The Book World in Ottoman and Modern Turkey

The Pioneer Jews

Bension Varon1

The German blacksmith, goldsmith, printer and publisher Johannes Gütenberg (1398-1468) developed printing through mechanical movable type in the late 1430s.2 The event did not have a 'eureka' moment; it resulted from an arduous process of experimentation, refinement and gestation over time. It launched what has been rightly called the Printing Revolution and is widely regarded as one of the most important inventions of the second millennium. It played a key role in the development of the Renaissance, which was barely a century old, the Reformation, the Age of Enlightenment, and the scientific revolution. It is no exaggeration to say that Gütenberg’s invention laid the material basis for the knowledge-based economy and the spread of learning to the masses.

The reception was swift and phenomenal. By 1500, every major European city had a printing press running. Jews adopted the new invention enthusiastically and mastered the new craft quickly. As early as 1450, a Hebrew press was founded in Reggio di Calabria, located in the 'toe' of the Italian peninsula. Twenty years later, full-length books in Hebrew were coming off the presses in Padua. In France, the first book in Hebrew was printed in 1473 in Avignon. The open-minded Jews of Iberia took to this new technique with delight: by the 1480s, Hebrew printing presses functioned in Spain (at Guadalajara and Hijar) and in Portugal (in Lisbon, Leira and Faro).3 This trend continued.

The demand for Hebrew printing came just as much from Christians as from Jews. The Renaissance fascination with the classical world encompassed the languages as well as the scholarship of antiquity. Hebrew was one of these languages. Christian students turned increasingly to Jewish scholars for the production of Hebrew-Latin and Hebrew-Italian grammar, dictionaries, and primers. Renaissance interest in Hebrew extended inevitably to the Bible, the Talmud, and even the Kabbalah. At the same time, the improved quality of Hebrew printing became critical. The growing availability and legibility of classical Hebrew spawned interest in the structured study of Hebrew by priests and layman alike. By 1544, Hebrew was a required subject at the Sapienza, the Vatican University. Sharing this fascination with the ancient language, the Medicis, in and out of the Vatican, set about assembling superb collections of Hebrew manuscripts for their private libraries. Cosimo de Medici engaged a Jew as his Hebrew librarian.4

Elsewhere the demand for Hebrew printing was internal, that is, it came from the local or surrounding Jewish community. At the time of the expulsion from Spain in 1492, Jewish printers carried their type (metallic characters) with them into exile, setting up presses in Morocco, Italy and Turkey. On December 13, 1493—it is amazing that the precise date has come down to us—David and Samuel ibn Nahmias, two refugee brothers from Spain, set up a press in then Constantinople. They were allowed to print only in Hebrew and Latin characters; printing in Arabic was strictly forbidden. The event was historical on many counts. This was the first printing press of any kind not just in the Ottoman Empire but in a Muslim country. The first Armenian press in Turkey would not be established until 1567, the first Greek one not until 1627, and the first Turkish/Arabic one not until 1727. Moreover, all three of these went through difficult phases initially. However, the Hebrew one operated relatively smoothly and flourished..

Although printing is considered to be the greatest contribution that the Spanish Jews (Sephardim) made to the country that welcomed them, they also brought with them extensive knowledge of and expertise in other fields. These included languages, medicine, commerce and banking, performing arts (the art of the theater, virtually unknown in the empire), and the instruments of war. Their contribution to weaponry, such as the use of brass ordnance and firelocks, is somewhat exaggerated, since, as Bernard Lewis put it, “... this was a field where the Turks were already highly proficient and [the claims] no doubt reflect the views of anxious as well as hostile observers.”5 It is interesting that no name is associated with the Jews’ alleged contribution in this area.

The first Hebrew books published by the Nahmias brothers dealt with the code of Hebraic laws and other religious subjects, and the Torah. The next important Jewish printer in Istanbul was a member of the illustrious Soncino family of printers. The family—an Ashkenazi one—originated in the 14th century in Alsace (now France) and soon moved to the small town of Soncino, near Cremona, in Northern Italy, and adopted the town’s name as its own. In 1483, the family head, Israel Nathan, a physician, and his son Yeshua Soncino opened a Hebrew press in northern Italy. From there, the family and its business spread to Naples, Rimini, Fano, Pisaro, and Brescia. In these and other towns, the Soncinos published more than 100 volumes, not only in Hebrew but also in Latin and Italian.6 In 1527, Gershom Soncino, grandson of Israel Nathan, founder of the press, relocated to Salonika in Ottoman-occupied Greece, and opened a new press there. Soon thereafter, Gershom and his son Eliezer established a press in Istanbul. Eliezer continued to print there until 1547.

