I passed through Singapore last week. I lived there from 2004 to 2012, so I always get a kick out of a stopover, however brief. It’s an opportunity to revisit old haunts, catch up with old work mates, and feast on chili crab. Also I still have a Singaporean bank account, credit card and other “stuff” accumulated during my time there, so popping in allows me to keep these up to date.
In particular, on this occasion I had to go by the bank to collect a new ‘dongle’, a security device that looks like a little calculator and which controls all online access to my bank accounts. My existing dongle was supplied in 2008 and, somewhat miraculously, had survived in good working order for more than ten years, never mind that it probably flew more air-miles than most pilots in that time. Six weeks ago, however, the battery finally died, and the damned thing stopped working.
This was a bit of a bummer, because without a functioning dongle I found myself locked out of my own bank accounts – a peculiarly modern-world kind of problem that felt a bit like losing the use of a limb. So my day in Singapore was timely; I could make a visit to the bank and get issued a new dongle, without having to deal with the complex process of international courier delivery (in a most basic sense, international courier delivery requires an international delivery address, and given the way I get around, providing one always proves a bit tricky).
At the bank (after meeting the branch manager, presenting my passport, filling in a bunch of forms and signing a raft of papers) I was presented with a new, fully-charged dongle. And hey presto! Thanks to the miracle of technology my bank accounts and I were happily reunited. Although I am not totally sure why I got excited about this, because it just allowed me to find a seat in a nearby Starbucks, log onto the internet, and start catching up on paying overdue bills.
So there I was in Singapore, circa 2019, using my new dongle to pay various bills in various parts of the world. Only to find that my mind was wandering to thoughts of the Jews of Dubrovnik, circa 1700. (And not just because the previous night I’d seen the latest episode of Game of Thrones, in which (SPOILER ALERT!) Danaerys laid waste to King’s Landing – the link here being that for the last eight years Dubrovnik has doubled as Kings Landing for GOT purposes – click here to read about my visit there two years ago, and click here to read about my Balkan food adventures).
Now admittedly, that’s a slightly odd connection, right? – Singapore bank dongle, medieval Dubrovnik Jews. But if you bear with me, I can explain. Although fair warning: Game of Thrones has absolutely nothing to do with the rest of this post – I just mentioned it in this introduction as a rather shameless way to grab your attention. Sorry.
Let’s start with a brief potted history of Dubrovnik, a magnificent walled city and UNESCO World Heritage site located on the Dalmatian Coast in the Adriatic Sea.
Dubrovnik first came into being in the 7th century, when Romans settled the area and called the town Ragusa. Owing to a strategic seaside location on a main transport route between East and West, Ragusa soon became a powerful trading hub. And, despite many attempts by would be conquerors, for centuries it managed to remain an independent city-state.
This was partially due to the city’s massive walls, built to protect its inhabitants from invading armies, sea-faring marauders and the like. But a policy of strict political neutrality also helped, as did the practice of forming an alliance with whichever was the powerful empire of the day. So until 1205 Ragusa was a protectorate of the Byzantines; then it became a protectorate of Venice (until 1358), Hungary (until 1526), and the Ottoman and Austrian empires after that. It was only in 1808 that Ragusa lost its independence (falling to Napoleon), and in 1929 the city (by then known as Dubrovnik) became part of Yugoslavia. In the 1990s, when Yugoslavia tore itself apart, Dubrovnik settled on its current starring role: Croatian tourist attraction and Game of Thrones locale.
Historically, Ragusa’s independence, neutrality and strategic location resulted in two things. First, the city was always progressive, and early on put in place institutions that we now take for granted in civic life but which in those days were considered pretty forward thinking. This included a state medical service, an almshouse to provide welfare for the poor, an orphanage, and a citywide sewage and water system. Oh, and also the abolition of slavery, in 1418, so a mere 400 years before this happened in “enlightened” places like Britain and the USA.
