Jews in the Muslim World

One of the great ironies of the Middle East conflict is that Jews and Arabs are, in a deep sense, brothers–they both hail from the same region, Hebrew and Arabic are closely related languages and Judaism and Islam are faiths of the same Abrahamic tradition. As with Greeks and Turks (see post of 2008.10.28), or Chinese, Koreans and Japanese, it seems that genetic/cultural/historical kinship and familiarity help breed contempt. But looking back in history, we see that antipathy between Jews and Arabs, or between Jews and Muslims more broadly, is far from a historical constant–much like real brothers, the two peoples have often lived side by side, peacefully coexisting.

In fact, our trip through the Muslim world has been almost equally a trip through the Jewish world, because so often throughout history where there were Muslims, there were Jews, and where there were Jews, there were Muslims. The connections between the populations were and are that intimate (not least in Palestine, of course). Through the photographs below, a journey through the Jewish populations (some of them, alas, now historical) of the Muslim world, radiating from Israel to Central Asia and Morocco, to Europe.

Even the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem, a part of the state of Palestine under any future negotiated scenario, has a Jewish presence–in this case a building acquired by a right wing Israeli group imperiously announces its Jewish Israeli ownership.

Hasidic man with child looks over Jerusalem and the Islamic shrine of the Dome of the Rock, located on the Temple Mount.

Ever since the days before Moses, Egypt has been home to a Jewish population. (Graham Hancock suggests in his book The Sign and the Seal that a Jewish community based in now Aswan at one point had possession of the Ark.) Below, a picture taken through the locked gate of the 19th century Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue of Alexandria. Fear of anti-Jewish terrorism has the synagogue under constant guard.

Syria was home to a large Jewish community for hundreds/thousands of years, and the old city of Damascus contains a large Jewish Quarter. All but a handful of the Damascus Jews have, sadly, emigrated to the U.S., Israel and elsewhere, leaving their impressive family homes to be renovated as hotels and restaurants, and in many cases artists’ studios, in what is fast becoming a trendy part of town. The first two images are from Bait Farhi, a wealthy Jewish home that is being converted into a hotel (a translation of the writing in the first: “a fruitful vine by a spring” from Genesis 49:22). The third image is the studio of Mustafa Ali, a Syrian sculptor. (See post of 2008.04.07.)


In Iran, many more of the local Jews–some 25,000–have stayed, apparently able to live their lives and practice their religion in peace, as the autocratic/theocratic government continues the historical practice within Islam of letting people of other Abrahamic faiths practice their religions relatively unmolested. (Many Iranian Jews have of course chosen to emigrate, most famously to Beverly Hills.) In this photo, a Jewish man stands outside the tomb of Esther and Mordecai in Hamedan, Iran.

Yet further east was the domain of the Bukharan Jews, who lived not only in Bukhara but in other Central Asian cities, developing a unique culture that was a significant part of the religio-ethnic mosaic of that region. They even had their own language, Bukhori, which was something like Farsi/Tajik written in Hebrew characters. The most visible landmark of the Bukharan Jews in Bukhara may be the cemetery (first image), but a walk around the old city in now Uzbekistan reveals many more remnants of the Jewish population, including a synagogue (second image) and old Jewish homes such as Akbar House, now a bed and breakfast (third and fourth images). (translation of the writing in the fourth: again, “Joseph is a fruitful vine, a fruitful vine near a spring” from Genesis 49:22)



The Old Bukharan Synagogue, in the Bukharan Quarter, Jerusalem. Many Bukharan Jews have also settled in Queens in New York City.

Equally famous for its resident Jewish population, including thousands who remain today, is Morocco, half a world away. All of the great historical cities of Morocco have a large Jewish quarter, known as the mellah.

The narrow streets and tall buildings of the mellah in Marrakesh show how densely populated these ghettoes were.

Jewish life continues in some of the mellahs. Here, Al Azmeh Synagogue in the mellah of Marrakesh.

Large Jewish cemeteries show how much greater were the historical Jewish populations of these cities. The first two images are from Marrakesh, the rest from Fez. In the fourth and fifth images, a small synagogue/museum attached to the cemetery next to the Fez mullah. The Arab decor in the second and fifth images shows how local Jews were very much a part of the local culture (as well as the universal Jewish culture).




