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Jews in Asia Minor (Byzantium)

Author(s) : Makripoulias Christos (3/26/2007)
Translation : Velentzas Georgios

For citation: Makripoulias Christos, "Jews in Asia Minor (Byzantium)",
Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World, Asia Minor
URL: <http://www.ehw.gr/l.aspx?id=7872>

Εβραίοι στη Μ. Ασία (Βυζάντιο) (2/6/2007 v.1) Jews in Asia Minor (Byzantium) (2/15/2007 v.1) 

1. Historical Background

The presence of a Jewish element in Asia Minor, dated from the 6th c. BC, became stronger in the Hellenistic period, as Antiochus III transferred and settled a considerable number of Jews in Asia Minor cities. The Jewish communities of Asia Minor thrived remarkably during the Roman imperial era (1st-3rd c. AD), when lots of Jews settled in the region and were involved in trade and arts. According to evidence, there were Jews settled in more than 60 cities and towns of Asia Minor, mainly in the western part, while they probably lived in other cities as well, but no evidence has survived. The first preachers of Christianity, Apostle Paul being the first among them, took action inside those Jewish communities, although the impact of the new religion became more obvious among the local Greek and Greek-speaking populations. After Christianity had prevailed in the Eastern Roman Empire in the 4th century, the Jews of Asia Minor were first opposed to a central authority which was ill-disposed towards them due to religious differences.

2. The Early Byzantine Period

2.1. General Outline

The available evidence about the Jewish communities of Asia Minor in the Early Byzantine period (4th-7th century) reveals an unbroken continuity from the Late Roman period (3rd-4th centuries). The Jews are settled mainly in the cities of the western and the central part of Asia Minor as traders and craftsmen. They have absorbed a large part of the Greek culture, as they speak Greek and some of them, mainly women, have Greek names. At the same time, some pagans were fascinated by the Jewish religion already from the Roman period, as the Gospels and the inscriptions of Aphrodisias attest.1 As it happened in other regions of the Byzantine Empire, the Jews of Asia Minor live in separate quarters in the cities2 and their leaders are their Rabbis, who represent the community and have judicial responisbilities. The communities are supported by their members' contributions, while they also contribute economically to their coreligionists in Palestine, seat of the supreme religious authority of the Jews of the empire.3 As for the relations between Christians and Jews in Asia Minor in the early Byzantine period, they cannot be described as friendly; however, there were no persecutions against them until the years of Justinian I.

The greatest part and the most important of information about Asia Minor Jewish communities in the Early Byzantine period comes mainly from epigraphic evidence. The latter, as well as literary and archaeological sources, help to reconstruct Jewish life in some cities of the Early Byzantine Asia Minor.

2.2. The Jews in the Cities of the Early Byzantine Asia Minor

In Sardis, where the presence of Jews dates from the 6th century BC, approximately 150 inscriptions, both Roman and Early Byzantine, have survived, containing information about the Jews inhabitants of the city. At the same time, archaeological excavations have brought to light the ruins of the synagogue dated to the 3rd century. According to a preserved inscription of the 4th c., the Jewish community of Sardis had a school annexed to the synagogue directed by a priest and «wise master». The synagogue of Sardis was destroyed in 616, when the city was captured by the Persians. Nothing is known about the subsequent fate of the local Jewish community.

The Jewish community of Side is mentioned in local inscriptions, probably dating from the 5th century. At the head of the Jewish community was the «archon» (Byzantine title probably meaning the rabbi), while the presence of a zygostates paid by the community shows the range of its commercial activity. The synagogue of Side was similar to those of Sardis and the early Christian basilicas of the time. A community official called kourator was, according to the inscriptions, responsible for the maintenance of the building. We know from 5th-century inscriptions that a kourator named Isaac completed the marble decoration of the synagogue from the ambo to the apse and restored two menorahs and two capitals. Another kourator, Leontios, son of Jacob, who had been a zygostates, built an atrium with a phialae at the entrance of the synagogue.

Another Jewish community with a long-term tradition was in Ephesus. The city’s synagogue has not been preserved, but is mentioned in a Christian inscription of the Early Byzantine period. At the same time, lamps with Jewish symbols dating to the 4th-6th century have been found in Ephesus.

2.3. Persecutions in the years of Justinian I

Some of the lamps of Ephesus were discovered in places linked to Christian cult and this has been used as an argument to show that the two communities in the Early Byzantine period coexisted peacefully. However, the relations between the Jews of Asia Minor and the Byzantine state were not always harmonious. As part of Justinian’s religious policy (who had taken measures against the Jews in Palestine as well), John of Ephesus launched a persecution mainly against the pagans, but also the Jews of Asia Minor in 542, particularly in the provinces of Asia, Caria, Phrygia and Lydia. Although the hierarch’s fury was turned mainly against the pagans, he was also proud for having turned at least seven synagogues of the area into Christian churches. It is not known whether, along with these actions, he obliged the Jews to convert. But his activity certainly did not interrupt the historical continuity of the Asia Minor Jewish communities.

