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Cosmopolitanism and the End of Empire: The Dnme of Salonica

Prof. Marc Baer

The project is the first to explore the modern history of the transregional religious group known as the Dönme (Maaminim). Descendants of seventeenth-century Jewish converts to Islam who maintained a distinct religion that syncretized Judaism and Islam, the Dönme formed a group in Salonica at the interface of Europe and the Islamic world whose networks expose the entanglement of Christian, Jewish, and Islamic cultures and regions. Combining anthropology and history, oral history and archival research, textual and material culture, the project will use a history of this translocal group in the late Ottoman Empire, Greece, and Turkey to contribute to the scholarly debates concerning cosmopolitanism.
Recent studies of cosmopolitanism are largely pitched toward the future, promote utopian politics, and often lack geographical specificity. By considering temporal and spatial aspects when I look at the Dönme, I am able to push the clock back on the study of cosmopolitanism a century earlier, in a space which was on the cusp of European-Islamic encounter. By examining cosmopolitanism in that time and space I offer a new window for comparison. The Dönme were cosmopolitan in the sense that they were rooted in one place and had connections to several places. Acting like a bounded diasporic ethnic group that acts across territorial boundaries, they had multiple affiliations, inhabiting a vast universe of a community that stretched beyond political borders, embodying local cultures and translocal networks. Being on the religious margins of society—an ostensibly Muslim sect in a predominantly Jewish city—the Dönme were able to network among their own diaspora, and because they were also officially recognized as Muslims, they were able to easily rise in the administration and military to institute the changes their mobility demanded. Thus one of the aims of the project is to discuss the ways in which the Dönme brought together many different cultural, religious, technological and economic, local and international elements and remade them in a way that had meaning in both local and international contexts; the other is to examine what happened when this cosmopolitanism they embraced suddenly became outmoded.
Based on Ottoman, Turkish, and Greek sources located in Istanbul, Turkey, and Salonica, Greece, the project will provide a narrative of the rise and fall of two global cities, imperial cosmopolitan Ottoman Salonica and nationalist Turkish Istanbul, the experience of members of the Dönme diaspora in both cities, and the interrupted trajectory of cosmopolitanism. At the turn of the twentieth century indigenous religious groups with transregional connections contributed to the rise of cosmopolitanism at the fringes of empire, but nation-states that replaced empire limited their abilities by controlling the flow of finance and people, making their resources useless in provincialized cities. Dönme international trading networks, educational methods, literary and architectural tastes, and revolutionary politics illustrate their cosmopolitan vision and vanguard role in formulating and implementing new ideas, lifestyles, and identities that left a major imprint on the urban texture extending from their base in Ottoman Salonica. The consequences of Dönme mobility were profound. Yet as cosmopolitan became a pejorative term, ultimately their extended horizons led to conflicts with others in the far-flung worlds they inhabited. The translocal vision they facilitated through their connections in the imperial era came to a halt when post-imperial state nationalism hindered transnational circuits and the people who promoted them.