Abridged from Nehardea (Autumn 1999)
In Iraq in the 14th-17th centuries there was a spiritual as well as a demographic and economic decline. This was caused by the Mongol conquests, starting from the 13th century, but chiefly in the 14th and 15th, leading to the abandonment of the region by its inhabitants.
By contrast, the Jewish community of Aleppo in that period underwent no degeneration but the opposite. The exile from Spain brought new forces to Aleppo, which burgeoned and became fortified in spirit, organization, and economy.
From the start of the 18th century the Jewish community of Iraq underwent very significant developments in demography, as more and more Jews entered the region of the Iraqi delta, Basra, and Baghdad. The Ottoman conquest of Iraq in 1638 brought about stability to the region and encouraged Jews to settle there.
The region from Baghdad southwards, namely the Iraqi delta and the Persian Gulf, had been closed to commerce for centuries. The trade route from the Far East to the Persian Gulf and thence to Basra and Aleppo was sealed by the Portuguese who ruled the area. They stationed warships and cannon at the entry to the Persian Gulf with the aim of controlling the trade route between the Indies and Europe. The Portuguese were followed by the Dutch and the French, and only during the 18th century did the British gain mastery of the shipping in the Indian Ocean. It was they who reopened the trade route from India via Basra, the Euphrates river or the Western Desert to Aleppo, and thence to the Mediterranean, Palestine, Egypt, and Europe.
These factors led to the economic growth of Iraq, and Basra and Baghdad became increasingly populated.
There are data from the 18th century attesting to a strong connection with Aleppo. Both local and foreign sources that I found in the archives of the powers that ruled the region then, namely Britain and France, provide proof that Jews from Aleppo reached Iraq, mainly Basra and Baghdad, and assumed very important functions in the community. At this time Rabbi Sadka Bekhor Hussin of Aleppo was invited to Baghdad by the Jews there. Asked why they turned to a rabbi from Aleppo when they could have approached Istanbul, the Jews of Baghdad turned to Aleppo and not to Istanbul because of the stronger ties with Aleppo.
Scribe: The reasons why the Jews of Baghdad turned to Aleppo rather than to Constantinople were:
1. that Aleppo was so much nearer to Baghdad
2. that the Jews of Baghdad and Aleppo were Arabic speaking, as also were the immigrants from Spain, whereas the community in Constantinople spoke Turkish.
In time, the movement between Aleppo and Baghdad became a two-way traffic, with Baghdad gradually becoming the dominant partner. So much so that in the Far East the term "Baghdadi Jews" came to refer not only to Jews from Iraq but also to Jews from India, Persia, Syria and even the Yemen. Communities in most of these areas turned to Baghdadi Rabbis for answers to various religious enquiries.
The reason why the Portuguese closed the route through the Persian Gulf, was to promote the sea route round the Cape which had been discovered by the Portuguese Vasco de Gama and was entirely under their control.
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