After the Soncinos, others continued Hebrew printing in Istanbul. Among these were: the Halicz brothers, who had been forced to convert to Christianity in Crakow (Poland) before fleeing to the Ottoman dominions, where they returned to Judaism. Jewish printers included also the Spanish exiles Solomon and Joseph Jabes, who printed a series of philosophical rabbinical and other works. In the 1600s, several other printers joined these. Soncinos’ descendants prospered in other fields and survive to this day in Istanbul. They produced a number of prominent rabbis (and an early dentist who treated my family). However, the Soncino name remained affiliated with printing. In 1924, inspired by the reputation of the name and the ‘goodwill’ associated with it, a group of German bibliophiles established a printing house called Soncino Gesellschaft der Freunde des Judischen Buches in Berlin and published many books until the Nazis closed their operation in 1937. In 1929, the British publisher John Davidson also revived the Soncino press, which continues to issue Judaica books under the Soncino Press name.7

The above cursory analysis permits the following general observations. First, the people who initiated and maintained the Hebrew presses in Ottoman lands were true pioneers with an entrepreneurial spirit—private sector operatives in the modern sense, driven by pecuniary gain as well as by religious, cultural and public service objectives. There is no record of a Hebrew printer becoming wealthy in the process. Many, if not nearly all, were rabbis, educated, cultured and skilled, who performed their work with their heads as well as their hands.

Second, nearly as a rule, the ‘pioneers’ worked in partnership with each other, Sephardi with Ashkenazi, Jew with ex-converso, southern European with northern European, and intellectual with technically inclined. Most partnerships and cooperative arrangements were intra-family. Some presses were passed on to three generations, as with the Soncinos. This has also been true of mapmakers in the past, especially during the Age of Exploration. An important contributing factor in that case was the desire to keep knowledge (of sea routes, for example) secret for commercial and other reasons. Corresponding factors in the case of Hebrew printing may have been trust, concern over accuracy, and application of rules. (There is no doubt that there were halakhic or similar rules applying to printing in the ‘holy language’.)

Third, and more important, the introduction of Hebrew printing in Istanbul and other Jewish centers (like Salonika) had an enormous beneficial impact on the preservation of the Judeo-Spanish language and the broad spectrum of Sephardic culture. All historians seem to agree on this. As Jane S. Gerber put it:

It is impossible to overestimate the role that printing played in keeping the Spanish component of Sephardic culture alive. The presses disseminated Ladino works to Jewish populations, like the Romaniotes, who had never known [the] Spanish language or literature. Ultimately, it was this language, beloved by the Sephardic exiles, that prevented them from blending into the local Jewish communities in the Balkans, Turkey, and elsewhere. The anomaly persisted of a persecuted people—very Jewish but also very Spanish—who preserved an archaic form of a language, the tongue of their pre-expulsion past, that became enriched with new elements from Turkish, Greek, and Slavic sources. In short, the Jewishness of the Mediterranean Sephardi was preserved and transmitted in an archaic Spanish garb that not only prevented total assimilation but also enabled him to ‘conquer’ his Jewish neighbors culturally.8

For a fuller account and analysis of the evolution of Jewish printing in Ottoman lands, see Yaron Ben Na’eh, “Hebrew Printing Houses in the Ottoman Empire,” in Gad Nassi (Ed.), Jewish Journalism and Printing Houses in the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey. Na’eh’s account offers two benefits: it discusses the evolution by breaking it into periods of growth pains, growth, crisis, stagnation, recovery, and long-term decline, and it cites, for illustration, the number and titles of the books printed during each. It also discusses the evolution of Jewish printing by city: Istanbul, Salonika, whose Jewish population exceeded Istanbul’s practically until World War II, Izmir (third in Jewish population after Salonika and Istanbul), and Edirne (or Adrianopole), which had the distinction of being the Ottomans’ second capital (after Bursa and before Istanbul).


As a Turkish-born student of Turkey’s past and present, I have been disappointed that it took the Ottoman rulers nearly three centuries after Gütenberg to sanction the opening of a printing press in Turkish/Arabic type. There was historical opposition to printing by decision makers at nearly all levels, not merely distaste for it. The reasons were cultural, social, political, and, at the root, religious. There was concern that the impact which printing had had on the spread of Protestantism in Europe might be repeated with respect to Islam. This might produce a weakening of central authority, which was religion-based, threatening public order. The contribution of these factors to the distrust of printing is well understood and documented. An eminent historian pointed to an additional, intriguing reason for the Ottomans’ opposition to printing, namely, “the mystical bond between Islam and calligraphy,” which he described as follows: “Because the Koran is the literal word of God, eternal and divine, the physical act of writing it is especially meritorious; its reproduction by machine could appear blasphemous. The Prophet himself is believed to have said: ‘Good writing makes the truth stand out’.” No Muslim dynasty valued calligraphy as highly as the Ottomans; many sultans were calligraphers themselves.”9

