The Dönmeh: the Judeo-Islamic Mystery of Thessaloniki
Text and photographs by Albena Shkodrova
Neither Muslims nor Jews, but rather a bit of both, Thessaloniki’s Dönmeh were the most influential group in the city over a period of almost 400 years. The rumours that the founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Atatürk, was one of them remain unconfirmed. But spending a few days in present-day Thessaloniki makes one wonder whether the city has really managed to rid itself of the influence of the eclectic, and often purely extravagant, tastes of the now extinct sect.
East of the park behind the White Tower, Thessaloniki’s colourless, new residential blocks surround the streets, blocking the way of the fresh sea breeze.
Barber shops, pastry shops, garages and stores string by in their usual rhythm. Women hang laundry out on the balconies, motorbikes whiz past with a deafening noise – altogether everything is going about in its usual manner, until suddenly – in the middle of the little neighbourhood, a small square opens up. The building in its middle instantly grabs the attention.
This is Yeni Jami, the ‘New Mosque’. A strange mixture of Art Nouveau and Moorish architecture from the time of the Arab Khalifate in Spain, it starts out with a stained glass window above the door and continues with rounded arches, ending with a sharp-edged, ornamental roof frieze and two wooden clock towers, decorated with multiple Stars of David.
At the entrance, the sign that says “Archaeological Museum” is both uninspiring and false. The building, however, contains the history of one of the most unusual religious communities on the Balkans – the Judeo-Muslim Dönmeh. Nominally, the building was built to serve as a mosque. Its inside is that of an Iberian synagogue. But it is neither one nor the other, and since 1962, it no longer houses an archaeological museum either, as a special building for it was constructed half a kilometer to the West.
The situation with the mosque-synagogue completely corresponds to the fate of those who built it. Their community, which arose in the city during the seventeenth century, was called by the Ottoman Empire’s authorities “turn-coats” – the literal meaning of the word dönmeh.
At the basis of the community’s syncretic religion is the controversial Sabbatai Zevi – at the age of 40, he managed to scandalise the Jewish communities in many of the Balkan cities and cause serious concern to the Sublime Porte with his assertions of being a prophet.
Born in Smyrna (Izmir) during a period characterised by a wave of self-proclaimed messiahs, he went around the eastern Mediterranean and attracted followers with the promise that he shall bring them to the Promised Land. (Nowadays, this is reason for many to consider him as the founder of contemporary Zionism.) According to Mark Mazower’s Salonica, City of Ghosts, upon his return to Smyrna, the self-proclaimed prophet began going around the city “as a Monarch, dressed in golden and silken clothes, most beautiful and rich. He used to carry a sort of Scepter in his hand and to go about town always escorted by a great number of Jews, some of whom, to honour him, would spread carpets on the street for him to step on.”
Then came a period during which Zevi toured the Balkan cities and caused a commotion among the Jews. Their most numerous and influential community within the Ottoman Empire at the time was in Thessaloniki and this is where he stirred a huge scandal with the outwardly mention of God’s name during a sermon.
The Orthodox Jews threw him out of the city immediately, but the unity of their group was forever damaged. Many affluent Jewish families sold off their belongings and froze their businesses, in anticipation of the Messiah. In The City of Dancing Dervishes and other Sketches and Studies from the Near East, issued in 1914 in London, H.C.Lukach wrote that the community started to behave quite eccentrically. Some of its members buried themselves in their gardens, leaving only their faces uncovered by earth; others threw themselves into the cold waters of the White Sea in the most freezing winter days.
Zevi himself was arrested on his way to Istanbul, after asserting that he was headed to get some sense into the sultan. The Sublime Porte presented him with a choice: to be immediately beheaded and thus, to continue his saintly mission in the hereafter, or to convert to Islam. Zevi settled on the latter option without much difficulty and was released. Many of his followers went with him and this is how one of the strangest religious hybrids known in the region was created.
Historians describe this denomination as mystical Islam with elements of Judaism. Its followers pray in mosques, make pilgrimages to Mecca and abide by Ramadan’s rites. At home, however, they follow Judaic rituals. They pray to the Messiah in the name of “God, the God of Israel,” while their prayer is made up on the model of the Islamic one.
During the following centuries, the Dönmeh’s religious doctrine spread as far as Egypt, Italy and Poland, while being preserved in a modified form in Smyrna and among the large group of Jews in Thessaloniki. Their position in the city changed dramatically. From the Jewish community’s pariahs, they became a part of the city’s avant-garde. In 1900, when the mosque-synagogue was built, they numbered between 10 and 15 thousand – a closed circle of well-educated people with exceptional financial means. Their economic and political influence in the city surpassed their community’s size by far.
Intellectuals and businessmen from the group supported the Young Turk Revolution which called for the transformation of Turkey into a secular state and pushed many other progressive ideas into the Ottoman Empire.
There is a rumour than even Kemal Atatürk himself, who was born in Kastra, Thessaloniki’s Turkish quarter, was Dönmeh. Historians, however, have found no proof of this.
The sect’s downfall was initially started by the fire of 1917, which destroyed many of their luxurious European-style villas in the Modiano area, and then further solidified by the 1923 agreement for the population exchange between Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. According to it, all the Dönmeh were considered as Turks and, as such, they were handed over to Turkey and most of them settled down in Istanbul.
Throughout their existence, the Dönmeh were rejected as heretics by the Muslims and the Jews alike. They themselves viewed this stigma lightly and readily took on the secular elements of modernity at the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century. According to the memoirs of Esin Eden, a resident of Thessaloniki, “they smoked lemon-scented cigarettes in the garden of their modern villa by the sea, played cards endlessly and kept their eyes on the latest European fashions. Their servants were Greek, their furnishings were French and German and their cuisine a mix of traditional high Ottoman cuisine, as well as traditional Sephardic cooking, though with no concern for the dietary laws of Judaism.”
The Dönmeh’s extravagant tastes – a natural progression of their choice to follow a Messiah such as Zevi, show through in Yeni Jami’s every brick. Built by the Italian architect Vitaliano Poselli, it is surprising even for Thessaloniki, where one commonly runs into Arab kasbahs, Byzantine ruins, Turkish hammams or ancient churches just like that, while walking among the new housing blocks.
If one takes a good look at the contemporary style of living in Thessaloniki, one is bound to find at least three similarities with the culture of the now extinct Dönmeh: eclecticism, a taste for the elegant, slightly extravagant lifestyle and for good food.