Karaites (Karaims) are a Turkish Jews group who identify their ethnic identity with their beliefs. Today, they reside mostly in the countries of the former Soviet Union, the Crimea, Lithuania, Poland and Israel.1
In the Byzantine period migrants coming from Iraq, Palestine and Syria formed the Karaite society; over the course of time, local Orthodox Christian (Rum) subjects joined those migrants.2 Thus, the Jewish immigrants integrated within the community of local Jews al. However, the Byzantines expelled the Karaites from Constantinople, particularly in the tenth century. The exiles continued and as a result of the Crusades few Karaites left in the city.3 The Karaites who were expelled from Constantinople due to Christian bigotry could only settle in the city permanently after its conquest by Mehmed II the Conqueror. According to one account, one of the places allocated to the Karaites was Karaköy. This neighborhood was actually called “Karâîköy” due to the lively Karaite community. Over time, the name became Karaköy.4
The Karaites who returned to Istanbul were Crimean and Balkan Karaites, consisting mostly of Turkish, rather than the Israeli or Greek elements. After this time, ethnicities that existed amongst the Crimean and Balkan Karaites, such as the Kipchaks or the Kabar, joined the Istanbul Karaite community. Now the Turkish character in the ethnic structure of the community stood out significantly, and their participation strengthened the Istanbul community. 5 This situation was reflected in the language, names, practices, traditions and customs of the Karaites.
In the nineteenth century, the Istanbul Karaite community was no longer self-sufficient and it received constant help from the Crimea. Thus, a significant majority of today’s Istanbul Karaite Community included Crimean migrants who came to Istanbul at the beginning of the twentieth century. The rest is consisted of people who had also come from the Crimea in earlier periods.6
The Istanbul Karaite Settlement
Benjamin of Tudela, who provided brief information about the Jews in Istanbul in the twelfth century, recorded that 500 Karaites lived in the Jewish neighborhood.7 Simon Şişman stated that one of the settlement units was today’s Karaköy, and the Karaites had a temple and two cemeteries in that area. One cemetery was on the right of the Galata Tower; the other was between Beyoğlu and Hasköy. 8 Between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries, the Karaites formed a strong community in Istanbul; this community even provided financial and moral support for other Karaite communities.9 There were seven known Karaite kenesas (synagogues) in that period.
There were a total of eighty Karaite communities in the Byzantine territory at first; these later were included in the Ottoman state. 50 of these were in Anatolia and 30 of which were in Rumelia (the Balkans). The Karaite community of Rumelia in particular settled around the Danube River. Belgrade, Thessaloniki and Edirne were also major Karaite settlement units. During the conquest of Edirne (Adrianople) in 1361 by Murad I, the Ottomans encountered Karaites. After this date, Edirne became a center of learning for the Karaites. After the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks, many Karaites from Corfu, Parga, Thessaloniki, İzmit and the Crimea, particularly from Kefe, migrated to Istanbul. And after this, in different periods, the Karaites continued to migrate to Istanbul from different places. During this process, Istanbul became one of the most important centers for the Karaites. The most esteemed people among the Istanbul Karaites were those who came from Edirne. It is for this reason that the Karaites in Istanbul were referred to as the “Edirne Community”.10
The Karaites settled in different regions of Istanbul. There were Karaite communities in Eminönü, Bahçekapı and on the Anatolian side in Kadıköy. They had temples in these locations as well as cemeteries in Üsküdar and Edirnekapı. However, after a long time, the cemeteries were vacated and the remains were transferred to the Karaite Cemetery in Hasköy.11
