King Faisel visits Baghdad Jewish CommunityFor the last few years, interest in the history of the Jewish Community that dwelt in Iraq has increased, especially the community who lived in Baghdad and which was the most significant and numerous of all other Iraqi Jewish communities, just prior to the mass Aliya which spelled the end of the ancient Babylonian Diaspora. Considerable interest has been shown not only by members of the community and their offspring, who are scattered all over the world and who want to know something of their origins, but also by researchers seeking common roots of various populations, in order to investigate various medical manifestations. However, what little research has been conducted regarding the history of Iraqi Jews in the latter generations, especially from the 14th Century to the present day, never touched upon this subject.

Investigations of the chronicles of the Jewish community in Baghdad during the second Millennium have always drawn a blank, when they encountered some break in the lineage of Baghdadi Jewish families in the 20th Century, from their historical origins as the offspring of the Babylonian Diaspora, the Geonim and the Exilarchs. This manifestation became increasingly significant later due to the liquidation of the Iraqi community ≠ the Exodus of Iraqi Jews from the land of their exile in the second half of the 20th Century and their settlement in Israel, Western Europe, the United States, Australia and the Far East.

Members of this exodus started to search for their origins and tried to trace their family lineages. These family trees, tens of which have reached the Babylonian Jewry Heritage Center, have indicated that families of Baghdadi Jews do not possess family trees tracing their lineage prior to the end of the 17th Century. The only family who claimed a lineage dating back to the 12th Century was the family of Abdalla Yosef Faraj, who left Spain and arrived by way of Aleppo to Basra and thence to Baghdad in the18th Century. The meager writings concerning the history of the Iraqi Jewish families corroborate these findings, which actually contradict Iraqi Jews’ claim, regarding both the old-time inhabitants and those who, relatively, only recently arrived in Baghdad and Basra, that they are the offspring of those same Jews, who were exiled to Babylon together with King Yehuyachin. This claim is shared by non-Jewish citizens and by visitors and travelers who arrived in Iraq in the last centuries.

This lineage of the first Babylonian exiles does not refer only to the Jews who settled in Iraq or immigrated to Iraq. It also refers to Iraqi Jews who immigrated to new settlements in the Far East starting in the middle of the 18th Century, and in England, the USA and Canada in the 20th Century. We found that Jews who immigrated to Babylon have tended to link themselves to the Babylonian lineage both whilst they lived in Babylon and also after they left it to build new communities out of Babylon. This had a strong effect on their assimilation within the local community of Baghdad at the period under discussion.

Let us now draw an outline of the events, which the Jewish Community in Baghdad had undergone in the 18th Century according to the sources in our possession.

Political and Economical Changes

In the 18th Century there emerged in Iraq and the whole region, a political and economical formation, which has aided the development of the Jewish communities in Baghdad and Basra, and of the decline of the Jewish centers in Aleppo, Kurdistan and Persia.

The Mamlooks rose to power in Iraq, and, for the first time after Ottoman occupation, united the districts of Baghdad, Basra, Shahrazor and Kurdistan in a sort of autonomous self-government subordinate to the rule of the Ottoman Government in Istanbul. Baghdad became the Wali’s seat of government as both the political and administrative center of Iraq. Their long rule (1704-1831), apart from short periods of governors’ replacements and wars with Persia and insurgent tribes, brought security and economic prosperity to Baghdad whose population grew to almost 100,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the 19th Century. This development was further enhanced when the British assumed control of the trade sealanes from Basra to the Far East, and Britain’s control of the commercial traffic in this sea-lane. Thus, for the first time since the Abbasid period, the trade lane from the Mediterranean to the Far East had been secured. This trend even grew with the weakening of Persia, the declining trade in Persian silk and the emergence of new sources in India and China that supplied this raw material to the European manufacturers. Consequently, financial opportunities in Baghdad and Basra grew, and so did Jewish immigration to these cities from neighboring countries. Some of the immigrants were agents of traders who were stationed in Aleppo and the Far East. Furthermore, several Jewish immigrants from Syria, Eretz Yisrael and Turkey passing on their way to the Far East through Iraq chose to settle in Baghdad and Basra.

During the 18th Century, the Jewish community in Aleppo had a significant and important influence on the communities in Baghdad and Basra. The sources at hand indicate very close ties between these communities, and the emergence of small settlements of Jews of Syrian origin in Baghdad and Basra. Some of them were Spaniards who continued their close trade and family ties with their hometowns. Among them were Jews from a high socio-economic layer who took part in the lay and spiritual leadership of the communities of Baghdad and Basra. This immigration was motivated by-

A) The desire of the Spanish Jews in Aleppo to free themselves from the restrictions of the Levant British Company and the refusal of the British Levant Co. and the French traders to allow them to practice international trade under their patronage.