Second, being independent and neutral, Ragusa was able to navigate a path as a trusted intermediary between the Christian and Ottoman worlds it straddled, thereby becoming a key player in maritime commerce. The city played nice with both sides, on the one hand securing for itself a special papal permit to allow trade with “the infidels”; on the other paying annual tribute to the Turkish Sultan in exchange for a whole host of trade privileges. Consequently Ragusa’s merchants were able to travel freely and widely, and at the city’s peak in the 1700s it boasted of a huge fleet of merchant ships that ferried goods back and forth across the Mediterranean, sailing under the city’s trademark white flag with the word Libertas (“Freedom”) emblazoned on it.
Now to the next part of today’s story: a brief potted history of the Jews of Dubrovnik.
Back in the day, Jews in medieval Europe lived under constant threat of state-sponsored religious persecution. Case in point: the wholesale expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal, in 1492 and 1497 respectively, and the brutal Inquisition that followed.
By contrast, and also back in the day, Jews living in the Ottoman Empire benefited from direct protection of the Sultan. Islam’s acceptance of Jews as “People of the Book” meant that Jews in Muslim lands were considered dhimmi (“protected ones”), required to pay an annual per-head tax to the Sultan for protection, but otherwise tolerated and free to practice their religion unharmed.
So for some medieval Jews, the idea of living in an independent, liberally minded city-state, especially one that was loosely affiliated to the Ottomans and therefore not beholden to European anti-Semitism, was a fairly appealing prospect. And hence, from as early as the 12th century, there are records of Jews migrating from faraway places to set up shop in the relative freedom of Ragusa. Although things really picked up when Jewish refugees, fleeing the expulsions in Spain, Portugal and later southern Italy, began washing up in Ragusa in droves, often stowed away in the holds of the city’s merchant ships.
Initially, the church tried to rid Ragusa of Jews too, with expulsion decrees issued in 1514, 1515, and again in 1545. However these were revoked by order of the Sultan, and in 1538 Jews were officially granted permission to live within Ragusa’s city walls. Later, in 1614, in an effort to encourage more Jewish merchants to settle there, Ragusa’s senate issued a letter of safe conduct guaranteeing the city’s Jews various rights and protections under law.
As a result, Ragusa’s Jewish community swelled, and over time Jews became prominent in the city’s economic and social life: traders, craftsmen, interpreters, insurers and owners of ships, and physicians (evidently, “my son the doctor” has always been a thing; indeed, given the disproportionate number of Jewish doctors in 16th century Ragusa the city had to obtain a special permit from Rome authorizing treatment of Christians by Jews).
In 1546 an area inside of Ragusa’s walled city was officially designated for Jewish habitation. It went by the rather unimaginative name Ulica Zudioska (“Jew Street”), was surrounded by walls, and had gates at each end that were locked at night. In other words, a prototypical European Jewish ghetto, designed both to keep the Jews in and to keep threats to the Jews out.
A synagogue was established in Ragusa at around this time, followed shortly after by a Jewish cemetery. In time the community outgrew the ghetto area, and Jews also settled outside of the city walls. And in this way, for more than 300 years, Ragusa’s Jews lived in relative freedom and prosperity: free to practice their religion, free to work in whatever field they wanted, and generally free from persecution. Apart from the occasional blood libel and consequent burnings at the stake, although to be fair this was pretty much a de rigeur problem for Jews everywhere in medieval Europe, so not much use complaining about it….
In 1808 when Ragusa was finally conquered (by Napoleon), the city name changed to Dubrovnik, and a thousand years of independence ended. Napoleon immediately extended full legal equality to Dubrovnik’s Jews (Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite and all that jazz), although this was short-lived. Because in 1814 the Austrian Empire annexed Dubrovnik and legal equality for Jews was immediately withdrawn. After which persecution ramped up again with a vengeance: Jews were confined by law to the ghetto, shut out of many trades, and even had to apply for a permit from Vienna if they wanted to get married.