The mother of Mehmed III, Safiye Sultan (1550 - 1605) had Yeni Camii (New Mosque) built on the land of the Karaites; a certain fee was paid to the community from the Imperial Treasury every year with a special ceremony for the land.12 Elöve tells us regarding this issue that: “After the conquest, the property of the Karaites who were in that neighborhood was expropriated for the land to build Yeni Camii; in return a neighborhood of forty houses was allocated to them in Hasköy.”13 Nevertheless, since Mehmed III died and Safiye Sultan was sent to Eski Saray (The Old Palace), the construction of Yeni Camii could not be completed. After the great fire that occurred in 1660, the construction of the mosque was restarted under the patronage of Turhan Valide Sultan and since the new construction plan became wider than that of Safiye Sultan, most of the Jews within that region were removed from the areas around the mosque and settled in Balat and Hasköy.14
Many Karaites who had economical problems immigrated to Istanbul and settled around Hasköy. Karaites also settled in Balat, Fener and Üsküdar, but only the Karaite community in Hasköy could survive for a long time.15
Until recently, it has been suggested that there are about 10 Karaite cemeteries in the city. This situation is an indication that the Karaites were scattered through many different regions of Istanbul. The well-known Karaite cemeteries were those in Üsküdar, Eğrikapı, Edirnekapı and Hasköy. Over time, these cemeteries were vacated and a new cemetery was allocated to Karaites in Okmeydanı.16 A majority of the gravestones in those old cemeteries were transferred to the Okmeydanı cemetery. According to research, it has been stated that the Karaite cemeteries within the Eyüp district have not been preserved.17
In the early twentieth century Istanbul Karaites, who were in general merchants and craftsmen, used to live mostly in Hasköy; over time they shifted to districts such as Beyoğlu, Nişantaşı, Kadıköy, Bostancı, Fenerbahçe and Çiftehavuzlar. It is for this reason that the communal life of the Karaite community, which was already limited, disappeared. Today, there are no traces of the reported Karaite communities in Anatolia or Thrace.
Religious Freedom for the Karaites
The most important religious institution of the Rabbinic Jews, who were a larger group than the Karaites in the Ottoman Empire, was the institution of the Hahambaşı (chief rabbi). This institution assumed a central role in the administration of the community.18 Karaites also benefited from privileges granted by Mehmed II, the Conqueror. In this context, a temple was allocated to them by the sultan.19 The phrase “this temple given to the Karaites by my conqueror ancestor, Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror” was found in the edicts of sultans after Mehmed II. Elöve talks about an edict that was given to the Karaites regarding the “repair and restoration” of the “temple”; the damage was a result of fires that ravaged the building on different dates.20
The Karaites in the Ottoman Empire were recognized as a separate community due to the sectarian differences between them and the Rabbinic Jews. A separate book was used for census records; the Karaites were recorded under the sects. The Karaites had their own religious institution. An independent religious administration was established for them. A separate seal was given to their heads of community to be used in their affairs. The heads of the Karaite community were known as Cemaatbaşı (head of the congregation).21 As sultans changed, the privileges granted to the Karaites were confirmed by new edicts, and whenever other communities gained more rights, the Karaites also benefitted.22 Under the changes made early in the nineteenth century to the structure of the Ottoman Empire, an official title was given to the pre-existing head of the Karaite community, and his authority over the community’s affairs was thus officially registered.23 The Karaites, who had their own synagogues, were not forced to obey the religious authorities of Rabbinic Jews.
Learning and Culture of Istanbul Karaites
The link between the Karaites in Istanbul and the Crimean Karaites has been indicated above. The common surnames between families of these two community members, such as Örmeli, Egiz, Sıddık, Alyanaki, Koyucu, Kökey, Kefeli, Ağa, Emildeş, Yırtlaç, Teriyaki, Ayvaz, Bölek and Sinani, indicate close familial relations. Some other religious leaders formed an important link between the Crimean and Istanbul Karaites.