The link between religion and the written word has not been limited to Islam. In Judaism, too, Hebrew is considered a ‘holy language’, which explains the preservation of discarded (unwanted) documents written in Hebrew in a special ‘burial’ place called Geniza. As I noted in my review of two books on the famous Cairo Geniza, the documents destined there were not limited to religious texts; they included those, big and small, dealing with family correspondence, bills and receipts, etc., written in the Hebrew language or characters, arising from everyday life.10

The circumstances under which the Ottomans finally established their first printing press in 1727 throw light on the reasons for their long opposition to it. The actors were two people of vastly different background: Mehmet Said Çelebi, son of an Ottoman ambassador or emissary to France, who spent some time travelling in France while visiting his father, and Ibrahim Müteferrika, Hungarian at birth, born in present-day Romania, who was taken into slavery in 1693, sold in Istanbul, converted to Islam to secure his freedom, and joined government service, mostly diplomatic work, thanks to his knowledge of languages and his negotiating skills, among others. Both were strong admirers of European culture and aware of the many factors—illiteracy in particular—that had held Ottomans back, despite their military successes, and of the role that resistance to printing had played in this. They both laid the ground for change, with Müteferrika taking the key initiatives with the three branches of the Ottoman government so to speak: the Grand Vizier or prime minister, the Ulema or religious hierarchy, which often served as a governing council, and the Sheyhulislam or Grand Mufti and highest religious authority. The reform is associated with Müteferrika principally and carries his name.

In 1726, Müteferrika approached both the Grand Vizier and the Ulema in writing, making the case for the introduction of printing in Arabic type in the realm; both he and Said Çelebi lobbied broadly for it. Approval came from most, though not all, sides. Not surprisingly, those who opposed the reform included the professional calligraphers, who staged a demonstration near the palace. In this environment, the Sheyhulislam’s support proved crucial. The permission, or fatwas, authorized the printing only of books of a non-religious nature. The first Arabic-script press began operation on December 16, 1727 in Müteferrika’s house. The press has been described as a multinational enterprise. The Ulema served as proofreaders, to assure compliance with the terms of the fatwa. Printers, engravers and typesetters came from everywhere, including Vienna. Notable among those who helped was a Jew, Jonah ben Jacob Ashkenazi, from around Lvov (present-day Ukraine) who had established a Hebrew press in Istanbul in 1711.11

In accordance with the terms of the permission to print in Arabic characters, the first presses steered clear of religious subjects. The first books printed this way dealt with safe subjects like language and grammar; among the earliest were an Arabic-Ottoman Turkish dictionary and a book on Turkish and French grammar. Other books far removed from religion were a treatise on syphilis, one on the tactics of European armies, and a history of Afghanistan, the purpose of which I have not been able to ascertain.

Istanbul’s Jewish printers continued to function in parallel during this period. After helping with the establishment of the first Ottoman press, Rabi Jonah established a large Hebrew press in partnership with Rabi Naftali ben Azrat Eskenazi of Vilna (Vilnius), Lithuania. At peak operation, the press employed fifty workers. On the death of the co-founders, their sons continued the operation and, when these died, the operation passed on to their sons. The press closed after prospering in the hands of three generations. The firm produced some 190 books during its existence. These included a praised Judeo-Spanish translation of the Torah. Four smaller independent printers were active at the same time. Overall, Istanbul’s Jewish community was served, and served well, by at least one Jewish printer continually during the 18th century, with the exception of a period of about twenty years (1782-1800).

The situation of Jewish printers deteriorated steadily thereafter, with the change in the political, economic, social and governance climate and prospects of the shrinking Ottoman Empire, which had entered a stage of stagnation leading to decline. Jewish printers vanished progressively to the point that, by the beginning of the 20th century, many Jewish texts (Ladino, not Hebrew) were printed by Armenian presses. While I was growing up, new prayer books came from places in Europe such as Budapest and Vienna. Jewish involvement in the book world of Istanbul shifted from printing to publishing. A giant in this area was Ilyas (Eliya) Bayar (probably Behar).


