Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Jews of Constantinople, 1784

The report below suggests that in 1784 Jews lived better in Constantinople than London. If so, it was probably the end of the era. Between the usual anti-Semitic nonsense it shows the Jews' role as (essentially powerless) middlemen.
The Jews wear drawers and slippers of a sky-blue colour, their turban is totally different from the Christians, and they have two bunches of hair hanging down by the sides of their ears. These people are very fond of appearing what they are, lest they should be mistaken for Christians. But there are some privileged persons, both Greeks and Jews, who are allowed to wear yellow slippers, and scarlet drawers, the fame as the Mussulmen; but these are the dragomen to ambassadors, and the Metzellemins, who pay no annual tribute.

The Jews come next under our consideration. Their number in and about Constantinople is astonishing; they reckon 40,000 families, which, upon a moderate computation, makes 200,000 persons. They are subject to a kind of aristocratical government among themselves. They have a class of men whom they call Cajams [Haham?], they are doctors of their law, and to them they submit the decision of all common causes which occasion any differences between them ; and it seldom or ever happens that they appeal from the sentences of those judges to the Turkish tribunals. They possess great riches, and live as much, if not more at their ease, than their brethren at London ; for the Turks esteem them far beyond Christians. They carry on every branch of art and commerce, from which they acquire their opulence.

There is not a Turkish house at Constantinople of any note, but what has Jews familiar in the family. One may judge from this of the number and quality of their protectors; a circumstance which makes them haughty and insolent to the Greeks and other Christians. All the under-officers of the custom-house are Jews, who make very considerable gains. The factor to the Agha of the Janissaries is a Jew, and perhaps the most considerable in the city. Though they are held in slavery, not being suffered to purchase lands, they have a strong tincture of ambition, and love to lord it over their inferiors, by the strength of their riches. A prodigious number, as in other capital cities, follow the profitable business of exchange-brokers, money-scriveners, and dealers in jewels. Their intercourse with the Turks of rank gives them a knowledge of their private circumstances, and of their secrets; a science which they turn to very good account as pimps and spies. A foreign ambassador may know more of the state of the Turkish cabinet by gratifying the avarice of a Jew, that being his ruling passion, than from any other quarter whatever.

Source: Elias Habesci. The present state of the Ottoman empire. 1784.

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