So Dubrovnik’s Jewish community went into decline, such that on the eve of WWII only about 100 Jews remained in the city. They in turn were interred in concentration camps during the war by the Nazis and their local Croat sympathizers, many perished, and of those that survived most made their way to Israel and the USA.
So what remains of Jewish Dubrovnik today?
On my visit two years ago I decided to find out for myself, and looked around for a Jewish centered walking tour. But there was none: Games of Thrones tourism seemed to have become the only form of organized tourist activity available in town. Still I persevered and eventually came across Vesna, a lady born-and-bred in Dubrovnik, professor of history at the local university, and a self-taught expert on all things related to Dubrovnik’s Jews. Although when we met she was quick to point out that she herself was not Jewish, but rather had made a point of learning all about her city’s Jewish past. She certainly took great pride in her extensive knowledge on the subject.
First stop on our tour was at a lovely public water fountain, just outside of one of the main gates through Dubrovnik’s formidable city walls. Although according to Vesna it was not just any old fountain, but “the Jewish Fountain”, a feature of Dubrovnik’s cityscape since at least the 1600s.
“In olden times Jews were not allowed to drink water from the city’s other fountains,” Vesna said. “So a fountain for the Jews’ exclusive use was installed inside the city walls, beneath the main Bell Tower. When Dubrovnik fell to Napoleon fountain restrictions were lifted and the Jewish Fountain was moved from its original location to this one, where it has remained ever since.”
I looked around. The fountain’s location just happened to be on what is now the main walking thoroughfare in and out of Dubrovnik’s Old Town. It was funny to think that the hordes of modern-day tourists taking selfies with the fountain in the background were, unwittingly, posing alongside a centuries-old Jewish relic.
From there we passed through the Pile Gate, entered into the Old Town, and made our way down the Stradun, Dubrovnik’s grand, drop-dead gorgeous, pedestrianized main street. It was lined end-to-end with cafes, small boutiques and souvenir shops, but so jam-packed it was hard to move – honestly, Disneyland on a busy day has smaller crowds.
Through this sea of people Vesna led us to a small alley at the far end of the Stradun, running off to the right and up a steep incline. There she pointed to the sign: Zuidoska. Literally, “Jew Street”. The alleyway had once been the city’s Jewish ghetto and after almost half a millennium it was still possessed of the same name.
Slowly we made our way up the hill. Apart from the name of the street nothing indicated that this was a place of any historic Jewish interest – no Jewish stores, no Jewish symbols on the building facades, no niches on doorposts where mezuzahs once hung. No, Jew Street looked decidedly similar to every other street in Dubrovnik’s Old Town, a chaotic mishmash of old houses, balconies with laundry hanging out from the railings to dry, small shops, and cafes.
Finally, we came to #5 Jew Street, an unremarkable stone structure about halfway up on the left hand side. There we stooped through a low doorway, trudged our way up a narrow flight of stairs, and emerged into the pride and joy of Jewish Dubrovnik – a tiny synagogue that occupied the upper two floors of the building.
The first floor had (since 2003) been converted into a small museum, to hold a collection of the community’s historical artifacts. Like a yellowed piece of paper in a cabinet that was the original French decree of 1808 granting equality to Dubrovnik’s Jews. Another official looking document listed on it the names of the Jewish victims of a 1667 earthquake. And yet another contained a different list of names – this time of those Dubrovnik Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. Pride of place went to a beautiful 13th century Moorish carpet, supposedly given by Queen Isabella of Spain to her Jewish physician, just before he was expelled in 1492.
One floor up and we entered into the synagogue itself, a compact but wonderfully elegant prayer room. A high vaulted ceiling was divided by three arches and painted light blue, with Star of David motifs. Beautiful Florentine bronze oil lamps dangled down on heavy chains – a style of decor typical to Sephardi synagogues. In the center of the room stood a gorgeous, hand-carved wooden bimah (prayer pulpit). And on the eastern wall, positioned so as to face toward Jerusalem, was the synagogue’s ark, an intricately embroidered lace curtain protecting its contents. Which, so Vesna told us, consisted of seven ancient Torah scrolls: “One of them was brought to Dubrovnik from Spain more than 550 years ago”.
