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The Jews of Turkey
By Mike Martin - March 29, 2009


Zulfaris Synagogue, Turkey
(Photo:Yusuf Pinhas)
Jews have been living in Turkey and the area before it was known as Turkey, Asia Minor, for over 2,000 years. There are even references to that part of the world in the Bible stretching back to Noah’s ark landing on Mount Ararat and in Acts 14:1 it talks of people entering the synagogue of the Jews in Iconium that is now called Konya in today’s Turkey. There is also physical evidence of a Jewish community in Turkey as far back as the 4th century B.C. including in the city of Sardis, one of the most important cities of the Persian Empire. It appears that Jews were relatively free in these areas and did not particularly suffer from any more persecution than the regular population and lived in relative peace up until the Ottoman Empire.

When the Romans overran Judea and expelled the Jews from Jerusalem in 70 C.E many of the Jews fled to Spain and Portugal where they established thriving communities. But these Jews came under extreme persecution from the authorities and the Catholic Church in the 14th and 15th centuries and were finally expelled in 1492. The Jews of Spain sought a new home for their families and they found a welcome waiting for them from the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, Beyazid II who issued a formal invitation to exiled Jews and they started arriving in the empire in great numbers.

The Sultan was not just being charitable. He knew of the Jewish prowess in commerce and finances and as a Muslim he had a great distrust of Christians. It turned out to be a near perfect fit. The Jews settled all over Turkey and throughout the Ottoman sphere of influence which included Syria and Egypt at that time. They established a large community of 30, 000 Jews and built 44 synagogues in Istanbul alone.
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