Who are the Sabbateans? They are the crypto-Jews in the Ottoman Empire, who at the end of the 17th century abandoned Judaism and accepted Islam. The community consisted of students and followers of Shavtai Tzvi/Sabbatai Zevi, who in 1666 in Istanbul accepted Islam. Tzvi is perceived by his followers as a prophet. Wary of their Muslim neighbors, the Sabbateans kept their religious practices strictly secret, which also leads to a lesser knowledge of the community.
The common name used by Muslim Turks to refer to the Sabbateans – the Jewish followers of Shavtai Tzvi who converted to Islam in the last third of the seventeenth century – is ‘dönme’ (in Turkish ‘dönme’ is a pejorative term for converted/changed one’s faith). The Sabbateans themselves preferred to be called “ma’aminim” (“believers” in Hebrew), which confirmed their belief that they had founded a new sect within Judaism that reinterpreted Messianic Judaism, but at the same time insisted on strict Muslim behavior in public places.
Historians define the denomination as mystical Islam with elements of Judaism. Sabbateans pray in mosques, visit Muslim holy sites and observe Ramadan. In their homes, however, they adhere to Jewish customs and pray in the name of “God, the God of Israel”, and their prayer is modeled after the Islamic prayer. The Sabbateans were rejected by both Jews and Muslims as heretics. At the beginning of the 20th century, the community numbered between 10 and 15 thousand people, “a closed circle of well-educated people with exceptional financial capabilities“. Despite the relatively small size of the community, their economic and political influence in Thessaloniki in this period is considered particularly significant. The ideology of the Sabbateans is considered revolutionary in its social concept, insisting on the equality of men and women, progressive in its adoption of modern European architecture and fashion, and applying advanced pedagogical methods in schools.
In her article dedicated to the Sabbateans in Thessaloniki, the Bulgarian author Albena Shkodrova wrote about Tzvi: “Born in Smyrna (Izmir) during a wave of self-proclaimed messiahs, he traveled for some time in the eastern Mediterranean and attracted followers with his claims that he would lead them to the Promised Land. (Today this is a reason for many to consider him the founder of modern Zionism).” A period followed in which Zevi crisscrossed the Balkan cities and caused unrest among the Jews. Their most numerous and influential community within the Ottoman Empire at the time was in Thessaloniki, and it was there that he managed to cause a spectacular scandal by mentioning the name of God aloud during a sermon. The Orthodox Jews threw him out of town immediately, but the integrity of their group was broken forever. Many wealthy Jewish families sold off their property and froze their businesses in anticipation of the Messiah.”, “Many of his followers followed him, creating one of the strangest religious hybrids known in the region.”.
According to Elsie, in August 1676, Tzvi wrote to the Jewish Community in Berat, Albania, requesting religious books. Shortly afterwards he died in isolation, according to some accounts on September 17, 1676, the High Holy Day of Yom Kippur. Upon his death, his widow, brother and children by his first wife moved to Thessaloniki. His tomb was believed for a long time to have been in Berat, at a tekke built in the yard of the Imperial Mosque, where a tomb stood until 1967. However, more recent research done in 1985 has suggested that he was actually buried in Ulcinj (in Montenegro). His tomb was visited by Dönme pilgrims from Salonika until the early 20th century.
At the death of Shavtai Tzvi in 1676, the sect numbered about two hundred families, mainly in Edirne, Izmir and Bursa. Some of the direct descendants of the first converts to Islam became leaders of the sect. Their number grew thanks to new conversions – a mass conversion in 1683 in Thessaloniki, which thus became the largest center of the community until the exchange of population between Turkey and Greece in 1924. In the period from 1683 to 1924. the Sabbatean community in Thessaloniki had a real influence on the social and economic life of the city and maintained close ties with the local Jewish community. For many Turks Thessaloniki is still identified with the community to this day, so much so that in Turkish “Selânikli” (Thessalonian) has come to be synonymous with a “dönme”.
The exchange of population from 1924 caused the disintegration of the community and increased assimilation into the Muslim Turkish environment (including mixed marriages), which significantly reduced the number of representatives of the sect. The hostility of parts of Turkish ultranationalists and extreme Islamists also affected their number.
