Preserving Records of Ottoman Jewish Cemeteries, Thanks to Bernard Lewis

July 8, 2020 | Michael Curtis
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On July 1, an Israeli organization for the study of the bygone Jewish communities of the Ottoman empire announced the launch of a database of Turkish Jewish cemeteries. Michael Curtis writes:

A key figure in the development of this project was Bernard Lewis, the British-American scholar who died in 2018 aged one-hundred-and-one, who can be considered the most erudite and influential historian and analyst of Islam and the Middle East in modern times. . . . The idea of the database started in a conversation in the mid-1980s between Bernard Lewis and a Turkish friend, Nuri Arlasiz, a collector of Ottoman art who wanted to save the Jewish cemeteries of Istanbul from being plundered or destroyed by natural causes. . . . . Arlasiz asked Lewis for help to save them.

Lewis [supported] the idea but had a different point of view, proposing that the Jewish cemeteries should be documented since they would have little chance of surviving without a living Jewish community.

Lewis consulted with Professor Minna Rozan, then head of the Diaspora research center at Tel Aviv University, [who] went to Istanbul in 1987 to examine whether Lewis’s idea was feasible. [Then] Rozan, taking a sabbatical from her position at Tel Aviv University, spent two years . . . documenting the Jewish cemeteries in Turkey with a research team who sorted through over 100,000 photos of 61,022 tombstones to establish the database. Emphasis was put on the most ancient tombstones and those threatened by neglect or urban expansion. Some cemeteries have been destroyed, wholly or partially, by construction of the ring road around Istanbul.

The research covers 28 different cemeteries, including Karaite and Italian ones in Istanbul, as well as those from communities in Western and Eastern Anatolia which ceased to exist after 20th century wars and immigration.

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