Sephardi Jews fleeing from Spain and Portugal were welcomed with open arms by the Turks, who found it hard to believe their good fortune in acquiring so many talented, cultivated and useful subjects. Indeed Sultan Bayazid II even sent two of his own ships into Lisbon harbor to take off Jewish refugees in 1497.

The Ottoman Turks, it should be remembered, were a highly successful nation of warriors. It was beneath their dignity to engage in occupations other than the army, the government or the Mosque; and they despised commerce and crafts. They also disdained to colonize their far-flung empire or settle in its cities.

The Jews provided the Ottoman Empire with the nucleus of a new middle class-one that was free from political ambition and on which the Turks could rely for a degree of loyalty that they were unable to obtain from the newly conquered subject peoples of their huge empire. To the Turks, the Jews were by far the most productive and stable non-Turkish minority in their domains.

In the interval of over three hundred years, the special interests of the Jews were represented at court by the great Jewish merchants of the day such as Doña Gracia Mendes, Don Joseph Nasi (Duke of Naxos) and Solomon ibn Yaish (Duke of Mitelene). Moses Hamon, personal physician to Suleiman the Magnificent must also have wielded powerful influence-for it was he who obtained the firman of 1553 in which the Sultan forbad the bringing of blood-libel accusations against Jews.

Under the benevolent sway of the Grand Turk, the Iberian Sephardim joined existing Jewish communities all over the Ottoman Empire. They settled around the shores of the Mediterranean, penetrating up through the Balkans towards central Europe, and eventually across Turkey to Baghdad and beyond. Usually superior in education and culture to the local Jews in whose midst they settled, the Sephardim at first jealously preserved their separate identity, forming themselves into a kind of aristocracy. In time, though, they either succeeded in absorbing the older-established resident Jews or else merged into them.

excerpted From: Roth, Cecil. Doņa Gracia of the House of Nasi. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1948.



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