It was marvelous to see, and mostly I was struck by just how old and historic everything in Dubrovnik’s synagogue seemed – positively dripping with the patina of age. Although Vesna, perhaps reading my mind, immediately offered up a slightly different perspective: “This synagogue was first established in around 1350. That makes it the 2nd oldest synagogue in Europe – only the one in Prague is older. Although what you see now is not the original, because everything was rebuilt in Italian baroque style, in 1652. And that was only 350 years ago. In Dubrovnik historical terms, it’s all basically new!”
By now you may well be asking yourself: what on earth does any of this have to do with a banking dongle in Singapore? Fair question, so perhaps I should explain.
You see, while we toured around Dubrovnik’s small Jewish synagogue, Vesna told me an interesting little story about the Jews of Dubrovnik, one that really stuck in my mind.
Many of Dubrovnik’s Jews were, as already mentioned, traders. More than that, they often acted as agent for other Jewish merchants and traders all across Europe and the Ottoman Empire. As such, they came to occupy a central seat in medieval commerce: overseeing the movement of raw materials like leather and spices from the East to the West, and manufactured products like textiles and paper from the West to the East. In the process Dubrovnik’s Jewish traders got around a lot, travelling back and forth across the Mediterranean. The original Road Warriors, I suppose.
This in turn allowed Dubrovnik’s Jewish community to maintain close ties with other important Jewish communities of the day. And that in turn meant Dubrovnik’s Jews became instrumental players in global finance, middle-ages style.
“As an example, once a year Dubrovnik had to pay tribute to the Ottoman Sultan in Istanbul,” Vesna said. “Although they couldn’t just load money on a ship and send it by sea – that was far too dangerous, plus the currency used in Ragusa was different to that in Istanbul. Instead, the Dubrovnik government would deliver the city’s annual tribute money to the local Jewish community. Dubrovnik’s Jewish traders would then issue credit to Jewish traders they knew and trusted in Istanbul – often relatives and friends. And the Jewish community in Istanbul would then make payment on behalf of Dubrovnik to the Sultan. Within a few days the Sultan would have his tribute, exchanged and accounted for down to the last penny, without a single physical coin ever having moved.”
In other words, the trading, communal and familial ties between Dubrovnik’s Jews and other Jews throughout Europe and the Orient created a swift, sophisticated funds transfer and exchange network. An organized system used even by the Ottoman Sultans to reliably and safely move capital across the known world back then.
Or to put it at its simplest, in a time where people rode horses and knights in armor did battle, Dubrovnik’s Jews functioned more or less like the medieval world’s internet payment system. They were the security key needed to remotely move money around and pay overseas bills. So, just like my dongle.
C’mon. How seriously fascinating is that?
On the way out I asked Vesna if Dubrovnik’s synagogue was still in use. She told me that it was, albeit infrequently. “This is the oldest Sephardi synagogue still in use anywhere in world, although that’s only once or twice a year nowadays, mainly on High Holy Days when a rabbi comes from Zagreb to conduct services”.
I felt kind of sad when I heard that. After supporting continuous Jewish life for the better part of 800 years, now fewer than 20 Jews still call Dubrovnik home. Within a generation that number will almost certainly reduce to zero and with that, a centuries-old chapter in Jewish history will draw to a close. In the not too distant future all that will remain of Dubrovnik’s Jews will be a sign for Jew Street, an unheralded fountain, and a disused old synagogue gathering dust.
Although for me, I will at least always have a story to remember. A story from a time long past, when Dubrovnik’s synagogue was in daily use, when Jew Street was bustling, and when the city’s Jewish community sat at the very center of the world’s import-export business. That, and also the time I sat on the Iron Throne.
My first book, MAN MISSION, is now available. Go to www.manmissionthebook.com for details and where to buy.