Ilyas Bayar (1880-1945) was a Sephardic Jew who grew up in Ottoman Istanbul. We do not know where he was educated and learned French (which he knew well), except that, unlike the Jewish printers who preceded him, he was not a rabbi. In fact, his knowledge of the Arabic script surpassed his familiarity with the Hebrew script. Bayar showed an interest in books and the book trade at an early age. He was around twenty when he established the institution he would be associated with for the rest of his life: a bookstore—later a book publishing house—named Kanaat Kitabevi.12 He must have had long-term ambitions, for he located his institution in Istanbul’s printing and publishing district called Babiali Yokuşu (later renamed Ankara Caddesi), broadly equivalent to London’s Fleet Street.13

Where Bayar stood culturally and politically became apparent quickly. He favored modernism at every level and supported the Young Turks in their crusade against the Ottoman establishment. The Ottomans imprisoned him for a while for distributing revolutionary materials. He continued his book business throughout the Balkan Wars, the First World War, the War of Independence, and the creation of the Turkish Republic. However, it was the adoption of the Roman alphabet in 1928 that catapulted Bayar’s publishing business to a new level—and for good. By 1939, he occupied a leadership position among Istanbul’s publishers, and in May of that year, he represented them in a national congress on publishing held in Ankara.

Bayar’s operation had the distinction of being heavily focused on textbooks for classes from primary school to senior high school and beyond. The demand for them was insatiable (both in Istanbul and in Anatolia, the hinterland), due in part to the shift to a new alphabet. I myself, who started school in 1938, was a user and beneficiary of them. Whether on language, geography, history, mathematics or physics, the books I was educated with were by Kanaat Kitabevi. I remember going through three of Kanaat’s atlases, of which there were standard and advanced versions. There is no up-to-date estimate of the total output of Bayar’s enterprise over its existence. Its amplitude can be gauged from the fact that the number reached 4,000 books by 1936.

Bayar’s success has been explained by both his skills and his personality. He was both an intellectual with a mission (to spread literacy and knowledge) and a good businessman. His business acumen enabled him to make money—money which, among other things, enabled him to pay authors well and to contribute to the Turkish treasury. He was the unusual combination of an ‘idealistic businessman’. He had the gifts of patience and humor, modesty and self-confidence.

Undeniably, Bayar made a significant contribution to Turkey culturally. This is testified to by the attention and praise he received from the President of the Republic more than once and the eulogies that poured in upon his death. The participants at his funeral (a Jewish one) included representatives of nearly all major newspapers and libraries, students, academics, his authors, and even his competitors. He has been cited in more than one encyclopedia, and the building where he worked and produced for half a century has been restored as a historical edifice and carries his name.

Upon Ilyas’ death, the enterprise was continued by his son Aslan (Leon) Bayar. But the nature of publishing changed by then. The near-monopoly that Kanaat had in the publication of textbooks dissipated over time. The orientation continued to be pedagogical and cultural, however. The new titles were on subjects like Ottoman and Turkish history, Turkish and Muslim literature, Ottoman archaeology, travel, and geography, especially atlases—the Bayars’ specialty. In the late 1970s, the enterprise was forced to abandon its publishing activities, morphing into the equivalent of a stationary store. It ceased to exist altogether in 1994 when Ilyas’ son Aslan passed away.

I was 13 when Ilyas Bayar died; therefore, I never met him. I met his son and successor several times, however. As I grew up, my need to visit Babiali increased Moreover, his son must have been greatly affected by his father’s death. He became religiously observant (born again?) almost overnight. He started attending Sabbath services regularly at the synagogue in Büyükada, where we lived during the summer. He and his wife Régine summered in a beautiful mansion inherited from his father. His wife, moreover, was a contemporary and close friend of my elder sister.

I should stress that Kanaat Kitabevi (later, Yayinevi, or publishing house) was not a Jewish bookstore or publishing house. It was, rather, one merely created and owned by a Jew. I am not aware of anything published by it in Hebrew or Ladino. Yet, it brought honor to Turks and Jews alike.


In contrast to the nature and timing of Bayar’s contribution, the one hundred years roughly between the 1840s and the Second World War were an outstanding period of ‘Jewish publication’—publication by Jews for Jews—in Ottoman lands. The publications concerned were mostly journals and periodicals. A study led by Gad Nassi at the close of the last century came up with a ‘synoptic list’ of more than three hundred such publications—a large number for a Jewish population that never exceeded two hundred thousand.14 Professor Avner Levy of Hebrew University provided analysis. The large number may be considered somewhat artificial or inflated. A number of the so-called journals were no different from fliers or tabloids not more than four pages in length. Some survived for less than a year because of the lack of funds and/or readers. They sold fewer than a hundred and fifty copies per issue, which was “the number necessary to maintain the existence of a journal in those days” (Nassi, 16). In addition, many journals appeared concurrently. “For instance, in Izmir after 1909, when the number of Jews was about twenty thousand, no less than eleven journals were being published (i.e., one journal for every three hundred families)” (20).