Another synagogue, in the Fez mellah

As in pretty much everywhere else they lived, Jews performed a significant role in the commerce of Morocco. Here, a Jewish funduq, or caravansaray/inn in old Fez.

Moroccan Jews were not only in the big cities. In the first image, a Jewish cemetery in the Skoura Oasis, near the town of Ouarzazate. In the second image, the ruins of a synagogue in the Jewish Kasbah of Amezrou, near Zagora in the Draa Valley further south (see post of 2009.01.11 on the multiethnic Draa Valley).

What was in African Morocco was of course also in Moorish Iberia, and there were Jewish populations in all of the cities of Spain. In the first two images, the alleys of the Juderia, or Jewish quarter, of Cordoba (the minaret/steeple of the Great Mosque visible in the first image). In the third and fourth images, an old synagogue in Cordoba (note again the “Arabesque” decoration). The fifth image is a statue of Maimonides, a great Jewish philosopher–Jews were the third of the “three cultures,” along with the Muslims and Christians, that made Iberia during la Convivencia the great intellectual hotbed that it was (see post of 2009.02.04).




But of course la Convivencia was not to last, as the Catholic Monarchs completed the Reconquista and imposed their policies of ethno-religious cleansing. (See post of 2009.02.02.) In part because the Iberian Jews were so closely associated with the Moors and were suspected of being pro-Muslim conspirators, Ferdinand and Isabella issued the Alhambra Decree or Edict of Expulsion in 1492, exiling all Jews from Iberia. Many of the Sephardi Jews ended up in areas that were part of the (Muslim Turkish) Ottoman Empire, which sent boats to Spain to help transport them. (To the Ottomans, the skilled and wealthy Jews were highly desirable immigrants that the Spanish, blinded by their extreme sense of religious orthodoxy, were foolish to give up.)

The Old Synagogue in the old city of Sarajevo, now a museum of Jewish history in the region. Local Jews continued to use the Ladino language, a Jewish language derived from Spanish.

The Ashkenazi (or Eastern European) Synagogue in Sarajevo, built in the early twentieth century for the Eastern European Jews not of Spanish origin.

The Sofia Synagogue in now Bulgaria, one of the largest in the region, built to accommodate the descendants of the Sephardi Jews who settled in that part of the Ottoman Empire.

Strictly speaking it is not a part of the Muslim world, but a city known for its trade with the East of course had a local Jewish population that could make use of the significant Jewish mercantile networks throughout the East. A couple images from the “original” Jewish ghetto, in Venice.

Islam in the Balkans

We didn’t really set out to travel at all in the Balkans. Outside of southern Spain, for its historical importance as a major outpost of Islamic culture, Europe was not to play a big role in our trip. But as it turned out, the cheapest flight from Europe to Dakar departed from Milan, and we figured, what better way to get from Istanbul to Milan than by train? And so, through Sofia (Bulgaria), Belgrade (Serbia), Sarajevo (Bosnia and Hercegovina), Zagreb (Croatia), Ljubljana (Slovenia) and Venice (Italy) we traveled to Milan, mostly on overnight trains.

In keeping with the theme of our year’s travels, we thought that we would use this opportunity to seek out historical and current Islam and Islamic culture in the Balkans. I knew that some of the countries in the Balkans had substantial Muslim populations (and detoured to Sarajevo to visit Bosnia in particular, post to come), but did not know how much Islamic influence we would see generally in the region. Given how extremely brief and superficial our travels in the region were, I was surprised to so easily find substantial remnants of Islam in the Balkans.

Islam came to the Balkans through the Ottoman Empire’s advances in the 15th century. From then until the 19th century, much of the Balkan peninsula was a part of that Turkish Muslim empire, and therefore subject to Turkish cultural and religious influence, as well as Turkish migration. We first saw evidence of the Ottoman and Turkish presence in the Balkans before we even left Turkey, at the Balkan Turks Foundation on Istanbul’s Divan Yolu (the sort of “main street” of the historical part of Istanbul), a cultural foundation similar to the East Turkistan Foundation for western China (see post of 11.05). It is unclear to me how many Turkish speakers remain in the Balkan countries now–given that some seem to have moved to Turkey–but in the period of Turkish advance before and during Ottoman rule, Turks must have moved into the Balkan peninsula just as they moved into Cyprus (see post of 10.27). Ataturk himself (see post of 11.02) was born in now Greece.

