In 1492, the year Columbus sailed westward from Spain, that nation’s Catholic rulers expelled its Jews. Many came east, to Turkey, where their descendants have lived in relative peace.
As several countries plan observances of the historic voyage 500 years ago, Turkey’s Jews prepare to celebrate their own special anniversary and honor Bayezit II, the Muslim sultan who welcomed the Spanish outcasts.
About 26,000 Jews now live in Turkey, a predominantly Muslim nation of 57 million.
Jak Kamhi, president of the Quincentennial Foundation, said the Jews want “to express our thanks for having found a safe haven and a lasting home here, and tell the world about Turkey.” The foundation also has Muslim members.
An estimated 150,000 Jews arrived in Turkey from Spain. Bayezit is quoted as having said at the time: “The Catholic monarch Ferdinand was wrongly considered as wise, since he impoverished Spain by the expulsion of the Jews and enriched Turkey.”
In prosperity and creativity, the Ottoman Jews came to rival those of Spain’s Golden Age, which ended with the Inquisition.
Most court physicians were Jews, and Jews brought the first printing press to the Ottoman Empire from Europe.
Jews often conducted the empire’s diplomacy. Salamon ben Nathan Eskenazi, for example, arranged the first diplomatic relations with Britain.
Turkey was the only Muslim country to recognize Israel on its creation in 1948.
Sami Kohen, a prominent journalist, said the 500th anniversary celebration “is a milestone for the Jews, who . . . are the descendants of the refugees who survived the Inquisition by coming to Turkey.”
“It is, likewise, a happy event for the Muslim Turks, whose ancestors offered them a safe haven and later absorbed them as equal citizens,” he said.
Life in Turkey has not always been easy for Jews.
In the 1930s, there were anti-Jewish riots at Edirne, near the Bulgarian border. They and other minorities were subjected to heavy taxes in the early 1940s that ruined many families.
Two Arabic-speaking terrorists burst into Istanbul’s Neve Shalom synagogue in 1986 and killed 22 worshipers.
Today, Jews worry about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in this officially secular country, but feel the benefits of life in Turkey far outweigh the difficulties.
Turkish Jews and Muslims organized the Quincentennial Foundation of Istanbul in 1989 to prepare for the anniversary. The government has not contributed financially, but has expressed its support.
The foundation will organize and sponsor exhibitions, symposiums, film showings and performances of dance, folklore and theater through 1992. Three concerts by the Israeli Philharmonic are scheduled for July and August of the anniversary year.
Verdi’s “Nabucco,” the story of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar, will be performed by the Turkish State Opera at the Roman amphitheater at Aspendos near Antakya, on the Mediterranean coast.
Events also are planned in other countries, including the United States, Britain, France and Italy.
Jews lived in Turkey long before 1492. Remnants of Jewish settlements from the 4th Century BC have been found in the Aegean region, and ruins of a synagogue at Sardis, near Izmir, date from 220 BC.
Communities of Jews flourished in Anatolia, or Asia Minor, during the 1,000 years of Byzantine rule and continued to prosper after the Turkish conquest.
In more recent times, the Jews of Turkey were kept from harm during World War II and Turkish diplomats saved Jews in other countries. Turkey was neutral until February, 1945, when it declared war on Germany.
Turkey had more than 100,000 Jews in the 1930s, including many who had fled the Nazis. The number dwindled with emigration in the late 1940s to Israel, Western Europe and the United States.
Sephardic Jews, whose ancestors came from Spain, make up 96% of those remaining.