are considered to be a people of the book, ahl al-kitab, and enjoy special religious tolerance and autonomy.
All ‘people of the book’ were allowed to preserve their religions and recognized as religiously- based communities. They paid a special ‘poll tax’ called harac or cizye. The poor, the sick and the clergy were exempt. All minorities were exempt from military service and they were admitted the right to maintain their own forms of government within their communities. While they lived in great comfort and prosperity, there were some limitations. For example, they could not marry Muslim women or bear arms. Compared to the active persecution to which Jews were subjected in the Christian lands of Europe, the world of Islam was indeed paradise for them (Shaw, 1991, ph).
The modern world may be depressing with its catalogue of holocausts and massacres which continue up until today. However, we can learn from the tolerant attitude shown by the Ottomans towards their Jewish minority that co-existence in peace is possible through the observation of Divine principles. It should give us hope. Our real hope is that all tyrants will give up their cruelty and treat others as fellow human beings.
BACON, 1. (1990) Atlas of Jewish Civilization, Andr Deutsch, London, p.144.
KEDOURIE, 5. (1992) Spain and the Jews, Thomas and Hudson, London, p.165.
SHAW, S.J. (1991) The Jews of the Ottoman Empire and The Turkish Republic, Macmillan, pp.11-33.
THUBRON, C. (1978) The Great Cities: Istanbul, Time-Life International, Netherlands, pp.189-90.U