But Islam in the Balkans was not just a matter of Turkish-speaking Muslim migrants into the region, which seems to have been the primary phenomenon in Cyprus, but also of the gradual conversion of local populations. Just as there may not be any “Mughals” left in South Asia, but hundreds of millions of Muslims, there are far more Muslims in the Balkans than people of Turkish descent. As in other regions controlled by Islamic rulers, there was to some extent conversion in the local, originally non-Muslim population. There is one question, I have, however, about the spread of Islam in the Balkans, and that is why the Muslim populations seem so geographically concentrated today, in the more heavily Muslim republics of the Western Balkans (further from Turkey than the overwhelmingly Christian Eastern Balkans). I know that some of this has been exaggerated by recent conflicts, but it seems that the penetration of Islam was in fact greater in the west, perhaps due to greater/more direct/longer imperial presence/control in those regions. I would certainly appreciate clarification on this point from my readers!

Some photos and thoughts tracing Islam in the Balkans, from Bulgaria to Slovenia.

Ottoman-era mosque, Sofia, Bulgaria. The Banya Bashi Mosque, located a couple blocks away from the Sofia Synagogue, was built by none other than Sinan, the Ottoman Empire’s greatest architect, in the 16th century. Bulgaria is one of two European countries bordering Turkey, but it is, as is Greece (and, to the north, Romania), overwhelmingly Christian, despite nearly five centuries under Ottoman rule. The mosque seemed primarily for use by the Turkish minority (around 10% of the total population of Bulgaria) and perhaps Turks in transit, as it had Turkish language signs and prayer timetables in Turkish.

Bayrakli Mosque, Belgrade, Serbia. The Serbs, who have pride of place as a nation that engaged in a horrific ethnic cleansing campaign in such recent history (though some of the glory should be shared with Greek volunteers who took part in some of the worst atrocities), destroyed most of Belgrade’s at one time many mosques during the 1990s conflicts. Perhaps the current authorities believe that there is still a possibility of anti-Muslim mob violence, as this mosque had its own police box. The only other conspicuously Ottoman building we saw in Belgrade was a tomb of a pasha inside Kalemegdan Citadel. Much more so, modern Serbia identifies itself as a part of the Slavic world, with two of downtown’s most prominent landmarks being the Moscow Hotel and the Russian Tsar Restaurant (see Derek’s post of 11.12).

Bosnia and Hercegovina, despite very significant Christian populations (particularly in the semi-autonomous breakaway Republika Srpska), is very much a part of the Islamic world, and the most significant and northwesternmost bastion of Islam (if one does not count the large Muslim minorities within Western Europe). I will cover our visit to Sarajevo in a separate post to come.

Slovenia. Once you head into Croatia and Slovenia you leave the former Ottoman Empire for the former Austro-Hungarian, and traces of Islam disappear quickly. One small and depressing anecdote, however. Slovenia is by far the most financially successful of the former Yugoslav republics, now not only a member of the European Union but within the Eurozone as well. Slovenes are wealthy enough to be members of the international backpacker fraternity (we’ve run into them in Ethiopia and Kenya), and Ljubljana has a first world sheen that, say, Sarajevo does not. I asked a Slovene in Ljubljana what accounted for his nation’s success, and was told that the area that is now Slovenia has always been economically more developed than the rest of the former Yugoslavia, and as a sovereign state Slovenia was able to take better advantage of this lead. Another factor, I was told, was that the “southern people” of the other Yugoslav republics had a different mentality, in part because there were “many Muslims” and they “think differently” and were lazy and didn’t want to work. I had thought that Slovenes deserved credit for somehow staying out of the fray of the wars that entangled the other former Yugoslav republics, that Slovenes were perhaps less likely to think the sort of dangerous ethnic nationalism that their neighbors to the south seemed enamored with. Perhaps I was wrong.o