The works of scholars such as Aaron ben Joseph (1260-1320), who migrated to Istanbul from the Crimea and is known for his interpretation of Sefer Mibhar, and Aaron ben Elijah (1328-1369), who is known as the Maimonides of the Karaites, and who came to fame for his interpretation of Gan Eden and Keter Torah, in which he gave his opinions regarding the religious law of Karaites, as well as his work known as Ets ha-Hayim, in which he gave theological opinions nourished by the philosophy of Aristoteles and the Mu’tazilites, reinforced this connection.24 During this period, the Istanbul community was found to be self-sufficient and gained a prestigious place among other communities. Later, the Istanbul and Crimean Karaites established a strong cooperation in religious literature. As a result of this cooperation, publications such as Zeher Rav, Miftah Şoreşi Leşon Ha’ivri and Sifre Ha’hinukh le-Petah Tikva were published in Istanbul. At the same time, the Torah in Karaite Turkish and a variety of prayer and worship manuals and some major works of Karaite scholars were published in the Crimea. The cost of those publications was funded by the Istanbul and Crimean Karaite communities.25
The spiritual and cultural life of the Istanbul Karaite community, which had been prominent in previous centuries for literary men, scholars and theologians, was able to survive with the support that it received from the respected members of other communities, the Crimean community in particular, in later centuries. One of those respected people in the eighteenth century was Gözleveli Simoka. Simoka, who sought refuge in Turkey together with his family when the Russian armies entered the Crimea in 1772, took on the duty of spiritual leader of the Karaites and wrote various works on literature and theology. He died in 1810 in Istanbul. Among the famous Crimean theologians, Lucki lived in the Istanbul community between 1833 and 1837. As a famous archaeologist and an expert in manuscripts, Abraham Firkoviç (1787-1874) was a key figure who came from the Crimea, within the community. He worked as the school teacher in the Istanbul community. Firkoviç translated the Torah into Turkish in 1832 and this translation became the first Torah published in Karaite Turkish in Istanbul.26 The Istanbul Karaite Community maintained its reputation in the late nineteenth century and in the early twentieth century.
The traditions, customs, traditions, rituals, engagement and wedding ceremonies of the Istanbul Karaites follow the characteristics of Turkish culture.27
Today’s Istanbul Karaites
As some of the Karaites, who added color to the socio-cultural life of Istanbul, migrated, their number has considerably reduced. Those who did not migrate have been integrated through marriage with people from outside of the community, as well as with other religions / beliefs, despite the sensitivities regarding marriage rules that they are supposed to obey within the community. The Karaites in Istanbul live in various districts, scattered over the city, and it is for this reason that the kenesa of Karaites in Hasköy cannot actively perform its function. Nevertheless, the Istanbul Karaites preserve their place of worship in Hasköy with care, despite the lack of numbers; they perform ceremonies on special occasions and carry out rites in the kenesa a few times in a year. The Turkish Karaim Foundation, whose center is the Kenesa in Hasköy, is the official institution that operates on their behalf. Other than this, the Istanbul Karaites have no religious institution or religious leader. The foundation in question is engaged in providing for the needs of the kenesa and preserving the cemetery that belongs to Karaites.
1 Durmuş Arık, “Türk Yahudiler: Kırım Karâîleri”, Dinî Araştırmalar, 2005, vol. 7, issue. 21, pp. 27-49.
2 Zvi Ankori, Karaîtes in Byzantium, New York: Columbia University Press, 1959, p. 85.
3 Şaban Kuzgun, Hazar ve Karay Türkleri, 2nd edition, Ankara: Alıç Matbaacılık, 1993, pp. 233-234.
4 Kuzgun, Hazar ve Karay Türkleri, p. 234.
5 Kuzgun, Hazar ve Karay Türkleri, p. 215.
6 Kuzgun, Hazar ve Karay Türkleri, pp. 235-236.
7 See Tudela’lı Benjamin and Ratisbon’lu Petachia, Ortaçağda İki Yahudi Seyyahın Avrupa, Asya ve Afrika Gözlemleri, tr. Nuh Arslantaş, Istanbul: Kaknüs Yayınları, 2001, p. 43.
8 Simon Şişman, “İstanbul Karayları”, Türk Kültürü, 1971, vol. 10, issue 110, pp. 92-93
9 Abraham Kefeli, “Istanbuli Karaîm Communitiy”, 08.09.2009, http://www.qaraim.eu/seite3.html
10 Şişman, “İstanbul Karayları”, p. 92; Ahmet Hikmet Eroğlu, Osmanlı Devletinde Yahudiler, 2nd edition, Ankara: Andaç Yayınları, 2003, p. 88.
