Edirne (Adrianople) is a city in the Thrace, within the limits of Turkey’s territory to Bulgaria and Greece. The Jewish presence in Edirne dates back to early Byzantine times, during the rule of Roman Emperor Theodosius I (reigned 379-395 CE). The first synagogue in Edirne was the Poli Yashan, belonging to Romaniots Jews of Byzantine origin. Early in the 14th century, when the Ottomans had established their capital at Edirne, Jews from Europe, including Karaites, migrated there.Similarly, Jews expelled from Hungary in 1376, from France by Charles VI in September 1394, and from Sicily early in the 15th century found refuge in the Ottoman Empire. In the 1420s, Jews from Salonika then under Venetian control fled to Edirne.
Ottoman rule was much kinder than Byzantine rule had been. In fact, from the early 15th century on, the Ottomans actively encouraged Jewish immigration. A letter sent by Rabbi Yitzhak Sarfati (from Edirne) to Jewish communities in Europe in the first part of the century “invited his coreligionists to lease the torments they were enduring in Christiandom and to seek safety and prosperity in Turkey”.
When Mehmet II “the Conqueror” took Constantinople in 1453, he encountered an oppressed Romaniot (Byzantine) Jewish community which welcomed him with enthousiasm. Sultan Mehmet II issued a proclamation to all Jews ” to ascend the site of the Imperial Throne, to dwell in the best of the land, each beneath his Dine and his fig tree, with silver and with gold, with wealth and with cattle”.
Most of the Spanish exiles that settled in the Ottoman Empire congregated in large numbers in relatively few centers, bringing together scholars who in the Iberian Peninsula would have been scattered in many localities. Istanbul, Salonika, Edirne, and later Izmir emerged as the sites of a rich intellectual and cultural life. Under the liberal disposition of the Ottomans towards Jews, Edirne became a center of a flourishing Jewish intellectual life. Hekim Yakup, the personal doctor of Sultan Mehmet II,Salamon Ibn Verga who saved many Jews from Christian countries and also a historian,Joseph Caro who arrived to Edirne from Toledo,who wrote “Shulhan Aruh” a book about the Jewish laws were the most important of the Jewish figures during the Ottoman period.
On the other hand, The Maftirim Repertoire was also born in Edirne,as an example of Jewish mystic music. One of the best known of this music performers was Yahudi Hamon who composed Turkish music after the style of the Dervish brotherhoods, though still retaining Iberian themes in his compositions, and this was making it unique.This musique came to our days by being orally transmitted from master to student. The voices of the last masters of this music was recorded a few years ago and collected ona Maftirim Music book.
During the second half of the 19th century many associations were established and flourished in Edirne. They were welfare, social life, and intellectual or ideology related activities. The number of the Jewish community was 12,000 in 1873 and 17,000 in 1902. Their numbers reached a peak of 20,000 in 1912 on the eve of the first Balkan War.The Hevrat Hapoalim (Workers Corporation),El Circlo Israelito (Community development project) , The Bnei Brith (Jewish brotherhood) and Bnei Lion ( Young Lions) were some examples of the Jewish assocations.
The Jewish education in Edirne also played an important role.In the 19th century, an intelligentsia appeared on the scene, consisting of a small group of educated persons that aimed at extricating the Jewish religion out of the rut it had got itself into. The Haskalah movement that was doing the same thing on a European scale was their source of inspiration, but the one located in Edirne was more nationally oriented, as expressed in their support for the revival of Hebrew as a living language, for day-to-day use, and to express thinking not always associated with religion.
One of the earliest on record was Yehuda Nehama, he wrote in Hebrew and Ladino, producing biographies, poetry, and history. He corresponded with other maskilim in Europe, and created a newspaper in Judeo-Spanish, El Lunar which aimed to educate people. After him, the two leading lights among those who were active during the third quarter of the 19th century were Joseph Halevi and Baruch Mitrani. A generation later Avraham Danon appeared.
Once the Balkans’ largest Jewish temple, the Great Synagogue opened on the sultan’s decree in 1909 to serve some 20,000 Jews. It was modeled on a temple in Vienna, later destroyed by the Nazis.
Built by the French Architect France Depré,it became one the most beautiful synagogues of Europe.
During the Balkan wars, and the 1st World War,the Jews of Edirne were the most faithful nation to the Ottomans, the Community assisted in the war effort by operating the Girls School of the Alliance as a workshop to produce bandages and nightgowns for hospitalized wounded soldiers of the Ottoman army.
In January 1923, provoked by a series of anti-Semitic pieces published in the Pasaelinewspaper in Edirne, residents of Edirne gathered in the city center and shouted, “Your turn to leave this country will come, too! Jews, get out!” After the police were barely able to prevent attacks against Jewish shops, Jews who lived in small towns, such as Babaeski, moved to big cities, such as Istanbul.
On January 13, 1928, a campaign to force minorities to speak Turkish — with the slogan of “Citizen, Speak Turkish!” — was begun by the Student Union of the Law School of the Ottoman University (today’s Istanbul University); the public use of languages other than Turkish was prohibited.
From June 21-July 4, 1934, masses of people, provoked by the anti-Semitic writings of authors such as Cevat Rifat Atilhan and Nihal Atsiz, attacked Jews in Edirne, Tekirdag, Canakkale, Gelibolu, Kirklareli, Luleburgaz, and Babaeski. As a result, thousands of Jews in Thrace abandoned their possessions and fled for their lives to Istanbul or out of the country. Jewish homes and shops were looted, and Jewish women were reportedly raped.
After 46 years of silence of Edirne Jews, the Great Synagogue of Edirne, which was totally damaged due to the abandonment was reopened on 2015 a five-year of restoration and $2.5 million Turkish liras spent by the government restoration project. The re-opening of the synagogue was enthusiastic event for the Jews of Turkey who suffered from the increase of the anti-Semitism on the last 6 years.
Today, there are only 2 jews living in Edirne and most of the Edirne’s families continue their lives in İstanbul.