3. Middle Byzantine Period

3.1. From the 7th to the 9th century

The piecemeal information of the sources does not allow us to form a complete picture of the extent of the Jewish presence in Asia Minor in the Middle Byzantine period, although a large number of Jewish communities must cerainly have survived. There is information that already in 608-610 there were persecutions against the Jews in the Middle East, which must have been spread to Asia Minor as well, thus confirming the strong presence of Jews in the area in the 7th century.

As in the previous period, most of the Jewish communities were settled in the cities of the western part of Asia Minor, with the exception of a testimony dating to about 680, according to which there were Jews settled in Cappadocia at the time; some of them had become Christians, while others moved in Damascus of Syria. It is not known whether they were in Damascus for commercial reasons or in order to avoid a persecution probably being the last in the series of measures taken in the period 608-610.

The concentration of Jewish communities in the western part of Asia Minor is also evident in the following centuries, with the exception of the case of Neokaisareia (8th century) and Sozopetra (9th century). A large number of Jewish communities existed in Phrygia and neighbouring districts. The sources lay emphasis on the Jewish community of Amorion, which maintained close relations, though not always friendly, with the Greek-speaking Christians of the city. Shortly before the capture of Amorion, violent conflicts took place, according to the sources, between the two communities, while a heresy influenced by Jewish teachings and customs is also mentioned. The subsequent Emperor Michael II, well-disposed towards the Jews of the area, was allegedly a member of that heresy. Another important Jewish community was that of Synada, which evidently had its own school.4 Finally, it is certain that in the same period a Jewish community involved in commercial activity existed in Nicaea.

3.2. Persecutions in the years of Basil I and Romanos I

As mentioned above, voluntary conversion of Jews to Christianity occured occasionally; compulsory conversions were, on the other hand, rare. However, the attitude of the state towards the Jews was not always tolerant. This was the case with the persecution launched by Emperor Basil I about 874, as part of his policy against pagans and heretics of the empire. It should be mentioned that this particular persecution and the compulsory conversion of all Jews were bitterly criticised by Gregory Asbestas, the then metropolitan of Nicaea. Although we lack evidence about Asia Minor, we should assume, judging from what we know about the Jews of Byzantine Italy, that the conversion to Christianity was superficial and the «converts» quickly returned to Judaism when Leo VI (886-912) abolished his father’s decree.

The Jewish communities of Asia Minor also faced difficulties during Romanos I's persecution, about 943. Lots of Jews had to leave Asia Minor and seek refuge in the land of the Khazars. The persecution was stopped when Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (944-959) ascended the throne.

3.3. New Jewish Settlements (10th-11th c.)

An important development in the history of Asia Minor Jewish communities took place in the last quarter of the 10th century. Until then almost all Asia Minor Jews were in all probability descendants of those settled in the same region in the Hellenistic and Roman period. But at late 10th century, after Cilicia and N. Syria had been recaptured by the Byzantines, lots of Jews migrated from Syria to Asia Minor for economic reasons. Later on, in the early 11th century, a new flow of immigrants arrived in the Byzantine territories, consisting of Jews who were trying to escape from the persecution launched against them by Caliph al-Hakam, the leader of the Fatimids, who had occupied Egypt, Palestine and Syria.

Apart from the increase in the Jewish population of Asia Minor, migration had also another effect: it was the first time that the Jews living in Byzantine territory were divided into two doctrines; the older communities were Rabbanites, while a part of the new settlers were Karaites. Lots of the latter settled in Asia Minor permanently; others only temporarily, on their way to Constantinople or other Byzantine lands. Although the Byzantines must not have been distinguishing between the two Jewish doctrines, they allowed the Rabbanites and the Karaites to live in different quarters of the cities.

The information about Jews settlements in Asia Minor in the 11th and the 12th century mainly comes from eastern sources.5 The picture they form does not differ from that of previous periods. The new settlers were rapidly culturally assimilated by the society of Byzantine Asia Minor. A document of 1022 mentions Jews (probably third generation immigrants) settled at Mastaura of Lycia; some of them had Greek names. The mention of private houses confirm the fact that in Byzantium, unlike other medieval countries, Jews were not forbidden to own real estate. Other documents provide information about Jewish communities at coastal cities, where the presence of the Jewish element starts to become stronger. The Jewish community of Ephesus reappeared in the early 11th-c. sources, probably due to its excellent relations with the Christians of the area, as lots of its members used to visit Hosios Lazaros on Mount Galesion. Four Rabbaite and three Karaite traders from Attaleia were captured by Arab pirates in 1028, while the same happened to five young Jews from Strobilos about 1034.

3.4. The 12th Century

Individual settlements of Jews from Syria and Egypt are also attested in the area in the following decades, but the disorder caused in Asia Minor by the defeat at Mantzikert (1071) and the settlement of Seljuks in the region often led to reverse the course and, as a result, lots of Jews abandoned their houses in Asia Minor and sought refuge in other regions of the empire or in Egypt. A typical example is the case of a Jewish scholar from Cairo who, in the late 1060s, migrated to Byzantine Asia Minor via Palestine and abandoned the area after 1071, ending up settling at Thessaloniki. A number of Jewish documents from Egypt dated to the second half of the 11th and the first half of the 12th century mention several Jewish refugees from Byzantine territories, mainly craftsmen. Some of them are expressly said to have arrived from Asia Minor, while others, whose origin is not mentioned, have probably had come also from the same region.

