Excavating Turkish Jewish Roots: A 21st Century Adventure

Reader Note: This blog series will begin by exploring Jewish roots in Turkey and continue to explore ancient Jewish sites in both Turkey and the Balkans, specifically Albania and Bulgaria.

Because the world has evolved into a fully global network, it is especially crucial that misconceptions about where religion originated, be more transparent if we as empathetic Jews and world citizens, truly hope to put an end to anti-Semitism and Islamaphobia while better attempting to understand our Jewish origins.

This blog series you are about to be introduced to, is designed to be an unfolding of paradox behind little known facts about Jewish roots that may astound you, even those who consider themselves experts on Jewish history.

In the spirit of a religious, spiritual excavation of sorts, this blog begins by delving deeper into the Biblical side of Turkey as it relates to Jewish roots. It might surprise you to learn that besides Turkey, there are countries that you might never have considered with a Jewish history, that are full of ancient Jewish sites. Albania and Bulgaria are two standouts with some of the finest examples of ancient Jewish excavated remains.

Turkish-Jewish history spans a time period at least as far back as the 4th century B.C.E. and the land that is known as ‘Turkiye’ by Native Turks, is also the ancient land that the Old Testament has described throughout the Torah, where our Jewish ancestors including Abraham and a host of other prominent Judaic figures, not only sojourned but inhabited.

As an introduction to this blog series on Jewish roots in Turkey and the Balkans, my aim is to invite you to step back in time to a more ancient space to explore a number of amazing, sacred sites from The Old Testament that most of the Western Jewish populace in America and Europe are generally unaware of, and to fully take an opportunity to dive deeper into those unique Jewish places.

Most American and European Jews whether secular or not – still remain quite uninformed about the fact that the present day nation of Turkey is home to a number of the most important Biblical sites that were the backdrop of some of the Torah’s most notable Biblical stories, featuring some of the most famous Biblical characters.

What is fascinating in an exploration of 21st century Jewish roots is a little known fact that a number of those who were expelled in the Spanish inquisition of 1492, were actually converts to Judaism and some are even purported after careful DNA research, to be likely descendants of the Khazar tribe of Jews known as the 13th lost tribe of Israel.

Jewish history in Turkey reveals the fact that of the many who were expelled during the Spanish inquisition in 1492 – those Jews were eagerly welcomed to settle in Turkey and a majority of Jews held prominent positions within the Ottoman Empire, most notably as viziers – advisors to the Sultan or Pasha at the time.

Another little known fact is that in most small Turkish towns there exists at least one historical synagogue that stands as a testament to the presence of Jews in a nation, still considered by many to be strictly Muslim.

There is a wonderful book about ancient synagogues in Turkey written by a Turkish-Jewish author that perfectly describes this Jewish history and displays the magnificence of ancient synagogue architecture of the past.

In actuality, the modern nation of Turkey in 2018, is home to a number of diverse, religious groups who previously worshiped and still worship in Istanbul as well as other areas of Turkey such as Edirne, where one of the oldest known synagogues was fully restored by the Turkish government within the last three years.

If you are reading this blog, whether you are one of the many diverse Jewish or Christian sects, Muslim sects or the Greek, Russian Orthodox or any other faith – I believe there is something new you can discover about your own roots and religious background by revisiting this very ancient land.

It is not as well known to those who are unfamiliar with Turkey and Turkish history, that there are a number of ancient Greek and Russian Orthodox churches as well as 26 synagogues that dot the nooks and crannies of this sprawling, ancient city, once known as Constantinople. And still, to this very day, possesses an unending mystery and fascination for the plethora of diverse ethnic cultures worldwide.

So, the question to be posed is why don’t most Jews know about their Jewish ancestral history in Turkey?

The answer may be that for decades, these artifacts and this Turkish-Jewish history were not widely known or publicized and in some cases, not well excavated or even explained in religious education.

Perhaps only those serious, religious scholars who delved deep into Tevrat (The Torah), were truly privy to such knowledge.

Are you aware that in Istanbul, there are a variety of ethnic Jewish cemeteries where Jews whose origins are Italian or from other nations, can be buried there?

Did you know that many enclaves throughout Istanbul over the last number of decades, especially the early part of the 20th century, were exclusively Jewish such as Beyoglu, Sisli, Ulus, The Princes Island of Buyukada – that even currently is still home to a number of Turkish Jews, Turkish Greeks and other ethnicities as well?

Currently, in Turkey, there is no specific or special ‘Jewish tour’ that travel agencies host.

My goal with this blog series is to be your personal window and guide into this ancient land where our Jewish ancestors resided and passed through, long before the nation of Israel came into existence.

I leave you on this introductory foray of our Jewish-Turkish excavation with this thought: When you choose to step outside the box, you not only discover whole new worlds, you rediscover yourself.

My wish, by introducing you to this blog series, is for you to have an opportunity to dive deep into your very own personal, Jewish roots while delving deeper into your Jewish history and the essence of your authentic Jewish soul.

L’Chaim: Enjoy the excavation.

About the Author
With a BA in journalism and a minor in anthropology, Janet has worked as a journalist as well as an ESL university lecturer. In addition to her published writing, she brings a wealth of life and work experience to her published articles and storytelling. She is a published freelance writer of a wide variety of news and feature articles that have appeared in The Turkish Journal, The Guide (a Turkish publication), Haaretz and on other online sites as well as Turkish magazines. She previously covered stories for the Turkish Journal at the United Nations for more than five years with UN and Foreign Relations organization credentials. Janet previously worked as the events coordinator and interim executive director of American Turkish Society (ATS) where she was in charge of a very successful book signing for Dr. Mehmet Oz, a luncheon for 150 high level government dignitaries and business people from Turkey and New York City as well as promoting and coordinating the first gala for ATS dealing with the Ford Foundation and the Koc family. She also did PR for ATS for a well known Turkish dance group The Fire of Anatolia, partnering her efforts with the Federation of Turkish Association (FTAA). Janet feels privileged to have worked with the late Ahmet Ertegun and to have interviewed several very well known Turkish artists - Ismail Acar and Bedri Baykam. She also reported on a number of high level Turkish consulate events as well as Israeli delegations to the U.N. Currently, this budding novelist is about to complete her second book - a collection of Turkish cultural stories both nostalgic and spiritual that reveal an intimate portrait of the country, its people and deep seated cultural traditions. Janet is a fluent speaker of Turkish as a second language and an avid art aficiando whose family roots span from Belarus through the Baltic Sea and Hungary.