Avner Levy gave a more substantive reason for the proliferation of journals, namely, “the disunity and separation within the community which does not always indicate differences in ideology, but rather a divergence of interests. There were power struggles among antagonistic parties, each trying to gain dominance and positions of authority because these ensured [among other things] control over public funds” (21). In other words, different groups sought to express their opinions and positions individually. This is evidenced by the names they gave their publications, a dozen of which started with the Ladino words “La Boz de ...” (The Voice of ...).

The proliferation of Jewish journals in Ottoman lands also owed to the vast geographic spread of the Empire. The leading publication centers were Salonika, Istanbul, and Izmir, but Jewish journals were found also in the various capital cities of the Balkan states such as Athens (Greece), Sofia (Bulgaria), Belgrade (now Serbia), and Sarajevo (now Bosnia), as well as in Alexandria and Cairo in Egypt. Jewish publications were not limited to these and other large urban centers or capital cities with large Jewish populations. They sprang up also, for example, in Plovdiv, Ruschuk, Vidin, and Kuykendil in Bulgaria, and Kavala and Xanthi, in Greece. One of the findings emerging from Nassi’s “synoptic list” that surprised me was the large number of Jewish publications in Jerusalem under Ottoman rule.

Ladino dominated the language of choice of the publications. It was followed by Turkish and French, with Hebrew a distant fourth earlier on. In fact, the names of the nearly five hundred journals cited by Nassi were so predominantly in Ladino as to require adding a glossary of them, which the author conscientiously provided.

The years 1909-1914 have been called Jewish journalism’s “period of flowering” in Turkey. The Young Turks’ revolution, and the abolition of censorship which had been imposed during the preceding reign of Abdul Hamid II, allowed Jewish journalism to expand and prosper as never before. Within the period of one year, the number of Jewish journals appearing in Izmir jumped from five to eleven. ... During the First World War, because of wartime conditions and censorship, the number of journals shrank, while those that continued to appear reduced the number of pages and/or lowered the frequency of publication. Jewish journals disappeared gradually over the next two to three decades. With the transition to democratic, multi-party rule in Turkey in the late 1940s, Jewish journalism revived, but only to undergo a massive shock with the mass migration of Turkish Jewry to Israel. The journal Şalom, is practically all that now remains of active Jewish journalism in Turkey (17-18). It is almost entirely in Turkish. Avner Levy drew the following conclusions from the above historical sketch.

The journal was a major factor in widening the intellectual horizons of the masses [in Turkey], breaking through the narrow geographical barriers of cities and settlements. It had an important role in the spread of education and general knowledge, in satisfying interests, curiosity and the desire to be informed. It was also the journal which gave rise to secular literature. Included in its pages were poems, stories and serialized novels which brought about a revolution in the reading habits of the masses. Having been accustomed to reading only biblical commentaries and moral essays, people now began to enjoy reading fine literature.

The Jewish journal fought for the modernization which characterized the 19th century. The magic word was “progreso”—progress. The journal advocated improving the status of women in society to the level of equality. Cultural activities, including sports, and philanthropic causes were widely advertised. It also served to maintain the ties between those who migrated abroad and their previous communities in Turkey. (25)


Turning from printing and publishing to book selling, no one in the last activity has had the loyal followers and entered history books as has the bookstore called Cohen Soeurs, Cohen Sisters, which flourished in Istanbul during the first half of the twentieth century. The founding sisters of that name were Mazalto and Elisa Cohen, born in 1888 and 1896, respectively. They were the daughters of a mid-size carpet dealer named Bohor Hayim Cohen.

The two sisters opened their bookstore in 1918 in the location of an older bookstore on Istanbul’s historic main shopping street, known among foreigners as Grande Rue de Péra (now Istiklal Caddesi). Mazalto was in charge of the store and Elisa of the household. Soon thereafter, Elisa married Raphael Benzimra, a Moroccan Jew, who joined the enterprise. They all had their gifts, a shared one being knowledge of languages, prominent among them French, English and Ladino. Benzimra’s specialty was rare and antique books. The store dealt in imported newspapers, magazines and books, but also in old books, manuscripts and maps on Turkey. Soon, the bookstore developed a reputation for importing fashion magazines, which were much in demand. In their personal lives, the sisters were said to be fond of Turkish coffee, travel, and visual arts. Benzimra traveled most of the time, hunting for old books and maps. The demand for these came from the prominent collectors of the time, Turkish and foreign, institutional and private.

