1873: A Jew Who Helped the Sultan Usher Turkey Into the Modern Age Dies

Abraham Camonda, banker to the Ottomans, almost wound up excommunicated for training young Jews to be modern members of Turkish society.

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Portrait of Sultan Abdulmejid I.
Portrait of Sultan Abdulmejid I.Credit: DcoetzeeBot via Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

March 30, 1873, is the date on which Abraham Salomon Camonda, banker to Ottoman potentates, died at the age of 92 or 93. He passed on in Paris after having been spared excommunication for urging Jews to fit in with modern Turkish society.

Abraham Camondo was born in 1781, into a family with roots in Spain that moved to Venice after the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. Three hundred years later, after Austria’s conquest of Venice, some family members, including Abraham’s older brother Isaac, moved east to Constantinople, the capital of the Ottoman Empire. There in 1802 Isaac established the bank that bore his name.

When Isaac died childless in 1832, Abraham inherited the bank and became its chief executive. In this capacity he became the empire’s wealthiest Jew and helped finance the Ottomans’ participation in the Crimean War. He was the personal financial adviser to senior officials including the grand vizier of Sultan Abdulmejid I, Mustafa Reshid Pasha, and represented European Jewish business leaders such as Baron Hirsch, as well as the Rothschild and Bleichroeder banks.

Reshid was the official who masterminded the Tanzimat reforms, beginning in 1839, that brought the Ottoman government into the modern era. One man he relied on for counsel was Abraham Camondo.

Camondo was also a member of an advisory commission on modernizing the capital, and later headed the pilot autonomous municipal council that was set up in Galata, the neighborhood in Constantinople (later Istanbul) where his bank had its headquarters.

The Ottoman Department of the Navy Building in Istanbul, c. 1880-1893Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Abdullah Frères

Camondo also played a role in the modernization of Turkey’s Jewish community. In 1858, he established the Institution Camondo, a school in the impoverished Peri Pasha quarter that housed many of the capital’s Jews.

In the spirit of many of the reforms he spearheaded, the school was intended to turn out young people equipped to contribute to the empire’s integration into modern society. The school would train Jews who had a command of both Turkish and French, and would teach more than religious subjects. During the three decades  the school operated, it produced large numbers of future government officials.

But there were rabbis in Constantinople who feared the assimilation that would come with modernization and who tried to have Camondo excommunicated. That move was prevented only by the intervention of the sultan. Camondo also served as a founder and head of the local Jewish consistory.

In 1870, Camondo moved to Paris, where his grandsons had already situated themselves and where the family bank now had its headquarters. It was here he died on March 30, 1873, although he left instructions for his body to be returned to Constantinople for burial in the family vault.

In the decades following Camondo’s death, the family continued in business and took part in extensive philanthropic activity in Paris. His great-grandson Isaac, for example, donated great treasures of art to the Louvre, though the museum refused to appoint him to its acquisitions committee because he was a “foreigner."

In any case, the Camondo family did not survive. In 1917, the last male descendant, Nissim de Camondo, was shot down in aerial combat during World War I.

His sister Beatrice had converted to Catholicism and expected that this step, as well as her family’s prominent position in French society, would spare them from deportation during the German occupation in World War II. She was wrong. Beatrice, her husband Leon Reinach and their two children died at Auschwitz between 1943 and 1945.

Visitors to Paris today can visit a representative sample of the family’s furniture and objets d’art at the Nissim Camondo Museum in the 8th arrondissement.

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