Sabbatai Sevi and the Ottoman-Turkish Dönmes

Episode 308

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In 1665, an Izmir-born Rabbi named Sabbatai Sevi (1626-76) was proclaimed to be the Jewish Messiah. His messianic movement attracted tens of thousands of followers and become known throughout the early modern world. Ottoman authorities, however, arrested Sevi in 1666, and, under duress, the charismatic leader converted to Islam. Many members of his movement followed suit and became the communities who today are called dönme (which literally means "convert"). After Sevi's death, dönme communities continued to outwardly practice Islam but inwardly retain practices of Judaism. In this episode, Cengiz Şişman talks about his research on the development of Sevi’s movement, the trajectories of dönme communities, and questions of conversion and communal boundaries, which became more pressing in the late nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries.

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Contributor Bios

Cengiz Şişman is Assistant Professor of History at the University of Houston, Clear Lake, where he works on the history of religions, conversion, irreligion, messianism, mysticism, crypto-double identities, missionaries, and religion and modernity. He also teaches courses on world history, Islamic empires, and the modern Middle East.
Matthew Ghazarian is a Ph.D. Candidate in Columbia University's Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, African Studies. His research focuses on the intersections of sectarianism, humanitarianism, and political economy in central and eastern Anatolia between 1856 and 1893.

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Episode No. 308
Release Date: 26 March 2017
Recording Location: Koç University Research Center for Anatolian Civizations, Istanbul, Turkey
Audio editing by Matthew Ghazarian
Music: Istanbul'dan Ayva Gelir Nar Gelir - Azize Tozem and Sari Recep
Images and bibliography courtesy of Cengiz Şişman


A portrait of Sabbatai Sevi from the 1660s, taken from an anonymous book published in 1667. Source: Relation de la véritable imposture du faux messie des juifs nommé Sabbatay Sevi: juif natif de Smyrne, maintenant nommé Achis Mehemet Aga, Turc, portier du Serrail du grand Seigneur, éscrite de Constantinople, le vingt-deuxiesme novembre 1666 par un religieux digne de foy, fidelle tesmoin de ce qu'il éscrit, & envoyée à un de ses amis à Marseille (Avignon: Chez Michel Chastel, 1667).
Şemsi Efendi and one of his students, Nuriye Fuat (Akev Eden) in Istanbul, 1911. Şemsi Efendi was a member of Salonica's Dönme community, a prominent late Ottoman educator, and also one of the teachers of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. Courtesy of Şişli Terakki Vakfı.
The house of Sabbatai Sevi under renovation in İzmir, 2016. Courtesy of Cengiz Sisman.

Select Bibliography

The Burden of Silence
by Cengiz Şişman
Oxford University Press, 2015
Akyalçın, Dilek. "Les Sabbatéens Saloniciens (1845–1912): Des Individus Pluriels Dans Une Société Urbaine En Transition." Unpublished Ph.D. Thesis. Paris, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 2013.

Baer, Marc. The Dönme: Jewish Converts, Muslim Revolutionaries, and Secular Turks. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2010.

Bali, Rifat, A Scapegoat for all Seasons: The Donmes or Crypto-Jews of Turkey. Istanbul: ISIS, 2008.

Barnai, Jacob. Sabbateanism: Social Perspectives [Hebrew]. Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center, 2000.

Elqayam, Abraham. "Sabbatean Cookery: Food, Memory and Feminine Identity in Modern Turkey." Kabbalah 14 (2006): 4–47.

Galanté, Abraham. Nouveaux Documents sur Sabbetai Sevi: Organisation et us et Coutumes de ses Adeptes. Istanbul: Fratelli Haim, 1935.

Goldish, Matt. Sabbatean Prophets. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Naar, Davin, Jewish Salonica: Between the Ottoman Empire and Greek Salonica. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015.

Scholem, Gershom Gerhard. Sabbatai Sevi: The Mystical Messiah, 1626-1676. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973.

Türkyılmaz, Zeynep. “Neither Muslim Nor Christian.” Ottoman History Podcast 104, April 29, 2013.


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