Sephardic Jews on the Island of Chios

By Scott L. Marks

The Greek island of Chios is in the Northeastern Aegean sea midway between the islands of Samos and Lesvos. Just a few miles off the West coast of Turkey, it is the fifth largest island in Greece.

There are two theories on how the island received it's name. The first is that the name Chios stems from "Chiona," who was the daughter of the island's ancient King Inopion. The other theory is that comes from the name "Hios," the son of Neptune, at the birth of whom, too much snow (hioni) fell on the island. Folklore contends Chios was the birthplace of both the Greek poet Homer in 8 BCE, and that of Christopher Columbus in 1451.

Historically the island was known for it's wealth and large populus. The main city on the island of Chios is also called Chios. It is located on the eastern coastline looking over the straight to the Turkish mainland of Anatolia. Because of the position of its port, neighboring a rich land, and controlling the narrow passage to Constantinople, the island has always been considered geographically important.

The island came under control of the Romans late in their history, after the Empire split up. Chios continued under the leadership of the Byzantine government, but later in the 13th century was taken over by two of the Italian Republics, the Venetians (with their unique architecture), and then the Genovese, of whom Chios prospered under. Although the Byzantine empire lasted technically to 1453 when the Ottoman Turks seized Constantinople, it wasn't until 1566 when the Turks took over the island of Chios; for the next 346 years the island would be occupied by the Turks and their Islamic culture.

There was a flourishing city on Chios which thrived in trading pottery, wine, marble, silk, and mastic resin. This resin is a unique and valuable product that is produced by the mastic tree which grows only on Chios. In the past this island has been a target for various attacks and conquerors because of the importance of this product. This defensive need against foreign invaders led to the creation of defensive architecture. The most notable of such is the large Chios fortress which lies north of the island's modern capital. It played an important role in the medieval and modern history of Chios, being the center of its political and military government. At one time it enclosed the island's entire main city, but soon the town expanded outside the precinct of its walls. The Jews of Chios lived within this structure and in 1607 a visitor named Giust described the Juderia (known as the Ghioudeka) as the loveliest part of the fortress, "far away from the noise of the town."

Chios has had a Jewish population of Romanoite Jews (hellenized Latin word meaning Greek) well before the inquisition and the subsequent Iberian diaspora, and well before the Jewish "golden era." Romanoite Jews were the descendants of the Jews who were slaves brought to the Roman lands from Palestine--which was then under Roman rule. These Jews had developed their own customs, and they spoke a language known commonly today as Judeo-Greek. Remnants of this unique tradition still survive in parts of Greece today. However, even though the Jews had a presence in Chios prior to 1492, historical records before this period only refer to a few events in the history of these island Jews.

While visiting the island around 14 BCE it was told that the non Torah compliant King Herod (King of Judea) was received by all that wanted an audience with him. Herod came to see the thriving city for himself, and paid off debts the islanders' owed to the Romans. During the visit Herod had his workers rebuild the failing sea wall and parts of the fortress where the Jews lived. Benjamin of Tudela who was the son of Jonah, visited the island and met with the Jewish leaders Eliah Thiman and Schabtai. The Jewish population at the time was said to be at least 500 strong.

The Venetian and Genovese left their mark, with Chios Jewish families having kept Italian surnames like Scandalli, Segala, and Gaspari. While visiting in the 14th century, the Talmud codifier and author of the Arban Tourin, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher of Toledo and his ten men fell ill and died on the island; his tomb is still visited by Jews today.

Throughout the dark ages and medieval years, Chios was known as a significant Mediterranean seaport as it was a landmark separating East and West. In 1346 when the Genovese took the island over, many Jewish financiers and merchants arrived with them. This is evident by the notarized seals found with Jewish Italian surnames on historical deeds from the period. The Jews were afforded security and economic prospects by the Genovese on the island. As Argenti states in The Religious Minority of Chios "they (Genovese) did not wish to kill the goose that laid the golden eggs!"

