In Muslim lands Jews along with Christians were considered dhimmi, or “people of the pact.” The dhimmi status was based on a few Qur’anic statements, from Sura 9-29- “Fight against those to whom the Scriptures were given and who believe not in God nor in the Last Day, who forbid not what God and His apostle have forbidden and follow not the true faith, until they pay the tribute out of hand and are humbled” and “There is no compulsion in religion.” These statements created a legal foundation for the toleration of the dhimmi within Muslim domains. The dhimmi were to be tolerated and had freedom to practice their religions but they were put under certain restrictions, and in that sense their legal status did not differ from that of Jews in Christian lands. As the dhimmi, Jews and Christians were subject to-

• A special tax (the jizya);

• A prohibition against carrying arms;

• A prohibition against riding horses;

• A prohibition against building new houses of worship or repairing old ones;

• Prohibitions against public processions and worship;

• A prohibition against proselytism;

• A requirement to wear distinctive clothing;

• A prohibition against building homes higher than Muslim ones.

As with any legal restrictions, the fact that they were decreed did not mean that they were always enforced. There were regional differences as well. In the Shiite areas, for example, all non-Muslims were regarded as ritually impure, thus stricter laws were imposed on them. Still, Jewish culture flourished in many places. The early modern period for Jews under Ottoman rule was a period of remarkable political and cultural success.

The territory under Ottoman rule stretched from Anatolia (today’s Turkey) through Syria, Palestine, Egypt, parts of Arabia, and parts of North Africa (excluding Morocco). In 1534, Mesopotamia (today’s Iraq) was added. And by the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, Ottoman control extended into Europe, as far as Vienna and Budapest. In 1541 the latter city became a seat of the provincial Ottoman governor, the pasha.

The Jewish population in the Ottoman Empire was diverse. It included the Romaniot Jews, mostly Greek-speaking and following the Romanian liturgy in the Balkans; Ashkenazic Jews who found their way to the empire either as a result of persecution or in search of economic opportunities; and Sephardic Jews who settled there following the Expulsion from Spain. There were also indigenous Jews in Arab lands, in Palestine, Egypt, Mesopotamia, Syria, and North Africa.

Most prominent and most studied among the Jews of Ottoman lands have been the Sephardim, whose political and cultural influence in the Ottoman Empire was remarkably high. When they were invited to settle, they were perceived as westerners who had extensive contacts with Europe, who knew European languages, and who brought new knowledge and technologies, including the latest methods in medicine, warfare technology, and printing. They were also prominent merchants who traded with European markets. In the arts, they introduced theater into the Ottoman courts. Given that the Ottoman Empire was engaged in military conflict with Christians, Sephardic Jews in particular were regarded potential allies, diplomats, and spies.

The power of the Sephardim in the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century is vividly illustrated by an episode that occurred in 1555-6. In the Italian port town of Ancona, under papal rule, ex-conversos had been able to settle, protected by Pope Paul III and Julius III. But in 1555 the Counter-Reformation pope Paul IV sent a legate to Acona to prosecute practicing Jews who had been baptized in the Iberian Peninsula. While some of the ex-conversos managed to flee, 51 were arrested and 25 were burned at the stake in the summer of 1555. In angry response, the Sephardic merchants in the Ottoman Empire, led by the remarkable ex-converso philanthropist and organizer Doña Gracia Nasi, organized a boycott of the port of Ancona. While the boycott was thwarted by internal Jewish dissension, the effort reflects the recognition on the part of the Ottoman Jewish merchants of their political and mercantile leverage.

Jews in the Ottoman Empire lived in kehillot headed by a rabbi, or hakham. All distinct groups had their own quarters called mahalle. These communities and quarters were structured around a synagogue. Sometimes, there were several Jewish communities in one town. Bernard Lewis illustrates this with the example of Edirne, where the following communities were established, named after their place of origin- Catalan, Portugal, Germany, Spain, Apulia, Toledo, and Lisbon. The decentralization of Jewish life in the Ottoman Empire was reinforced by the fact that there was no central Jewish authority there until the position of a chief rabbi, hakham bashi, was created in the nineteenth century.

By the eighteenth century, the Ottoman Jewish communities slowly began to decline, perhaps mirroring the decline of the empire itself, which was severely impacted by the burgeoning Atlantic trade and the gradual decline of Mediterranean trade. At the end of the seventeenth century, the Ottoman Empire lost some territories in Central Europe, and in the eighteenth century it suffered significant losses to Russia. The weakening of the Empire caused, by way of reaction, an increase in acts of hostility against the minorities, and stricter enforcement of the dhimmi laws. The decline of Jewish life was marked by the Jews’ loss of their dominant position in trade and technology, as they were gradually displaced by Christians with active European political contacts.