According to legends recorded in much later Christian sources, there were Jews living in the city even before its foundation by Constantine I. A number of sources mention a synagogue in the Copper Market (Chalkoprateia), near Hagia Sophia. A church dedicated to the Mother of God existed on the site of this synagogue from the fifth century; whether the synagogue had been demolished, or whether the building was converted into a church, is unclear.1
Nothing much is known about the Jewish community during the following centuries. It is only in the eleventh century that the mists lift somewhat, and we begin to be better informed. Early in the eleventh century the Jewish population was boosted by new arrivals coming from the east, motivated first by unstable conditions in Syria and the improving economic conditions in the Byzantine capital. The inroads made by the Seljuks in the east following their victory at Manzikert in 1071 further contributed to the influx of Jews, among others. This seems to have been the time when Karaism first took root in the empire. This religious movement challenged the foundations of the dominant ‘Rabbanite’ form of Judaism in the empire by denying the divine authority of the ‘Oral Torah’, the rabbinic teachings embodied primarily in the Talmud, and limiting the status of revelation to the Bible, while also according authority to communal consensus. The earliest attested Karaite presence in Constantinople dates from around 1000, and from that time on there were tensions between Karaites and Rabbanites in the capital and the main cities of the empire.2
The Latin conquest of 1204 had dramatic consequences for the Jewish minority of the city. Some of these will be mentioned below when we discuss the Jewish quarters of the city. Gradually, following extensive privileges granted by emperor Michael VIII to Venice and Genoa, a new division of the Jewish population emerged, besides the older division into Rabbanites and Karaites. Henceforth there were Byzantine, Venetian and Genoese Jews, inhabiting separate quarters and enjoying different rights and privileges. Some of these were new immigrants, from the Byzantine and former Byzantine territories and from further afield, attracted by economic opportunities; others were long-established Constantinopolitan Jewish families, indeed members of a single family straddled the divisions between the three categories. The different jurisdictions were no barrier to contact and co-operation between the various groups of Jews.3
The Jews lived from internal and external trade, and also practised various crafts. Leather tanning and silk work are particularly mentioned in the sources. We also have some references to physicians. Education was highly prized, and we have numerous examples of Jewish scholars and scribes. The written language of the Jews was Hebrew, while their spoken language was Greek. Some immigrants or foreign residents spoke other languages, such as Arabic or various Italian dialects. They had a distinctive tradition of biblical scholarship, going back in part to ancient times, as well as their own prayer rite, known as the ‘Rite of Romania’. They are known as ‘Romaniotes’, to distinguish them from the later Spanish and Portuguese Jewish immigrants, the Sephardim.4
The sources for reconstructing the history of the Jewish presence are of various types, documentary and literary, Jewish and Christian. On the Christian side we have some references in Greek literary sources, but the most useful evidence comes from notarial deeds and other official documents. The most valuable Jewish source is the travelogue of Benjamin of Tudela, who travelled through the Byzantine empire in the early 1160s, noting information about the various Jewish communities he encountered. His entry for Constantinople is relatively extensive. We have a good deal of information about Jewish intellectual life during the last century of Byzantine rule from the known biographies of Karaite and Babbanite scholars, some of whose works survive in Hebrew, and from some the many extant Hebrew manuscripts that were copied in the city during this period.5
Beginning in the late 11th century we have a fair idea of whereabouts in the city the Jewish minority resided. Before that time we know virtually nothing. The existence of a synagogue in the Chalkoprateia before the mid-fifth century suggests that there were Jews living or working in the area at that time. Later sources preserve the names of a ‘Jewish gate’ and a ‘Jewish wharf’ a little further north, at the opening of the Golden Horn, where we know that other communities of ‘foreign traders’ were located. At some point, probably around 1044, the Jews were moved across the Golden Horn to Pera. Benjamin of Tudela writes around 1162: “The Jews are not inside the city among them [the Greeks], for they have transferred them across the arm of the sea… and when they want to do business with the townspeople they are unable to go out except by way of the sea. And there are about 2000 Rabbanites among them and about 500 Karaites, and a fence divides them.” 6
The Jewish quarter in Pera was close to the sea, not far from the tower where the chain that could be used to close the Golden Horn was attached. This quarter was burned down by the attacking crusaders in 1203. After the period of Latin rule we find the Byzantine Jews concentrated in a new quarter, in Vlanga, on the south side of the city, on the shore of the Sea of Marmara. In due course the Jews who enjoyed Venetian or Genoese citizenship settled in the Venetian and Genoese quarters of the city.7
The main contribution the Jews made to the life of the city was as traders. We read in the sources of individual Jewish merchants trading in such diverse commodities as furs and hides, silk and woollen textiles, wax and tin. Jews were also active in manufacture, most notably as leather tanners, and also as silk workers (before 1204, when high-grade silk production ceased). They functioned as moneylenders, and occasionally as brokers and as interpreters.8
The skill of Jewish physicians was widely recognised, and although few are directly attested in the capital Benjamin of Tudela mentions that the emperor, Manuel I, had a Jewish physician, Solomon the Egyptian: he was the only Jew permitted to ride a horse. Jewish astronomers, too, enjoyed a certain reputation, and in the 15th century Jewish astronomical tables were translated into Greek and used by Christians, particularly for calculating the dates of certain liturgical celebrations. The Jewish scholar Mordecai Khomatianos (1402–1482) is described as receiving a visit from a Greek prince who showed him diagrams of the sun and the moon and put some questions to him.9
Mordecai Khomatianos was a Rabbanite, and we are told that he accepted Karaites and even Christians and Muslims among his pupils. Several of the best-known Jewish scholars of the capital were Karaites, among them Aaron ben Elijah of Nicomedia (d. 1369), the celebrated author of a philosophical work, a legal code and a biblical commentary.10
For too long the Jews of Constantinople and the empire were unjustly neglected by historical scholarship. Now this neglect is being remedied, but the story of the Byzantine Jews is still only beginning to be recognised, along with the distinctive contribution of the Jews of Constantinople to their city and to Judaism worldwide.11
1 Alexander Panayotov, The Synagogue in the Copper Market of Constantinople. A Note on the Christian Attitudes toward Jews in the Fifth Century, Orientalia Christiana Periodica, 2002, vol. 68, pp. 319-334.
