For Glory and Matchmaking: The Very Lively History of Jewish Tombstones in Turkey

A new online database of 61,000 graves reveals that, for Jews in Turkey, investing in death was also investing in life

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Grave of Kalo, wife of Ya’akov Tsontsin, who died in 1751. “Daughter of kings,” says the lavish headstone.
Grave of Kalo, wife of Ya’akov Tsontsin, who died in 1751. “Daughter of kings,” says the lavish headstone. Credit: Minna Rozen
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

In every cemetery, a few headstones stand out among the neat rows of ordinary grave markers and spark the imagination. In Jewish cemeteries in Turkey, these special markers not only served as a memorial to the deceased. They also elevated the social standing of the living, says Minna Rozen, a professor emeritus of Jewish history at the University of Haifa, who has documented more than 61,000 such tombstones.

“Our immediate conclusion is that the deceased’s family had means,” she says. “In some cases, the investment in the ‘culture of death’ was not only an expression of the social and economic standing of the deceased, but also an attempt to advance the social standing of the living.”

A tombstone from a Jewish cemetery in Turkey.Credit: Minna Rozen

Rozen, who specializes in the history of Jews in the Ottoman Empire, spent two years, between 1988 and 1990, documenting the graves of Jews buried across Turkey from the late 16th century to the late 20th century. The Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University recently launched an online database based on Rozen’s work, from which much can be learned about the living as well as the dead.

The graves of members of the Tsontsin family are among the families in the database who used their tombstones “to amplify the impression of their greatness, their power and their wealth, and to cultivate their standing,” as Rozen put it. She found the family’s graves in two different cemeteries in Istanbul.

The tombstones [fostered] the rank of the family ahead of the most important day of all – not Judgment Day, but wedding day

Minna Rozen

“Son of kings and counts,” proclaimed the marker at the final resting place of Yeuda Tsontsin, son of Yehoshua, who died in 1742. “Daughter of kings,” reads the lavish headstone of Kalo, the wife of Ya’akov Tsontsin, who died in 1751. “Son of the high lord,” is how the gravestone of Nissim Yehoshua Tsontsin, who died the same year and was buried under a similarly grand gravestone, describes him.

The trend persisted even into the 20th century. The inscription on the gravestone of Vida, daughter of Yehoshua Tsotsin, who died in 1926 reads “daughter of kings, of the seed of high rank, Torah and greatness, of people of virtue.”

According to Rozen, “this information was intended not only for he who would decide the fate of the deceased in the world to come, but for anyone seeking to evaluate the family in this world. The tombstones are seen here to be a way of promoting the standing of the family ahead of the most important day of all – not Judgment Day, but one’s wedding day.”

An ornate tombstone in a Jewish cemetery in Turkey.Credit: Minna Rozen

“When a family member would become an adult and was ready to be married, [higher] rank would give them a greater choice of matches, reflected not only in quantity but quality,” Rozen explains. So when it comes to people who lived centuries before Google, how can we determine a family's rank? We can examine the graves of their ancestors, of course, in the hope of finding the son of a count or the daughter of a king.

A look at the new gravestone database also provides an answer to a question that has preoccupied many people over the generations – What were a woman's favored attributes, as reflected in the inscriptions on women’s headstones?

“The most praiseworthy quality in a woman is beauty,” Rozen says firmly. And then, with a smile, quotes from the Book of Proverbs: “Who says ‘grace is deceitful and beauty is vain’?”

Below that on the list are other characteristics: innocence, modesty, pleasantness and generosity.” Wisdom is far behind.

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