The politics of today’s Middle East are so ingrained and entrenched that it seems impossible to imagine things could ever have been different.
However, that’s the interesting thing about history. It teaches us that our assumptions are usually not good for our intellectual wellbeing. And as it happens, things used to be different. Very different.
In 1492, the year that Christopher Columbus set sail to explore the New World, Spain’s Jewish population faced a crisis. As part of his reconquest of the Iberian peninsula (and feeding on long-held intolerances), King Ferdinand II of Aragon gave them a choice: convert to Christianity or face explusion.
At its heart, this was little more than a thinly-veiled attempt to seize Jewish property at a difficult economic time, but the effect was profound. Up to 800,000 Spanish Jews were imperilled, many of whom would be summarily killed when unable to leave and unwilling to renounce their religion.
And yet rescue did come, and from the most unexpected of sources. The muslim Caliph of the Ottomans, Sultan Bayezid II, a learned, tolerant and intellectual leader, dispatched his navy to collect and resettle Spain’s Jews, instructing the governors of all his lands to provide refuge and a warm welcome, or face harsh punishment. The Sultan proclaimed that he saw in the Jewish people a rich and valuable contribution to his own empire.
Having recently conquered Greece, the Turks carved out significant tracts of land near Thessaloniki in which a new community might be established. It was only one destination (others included Izmir, Baghdad, Aleppo, Cairo and Jerusalem) but it would prove significant, especially to the local Greek culture.
One of the hallmarks of this Jewish migration is found today on the table of Greek families everywhere. A simple chicken, lemon and egg soup that has its origins deep in Jewish history, brought to Greece by those whom the Ottomans saved.
Avegolemono. It’s more than a soup, it’s a significant bite of history.