Cretan Jews maintained already established urban communities in the three major cities, as well as in the more rural settlements at Milopotamo, Castelnuovo, Castel Bonifacio, Belvedere and Mirabello. They numbered about 1,600 by the end of the 16th century. Heraklion, the centre of Jewish life on Crete at the time, had about 800 Jewish inhabitants and a total of four synagogues.

In the main cities, Jews were required by the Venetians to live in segregated ghettos or quarters called Zudecca that were locked at night. They had to wear a yellow cap or badge on their external dress in public, signs were displayed on the doors of their houses and they were excluded, with few exceptions, from participation in the local administration. The Venetians later during their reign issued a further number of restrictions that effectively banned, or at least severely curtailed, the interaction between the island’s Jews and Christians, both Catholic and Orthodox. Jews were prohibited from eating, drinking or gambling at Christian-owned taverns and employing Christians in their work and households.

According to Venetian accounts, Crete’s Jewish community grew significantly over the 14th and 15th centuries given the influx of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula following the exodus of 1391, the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and again in 1492 from the Iberian Peninsula. Hania, in particular, attraced new Jewish settlers from Spain and Italy as attested by the names of some of the city’s prominent Jewish families including Zeroycho, Astruc, Franco and Spagnuol from Spain, and Balaza, Verzo, Barbeta, Balliaza and Sacerdotto from Italy. It seems that these and other immigrant families were absorbed into the indigenous Romaniote communities through the adoption of the local language, culture and religious customs as well as intermarriage.

Apart from those urban communities on the island, the small rural communities produced kosher cheeses, wines, grains and etrogim (citron) for both export and local use. Laws were subsequently enacted to prohibit Jews from making further purchases of land in order to restrict Jewish competition in rural commerce and agriculture which forced some of the community into money lending, together with the trade of silk, metals, dyes and leather. Jews with less capital worked as grocers, artisans, tanners and butchers. Jews were also active in intellectual pursuits including philosophy and theology and many individuals travelled widely, especially to Italy to places like Padua and Mantova for schooling where they trained as doctors, lawyers and rabbis. Such well-known Cretan Jewish intellectuals from this period included members of the Balbo, Capsali and Delmedigo families.

Photo 1: ©
de Lange, N, A. Panayotov and G. Rees (2013): Mapping the Jewish Communities of the Byzantine Empire

Photo 2: © Anastasios Skikos

Photo 3
Source: public domain

Photo 4
Source: public domain

Photo 5: © Etz Hayyim Synagogue

Locations of Medieval Jewish settlements on Crete

Ottoman cannon ball found in southern wall of Etz Hayyim Synagogue

Location of Jewish quarter of Hania (left of centre); detail of Venetian map, 1627

Jew wearing a yellow badge, example from Venice

Etrog in Etz Hayyim courtyard

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