It is generally assumed that Jews had settled in the Iberian peninsula by the 2nd century BCE. After the dissolution of the Roman Empire in the West, the establishment of Roman Catholicism in the Iberian peninsula in the 6th century brought a major shift for the Jews. Until then they had enjoyed considerably stable conditions, but were now faced with a series of orders of expulsion, forced conversion, enslavement, and execution. As a result, many left Spain for northern Africa. Those who remained welcomed the Muslim Arab invaders who conquered Spain beginning in 711 and established a Caliphate there, Al-Andalus. The following three centuries of Muslim rule in the Iberian peninsula marked a “Golden Age” also for Sephardi Jewry.

While Jews, like other non-Muslims, were confined to a status as dhimmis(“protected persons”) and lived with certain restrictions and demands, like the payment of a special tax, life under Muslim rule during that period provided a level of security and opportunity unequalled anywhere else.

Sephardi Jews held prominent positions and partook in the cultural and intellectual achievements of the Arabs and ancient Greek culture, which had been preserved and expanded by the Arabs in science, medicine, philosophy and linguistics. Jewish learning and creativity also thrived during this period with major scholars like Maimonides, Jehuda Halevi and Solomon ibn Gabirol. Jews were also key in the translation of scientific texts between Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin, which enabled the transmission of scientific knowledge into Europe and thus provided a basis for the Renaissance there.

Conquests by Berber Muslims and eventually the Christian re-conquest (Reconquista) negatively affected the status of the Jews. The Alhambra Decree issued by the Catholic Monarchs of Spain in 1492 gave Jews four months to leave Spain or convert to Christianity. As a result, many Jews left the country. Many went to North Africa and even larger numbers to the Ottoman Empire, as Sultan Beyazid II allowed large groups of Sephardim to settle in his empire after 1492. They settled mainly in Salonica as well as in Constantinople and Smyrna/Izmir.

The Sephardim who arrived in the late 15th century outnumbered the indigenous Romaniotes and established their own communities, which increasingly assimilated most of the Romaniote communities as they adopted Sephardi traditions and liturgy. The Sephardi Ladino-speaking communities eventually became largely synonymous with Jewry in the Ottoman Empire (and later the Greek state).

Romaniote communities remained in some provincial towns, then already under Ottoman rule, and on Crete. As Crete was ruled by the Venetians at the time of the exodus from Spain, only a limited number of Sephardim settled in Crete and were thus assimilated into the island’s Romaniote communities.

Salonica, with its majority Jewish population, became part of the modern Greek state as a result of the First Balkan War in 1912. After the Asia Minor catastrophe, many Greek Orthodox Christians from Turkey were settled in Salonica (now named Thessaloniki) and Jews no longer made up the majority of the population in the city. A few decades later, more than 95 percent of the city’s Jews were murdered during the Holocaust. Today Thessaloniki has the second largest Jewish community in Greece.

Photo 1
Source: public domain

Two rabbis of Salonica, late 19th century

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