B) This British and French attitude prevented the Spanish Jews in Aleppo from entering into the Levant trade.

By the mid 18th Century the financial position of the Spanish Jews in Aleppo deteriorated even more with the rise of the Syrian Christian’s influence on international trade when they established commercial centers at Mediterranean ports and took over the transit trade.

Aleppo Jews in Baghdad

The domination by the British East India Company of the trade lanes from the Far East to Iraq encouraged Jewish Spanish traders to settle in Baghdad, Basra and trade centers in the Far East, in order to exploit the new trade opportunities. Unlike the Levant Company, the British East India Company whose trading domain included the Far East, Persia, Basra and Baghdad, allowed Jews free trade, used their help in its transactions and went as far as to grant them British patronage. In the second half of the 18th Century, the British formally declared Basra as the seat of the Agency of the East India Company and empowered the Agency to control the trading activity of the Company in the Persian Gulf. This trade turned Basra into a regional and international trade center. Shiploads of Indian goods docked and unloaded, and convoys left to Baghdad and thence to Aleppo, Izmir, (which, then has become an important trading center), Istanbul, Alexandria, London, Marseille, Venice and Amsterdam.

The British employed in their trade leading Jewish figures from the community in Basra. Among them were Spaniards from Aleppo who were employed as their own foreign exchange bankers.

It seems that this afforded the background to an incident which took place in Basra in 1791, when the leader of the Jewish Community, Choja Abdallah Ben Yosef Faraj, himself a Spaniard who arrived from Aleppo, exploited the incident of murder and disappearance of a Jew under mysterious circumstances on Easter Eve, in order to incite the community against the local Christians in flagrant confrontation with their own leader, the British resident.

From the struggle to control international trade in the city, and accusing the Christians of the ritual murder of a Jew, we can conclude that the whole incident was influenced by the Spanish background of community’s leaders and the prevailing tensions between Spanish Jews and local Christians in Aleppo due to a similar struggle there. But unlike the situation in Aleppo, where Jews were removed from international trade, the Syrian Jews in Basra used their strong position, their influence with the Mutasalim (Governor) of Basra and the assistance of their Baghdadi brothers influence with the Wali in Baghdad to try to remove their competitors from international trade. They might have succeeded had not the British resident in Basra, stood fast to save the Christians.

The sources at hand paint a picture of strong and extensive trade ties between Jews in Aleppo and the Jews of Baghdad and Basra. Syrian traders appointed agents in Baghdad and Basra. They left their families in Aleppo for trade reasons. Some traders from both communities divided their time between Baghdad and Aleppo. Sometimes there were traders of the same family, some of whom settled in Aleppo and others in Baghdad and Basra. Trade ties included partnerships, financing transfer of goods, litigations in Aleppo and Baghdad and even compromise and conciliation in disputes between traders. Family relations were established between Iraqi and Syrian Jews, and in cases of epidemics or persecutions, Baghdadi traders took refuge in Aleppo until things cooled down.

The influence of the Syrian Jews in Baghdad was so great that they invited Rabbi Sedaka Husin to sit in the Baghdad Rabbinate in 1743-1773. Another version based on evidence given by Baghdadi Jews, 50 families from Aleppo accompanied Rabbi Husin to Baghdad in 1743. It seems that this information is based on the fact that there existed a settlement of Aleppo Jews in Baghdad. Rabbis of Aleppo origin sat in the local rabbinical court of law in Basra.

Immigration of Jews from Persia and Kurdistan

In addition to the Jewish immigration from Aleppo, the political instability and the wars in Persia in the 18th Century, motivated Persian Jews to immigrate to Baghdad and Basra as a part of a more massive immigration of Persian Christians and Muslims too, to Iraq. This immigration is described by Sauveboeuf who was staying in Baghdad in the 1780s-

There are in Baghdad many Persians who settled with their families in this city. Armenian refugees from Shulfa, a suburb of Isfahan, have arrived here as well, bringing with them their wealth and artistic talents. This city (Baghdad) owes its expansion to the Persians and Arabs who were fed up with desert life, but maybe it is also due to Baghdad’s convenient geographical location for developing trade ties.

Jews in Persia have always suffered from financial difficulties and religious persecution forcing them to convert to Islam, except during the rule of Nadir Shah (1734-1747). Their situation especially deteriorated towards the end of the century. This motivated Jews to leave their communities in Persia and emigrate to Baghdad, Basra and Kurdistan. The information we have bear witness to a growing attachment of Persian Jews to Baghdadi Jews and the establishment of trade ties between them. We have indications that some families, who settled in Baghdad, left some of their own family members in Persia, a typical manifestation characteristic of immigrants everywhere. In the 18th Century the emigration of Jews from Kurdistan and Ana to Baghdad and Basra, coinciding with the decline of the economy in the region, which was part of the Aleppo trade region. Jews also arrived in Baghdad and Basra from Damascus, Istanbul, Eretz Yisrael and Germany.

