Islamische Geschichte in jüdischen Chroniken:

Hebräische Historiographie des 16. und 17. Jahrhunderts

[“Islamic History in Jewish Chronicles:
Hebrew Historiography of the 16th and 17th centuries”]

(Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2004), 332 pages.

English Abstract

My second book is innovative in two ways: While there is already an extensive literature on Christian authors of the Renaissance period writing on Muslim history, my study represents the first scholarly work on their Jewish counterparts. It is also the only book-length description and analysis of several important Jewish chronicles from this period, and as such represents a significant contribution to the debate (Bonfil vs. Yerushalmi) over whether or not sixteenth-century Jewish authors abandoned the literary constraints of religious historiography and developed more “modern” views on history.

Following introductory chapters into the historical and historiographical background of early modern Jewish history writing, the authors and their works (chapters 1-4), chapters 5-6 focus on two Jewish writers with an Italian cultural background: Elijah Capsali of Candia (Venetian Crete, ca. 1485-1555) and Joseph Ha-Kohen of Genoa (1496-ca. 1577). While Italian works on Ottoman history often paint a bloody picture of the “Turkish menace,” these Jewish chroniclers tend to idealize the Ottomans. Their glowing portraits of the sultans echo the fact that, following their expulsion from Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century, numerous Sephardic refugees found a safe haven in the Ottoman Empire (a topic discussed separately in chapter 2). Capsali’s (chapters 4.1. and 5) interest in Ottoman affairs was also a result of his living in the port city of Candia, one of the major hubs of the Venetian Levant trade. His panegyrics on the Ottomans, Venice’s primary rivals in the Eastern Mediterranean, were motivated by his conception of history as guided by divine providence. For Capsali, in other words, it was God who had allowed the Ottoman Empire to expand into the Levant in order to repatriate the Jewish expellees from Spain to Palestine—a development that would ultimately inaugurate the messianic age.

Joseph Ha-Kohen (chapters 4.2 and 6) was a resident of the maritime republic of Genoa, where—similar to Candia—political, military and commercial news was a swiftly-traded fare. Recently published Italian books, in particular, provided him the prism through which he looked at the Ottoman Empire and non-Jewish history in general. Based on a diversity of sources, some of them written by contemporary humanists, he composed his Hebrew Chronicles of the Kings of France and the Kings of the House of Osman the Turk (first printed in 1554), which offer an intertwined history of Christian and Muslim empires from the early Middle Ages to the author’s own days. At the same time, Ha-Kohen was a Sephardic Jew whose parents were among the expellees of 1492. Against this background, Ha-Kohen portrays Spanish and Ottoman rulers in distinctly binary ways, vilifying the former and glorifying the latter. But unlike Capsali, he does not seem to have held any immediate messianic expectations (against Yerushalmi). In fact, his extensive account of non-Jewish history was meant to demonstrate that God avenged—within the course of history—the injustice inflicted on the Jews by their gentile masters.

In chapter 7, I contrast Capsali’s and ha-Kohen’s depictions of Islam with that by Joseph Sambari (on his life and work, see chapter 4.3), a seventeenth-century Jewish chronicler from Cairo, who had read the works of the earlier two. Drawing on Arabic sources inaccessible to his predecessors, Sambari revised the largely positive picture Capsali and Ha-Kohen had offered of Muslim rule and wrote instead a biting polemic against Islam. I explain his anti-Muslim bias as a response to a specific historical crisis that shook the Jewish communities of the Eastern Mediterranean to their foundations: In 1666, Shabbetai Ṣevi, a messianic claimant who had attracted a large following among Levantine Jewry (and beyond), converted to Islam. This religious crisis blurred the boundaries between Judaism and Islam; a desire to redraw these lines of difference motivated Sambari to compose his chronicle. While his lengthy paraphrases of Islamic sources might seem paradoxical given that he wanted to prevent his coreligionists from embracing this tradition, Sambari’s familiarity with precisely the culture he attacked reflects the ambiguities of coexistence and conflict that characterized the relations between majority and minority religions in the early modern Levant.

Despite their different agendas, the three historians at the center of my study stand out among premodern Jewish writers as they consciously reflect on the political developments and upheavals of their times (see the book's conclusion). They undertook a rare task among their coreligionists in writing a history of non-Jewish peoples. That said, their writing style has more in common with that of medieval chronicles than with humanist historiography. Thus they used the chronicle genre to organize historical knowledge drawn from non-Jewish sources and to adapt it to the expectations of their (exclusively) Jewish audience. What is unprecedented in their works is the subject matter, or to be precise, the extent to which they write on non-Jewish history. Their lengthy and detailed accounts of Muslim history have no parallel in earlier Jewish literature—and only a few among later Jewish historians prior to the nineteenth century.

© Martin Jacobs, Washington University in St. Louis

Contact: mjacobs[AT]