The period of Ottoman Turkish rule on Crete brought economic hardship and progressive intellectual stultification to Crete’s Jews and over time, the Jewish communities in Rethymnon and Heraklion diminished significantly. Many privileged and wealthy Jewish families left Crete and moved to Venice and elsewhere in Italy and to other Mediterranean enclaves like Gibraltar, Istanbul and Salonika.
Yet, in other ways, Ottoman Turkish authority was favourable to Crete’s Romaniote communities. In towns like Hania, the former Venetian ghettos were opened and Jews were allowed to settle in neighbouring quarters abandoned by the Venetians. In fact, they were permitted to buy and legally inherit property for the first time which may have enticed Sephardic Jewish immigrants from North Africa and Izmir, as well as the return of those Jews who had previously fled to the islands of Zakynthos and Kythira. A case in point relates to the Etz Hayyim Synagogue, once an abandoned Venetian Catholic church which was acquired by Hania’s Jews from the Ottoman in the mid- to late 17th century.
Crete was also drawn into a quite different economic sphere with ports such as Hania, Ierapetra, and Rethymnon now in close contact with Izmir, Alexandria and Bengazi. Cretan Jewish family names reflect these contacts including Constantini (from Constantin in North Africa), Minervo (from Alexandria), Mizrahi (Izmir) and other names that appear to belong to Ashkenazi Jews from Europe.
During the 19th century, numerous violent revolts on Crete against Turkish rule led many Jews to immigrate elsewhere. It is estimated that in 1817, there were 150 families divided between Heraklion and Hania. In 1858, there were 907 Jews on the island, but by 1881, only 647 Jews remained, with the majority residing in Hania.
Source: public domain
Photos 2, 3: © Nikos Stavroulakis
Sephardi and Romaniot Jewish Costumes in Greece and Turkey, 16 watercolours, Athens 1986.