11 Mustafa Emil Elöve, “Türkiye’de Din İmtiyazları, II. Bölüm”, Ankara Üniversitesi Hukuk Fakültesi Dergisi, 1954, vol. 11, issue 1, p. 232.
12 Şişman, “İstanbul Karayları”, p. 93.
13 Elöve, “Türkiye’de Din İmtiyazları, II”, p. 232.
14 For a detailed study on this issue see, Kenan Yıldız, 1660 İstanbul Yangınının Sosyo-Ekonomik Tahlili, Phd dissertation, Marmara Üniversitesi, Istanbul, 2012, pp. 163-235.
15 See Şişman, “İstanbul Karayları”, pp. 93-94.
16 Kuzgun, Hazar ve Karay Türkleri, p. 217.
17 One of those cemeteries was in the Savaklar district and another one was next to Çobançeşme, where the streets of Yeni Kuşat and Meşatlık unite. However, today there is no sign of these cemeteries. (See: Sedat Balkan, “Eyüp’te Karay Mezarlıkları”, Tarihi, Kültürü ve Sanatıyla Eyüp Sultan Sempozyumu X: Tebliğler, Istanbul: Eyüp Belediyesi, 2006, pp. 495-496).
18 Elöve, “Türkiye’de Din İmtiyazları, II”, s. 220-229; Eroğlu, Osmanlı Devletinde Yahudiler, pp. 182-198.
19 Mustafa Emil Elöve, “Türkiye’de Din İmtiyazları, I. Bölüm”, Ankara Üniversitesi Hukuk Fakültesi Dergisi, 1953, vol. 10, issue 1, p. 316. S. Şişman writes that the Karaite temple in Hasköy was completely renovated and restored in 1842 with an edict of Sultan Abdülmecid (Şişman, “İstanbul Karayları”, pp. 93-94).
20 For the text of the edict, see Elöve, “Türkiye’de Din İmtiyazları, II”, p. 233, 7th footnote.
21 See Eroğlu, Osmanlı Devletinde Yahudiler, p. 115.
22 See Elöve, “Türkiye’de Din İmtiyazları, II”, pp. 233-235.
23 See Eroğlu, Osmanlı Devletinde Yahudiler, pp. 89-91, 192-193.
24 Mustafa Sinanoğlu, “Karâîlik”, DİA, XXIV, 425.
25 See A. K efeli, “İstanbuli Karaîm Community”.
26 Şişman, “İstanbul Karayları”, p. 95. The first Karaite Turkish translations of the Torah had already been made in the eleventh century. Those translations, called Pešats, were written both in Hebrew letters and in the Karaite language and they were transmitted from generation to generation. (See Z. V. Togan, Umumî Türk Tarihine Giriş, Istanbul: İstanbul Üniversitesi Edebiyat Fakültesi, 1981, p. 101; Thomas Stolz (ed.), Minor Languages of Europe, Bochum : Brockmeyer, 2001, p. 3). A translation of the Torah written in Karaite Turkish in the thirteenth century was found to be kept by the Crimean Karaites. It was stated that that translation, which was an example of pure Turkish, was prepared in the period that Codex Cumanicus was edited for the Kumans who had been converted to Christianity by Italian Catholic missionaries and the translation of the Torah resembled it in terms of language. (Kuzgun, Hazar ve Karay Türkleri, pp. 311, 325-326). The last translation of the Torah in Karaite Turkish was published in 1889 in Vilno (Kuzgun, Hazar ve Karay Türkleri, p. 327).
27 See Çağatay Bedii Avramoğlu, “İstanbul Karâî Türklerinde Nişan ve Düğün Adetleri”, Türk Yurdu, 1961, vol. 2, issue 12 (294), pp 33-34; Kuzgun, Hazar ve Karay Türkleri, p. 216.