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Encyclopaedia Judaica

Jews in the Ottoman Empire 11: Economy

Jewish immigrants install international trade - textiles, leather, wine, stones, metals, food, money business - family enterprises - Jewish agents - rich and poor - decline of the Empire

from: Ottoman Empire; In: Encyclopaedia Judaica 1971, vol. 16

presented by Michael Palomino (2008)



<Economic Life.

[Jewish trade and Jewish language knowledge is supporting the Ottoman Empire - Jewish trade on the Mediterranean Sea]

The great Ottoman Empire, spread over three continents, with its maritime and land routes which connected it with all countries, provided extraordinary facilities for the activities of the Jewish inhabitants. The sultans offered the old settlers, the refugees, and immigrants from Christian Europe all the facilities necessary to carry on commerce, foreign trade, industrial enterprises, and the development of firearms.

Their knowledge of the foremost European languages - German, Italian, Spanish, and French - was an asset in commercial relations with countries of Europe. Another important asset were the old-established Jewish merchant firms in Muslim ports and capitals, like Alexandria, Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, and Basra. This explains the growth of Salonika, Safed, Algiers, and Izmir, as centers of Jewish trade and industry.

The communities in these town served in international commerce as new centers for the import of finished foreign gods and for the export of raw products and manufactures. The Levant trade carried on by the Jews of the Ottoman Empire by sea and land reached its height in the 16th century. In this century the Ottoman Turks relied very heavily in commerce, diplomacy, and many fiscal matters on the Jews - the only community which possessed the necessary aptitudes and yet was not suspected of having treasonable sympathies with the Christian powers.

the commercial routes were under Jewish control, and ships loaded with goods belonging to Jews passed through the ports of the Mediterranean. The Jews used to insure their goods against piracy and shipwreck.

[Jewish trade products and commercial centers: textile production in Salonika and Safed]

Among the trades in which the Jews in Spain had engaged, weaving took first place. The refugees found excellent opportunities in the Ottoman Empire with its backward industry - and manufactured cloth, which previously had had to be brought from abroad. This explains the amazing growth of Salonika, the largest center of the Spanish refugees, and the even more astonishing rise of Safed, the largest and most developed town in Erez Israel in the 16th century, with a concentration of the second-largest Jewish population in Asia.

The development of both communities was based on the manufacture of textiles and ready-made garments, although the raw material - wool - had to be imported, sometimes from abroad, and the product - the cloth and the garments - exported. The wool used in Salonika was sometimes bought in Macedonia and in other districts of the Balkans. This kind of wool was also brought to Adrianople (Edirne) and then forwarded to the ports of the Sea of Marmara. From there it was sent once a year in a special ship to Safed by way of *Sidon or *Tripoli (Syria).

Other communities in the empire also had their textile factories. The textile industry was mainly a domestic one. Spinning was done by women at home; weaving in bigger workshops. Fulling was mechanical. Dyeing had been a traditional Jewish occupation from the earliest times, and the art was more developed than in Europe.

[Leather, wine, stones and metals]

A considerable number of Jews throughout the Middle East were engaged in the leather trade. They bought raw hides and exported them to Europe or finished them into leather, and Jewish tanners were as famous for their products as were the producers of textiles.

The production of wine was a specifically Jewish occupation. As Muslims were the main consumers of alcoholic beverages, prohibited to them by the Koran, dealing in that commodity was dangerous and was prosecuted by the governmental authorities. Thus very often in rabbinic literature there are references to ordinances promulgated by the Jewish authorities (col. 1545)

against the selling of wine to gentiles (Muslims). Another old Jewish occupation was dealing in precious stones, gold, and silver, jewelry, and the making of jewels. In some countries of the empire, e.g., the Barbary States [[North Africa]], Yemen, and Iraq, this handicraft was a Jewish monopoly until the 19th century and even later.

