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The Jewish of Thessaloniki March Through Time

In the early morning hours of Sunday, March 26, 1430, the army of Sultan Murat II appears before the city gates. Thessalonica will capitulate after a three-day siege. Generalized looting, massacres, enslavement and deportations occur, perpetrated by the invading troops. Murat II will be forced to personally intervene, on behalf of the population, in order to put an end to the bloodshed. He will personally set free, at his own expense, many prisoners, and he will take measures for the revival and repopulation of Thessalonica. To that end, he will resettle into Thessalonica, Turks from Yiannitsa, as well as Christians to whom he grants certain privileges such as communal autonomy and various tax exemptions.

All of the above can be considered as pre-history of the Jewish presence in Thessalonica. The pivotal point is the settlement of 15.000 – 20.000 Spanish (Sephardic) Jews after 1492, who will make a lasting and seminal contribution to the destiny of the Jewish Community, but also to that of the city as a whole. Those persecuted Jews found shelter in the capital of Macedonia, thus giving her a new profile for the future.

The event that sealed the fate of Spanish Jewry was the Reconquista, i.e. the bloody, step-by-step recovery of the Iberian Peninsula into Christian hands, at the expense of the Arabs who were entrenched there since the beginning of the 8th century. The end of the Reconquista occurs on January 2, 1492, when the Arab state of Granada is conquered and dissolved forever. It is then that the political and economic circumstances that had in the past dictated the official policy of tolerance minorities and the absence of preferential treatment based on race or religion, seized to be operative, and that policy was immediately reversed. Ferdinand and Isabella now become “Catholic Kings” exclusively, whereas during the war years, they wished to be called King and Queen of three religions.

Thus dawns 1492, the fateful year for the Spanish Jews. A royal edict on March 13 of that year, forces all Jews to either convert to Christianity, or leave the country by the coming August at the latest. It is estimated that around 50.000 Jews were nominally baptized and remained in Spain. The rest, more than 250.000 strong, opted for the road to exile. Some went north, to France, England, the Netherlands. Others chose Italy or Northern Africa. However, the majority settles in areas under Ottoman jurisdiction.

Sultan Vayazit II, at the instigation of Chief Rabbi of Istanbul, Eliyia Kapsali, allowed their entrance into the realm, and ordered local commanders to extend a cordial and warm welcome, and to help them settle down. Thus, the Spanish Jews, the Sephardim, will settle in all the large urban centers of the Ottoman Empire. Most of them, around 20.000 will prefer Thessalonica, which still hadn’t recovered from the destruction incurred during its conquest by the Turks. Maybe they were attracted to the city’s strategic location as a key port in the Eastern Mediterranean. Alternatively, the Sultan, seeking to re-populate the deserted city with a fresh, dynamic, urban population, may have encouraged them.

 

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