The fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 certainly saw the arrival of many émigré Jews and Christians in Crete. Not long after the conquest of the city a Cretan rabbi, Elias Capsali, who had been a witness to its fall, was appointed Haham Bashi or Chief Rabbi by Sultan Mehmet II. This office fell vacant on his death and was not revived until the early 19th century.
At least in Herakleion, tensions between Christians and Jews raged at times into riots and violent attacks. In the same year as the fall of Constantinople, Herakleion’s Jews were accused of showing contempt for Christians by crucifying lambs and, in a separate incident, of blaspheming the Host. The former attack was certainly made by Orthodox Christians, while the latter reflects accusations common to Latins in the West. It is not surprising that the first lament to appear after the collapse of Constantinople was by a Cretan Jew, Elias Belleli.
Gradually, in the course of the late 15th and early 16th centuries, the Catholic and Orthodox Christian churches in Crete began not only to reach a modus vivendi with each other, but to create a hybrid Creto-Venetian culture. Some Jews took advantage of these broadened horizons to travel to Italy for schooling in places like Padua and Mantova. Contacts were maintained with other Jewish communities with strong Italian influences, including Corfu, Zakynthos and Livorgno, and a number of prominent secularly oriented intellectuals were active at this time, including members of the Del Medigo family.
At the same time, however, Jews found themselves facing a united Christian front against them. News reaching Crete of the relatively peaceful and prosperous life of Jews in the Ottoman Empire created sympathies which occasionally led to acts of treason. In 1538, they were accused of hiding Turks in Herakleion and the community was saved from being massacred only at the very last moment by the intervention of Venetian troops. A special Purim was inaugurated to celebrate the miracle of that salvation.
The Ottoman conquest of Crete took the better part of the 17th century to accomplish. Hania and the western end of the island fell quickly to the well-organized army of Yusuf Pasha, but it was not until 1669, after a twenty-year siege, that Herakleion fell and the Venetians departed never to return.
The lot of the Jews on Crete changed dramatically under the Ottomans. In the towns the ghettos were opened and Jews were allowed to settle in neighbouring quarters abandoned by the Venetians. Crete was also drawn into a quite different economic orbit and ports such as those of Hania, Ierapetra, and Rethymnon were now in close contact with Izmir, Alexandria and Bengazi. Judaeo-Cretan family names reflect these contacts, such as Constantini (from Constantin in North Africa), Minervo (from Alexandria), Mizrahi (Izmir) and other names that appear to belong to Ashkenazi Jews from Europe. The Ottoman Empire had passed its zenith by this time, and Crete did not attract great numbers of Turks. From the time of the fall of western Crete to the Ottomans in 1634 there were numerous conversions for Islam by Cretans. Especially landowning remnants of Creto-Venetian families became Muslims through the active proselytising activities of the Bektashi Dervishes. Jews continued to have contacts with Venice and the Ionian Islands and many emigrated. In general, we know little if anything about individual communities during this time.
During the 19th century, there were a number of increasingly violent revolts on Crete against the Ottomans. Conditions for Jews deteriorated, leading to further emigration. It is estimated that in 1817 there were 150 families, divided between Herakleion and Hania. In 1858 there were 907 Jews on the island as a whole, and in 1881 only 647, most of them in Hania. Accusations of blood libel were common. In 1887, for example, the Sultan himself was called upon to intervene in an especially violent incidence of blood libel.
That tensions had been fierce for some time between the Christians and Jews is dramatically evidenced in the south courtyard of the synagogue of Etz Hayyim by four graves of known rabbis. The earliest burial is that of the Tzaddik, Hasid and Kabbalist R. Hillel Eskenazi who died in 1710. Apparently it had been impossible to remove his body from the Jewish Quarter of Hania due to a Christian mob that prevented the funeral cortege from passing out of the city walls to reach the Jewish cemetery in Nea Hora and in the end it was decided to bury him in the precincts of the synagogue.
Later, between 1821 and 1845, three other rabbis (R. Joseph ben Shalom, his brother Baruh ben Shalom and Abraham Habib of Gallipoli) were buried nearby. Undoubtedly internment there had been dictated again through violence and the dates of their deaths took place during a period when anti-Jewish feeling ran high in both Crete as well as the mainland of Greece.
Toward the end of the 19th century, Crete was made into an independent republic under a Greek prince regent. A parliament was established, with several Jewish representatives, who managed to claim their constitutionally guaranteed seats with great difficulty. After Crete was formally annexed to Greece in 1913, Jewish emigration continued until, by 1941, there were only 364 Jews in Hania, 1 in Rethymnon, and 7 in Herakleion.
