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When the Ottoman Empire replaced the Byzantine Empire in the 14th century, it found Jewish communities with origins dating back to Roman times. The Turkish Jews welcomed the Ottoman invasion for their situation had been hard under Christian Byzantine rule. Under the rule of Islam, they were granted religious liberty, security against attack, and the right to own land. This period of prosperity and calm lasted several centuries as Turkey became a haven for persecuted Jews throughout Europe. Jews played an important role in the courts of the sultans as ministers, scholars, and physicians; often, they were able to intervene on behalf of their less fortunate brethren in other countries.

In 1453, Sultan Mohammed II conquered Constantinople, and that city became a center of Jewish cultural and political life. In 1492, Sultan Bayazid II welcomed Jews who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal. Many of these settled in Palestine, which fell under Turkish rule from 1516 until the end of World War I. A great influx of Sephardic Jews with their highly developed cultural tradition, as well as many of Europe‘s foremost scholars and physicians, enriched Turkey. The great Sephardic spiritual centers at Salonica and Smyrna flowered in the 16th and 17th centuries. Turkish Jews attained their greatest prominence during the reigns of Suleiman the Magnificent (r. 1520-1556) and Selim II (r. 1556-1574). Don Joseph Nasi, a former Marrano, became Sultan Selim’s chief adviser and exerted great influence over European affairs. During the 16th century, Turkey became a center of Talmudic and Kabbalistic teaching. The works of Joseph Karo, Isaac Luria, and Hayyim Vital had great influence on Jewish learning and mysticism. Sabbatai Zevi, the messianic pretender, attracted a fanatical following among thousands of Jews in Turkey and Europe.

The end of Salim II’s reign saw the beginning Turkey’s decline as an important power and the disappearance of Jewish fortunes. Later sultans enacted discriminatory measures against Jews. At the end of the 19th century, Turkey played a crucial role in the history of political Zionism. In 1899, Theodor Herzl tried to obtain a colonization charter from the Turkish Sultan which would allow unlimited immigration to Palestine. His efforts were unsuccessful due to the Turkish suspicions of Zionist political aims. After World War I, the government of Kemal Pasha began a policy of Ottomanization of Turkey. Jewish autonomy was weakened in 1923 when Turkish became the only language of instruction permissible in Jewish schools. More restrictions followed. With the outbreak of World War II, however, Turkey was firm in its refusal to return Jewish refugees to Germany. Since 1947, about 45,000 Turkish Jews left for Israel, and an estimated 17,000 Jews remain. They are concentrated in the three major cities, Istanbul, Ismir, and Ankara. The Turkish government has been friendly to Israel, and in 1997, Israel sold military aircraft to Turkey and started joint military exercises. The two continue to maintain close relations.

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