Sabbatai Zevi (born in Smyrna (Izmir) during a period characterised by a wave of self-proclaimed messiahs) managed to scandalise the Jewish communities in many Balkan cities with his assertions of being a prophet and the promise that he shall bring his followers to the Promised Land. Their most numerous and influential community within the Ottoman Empire was in Thessaloniki. Finally he converted to Islam. Many of his followers went with him and this is how one of the strangest religious hybrids known in the region was created.
Historians describe this denomination as mystical Islam with elements of Judaism. Its followers pray in mosques, make pilgrimages to Mecca and abide by Ramadan’s rites. At home, however, they follow Judaic rituals. During the following centuries, the Dönmeh’s religious doctrine spread as far as Egypt, Italy and Poland, while being preserved in a modified form in Smyrna and among the large group of Jews in Thessaloniki.
Their position in the city changed dramatically. From the Jewish community’s pariahs, they became a part of the city’s avant-garde. In 1900 they numbered around 10 to 15,000 and formed a closed circle of well-educated people with exceptional financial status. Their economic and political influence in the city surpassed their community’s size by far. Intellectuals and businessmen from the group supported the Young Turk Revolution which called for the transformation of Turkey into a secular state and pushed many other progressive ideas into the Ottoman Empire.
The sect’s downfall was initially started by the fire of 1917, which destroyed many of their luxurious European-style villas in the Modiano area and then further solidified by the 1923 agreement for the population exchange between Greece and Turkey. According to it, all Dönmeh were considered Turks and, as such, they were handed over to Turkey and most of them settled down in Istanbul.