In the 12th century, social and economic stability can be attested in coastal Asia Minor, partly due to the boost in the trade with Egypt and the Crusader kingdoms of the East. At that time, the Jewish communities of coastal Asia Minor cities were thriving. There was a Jewish doctor from Egypt settled in Seleukeia circa 1125, where a Jewish community already existed. He built his house there and practised medicine along with trade. In a letter he wrote in July 1137, the doctor was very optimistic about professional prospects in Asia Minor and invited his relatives to migrate either to Seleukeia or to Constantinople. The Jewish communities of Attaleia (where conversions of Jews are attested in that period) and Strobilos are also mentioned in 12th-c. Byzantine sources (years 1148 and 1153 respectively), while about 1150 the Jewish community of Chonai, Phrygia, was the local metropolitan’s target. There are reports about Jews (possibly Karaites) in Trebizond in the 1180s; taking into account the increased commercial activity in the city, it seems unlikely that there had been no Jewish communities in the area.

4. Late Byzantine Period

4.1. The 13th Century

As above, there is piecemeal evidence about the presence of Jews in Byzantine cities of Asia Minor in the late Byzantine period, thus making the researchers resort to evidence from previous or subsequent periods. Three Jewish sepulchral steles were found in Nicaea, probably dating to the late 12th or the 13th century. In Gangra, Paphlagonia, in a region temporarily under the state of Nicaea, a mixed Jewish community of Rabbanites and Karaites was living in 1207. The community possibly preexisted the 13th century. The theory that the tanneries were exclusively in the hands of Jews has led some researchers to assume that, in the 13th century, a Jewish community must have existed in Philadelphia – a significant centre for leather processing. For the same reason it is possible that Jews must have continued to live in Trebizond in the 13th century, where they are known to have been living towards the late 12th century.

After 1204, the Jews inhabiting the cities of the western part of Asia Minor came under the Laskarides of Nicaea. The way the central administration dealt with them until the mid-13th century is not known, but in 1254 Emperor John III Vatatzes persecuted the Jews living in his territory and compelled them to adopt Christianity. The reasons that led the dying emperor to this action are not mentioned, but his policy was continued until 1259, when the usurper of the throne, Michael Palaiologos, retracted the decree and guaranteed the security of the leaders of Asia Minor communities.

4.2. The Last Jewish Communities of Byzantine Asia Minor

There is no information about the Jewish communities of Asia Minor in the 14th century, the last years of Byzantine rule, but the researchers assume that the communities mentioned in early Ottoman sources had preexisted the Turkish occupation. According to Ottoman and Arabic sources, in the 14th-15th century there were Jews settled in Nikomedia, Antalya, Smyrna, Laodicea, Sinop, Aydin, Prousa, and Palatia (near Miletus). In particular, it is reported that in Nikomideia in 1339 there was a Jewish community including both Rabbanites and Karaites. Because the evidence dates two years after the fall of the city to the Ottomans, the researchers assume that there had already been Jews in those cities.6 Unlike previous periods, when the Jews settled mainly in cities along the trade routes of mainland western Asia Minor, most 14th-c. Jewish communities moved towards the coast, since the commercial activity of the region was carried out there.

1. Reynolds, J. - Tannenbaum, R., Jews and Godfearers at Aphrodisias (Cambridge Philological Society Supplement 12, Cambridge 1987).

2. This is a common practice through the centuries for Jewish communities of Asia Minor: in the 14th century, the Arab traveller Ibn Battuta reports the existence of a separate Jewish quarter in the city of Attaleia.

3. In 429, Emperor Theodosios II, after the abolishment of the supreme religious authority of the Jews, ordered that they make the respective economic contribution to the state. Part of the contributions from Jewish communities went to the imperial treasury one way or another, although contemporary researchers do not agree as to whether there was a special tax the Jewish inhabitants of the empire had to pay. Starr, J., The Jews in the Byzantine Empire 6411204 (Athens 1939), and Bowman, S. B., The Jews of Byzantium 12041453 (Alabama 1985), do not consider such a tax possible, unlike Sharf, A., Jews and other Minorities in Byzantium (Jerusalem 1995), 106‑107.

4. The 9th-c. saint Constantine the Younger, who converted to Christianity, came from the Jewish community of Synada. His Vita provides information about the Jewish communities of Synada and Nicaea in the 9th century.

5. Jacoby, D., “What do we Learn about Byzantine Asia Minor from the Documents of the Cairo Genizah?”, in Λαμπάκης, Σ. (ed.), Η Βυζαντινή Μικρά Ασία (6ος - 12ος αι.) (Διεθνή Συμπόσια 6, Athens 1998) pp. 83-95.

6. Nikomideia was the birthplace of Aaron, Elias’ son, (Aaron ben Elijah), who was an eminent Karaite scholar, philosopher and annotator of biblical texts in the first half of the 14th century.


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