Documents from the 14th and 15th century discuss Jews trading in everything from soap to carpets. One notary document in particular names a Jewish grain merchant Michaeli Nicosia who was trading in wine which was grown by the islands' Jewish community. In 1492 after the Edict of Expulsion was signed by The Catholic Kings which banished all Jews from Spain, Ottoman Sultan Bayazid II offered to accept many of these fleeing Spanish refugees. The Sultan would allow the Jews to continue to practice their own religion; this was quite different than what the Christian rulers of the same period felt-- considering they thought all religions other than their own should cease to exist! Because of it's large harbor and merchant inhabitants, Chios became one of many entry points for Sephardic Jews. Many moved on to nearby Smyrna (now Izmir) and other Ottoman lands. However, many Jews stayed on the island renewing its vigor by bringing new intellect and culture. Historical documents demonstrate a significant number of Spanish surnames within the population; and around this time Judeo-Spanish (ladino) songs and stories took up a position in Chios tradition. The number of Sephardic Jews who arrived overwhelmed the Romaniots who were not as well educated in the religious law, or as well formed in terms of scholarly works. Eventually, Sephardic customs, language, and traditions superseded the Romaniot culture in most cities.

The Turkish Sultan was tolerant of the Jews. This can easily be seen in the fact that large Jewish communities existed in the all of the Ottoman lands until the end of the Empire. The Sephardic community even built a new synagogue on Chios as late as 1890. As a non-Muslim community in the Ottoman Empire, the Jews kept their own courts, schools, and welfare systems; this type of community was known as a millet. The members of these self-run millets were pleased to have these functions in their own hands, and the Ottoman government was relieved of the necessity of providing this themselves. Religious toleration on the island was not perfect. Ottoman life was definitely Islamic life, and this gave preference to Muslims in all parts of community and government. Jews were an accepted, but lower class.

Jews were involved with the production of the islands' most valuable commodity, mastic. The wealthier Jews financed the operation and acted as a go between to the Muslim Turks and the Orthodox Christian Greeks. The producers of the product were funded by the Jews, and after harvest, the debts were paid off. The majority of Jews who did not have much worked as cloth dyers; this was an occupation practiced in both Iberia and North Africa before the 15th century diaspora. Other common occupations for Sephardic Jews of the time were the making of silk garments, weaving, wine production, and even olive farming.

Historical population figures and Jewish political infrastructure for the period after the Iberian diaspora are not very common. However it is known that in 1566 Rabbi Jehiel Basan was called upon to settle a question of Jewish law. At the time of his decisions upon the matter the Jews numbered at least 300. In 1549 Calueran Albanell (a variant of the Jewish name Abravanel) was chosen as the Catalonian consul, and in 1566 Barcelona established a consulate on the island. By 1681 it was described that Spanish was the best known language of the Jewish population; and in this same year Aaron ibn Hayyin became their Chief Rabbi. In the Synagogue they read and chanted the Torah in Greek, but all writing on religious matters were written with Hebrew letters using Rashi script. These island Jews had their own cemeteries; many of the Spanish names written in Hebrew and Ladino on the headstones are still visible today.

Many Spanish Jews who were headed East towards the Turkish mainland ended up remaining on Chios. They took up residence in the fortress, and proceeded to expand the Jewish population; their community thrived over the next 300 years. In 1821 Chios participated in the revolt of Greeks against the Ottoman Turks, and the next year the Sultan gave orders to attack the island. An estimated 25,000 were killed and over 80,000 were enslaved. Those who escaped went to other islands or on to major cities around the world. Later, Jews moved back into the fortress, and occupied it until a tremendous earthquake struck the island in 1881. After the Turkish attack, and subsequent earthquake, most Jews fled the island for surrounding islands such as Levos, and Rhodes where they made their new homes.

Chios was taken from the Turks by the Italian Army in 1912, and subsequently reunited with Greece a few years later. It was told that at the start of World War II, there was only one Sephardic family left, and they soon migrated to Palestine. Unlike the terrible murder of 60,000 Greek Jews killed during the holocaust, there are no documented cases of Chios Jews being deported by the nazis. The only remnants of the once vibrant Jewish past are relics in the Jewish museum in Athens, as there is no Jewish community on Chios today.

Copyright 1999


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