The evolution of Ottoman-Turkish Dönmes

The evolution of Ottoman-Turkish Dönmes

William Armstrong -
The evolution of Ottoman-Turkish Dönmes ‘The Burden of Silence: Sabbatai Sevi and the Evolution of Ottoman-Turkish Dönmes’ by Cengiz Şişman (Oxford University Press, 344 pages, £47)

The case of the Dönmes is one of the more intriguing subplots in Ottoman Turkish history. In the mid-17th century, the empire witnessed one of the biggest messianic movements in history when the İzmir-born Sabbatai Sevi proclaimed himself to be the long-awaited Jewish messiah. After his arrest he shocked his tens of thousands of devotees by converting to Islam in front of Sultan Mehmed IV. Many of Sabbatai’s followers also converted, but most continued to secretly practice their rituals as a crypto-religious community into the next centuries.

The evolution of Ottoman-Turkish Dönmes With such a pedigree, it isn’t surprising that the Dönmes became one of the most conspiracy theory-prone subjects in modern Turkey. Some have painted the Dönmes as a secret branch of world Jewry that undermined the Ottoman regime and played a central role in the demise of the empire in order to replace it with a secular Turkish Republic. Some have even claimed that Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, hailing from the Dönme heartland of Salonica, was himself a crypto-Jew. 

“The Burden of Silence” by historian Cengiz Şişman is a detailed study of the Dönmes from the 17th century to today. Other volumes have focused on the historical and sociological development of the Dönmes, but while Şişman does not ignore these aspects, he focuses on the theological and sectarian side of the subject. At times the book is very dense, but the subject of crypto communities and Ottoman modernization and collapse is inherently interesting. 

Sabbatai roused messianic fervor in cities around the Ottoman Empire in the mid-17th century. Banished from İzmir, Salonica and Jerusalem after stirring unrest, he converted to Islam after being jailed and threatened with death. The sultan appointed him as palace doorkeeper with a generous salary. After the death of “the converted Messiah” in 1676, Sabbatai’s followers developed an apocalyptic theology that blended Jewish, Christian, and Islamic beliefs and rituals. Becoming known as the “Dönmes,” they split into three main subsects. In tightly guarded communities mainly in Ottoman urban areas, they sustained their enigmatic hybrid identity over subsequent centuries.

The fate of the Dönmes is inextricable from the fate of Salonica, (Thessaloniki in modern Greece). The vast majority of Dönmes lived in the city and a few prominent families helped turn it into what Şişman describes as “something like a Dönme city-state.” “Geographically and culturally, the city constituted a very suitable place for the Dönmes, in part because it was located far from the central Ottoman religious and political authorities, and in part because it contained such a large Jewish population,” he writes. Until the early 20th century the city was majority Jewish and it came to be known as the “Jerusalem of the Balkans.” 

Economically, Salonica was hugely important. Through trade with Europe, it bucked the trend of Ottoman decline after the 16th century, and by the late 18th century it had a greater value of exports than Istanbul and Edirne combined. Dönmes and Jews dominated trade and commerce in Salonica, but because the Dönmes passed as Muslims they were in a better position to take full advantage of economic opportunities in the empire. They excelled in trade of export-import materials, particularly tobacco, and also held government posts as customs officials and civil servants.

Dönmes were also prominent in Ottoman reform movements through the 19th century. Like all other religious communities in the empire, they were divided by the advent of modernity. Some got involved in revolutionary groups, some did not; some dismissed religion as a backward remnant of a past world, some remained attached to religious traditions. Salonica became the center of the “Young Turks” of the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP), a secret society of military officers that overthrew Sultan Abdül Hamit II in 1908 and returned the empire to constitutional rule. Şişman writes that the “Salonican branch of the CUP was under virtual domination by the emancipated Dönmes.” However, although the Young Turk revolution was initially a multi-confessional movement, circumstances soon hardened sentiment into the authoritarian administration that ruled the empire through the First World War.

Most Dönmes left Salonica when it was taken by the Greek army in 1912. Considered by both sides to be Muslims, those who remained ended up moving away in the 1923-24 population exchanges that followed the Turkish war of liberation. There were still around 15,000 Dönmes in Salonica in 1923 and practically all ended up moving to the new Turkish Republic.

Today, there are thought to be around 60-70,000 of Dönme descent in Turkey and perhaps 10,000 living elsewhere. For the vast majority, the Dönme past is limited to family history, memory, and nostalgia, devoid of sacred connotations. Still, the idea of the shady crypto-religious Dönmes is irresistible to some religious nationalists in Turkey, obsessed with uncovering traitors. But with so many other enemies to be paranoid about, Dönmes rarely get a mention these days.