According to the researcher Prof. Dr. J. Landau internal conflicts and doctrinal differences caused several divisions among the Sabbateans in Thessaloniki and beyond. There are several main groups – the so-called “Yakubis” (followers of Jacob the Philosopher, son-in-law of Shavtai Tzvi, who claimed to be the reincarnation of the Messiah Tzvi), “Izmirlis” (who claimed to be members or descendants of the original community) and “Karakashes” (separate from the Izmirlii in 1700 and also known as “Konyosi” and “Judesmo”, led by Baruhia Russo (Osman-Baba after conversion to Islam) who, like Yakub the Philosopher, claimed to be the reincarnation of Shavtai Tzvi). The Karakashes were defined as more radical and adopted a missionary program to recruit new members in Germany, Austria, and Poland. A total of about six hundred families lived in Thessaloniki in 1774, and their number reached more than ten thousand people on the eve of the First World War. The Izmirlis formed the upper layers of the Sabbateans of Thessalonica; among them were rich merchants and bankers, as well as middle-class people and intellectuals – teachers, journalists and lawyers. They were the first to be assimilated by the Muslim Turks at the end of the nineteenth century. The Yakubis consisted of the middle and lower classes – officials of all kinds. The Karakashes are mostly craftsmen-barbers, shoemakers, butchers and porters. They all lived in a certain area of Thessalonica, between the residential quarters of the Muslims and those of the Jews. They have their own schools, clubs, social centers and philanthropic institutions. Each group has its own prayer house called “kahal”, its own school taught in Turkish, and the cemetery is common to the whole community. Most members of the community were highly educated and active in the affairs of their town, although they carefully guard their Dönme identity. The Thessalonica ‘dönmes’ used two personal names, Hebrew and Turkish, according to the respective social context; many have also retained their original Sephardic names.
Sabbateans initially prayed in Hebrew, then in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). Ladino is also the language in which they create their literary works, both religious and secular. Among themselves they also use Ladino, and later, in the last years of the Ottoman Empire and in the Republic of Turkey, Turkish. Their prayer books are small in size for greater discretion. Historiography has limited information about their history and doctrines, especially since many of their writings were destroyed in the great fire of Thessaloniki in 1917. However, some information became available later, as a result of their assimilation into the common Turkish-speaking environment.
Despite the assimilationist tendencies of the late empire and then the Republic of Turkey, most Sabbateans held on to their traditional customs and beliefs. However, they could be considered neither orthodox Jews (since they worked on the Jewish holy days) nor devout Muslims (since they circumcised their sons at the age of eight days). There is still some lack of clarity about their exact ideology and religious practices. Their basic beliefs are summarized in the Eighteen Precepts (ordinances), the work of Shavtai Tzvi himself. They are supposed to correspond to the biblical Ten Commandments but are somewhat ambiguous and include instructions to read the Psalms in secret daily, behavioral recommendations to both Jews and Muslims and strict prohibitions for marriage with people outside the community.
Some Sabbateans left the Balkans and moved to Anatolia after the Balkan Wars of 1912-1913, when the Ottoman Empire lost territory.
The Republic of Turkey, established in 1923, was monolithic. Homogeneity was advocated in every field: secularism, Turkish-focused education, general use of Turkish in school, politics, social life and in cultural activities. According to J. Landau, Mustafa Kemal and his advisers saw modernity as a rejection of the multicultural heritage of the Ottoman Empire. However, those who shape public opinion have some difficulty, at least initially, in reaching a consensus definition of Turkish identity. The republic’s religious and ethnic minorities wholeheartedly supported the government’s measures to promote civil society, and the Dönmes were staunch supporters of secularism. Many Turks were unwilling to ignore existing differences and are more inclined to adopt an exclusionary approach towards minorities. The restraint and discretion of the Sabbateans are regarded by the Turkish majority as suspicious, and they are accused of “fraudulent” Mohammedanization. As for minorities, many Muslim Turks in an ethnolinguistic nation in the making felt that those born outside the majority genealogy had no right to be accepted as equal citizens. The tax “varlık vergisi” imposed in Turkey from 1942 to 1944 discriminated against the Sabbateans, taxing them higher than Muslims, who paid the least, and lower than Jews, who pay the most. In the Ottoman Empire, anti-Semitism was not particularly widespread. In the Young Turk period, it was manifested mainly by spokesmen of the ultra-nationalist right and extreme Islamists – elements whose political activity increased dramatically from the beginning of the 1970s. They define the Sabbateans as outsiders in Turkey. There is a theory that Atatürk himself, who was born in Thessaloniki, was a Sabbatean.
Why were Sabbateans accused of different conspiracies? Extreme Turkish nationalists accused the Dönme of having taken a leading part in the Young Turk plot in Thessaloniki, thus contributing to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the destruction of its traditions. Islamists accused them not only of still being crypto-Jews and not Muslims, but of abolishing the caliphate and conspiring to introduce of secularism in Turkey, thereby causing the decline of Islam there. Both groups accused the Sabbateans of participating in, or even orchestrating, a worldwide conspiracy to “westernize” Turkey and of being in league with communists and other subversive elements seeking to dominate Turkey and the world. Some of these arguments were used against both the Sabbateans and the Jewish community. In periodicals, and after 1970 in books in Turkish, the Sabbatians were accused of harming the republic economically and politically, and of a secret anti-Turkish conspiracy between Sabbatians, Jews, Freemasons and Communists.