The Chief Rabbi of Crete during these momentous years was R. Abraham Evlagon whose original appointment was made in 1867 by Sultan Abdul Aziz under reforms in the Empire that had been put into effect under the Sultan. From the time of his arrival Evlagon steered the dwindling Jewish presence on the island through a tumultuous period in the history of the island. He was certainly active during a time when Crete suffered from what essentially amounted to a civil war between Cretan Muslims and Christians. Furthermore Crete was de facto an Ottoman province constantly assailed by irredentist aspirations on the part of the Greek government on the mainland of Greece supported more times than not by the ‘Powers’ (Great Britain, Russia, France and Italy) each of which had its own agenda as to the future of the island. After the semi-independence of Crete was declared under a Greek regency in 1896 his role must have been especially difficult. In 1913 when the island was officially annexed to Greece, Evlagon would have ceased to be a legally defined Ottoman appointee and his role to a degree mitigated – the fate of all who did not fit into the nationalistic jargon of the time. Cretan Muslims (Turko-Kritiki), Armenians, the remnants of Africans who had acted as servants for Turks, and even Jews had become ‘outsiders’ and had no ‘proper’ role in Crete as a Greek island. The mass emigration of Cretan Muslims had already begun in 1896 and was followed by the disappearance of the Armenians (either by emigration or absorption in the Greek Orthodox population). The Africans became an easily exploited and more than obvious intrusion into the nationalism of the age and were treated indifferently and disappeared as a presence through distressful conditions. The fate of the Jews as that of the Africans was not at all clear. Already by 1900 the Jews had begun to emigrate in large numbers and Jewish life as such was concentrated in Hania. Evlagon’s awareness of the danger is obvious in an admonition that he made to the Jewish community of the city that they speak Greek as opposed to either Ladino (Judaeo-Espagnol) or Turkish. Chief Rabbi Abraham Evlagon died in 1933; shortly before his death he wrote and account of his years as Chief Rabbi of the island.
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Jewish communities in Greece generally were in the midst of adjustment and accommodation to somewhat recently asserted national identity but also had no tradition or experience in pogroms (with the exception of Sephardic Jews who had been forced to flee the Iberian Peninsula in the 15th century and had been given refuge in the Ottoman Turkish Empire). Nationalism in a somewhat virulent form had eroded the structure of the Ottoman Empire by the early 20th century and new of national states appeared in the Balkans. Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia, as well as a nascent national movement in Turkey, created a new kaleidoscopic configuration: highly complex and inimical in certain instances. Jews in general were already marginalized though early aspirations to a Zionist homeland certainly were at work in the earliest migration of Eastern European Jews to what was then Palestine. For the most part, however, the hitherto Ottoman Jews found themselves suddenly to be Greek, Bulgarian, Serbian or ‘other’ Jews.
The process of nation-state building that characterized Greece was irredentist and based on aggressive expansionist policies inspired by an idea of Greece that in fact had never existed, unlike either Bulgaria or Serbia that had existed as clearly defined kingdoms until conquered by the Ottomans. What constituted the carrot for Greek nationalism was a somewhat vaguely defined cultural, linguistic and to a degree ethnic and religious geographical ‘space.’ Seen from this point of view the British Commonwealth (and ensuing contradictions) most resembles what ‘Greece’ represented in antiquity though now given an added ingredient, viz. national political identity.
This process had more or less reached a balance after 1913 when Thrace, Epirus and the island of Crete were incorporated into the Greek state. This saw the sudden inclusion into Greece of some 100,000 former Ottoman Jews who, by 1941 were in the process of being redefined as ‘Greek’ Jews. The Jews of what constituted ‘Greece’ during this time and process were hardly a unity and even attempts to form such had met with failure. Early attempts on the part of the Ottomans to create a Chief Rabbi of the Empire in emulation of the Patriarchal structure of both Greeks and Armenians had certainly collapsed by the early 16th century.
Appealing to some but hardly relevant to most, was Zionism. For Jews of the former Ottoman Empire emigration was an answer that saw perhaps over a third of the Jews of Greece who had left their traditional communities. Certainly this was the case in Crete where officially the Jewish community of Herakleion, that once boasted four synagogues had become defunct by 1912. That Hania and its Jewish community had swelled to a degree was a consequence of its being the regional capital of the island and an influx of Jews probably from other now dying communities e.g. Rethymnon, Kissamos and perhaps even Siteia. Though even here it is estimated that the Jewish presence was perhaps 600 in total for the island in 1900 and by 1941 had been reduced to 300.