Among the Cohen Soeurs’ devoted, foreign collector clients was George C. McGhee (1912-2005), a wealthy Texas oilman who served as the United States Ambassador to Turkey during 1952-53.15 A lifetime Turkophile, McGhee left his collection of Ottoman-Turkish works to Georgetown University in 1984. In his bequest, he recollected about his collecting this way (what follows is not a literal quote):

All my acquisitions came initially from one source: Cohen Soeurs, a small bookstore in Istanbul run by two sisters and a brother. The Cohens acquired books from families who inherited the libraries of their parents upon their deaths and from book dealers in London and Paris whom Benzimra visited regularly. Apparently, such books sold better in Istanbul. With the help of Betty Carp, a colleague and close friend at our consulate in Istanbul, I practically emptied the Turkish market of its books on history. On one occasion, the British consul in Istanbul called me to scold me for offering elevated prices for books.16

Another collector mentioning Cohen Soeurs as a valued source of old books has been the British scholar John Freely, author of numerous books on Istanbul and Robert College, where he taught for years. In one of his books he relates his serendipitous discovery of two precious books there: namely: a rare fourth edition of English diplomat and historian Sir Paul Rycaut’s The Present State of the Ottoman Empire (London, 1680), and English historian Richard Knolles’ The Lives of the Ottoman Kings and Emperor (London, 1610). The Cohens’ clientele included the prominent non-Muslim ethnic minorities of cosmopolitan Istanbul--Armenians, Greeks, Jews and others, among them members of my own entourage and extended family.17

I have two personal recollections about the famed bookstore. As I relayed in Occasional Paper No. 3, as a youngster, I was expected (required) to attend the family dinners, especially the pre-Sabbath ones, regularly and on time. I was late on one occasion. I lied about the reason, pretending that I had stopped by the Cohen Sisters’ bookstore on the way home, which my parents seemed to accept. Jumping ten years forward, the Cohen Bookstore played a key role in my discovering classical music with the zeal I did. This happened as follows. After being discharged from the army, I would drop regularly by the store for the French and English periodicals I read. Among them—a late discovery for me—was a French monthly called Musica. I learned soon that the magazine organized lectures on music in Paris and that the mimeographed texts were available on request. I obtained them through the Cohen sisters.18 They substituted for the books I could not get and launched my self-education in music.

As business expanded, the Cohen sisters moved the bookstore to a new location on the same street and hired additional help, namely, Samuel Sapan, who joined the business at a young age. The latter decision proved providential, as Sapan continued the business, under the same name, after the sisters died in 1963 (Benzimra had passed away earlier). His son Albert took over after he died, in turn. The store survived into the new millennium, when it focused on importing books for Istanbul’s French-oriented schools and historic university. One of its specialties continued to be importing fashion catalogues.19


While I lived in it, Istanbul also had a Jewish-owned German bookstore. I never visited it, as I did not know the language; I shall nevertheless comment briefly on it, since this was no ordinary bookstore. It was, moreover, one with a checkered history.20 Its founder, Isidore Karon, was an Ashkenazi Jew born in 1888 in Strasbourg, now France, which was part of Germany then. Isidore studied in Strasbourg and Germany, where he attended university. Upon graduation, he joined the network of Goldschmidt Schools in Berlin and was assigned to teach German in Philipopoli, Bulgaria. But because of the looming Balkan wars, he chose to settle in Constantinople where the Goldschmidt network had a lycée attended by the children of the city’s Ashkenazi community. To support himself (for supplementary income), he started working part-time at the Cohen Soeurs bookstore.

The declaration of the new republic in 1923 changed things for Isidore. The wave of nationalism that followed the event led to a prohibition of foreign nationals to teach in the country. Having lost his major source of income, Isidore quit his part-time job at Cohen Soeurs and opened his own bookstore, called Deutsche Buchhandlung, in the same quartier. Following a fire which destroyed the initial location, the store was reopened under the name “I. Karon Tünel Kitabevi,” closer to the Cohen Soeurs store. The time was the late 1920s. The store rapidly became a German cultural center for the city’s bustling community of Ashkenazim and German nationals, who were there for commercial and other reasons—a place to use the language, share the culture, exchange information, socialize, and gossip. The Karon store supplied the newspapers, periodicals and books that sustained this role, in addition to satisfying the needs of the city’s, indeed the country’s, educational institutions. The success of the store owed a great deal to Isidore Karon’s background and personality. He was an outgoing, charismatic, welcoming person; an intellectual with broad interests; and a poor businessman, in sharp contrast to Ilyas Bayar. His bookstore produced often a ‘negative profit’, or loss.

