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The Fez Frozen in Time: A Cultural and Political Symbol for Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire

It was 1951 when Victor Cadranel was attending a masked ball at the Athénée Royale in

Élizabetheville, Zaire. Now known as Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2,500 Jews chose to make the Congo their home, bringing their Ottoman culture to the heart of Africa. To prepare for the masked ball, Victor’s mother Esther sent him the traditional Ottoman dress, and of course, the fez.

Without a doubt, Sephardic Jews who migrated from the Ottoman Empire, took the Ottoman culture, and way of dressing, with them as they scattered around the world. The meaning of the fez for these communities were frozen in time, but for those who remained in the Ottoman Empire, the fez became a powerful Ottoman symbol, whose fate would be sealed in the downfall of the Empire.

A Symbol of the Ottoman Empire

As Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire, communities became intertwined with the politics of the fez, ever-changing in a dynamic environment where culture, religion and political affiliation were deeply connected. In the early 1800’s, this short, red, cylindrical felt headdress, often with a black tassel attached at the top, became a symbol of the Ottoman Empire. The Sultan at the time, Mahmud II made the fez synonymous with his military uniforms, ordering 50,000 fezzes from Tunis for his new army in 1827.

Sultan Mamud II of the Ottoman Empire

A couple years later, the Sultan began to bring the fez to the Ottoman population at large, regulating the use of the fez for all civil and religious officials. The new official dress code would, in theory, erase the differences between religion, class and, profession in the public sphere. For Jewish men in the Empire, many adopted the fez with great enthusiasm, providing them with new opportunities to become equal citizens (Becoming Ottomans).

A Symbol of Modernity

This new dress code was a signal of the reforms to come. A decade later, Mahmud’s successor, Sultan Abdülmecid, inaugurated the period of reforms known as the Tanzimat, or the “Reordering.” The Sultan began to implement radical measures to equalize the rank, religion and occupation of a diverse population and the fez became a symbol of both Ottoman affiliation and modernity.

In 1877, prayers for the Ottoman army at the Ahrida Synagogue in Istanbul demonstrated how the distinction between being a Jew in the synagogue, and being an Ottoman on the street had begun to blur (Becoming Ottomans). Various accounts report that all of Istanbul’s Jewish leaders were in attendance and members of the Jewish community numbered in the thousands. According to images of the event, Ottoman Jewish rabbis dressed in their official uniform, including the fez, inside the synagogue. Two large Ottoman flags flanked the Torah a


David Ben Gurion (Left) during his time as a Law Student in Istanbul in 1910

Chief Rabbi Moshe Halevi, reminded the audience that Jewish law commanded them to pray for the peace and prosperity of their ruler. This was especially true, reminded Rabbi Halevi, as the country had provided Jewish subjects with equality under the law. He did not forget to mention that the Ottoman Empire had welcomed Jews during the Spanish Inquisition. This is the narrative that many Jewish officials used to justify support for the Ottoman Empire, as part of their plan to position the Jewish community as the most beloved minority, or “millet,” in the Empire.

A Symbol of Equality

During the 1897 war between Greece and the Ottoman Empire over the status of Crete, a journalist writing for the Ladino newspaper El Meseret in Izmir, encouraged Sephardic Jews to support the Ottoman Empire. This included donations to the army, volunteering as soldiers, and of course, wearing the fez. The author writes, “if possible we should all wear the fez as an unmistakable sign of patriotism. It is not enough simply to have one’s heart full of patriotism. We are also obligated to show with our actions and our clothing that we are proud to be loyal subjects of the great and powerful Ottoman Empire (Sephardi Lives).

Jewish journalists took it upon themselves to encourage the wearing of the fez in public spaces, not only as a symbol of patriotism and modernity, but to elevate the public image of the Jewish c

ommunity and appear as equal to modern Ottoman citizens (Becoming Ottomans). In nearly every city in the empire, El Meseret wrote, men who wore hats were trading them in for the fez, to show their affiliation with the empire.

Ottoman soldiers wearing Fezzes during the Greco-Turkish War (1897)


A Symbol of the Enemy

The Greco-Turkish wars following WWI would prove challenging for the Jewish community, who had largely positioned themselves as supporters of the Ottomans Empire. For former Ottoman lands now under Greek control, Jewish sources began reporting of hostilities with local Greek Christian populations.

In Aydin, Manisa and Tire, Jewish people lived in an atmosphere of suspicion. In Tire, local police beat two young Jewish children who refused to remove the fez. This was seen as a provocation and a symbol of Ottoman loyalty. Jews were accused by the Turks of favoring the Greeks, and by the Greeks as favoring the Turks or the Italians (Forging Ties Forging Passports).

With constantly changing borders in the Ottoman Empire, Jewish communities that had been loyal to the Sultan, and in fact had gone to great lengths to show their affiliation, found themselves behind enemy lines.

A Symbol No More

As the fez had achieved such importance in the Empire as a symbol of Ottoman tradition, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk banned the use of the fez in Turkey in 1925 as part of his reforms. Designed to establish itself as the new, secular and modern Republic of Turkey, Atatürk began policy changes to westernize the country politically and culturally.

At the height of its influence, the fez was an equalizer for Jews to become Ottoman citizens in the public space. It was a symbol of patriotism and loyalty to the Ottoman Empire and an exp

ression of modernity, until finally it suffered its fate in the new secular Turkey. For those who left the empire, the fez recalled a time perhaps frozen in history and reminiscent of an Empire that no longer existed.

The downfall of the fez is perfectly encapsulated in Boeuna Sarfatty’s Ladino verses describing life in Salonika. “Vestiamos fez, mos vino chapeyo,” meaning, “we used to wear the fez, now we have the hat.”

David Ben-Gurion (first Prime Minister of Israel), age 28, and Yitzhak Ben-Zvi (second President of Israel), age 30, as law students in Istanbul, Ottoman Empire, wearing fezzes, c. 1914

Alexandra (Lexi) Fellus is the Editor-in-Chief of El Ermanado Sefaradi - the Sephardic Brother Magazine.

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