We have no estimate of the number of Jews in Baghdad during the 18th Century. By the beginning of the 19th Century their number was estimated at about 6,000-7,000 and they had two synagogues.

The Leadership

The events, which the Baghdadi Community underwent in that period created the right conditions for the emergence of a stable and influential leadership. For the first time since the period of the Geonim, we are witnessing prominent leaders in the communities of Baghdad and Basra being appointed chief treasurers by governors, giving them political and financial ability to serve as Presidents (Nasi) of the community. It seems that the creation of the post of President to lead the Baghdadi Community is somehow connected to the Mamlooks rule, who established an autonomous rule headed by a single ruler who needed loyal professionals to administer his income and finance his expenses. The political and economical changes, which influenced this region in that period as indicated above, created the right conditions for the emergence, in Baghdad and Basra, of really big traders who engaged in local and international businesses, and established extensive relations with traders and agents in the Far East and the Levant. In conducting their business, they were helped by the Baghdadi settlements, which started to emerge at the trading centers in Kuchin and Surat, and the trading posts along the Persian Gulf. The first Baghdadi President known was Moshe Mordechai Shindookh, who presided in the thirties and forties of the 18th Century, and was followed by other Presidents. Sometimes two Presidents jointly led the community. Even though the President retained unlimited authority, since he was close to the ruler and was very powerful, his post as chief treasurer of the governor was fraught with dangers to his financial standing and his personal safety. Though we do not know of any Presidents in Baghdad or Basra who were executed by Mamlooks rulers in the 18th Century, it was reported that President Moshe Mordechai was forced to pay extortion money to the Wali in Baghdad just to avoid persecution by the Baghdadi Wali.

Rabbis from the Mizrahi family and others from Kurdistan continued to serve as spiritual leaders of the community until the passing away of Rabbi Shlomo Mizrahi in an epidemic in 1742. At that time the President of the Baghdadi Community Moshe Ben Mordechai Shindookh requested the Aleppo Community to recommend and send a Rabbi for the Baghdadi Community. The chief Rabbi of Aleppo, Rabbi Shmuel Laniado, chose Rabbi Sedaka Ben Saadia Husin for this post. It seems that the Baghdadi President’s request to send a competent Rabbi to the post of the spiritual leadership, and the latters choice of Rabbi Husin who was a well known and respected Rabbi even before his arrival in Baghdad, not only emphasizes the close ties which existed between the two communities and the existence of a community of Aleppo Jews in Baghdad, but also interaction of far reaching consequences to the Jewish community in Baghdad.

Because, unlike what happened a hundred years before when Rabbis, lacking in their religious knowledge, left no written works and did not care to prepare and educate a new generation that could continue to serve as future Rabbis of such a growing and influential community, a well known Rabbi was sent, who grew in a community with a long tradition in Torah studies and which had produced famous Rabbis. Just as the appointment of an able and competent president contributed to the strengthening of the lay leadership of the community, the appointment of a Rabbi of such stature strengthened the spiritual leadership of the community and caused Baghdad to be a spiritual center which would influence the neighboring communities and the settlements of Babylonian Jews in the Far East.

Rabbi Husin served in the rabbinical court in Baghdad for 30 years, and until he passed away in the epidemic in 1773, was accepted as an authority in Halakha by the Jewish communities in Persia, Kurdistan and India.The central spiritual role of the Baghdadi Community and its influence on the communities of Persia, Kurdistan and India continued in the days of Rabbi Saleh Masliah (1775-1781) and the other rabbis who followed.

The researcher, Prof. Meir Benayahu wrote regarding the community leadership in Baghdad in the 18th Century- There is a recognized importance to the attachment of the communities of Persia and Kurdistan to Baghdad. The president of the Baghdadi community and their Rabbi were considered to have valid power and jurisdiction on those communities too. The wheel has turned, before the 18th Century the Baghdadi Community needed the support of those communities, now the Baghdadi Community influenced them. Thus the Baghdadi Community established in the 18th century powerful lay and spiritual organizations, which were able to manage the absorption and integration of future massive immigration of Jews from Kurdistan and Persia in the 19th Century.


  • Excerpts from- Zvi Yehuda, Changes in the Jewish Settlement in Baghdad in the 12th-18th C. in Y. Avishur and Z. Yehuda (eds.)- Studies in the History and Culture of the Jews in Babylonian, (Or-Yehuda 2002), pp. 9-29 (Hebrew).