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Some historians believe a Jewish presence in Asia Minor can be traced back to the Babylonian exile

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Sardis synagogue late 3rd century, the oldest synagogue in actual Turkey. (Photo: Jewishtourism.wordpress.com)

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A widespread belief that Jews of Turkey arrived in Ottoman lands after their expulsion from Isabelle’s and Ferdinand’s Spain in 1492 is rooted in the mind of many people in Turkey. However, when Turkic tribes started to pour into Asia Minor in the 11th century, coming from the East to confront the Byzantine Emperors, Jews were already there… They are called Romaniotes.

Those were the Jews that Mehmet the Conqueror would find in 1454, when Constantinople fell to Ottoman hands.

The Anatolian peninsula, also known as Asia Minor, received its first Jewish population well before the fall of Jerusalem to the Roman armies, in 70 AD. In fact, to some historians, a Jewish presence can be traced till the Babylonian exile and its aftermath. The Persian capture of Babylon not only allowed Jews to go back to Jerusalem and build the second temple, but also gave those willing to stay there the possibility to enrich their lives culturally and commercially.

It’s known that Jews were running important positions and businesses during these times. With the encouragement of the Persian rulers, they have been the first to start commerce with the Hellenistic city-states of Western Anatolia. This was the golden age of the ancient Greek civilisation. To trade with these cities allowed the Jews of Babel to settle in these fruitful lands.

Based on evidence, it is said that Sardis, near today’s Izmir in Turkey, is the first important Jewish settlement in the region and goes back to the fourth century BC. Excavations here and there have proven that many synagogues were built in those times, the one in Sardis dating back to 220 BC, being the biggest. Some other sites also may be added to that list: Akmoneia, Pergamon, Tralleis, Ephesus, all situated in Western Anatolia.

Later came the Roman of invasion of Asia Minor starting from 188 BC which ended with Jerusalem’s capture in 70 AD. That was “when everything started”, for the Jews that were to move from place to place, from continent to continent, for the next 20 centuries.

Asia Minor was one of the destinations settled by Jews kicked out from their homeland. It’s known that well integrated, vibrant Jewish life was present during the Roman and later the Byzantine era. Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamon, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, Leodekeia were sites where Jewish population were living. However, one should also note that these sites were where the early form of Christianity was seen. Thus, it will not be wrong to say that the Jewish population served as a stimulus on the first steps of Christianity despite the strong measures taken by the Roman authorities.

This was true not only for the Western part of Asia Minor but also for the southern cities like Alexandretta, Antioch and Tarsus, home to the activities where Jesus’s legacy was first to spread.

Jewish born and Jewish sainted Jesus, obviously would have an audience among the Jewish population of Anatolia. However, it would be impossible to think that all Jews were converted to Christianity or that every Christian was a Jew at his / her origin.

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Constantine the Great has been the first emperor that converted to Christianity. With him started a new era in Roman political life: An era during which Rome has acted as the main diffuser of the new religion.

In 325 AD he summoned the First Council of Nicaea, today’s Iznik in Turkey. Among the various outcomes of this convention attended by prominent figures representing various churches around the Roman Empire, some were directly related to Judaism and Jewish people. The most striking was obviously the definite break of Christianity from the Jewish tradition.

“We also send you the good news of the settlement concerning the holy pasch, namely that in answer to your prayers this question also has been resolved. All the brethren in the East who have hitherto followed the Jewish practice will henceforth observe the custom of the Romans and of yourselves and of all of us who from ancient times have kept Easter together with you.”

Mehmet the Conqueror at the gates of Istanbul, a drawing of Fausto Zonaro

The celebration of the Lord’s Supper on the evening before the Jewish Passover was prohibited by the Council. Then the lunisolar Jewish calendar was replaced with the Julian Calendar. The way was opened to a Christianity less and less dependent on Jewish ways from where it originated. This brought a kind of friction between Jews and converted Jews / Christians. Laws defining a new equilibrium were made. Should one call these frictions the early form of antisemitism based on religious grounds, remains something to be discussed.

The sinusoidal relations of Jews with the Byzantine rulers will then be sited on a legal standing hanging somewhere between “pagans and heretics” and the “Christian Eastern Orthodox” faith, which became the state religion. The social freedom attributed to Jews would therefore vary with time, depending largely on how the Emperor would see things…

The theological desire of the state to maintain the Jews as a “leaving testament” given to Christianity; the desire of the state to strengthen its control and the ability of centralised rule from Constantinople, the Byzantine capital – center of the Ecumenical Orthodox Church, to enforce its legislation.

Marsel Russo was born in Istanbul and was raised in a secular Jewish family. He holds a Chemistry degree and an MBA. His deep interest in the Jewish history of the 20th century, as well as other topics, has appeared since 2005 in Shalom, the weekly newspaper of the Jewish community of Turkey.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

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Our ability to thrive and grow in 2020 and beyond depends on the generosity of committed readers and supporters like you.

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