The Karon bookstore’s fortunes changed drastically soon after the accession of Hitler to power in 1933. The Nazi-sympathizer local residents and clients stopped visiting the Jewish-owned store, and eventually boycotted it. The local Jews and (few) anti-Nazi German residents stopped dropping by and even looking at the store window out of fear of being reported for doing so. The situation improved temporarily in the mid- and late-1930s with the influx of German and Austrian professors and other professionals fleeing Nazism. And the store’s prominence was restored after the war, but only partially, due to the lingering anti-German sentiment produced by the war.

When Isidore Karon died in 1967, the store was continued by his daughter Elfi Alfandari (a good Sephardi name, acquired through marriage, no doubt). Elfi did this with the encouragement of the Cultural Attaché of the German Consulate in Istanbul. She had many of her father’s gifts, including multilingualism. She ran the store with vigor, though on a smaller scale, focusing on supplying the needs of Turkish universities and the scientific community. She nevertheless had to close the store by 1983.


The state of Jewish printers/publishers in Turkey today is a pale image of what it was during their pioneering days five centuries ago, and even this may be an exaggeration. Today, there are only two Jewish owned/operated publishing establishments and just one journal, which is nearly entirely in Turkish. The establishments are Gözlem, which publishes Şalom, the aforementioned weekly. It devotes one page per issue to Ladino; it also has a monthly associated paper produced independently, called El Amaneser, which is entirely in Ladino. It is distributed free by Şalom to readers who have subscribed separately to El Amaneser. The other, newer establishment is Libra Kitapçılık, the brainchild of Rifat Bali. The circumstances that led to this sad situation are twofold and continuing. At the heart is the drastic decline of Turkey’s Jewish population: from 60-80 thousand before World War II to less than 20,000 and still falling today. As important and nearly simultaneous has been the reduction of the people who speak Ladino with any degree of competence. I wrote about both in my book devoted to the languages with which I grew up, as did Rifat Bali.21 The challenges that this situation posed and the way one earnest, talented individual coped with them is typified by Bali.

Rifat Bali was educated in Turkey and France (higher education at the Sorbonne). He was engaged in business after graduation and did not turn to books—writing and publishing them—until his early fifties. He established Libra in 2004. By then, the writing concerning the poor prospects of Jewish publishing was on the wall. Libra’s stated objective was, therefore, to serve the demand for information and records about both Turkish/Ottoman and Jewish history, both by academics and by policy makers. Bali started by writing and editing books himself and publishing them by existing enterprises.22 He authored or edited some eighty books, divided roughly equally between written and edited works. While the majority of his own works to date have been in Turkish, nearly half of those he edited are in English, followed by Turkish and French.

More important, taking the authored and edited books together, a full one-third of Bali’s work has dealt with–has had to—non-Jewish themes and subjects, drawn from Turkish history and/or dealing with Turkish history makers. The books by various authors which Bali just published through Libra (but did not author) have been more concentrated on non-Jewish subjects than those Bali wrote himself. On the whole, more than three-fourths of Libra’s books (165 out of a total of 215) have been on non-Jewish subjects, and more than half of these have been in Turkish; the rest were in English and French; only two (by the same author) were partly in Ladino.23

The above profile reflects the demographic reality: the limited Jewish population and readership. Libra’s average book sales have been in the range of 100-300 in the case of Turkish titles, 50-100 for those in English and 20-30 for French ones. These numbers do not make for a successful, self-sustaining business. As a result of this and realism, Bali has made Libra a supplier, rather than just a publisher, of a wide array of information sources: books, CDs, tapes, photographs, and archival material of various kinds, both for the domestic and for the overseas markets, especially research institutions and libraries. Ten to twenty percent of Libra’s books in Turkish but 90 percent of those in English have gone overseas.

Libra continues to exist largely because of its export business, although two other factors have contributed to it. Bali, a business-trained true entrepreneur, has succeeded in creating a market for his products or expanding it, as if in accordance with Say’s Law of economics which stipulates that supply creates its own demand. He has done this with his choice of titles, which have included controversial subjects such as Jews and prostitution in Constantinople during 1852-1922, plus significant events in Turkish-Jewish history, such as the forced discriminatory conscription during World War II and the anti-Jewish or anti-Greek riots of 1934 (in Thrace, western Turkey) and September 1955. These and others involved violence against ethnic minorities (not just Jews) and had been overlooked or understudied for that reason. Selecting them required a good grounding in Ottoman/Turkish/Jewish history, as well openness to risk taking, both of which Bali possesses. The choice has included imaginative, groundbreaking titles such as stories of immigrants, which are now in their second volume, with a third one planned.24

Bali has also managed to stay clear of the ideological divide which has characterized the Turkish book market. It is divided between leftists, secularists, Islamists, nationalists and others. This has not hurt it, that is, diminished the contribution of Libra’s books to knowledge, unlike what Avner Levy claimed in the case of Jewish journals of the past. In 2001, he wrote, “Jewish journalism censored itself and tried not to touch upon sensitive issues,” which is correct. But he added, ”For this reason, Jewish journalism in Turkey can be considered as trustworthy sources of information only for brief periods. Even important internal events in the community were not always reflected in the pages of the journals. In certain matters one must read between the lines and not accept what is written at its face value.”25 This judgment is excessive; even if it weren’t, it does not apply to Bali’s own work, which is frank but balanced and continues to be in demand, indeed, to generate demand.