[Food industry branches - national money business and banks]

Some branches of the food industry that were connected with ritual precepts, e.g., the production of cheese, were in Jewish hands. In some parts of the empire money changing and the farming of government taxes, tolls, imposts, and monopolies (ittizam) were occupations in which Jews predominated. This was sometimes dangerous, as it aroused popular hostility. In later times these occupations, sometimes connected with the functions of administrators of the treasury (*sarraf) of the governor of the province and his banker, developed into important banking enterprises which controlled the growing industry and commerce of the country and linked them with international trade (see the *Cattaui (Egypt), *Sassoon, and *Kadoorie (Iraq) families).

[Family business and family enterprises - Jewish commercial agents]

A peculiarity of Jewish commerce was the family partnership. Rich merchants with widespread commercial connections used to extend their business affairs by opening branches managed by their closer relatives, brothers, brothers-in-law, etc., in large ports and towns, even in foreign countries. A classic example is the firm of *Bacri and *Busnach in Algiers, who were the grain suppliers of France during the French Revolution.

Also widespread were the occupations of agents and representatives; they received a fixed commission for their activities as buyers of raw materials or sellers of manufactured products.

[Protection by the Ottoman state]

Foreign Jewish merchants and their representatives were protected against ill-treatment on the part of the Ottoman governmental officials by the stipulation of the capitulations agreements which awarded them the same protection as their Christian compatriots.

During the period of Western strength and Ottoman decline, the capitulations were transformed into a system of extraterritorial privilege and immunity. The embassies began to sell berats, i.e., certificates, originally intended to protect locally recruited interpreters and consular agents. Local Greek and Armenian merchants who obtained such berats acquired a privileged and protected status. It is obvious that Jews could also be found among them.

[Circumstances of living for the Jews: rich and poor]

It would, however, be wrong to imply that the majority of Jews in the empire were rich and lived under good conditions. In fact, the majority of the employees in the textile industry were poor home workers (women). The suppliers of export goods and distributors of imported products (fancy goods and the like) were small traders and peddlers who set up trade relations on a barter principle with the farmers in villages or made payments in advance and received their products at low cost. The populations of some towns in Erez Israel - Jerusalem, Safed, Hebron, and Tiberias - had no agricultural "hinterland" or only scattered Bedouin camps and were so poor that they had to rely on financial assistance (*halukkah) from other towns in the empire and foreign countries.

[Rivalry between Jews, Greeks and Armenians - decline development of the Ottoman Empire and corruption]

It is obvious that many changes occurred in the economic and social structure of Ottoman Jewry in the space of 500 years or more. The rivalry of the powerful Greek and Armenian communities in the capital and the decline of the whole empire and its gradual dismemberment into national states in the Balkans and protectorates in Africa influenced the economic position of the Jews. The weakened economic structure of the empire and the empty government treasury, which was sometimes close to bankruptcy - felt all the more because of the corrupt bureaucracy - imposed heavy burdens on the weak taxpayers.


[Destructive conditions in the Ottoman Empire - decline of Jewish positions - competing products]

Another factor which had a great influence on the economic life in the 19th century was the above-mentioned capitulations. The concessions which the European states obtained for their citizens who resided in the empire had a destructive influence on life in general and were a negative and even destructive factor in the economic structure. The ra'aya, the Ottoman nationals, were in a worse position in matters connected with daily life than the himaya, the foreign citizens, or the local owners of berats, as they were deprived of the protection of the European powers.

At the end of the 18th century, the Ottoman fisc tried to compete with the foreign consuls by itself selling berats to the ra'aya, both Jews and Christians. There berats conferred the privilege to trade with Europe, together with important legal, fiscal, and commercial privileges and tax exemptions. They enabled non-Muslim ra'aya to compete with foreign merchants.

Unfortunately, the Jews played no significant role in these transactions because of the general decline in their position. In the 19th century (col. 1546)

the positions of preeminence in international trade, with few exceptions, remained in the hands of the Greeks. These times also witnessed the general decay of Ottoman industry and its "Jewish" branches. A flood of cheap manufactured goods flowed into the Turkish market. The imported textiles competed successfully with the local wool, cotton, and silk manufactures.

In the 20th century, the nationalism of the Young Turk movement and later the rise of the *Turkish Republic brought about socioeconomic developments which changed the entire economic structure of Ottoman-Turkish Jewry.> (col. 1547)

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