Mark Strauss Brought to my attention, a people I had never heard of before
New research by an Istanbul-based artist has documented hundreds of haunting, sepia-toned photographs belonging to Turkey’s mysterious Dönme community—a once-thriving religious sect that practiced a unique set of beliefs based on Sufi mysticism and Judaism. Today, few remain after their true identity was discovered.
Dönme is a Turkish term meaning to “turn from one path to another” or, in this context, to convert. Originally, the community was followers of the heretical, 17th-century rabbi, Sabbatai Zevi, who rejected many traditional Jewish beliefs in pursuit of iconoclastic mysticism. Proclaiming himself the Messiah, the charismatic Zevi traveled the Ottoman Empire, promising Jews imminent deliverance from their long exile, until the authorities decided to put an end to his troublemaking by offering him the choice of death or conversion to Islam.
Zevi chose to convert, leaving thousands of followers bewildered and abandoned. But some 300 families joined Zevi in converting to Islam. By the late 1600s, they had established a community in Salonika, a city with a large Jewish population in Ottoman Greece.