History and Genetics: Sephardic Diaspora

Part VIII

Sephardic Diaspora, Salonika

Jews of Salonika

Before discussing the Sephardic Diaspora, we need to note that the term “Sephardic” should be used technically to refer to Jews from the Iberian Peninsula and their descendents scattered toward the east as a result of the expulsions from Spain and Portugal. We need to distinguish Sephardic Jews from the Middle Eastern or Oriental Jews who were often been associated with them because of the latter’s use of the Sephardic prayerbook.

Jews were already established in the Iberian Peninsula in Roman times. Gradually they moved further north from the Mediterranean coastal region. By the Visigothic period (5th cent.-711 CE) evidence for a larger Jewish presence comes from the anti-Semitic decrees of the 6-7 centuries. Under Islamic rule, from 711, the Jewish community continued to grow, becoming an important part of Christian Spain, especially from 1085-1212 when the population rapidly expanded. With the rise of Christianity, the situation deteriorated. They were expelled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497. While the Inquisition offer the opportunity for Jews to convert to Christianity, many elected to join a massive eastward migration that the place both on the northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean. It was this that produced the Sephardic Diaspora, the communities of Spanish, Portuguese Jews who intermixed with native populations all the way from Spain to the Land of Israel.

Communities that absorbed large numbers of Sephardic Jews included: Italy, Greece and Turkey on the north, and some of the North African countries, and especially the Land of Israel. Some Sephardic Jews even reached as far as Syria and beyond.

This phenomenon accounts for the fact that Jews of Greece and Turkey show evidence of being almost identical genetically, since these communities essentially came into being when large numbers of Spanish and Portuguese Jews were expelled in 1492. In Greece and especially in Turkey, the Sephardic Jews constituted essentially of a population overlay in which they became genetically dominant over the earlier Romaniot Jews–a term for the Jews of the Byzantine Empire who remained in their places after it fell. The same happened in Syria and in the Land of Israel. In fact, such Jews even reached Bulgaria and Romania where they sometimes intermarried with Ashkenazim.
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