The Salonikans and the Making of Modern Turkey

Sabbatai Zevi Credits:

The extraordinary adventures of “the Salonikans” began in 1648, when a twenty-one year old rabbi from Smyrna (Izmir) of Anatolia, named Sabbatai Zevi, announced himself to be the awaited Messiah (Ausubel 1976). After the “false” messianic message of Jesus of Nazareth, he claimed to be the real savior of the Jews.

By Sadreddin Berk Metin

News of a new Messiah was a rouser throughout the Jewish communities all across Europe. His message was quite unorthodox, and according to the Jewish clergy, blasphemous. Therefore, he was excommunicated by the Ottoman Chief Rabbinate. Not giving up, he visited the principal towns of Anatolia and preached his messianic message.

During his journeys, he was greeted by large crowds of supporters, cheering: “Long live the king of Israel!”

He managed to gather support not only from the local Jewish community, but even from countries such as the Netherlands, Germany, and Poland. Moreover, as his message was open to everyone, even some Christian and Muslim subjects of the Ottoman Empire joined him. This was when he began to be perceived as a real threat; in 1666, he was summoned by the Sultan and was forced to make a choice: Conversion or death. Sabbatai chose to live. Shocked by the fact that their messiah has converted to Islam, only a tiny proportion of his supporters remained loyal to him. They converted to Islam too, later settling in Salonica. The Turks called them Selanikliler — Salonikans, or Dönme, which literally means converts.

Their appearance resembled that of a Muslim, but they continued to semi-secretly practice their religion for centuries, notably in places they built such as the New Mosque (Yeni Cami) in Salonica and Teşvikiye Mosque in Istanbul (Baer 2006).

New Mosque (Yeni Cami) in Salonica Credits:

New Mosque (Yeni Cami) in Salonica

Teşvikiye Mosque in Istanbul Credits:

Teşvikiye Mosque in Istanbul

Salonikans were a tiny and mysterious community with considerable influence, yet their significance is often neglected. This is due to several facts: Most importantly, little is known about this community. Although it is a topic the public finds most interesting, the field is almost untouched by the Turkish academia, with the exception of a few scholars and independent researchers. There are basically no sources in Turkish, with the exception of the works of R. Bali. Secondly, (and probably worst of all,) since the field was largely ignored by academia, it came to be dominated by conspiracy theorists, who were completely ignorant of the numerous sources that were not in Turkish but either in European languages or in Hebrew. Moreover, these conspiracy theorists tried to explore it with a petty islamist/nationalist modality. This created a vicious cycle; some real researchers who were afraid to be labeled as conspiracy theorists stayed away from this “dangerous” field. On the societal level, the issue of Salonikans consists of nothing but “whispers and rumours” (Çandar). Therefore, my intention is just to establish a sense of familiarity with the rather mysterious topic by making use of the few resources that are available and to explore the role of Salonikans in the late Ottoman and early Turkish modernisation processes, especially their role in education, mostly by citing the few scholarly works on the issue.

As the Ottoman Empire entered an era of absolute decadence approximately 200 years after Sabbatai’s conversion and saw the urgent need of modernising every aspect of life, the long-forgotten Dönme community of Salonica became known once again. It has been argued that the “conventional”—non-Sabbataist Jews lost important proportions of their wealth and power in the last decades of the Empire, which could be useful with helping the modernisation process of the country, so this mission was, to a very large extent, carried out by the Salonikans, a.k.a Dönme. Under such circumstances, they became the pioneers of Turkish modernisation (Ortaylı). The diverse city of Salonica arguably became the cultural capital of Ottoman Empire.

Their contributions were numerous. The first modern European-style schools in which the elite and intelligentsia of the late Ottoman and early Turkish period studied were established and run by the Dönme. The aim of these modern schools was to “raise a generation of modern, enlightened people” (Ortaylı). The founder of the Republic of Turkey, Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk), was educated at a famous Dönme school, known as Şemsi Efendi Mektebi in Salonica. Marc David Baer, author of the book titled The Dönme (Stanford University Press) writes about Şemsi Efendi and his school:

“The school was both popular and famous for teaching critical thinking, rather than rote memorization, and for inventing a new type of blackboard. There were attacks and pressure on it, however, and the number of students declined. Finally, Şemsi Efendi was forced to close it in 1891” (Baer).

Baer writes about the Dönme schools: “The outlook of the Dönme merchant families was especially evident in their schools, where foreign and local languages, modern sciences, and business skills were taught together with religion, ethics, morals, and Dönme social bonds and boundaries. All were purposely combined in meaningful ways allowing Dönme youth to perpetuate the local and international networks of which the Dönme were a part.” He adds: “Students in Dönme schools were well prepared to engage in international commerce and serve the empire. In 1904, new courses were added that would aid future civil servants, including official-style writing, political economy, commercial law, physical geography, chemistry, economics, and economic geography.”

In 1924, as a result of the population exchange between Turkey and Greece, the Dönme, considered as Muslim Turks, were sent from Salonica—which was now in Greece, to Turkey. They continued to possess substantial wealth and constitute the educated elite of Turkey. The new Republic of Turkey, which strictly adopted secular principles, seemed to become a safe haven for them at first.

The Dönme no longer had to go to mosques as regular Muslims did, and practice the Islamic faith as every other Muslim did. However, they still claimed to be Muslims, Muslims who fully adopted secularism.

However, despite their contributions to society and eagerness to accept Republican principles, along with “official” non-Muslims of Turkey such as Greeks, Armenians, and Jews, the Dönme too suffered. In 1942, the Turkish government levied a heavy tax for non-Muslim citizens called the Capital Tax (Varlık Vergisi). The Capital Tax had two major goals: First, it aimed to aid the Turkish economy during World War Two without placing a heavier burden on Muslim citizens, but seeking to exploit those whom the government saw to be second-class citizens. Secondly, it was created to transfer wealth from non-Muslims to the Muslim/Turkish bourgeoisie, which was soon to be created. Although there were no official records proving that they were actually non-Muslims, the Dönme had to pay this special tax, too. First considered as Muslims by Greece and forcibly sent to Turkey, they were now considered non-Muslims by Turkey and condemned to give up their wealth.

Although some people, many of them being quite famous, expounded that they were of Dönme origins, it is unknown if such an organised community still exists. Their numbers are estimated to be around 100,000, the majority of whom reside in Istanbul and Izmir. The only burial place that is known to be composed only of the Dönme is Bülbülderesi Cemetery in Istanbul, which I’ve visited several times.

It is known via some testimonials that most people who had Dönme origins and discovered their ancestors did it by mistake; they were not told by their parents or grandparents. Therefore, it has been claimed by some scholars that the Salonikans decided to assimilate fully into the Turkish society, abandoning their religion and religious customs as well as their ethnic roots.

They didn’t pass on the “secret” to their children; letting them free from the burden of keeping it.

The new generations successfully joined the secular elite of Turkey. As of today, it is unknown if their religion continues to be practiced.

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