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.
This Turkish community was not like the conversos—the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity centuries earlier but who practiced their Judaism in secret. The Dönme had genuinely and willingly converted to Islam, although their religious practices were influenced by those of the Jewish sect that had brought them together.
For the next two centuries, they led an independent communal life, hewing to endogamous marriage practices, building separate schools and cemeteries, passing down their secret traditions from generation to generation.
They were not invisible, however. Many were prominent citizens and businessmen who helped transform Salonika into a cosmopolitan center of commerce. And, they played a prominent role in the Young Turks movement that, in the early 20th century, pushed for ending the absolutist power of the Sultan and ushering in a modern state.
The fateful turning point for the community came in 1912, when their city was conquered by Greece, and most of them resettled in Istanbul—where it was harder to blend in and go unnoticed. As Adam Kirsch, a contributing editor for Tablet Magazine wrote in an article about the Dönme:
Now in the public eye as never before, they were the subject of a number of muckraking newspaper articles and books…. In 1919, one anonymous publication accused them of being inbred to the point of biological degeneracy….At the same time, the Dönme were said to be "always occupied with commerce. Because they do not consider others to be human, they consider it among the laws and praiseworthy qualities of their religion to cheat other nations with various intrigues and schemes."
It is impossible to miss how closely such anti-Dönme rhetoric resembles anti-Semitic rhetoric, both the modern biological type and the traditional economic type. The Dönme may not have been Jews, but they functioned in the Turkish imagination as Jews—they were clannish, untrustworthy outsiders, who were actually more threatening than the actual Jews because they had so long pretended to be Muslims.
In the 1920s, then, as the modern Turkish state was founded on a racial and nationalist basis, the Dönme came in for severe discrimination. Even one prominent Dönme journalist wrote that "this problem must be decisively liquidated," so that those Dönme "who are truly Turkish and Muslim [can be] distinguished in public opinion … and saved from the necessity of carrying on their back the social stain."
Soon enough the "problem" was liquidated, through intermarriage and assimilation.
By mid-century, the Dönme had begun to disappear as a separate community, and today their cemeteries in Istanbul are the only places where their existence is really manifested as a distinct group.
It was these secluded graveyards that came to the attention of artist and researcher, C.M. Koseman.
"In the last months of 2011, I developed an unnatural phobia of death— of someone hurting or killing me, or of loved ones committing suicide," he recalls. "I grew paranoid and ended up hurting people who were important for me. In the end I realized that I had to confront these phobias. In order to overcome my fears, I began taking treks in old cemeteries across Istanbul." It was on one such trek that Kosemen noticed the old tombstones with photographs signed by the same man, Osman Hasan.
For three years the young artist collected and documented the tombstone portraits of the Dönmes, mainly from the Bülbülderesi (Valley of the Nightingales) cemetery on the Asian shore of Istanbul. His work uncovered a number of striking portraits, as well as a variety of important architectural and liturgical details of Dönme tombstones. "The research grew in scope and detail as I undertook more trips to the cemeteries," he says. "I was introduced to one of Osman Hasan's last living descendants, who told me of other portraits by Osman Hasan in several other cemeteries across Istanbul. Aside from the photographs, I discovered symbols such as anthropomorphic carvings of butterflies, planets and stars— bizarre allegories of reincarnation and metamorphosis. I believe many of these symbols have been never been documented before."
Kosemen shared some of these photos with us:
A stone carving of a humanoid butterfly from Istanbul's Bülbülderesi cemetery. Butterfly symbols are unique to the Dönme community as symbols of metamorphosis.
An obelisk with intricate decoration and the photograph of the deceased.
Portrait of the hauntingly beautiful Methafet, who died at a young age, possibly as a result of suicide.
The name on this gentleman's tomb has been erased. This photo by Osman Hasan is all that remains of his memory.
Portrait of the young Mr. Osman Ferid. A lot of the photographs on Istanbul's Dönme cemeteries belong to young people who died between the 1890s and the 1930s.
This portrait of Madame Hasibe shows Osman Hasan's unique artistic technique, which combines photographs with painting.
Recently, Kosemen's research was published in a book titled, Osman Hasan and the Tombstone Photographs of the Dönmes. "The current view of the Dönmes in Turkey, is one of faceless, scheming 'hidden Jews' that can be blamed for anything disliked by any particular political viewpoint, Kosemen says. "The literature about the group is replete with conspiracy theories and antisemitism. By revealing the living, human portraits of the Dönmes, I hope that this book will help cast this group as actual people, and not invisible scapegoats."