Jacob Landau makes a thorough review on the written articles and books in Turkey on the subject. According to him, a monograph that attempts a more balanced examination of the community is Selahatin Galip’s Belgelerle Türkiye’de dönmeler ve dönmelik (Dönme and dönmelik in Turkey with documents). Half of the book is devoted to Shavtai Tzvi, whom Galip repeatedly calls a “false messiah” and a “false Muslim.” The remainder of the book examines the Sabbateans of Thessalonica, their main divisions and customs, their transfer to Turkey in 1924, and assimilationist tendencies. Sabbatians in the Republic of Turkey are also briefly examined. Dönmeler ve dönmelik tarihi (History of Dönme and Dönmelik) by Abdurahman Küçük is a longer work than Galip’s and takes a strong stand against the Sabbateans as well as against the Jews, Freemasons and Zionists. After a long exposition of Jewish history, Küçük examines Shavtai Tzvi and the Sabbateans. The texts present the community (and the Jews) in the worst possible light – a “deceitful, ungrateful minority” hostile to Turkey and seeking to take over the country’s governance. Yahudilik ve Dönmeler (Jewry and Dönmeler) by Yesevizade (pen name of Şükrü Alparslan Yasa) is part of the series of volumes Yahudilik ve masonluk (Jewry and Freemasonry), Masonluk ve Kapitalizm (Freemasonry and Capitalism) and Şeytanın dini masonluk (Freemasonry – Satan’s Religion), published in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Yesevizadeh’s book features the author’s claims aimed at “proving” that many politicians and businessmen in Turkey and abroad are Jews or Sabbateans, part of a universal conspiracy (along with the Freemasons) to dominate the world. Ilgaz Zorlu wrote a number of articles and later a book, “Evet, ben Selanikliyim” (Yes, I am a Thessalonian), which dealt with the history of Sabbatism, the community’s beliefs, and other issues. Zorlu claims to be a Sabbatarian, and his writings are accepted as Sabbatarian confessions, despite factual and other errors. Landau described Zorlu’s approach as unscientific. In 2004, Toksoz B. Karasu (a Jew born in Erzurum) published the novel Yahudi Efendi (Mr. Jew) in 2004, in which he addressed the hostility towards the Sabbateans and the Jews.
According to the Turkish “Encyclopedia of Islam” on the current state of Sabbateans, there are currently around 30-40,000 Sabbateans living in Turkey, mostly in Edirne, Istanbul, Izmir, Ankara and Bursa. The encyclopedia also states that they work in various fields – mostly in foreign affairs, finance, education, media and universities, commerce, and industry. There are also Sabbateans who have achieved considerable success, and that some of them are among the most influential intellectuals, newspaper owners, and columnists in Turkey today.
Based on the research of specialists such as Landau, more is known about the history and traditions of the Sabbatians than about their current state (after their transfer to Turkey in 1924), as well as about their social, economic, and cultural activities. Although some serious researches have been published in the West and less frequently in Turkey, what is known is often unreliable and mainly contained in works in Turkish by researchers outside the community, many of them unscientific, based on conspiracy theories or biased. I consider the topic of this almost unknown Balkan community to be of great scientific interest, both in historical and cultural aspect.
This article was originally published in Balkans in-site on September 29, 2022.
- Jacob M. Landau, „The Dönmes: Crypto-Jews under Turkish Rule“, Jewish Political Studies Review, 2007
- Jacob M. Landau, Politics and Islam: The National Salvation Party in Turkey, Research Monographs, No. 5 (Salt Lake City: Middle East Center, University of Utah, 1976).
- Jacob M. Landau, Radical Politics in Modern Turkey (Leiden: Brill, 1974).
- Selahattin Galip, Belgelerle Türkiye’de dönmeler ve dönmelik (Istanbul: Kıraçlı Yayınları, 1977).
- Nikos Stavroulakis, “Shabbetai Zevi and the Dönme of Thessaloniki,” Forum on the Jewish People, Zionism and Israel, 1984
- Jacob Barnai, Sabbatism: Public Amphibians (Jerusalem, 2000).
- Robert Elsie, Historical Dictionary of Albania (Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).
- Albena Shkodrova, „Дюнме, една от големите енигми на Солун“, https://web.archive.org/web/20091225075402/http://www.balkantravellers.com/bg/read/article/290
- M. Şükrü Hanioğlu, “Jews in the Young Turk Movement”.
- Abdurrahman Küçük, Dönmeler ve dönmelik tarihi (Istanbul: Ötüken, 1990).
- Ilgaz Zorlu, Evet, ben Selanikliyim (Istanbul: Belge Yayınları, 1998).