1 Bension (Ben) Varon is a retired economist with varied interests as a writer, including history, biography, and bibliophilia. He lives and writes in Alexandria, Virginia and can be reached at This article constitutes No. 9 of Through the World of Books without a Map, An Ongoing Journey: A Series of Occasional Papers. Sephardic Horizons is grateful to the author for granting us permission to publish this paper.

2 Gütenberg was born in Mainz, Germany, spent part of his life in Strasbourg, currently France, and produced his invention in Mainz. Both cities have statues honoring him.

3 Jane S. Gerber, The Jews of Spain (New York: Free Press), 1992, p. 158.

4 Howard M. Sachar, Farewell España (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), pp. 219-220.

5 Bernard Lewis, The Jews of Islam (Princeton: Princeton University Press), 1984, p. 135.

6 The Rosenbach Museum and Library in Philadelphia has three Soncino books dating from 1484, 1485 and 1491.

7 Reported by Rabbi Rifat Sonsino (Ph.D., Penn.), Boston, Ma., 2013.

8 Gerber, op, cit., p. 161.

9 Philip Mansel, Constantinople: City of the World’s Desire. 1453-1924 (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1995). p. 45.

10 See my “Two Books on the Cairo Geniza, by Peter Cole/Adina Hoffman and Rabbi Mark Glickman: What I Learned and What I Wish I Learned,” Sephardic Horizons, Vol 1, Issue 4, Summer/Fall 2011.

11 Mansel, op. cit., p. 185.

12 The word ‘kanaat’ is difficult to translate into English. It can be described as confidence in or satisfaction with one’s beliefs and purpose. There is no record of what led Bayar to choose this name.

13This section draws on Rifat Bali, “Trois Libraires Juifs d’Istanbul: La Kanaat Kitabevi d’Ilyas Bayar, La Librairie des Soeurs Cohen, et la Librairie Isidore Karon,” Text of presentation, 2010

14 Gad Nassi (Ed.), Jewish Journalism and Printing Houses in the Ottoman Empire and Modern Turkey, Istanbul: The ISIS Press, 2001.

15 During the rest of his diplomatic career, which I followed, McGhee served also as Deputy Secretary of State for Public Affairs (1961-1963) and Ambassador to Germany (1963-1968).

16 Bali, “Trois Libraires Juifs,” op. cit.

17 For a discussion of the foundation and extent of Istanbul’s cosmopolitanism, see my Gifts of Language, (Bloomington: XLibris, 2016), pp. 204-205.

18 I wrote about this in my Cultures in Counterpoint (Bloomington, Ind.: Xlibris,2010), pp. 204-205.

19 Most of what is known about the Cohen Soeurs bookstore’s history, including the above account, seems to have originated with an entry in the fabled Istanbul Ansiklopedisi, first issued in 1936, and is supported by other Turkish sources. However, I recently became aware of a different account. It is by the internationally known rare book and map dealer F. J. Manasek. The account is buried in his book titled Uncommon Value: A Rare Book Dealer’s World (1995) –a collection of his memoirs of travels in search of old maps and books. The two versions are strikingly different, Manasek claiming, for example that the two sisters were “Jews who fled both the old Czars and the new Communists...” There is no evidence that the Cohen sisters were anything but Turkish-born or spoke Russian. I therefore prefer the version I presented above.

20 What follows draws heavily on Teri Galimidi, “Idealist bir kitapçi: Izidor Karon,” Şalom, October 5, 1995.

21 Gifts of Language, op. cit.

22 ISIS Yayinlari, Iletişim and Turkuaz, which publish Jewish titles occasionally.

23 Roz Kohen, Jewish Istanbul - A Collection of Memories and Illustrations, 2012, and Jewish Istanbul - A Collection of Stories and Photographs, 2015, both in English and Ladino.

24 Rifat Bali (Ed.), This Is My New Homeland: Life Stories of Turkish-Jewish Immigrants, (Istanbul: LIBRA Kitapçilik ve Yayinçilik) Volumes I (2016) and II (2017).

25 Nassi, op. cit., p. 24.

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