2 Zvi Ankori, Karaites in Byzantium: The Formative Years, 970–1100, New York/Jerusalem: Columbia University Press and Weizmann Science Press of Israel, 1959; Nicholas de Lange, “Can We Speak of Jewish Orthodoxy in Byzantium?,” Byzantine Orthodoxies, ed. Andrew Louth and Augustine Casiday, Aldershot: Ashgate Variorum, 2006, pp. 167-178; David Jacoby, “The Jewish Community of Constantinople from the Komnenan to the Palaiologan Period,” Vizantijskij Vremennik, 1998, vol.55, pp. 31-40.
3 David Jacoby, “The Jews of Constantinople and their Demographic Hinterland,” Constantinople and its Hinterland, ed. Cyril Mango and Gilbert Dagron, Aldershot: Variorum, 1995, pp. 221-232, reprinted in D. Jacoby, Byzantium, Latin Romania and the Mediterranean, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001, no. IV; David Jacoby, “The Jewish Communities of the Byzantine World from the Tenth to the Mid-Fifteenth Century: Some Aspects of their Evolution,” Jewish Reception of Greek Bible Versions. Studies in their Use in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, ed. Nicholas de Lange, Julia Krivoruchko and Cameron Boyd-Taylor, Tübingen :Mohr Siebeck, 2009, pp. 157-181.
4 David Jacoby, “The Jews in the Byzantine Economy (Seventh to Mid-Fifteenth Century),” Jews in Byzantium: Dialectics of Minority and Majority Cultures, ed. Robert Bonfil et al., Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2012, pp. 219-256; Joshua Holo, Byzantine Jewry in the Mediterranean Economy, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009; Nicholas de Lange, “Jewish Education in the Byzantine Empire in the Twelfth Century,” Jewish Education and Learning, ed. Glenda Abramson and Tudor Parfitt, Chur (Switzerland): Harwood Academic Publishers, 1994, pp. 115-128; Nicholas de Lange, “The Greek Bible Translations of the Byzantine Jews,” The Old Testament in Byzantium, ed. Paul Magdalino and Robert Nelson, Washington: Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, 2010, pp. 39-54. For further information, with bibliographical references, see www.byzantinejewry.net.
5 English translation of Benjamin of Tudela in Steven B. Bowman, The Jews of Byzantium, 1204–1453, University of Alabama: University of Alabama Press,1985, pp. 333-340; see also David Jacoby, “Benjamin of Tudela in Byzantium,” Palaeoslavica, 2002, vol.10, pp. 180-185; David Jacoby, “Benjamin of Tudela and his ‘Book of Travels’,” Venezia incrocio di culture. Percezioni di viaggiatori europei e non europei a confronto, ed. K. Herbers and F. Schmieder, Rome: Edizioni di storia e letteratura, 2008, pp. 135–164.
6 David Jacoby, “Les quartiers juifs de Constantinople à l’époque byzantine,” Byzantion, 1968, vol. 37, pp. 167-227, reprinted in D. Jacoby, Société et démographie à Byzance et en Romanie latine, London: Variorum Reprints, 1975, no. 2.
7 Jacoby, “Les quartiers juifs,” pp. 189-216.
8 David Jacoby, “The Jews in Byzantium and the Eastern Mediterranean: Economic Activities from the Thirteenth to the Mid-Fifteenth Century,” Wirtschaftsgeschichte der mittelalterlichen Juden: Fragen und Einschätzungen, ed. Michael Toch, Munich: Oldenbourg, 2008, pp. 25-48; David Jacoby, “The Jews and the Silk Industry of Constantinople,” in David Jacoby, Byzantium, Latin Romania and the Mediterranean, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2001, no. XI.
9 Marie-Hélène Congourdeau, “Cultural Exchanges between Jews and Christians in the Palaeologan Period,” Jews in Byzantium: Dialectics of Minority and Majority Cultures, ed. Robert Bonfil et al., Leiden: Brill, 2012, pp. 709-722.
10 Daniel Lasker, “Byzantine Karaite thought,” Karaite Judaism. A Guide to its History and Literary Sources, ed. Meira Polliack, Leiden: Brill, 2003, pp. 505–528; Daniel Frank, “Karaite Exegetical and Halakhic Literature in Byzantium and Turkey,” Karaite Judaism. A Guide to its History and Literary Sources, ed. Meira Polliack, Leiden: Brill, 2003, pp. 529–558; Golda Akhiezer, “Byzantine Karaism in the Eleventh to Fifteenth Centuries,” Jews in Byzantium: Dialectics of Minority and Majority Cultures, ed. Robert Bonfil et al., Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2012, pp. 723-758.
11 Nicholas de Lange, “Qui a tué les Juifs de Byzance?,” Politique et Religion dans le Judaïsme antique et médiéval, ed. Daniel Tollet, Paris: Desclée, 1989, pp. 327-333; Nicholas de Lange, “Research on Byzantine Jewry: The State of the Question,” Jewish Studies at the Central European University IV, 2003–2005, ed. András Kovács and Michael L. Miller, Budapest: Central European University, 2006, pp. 41-51.