Europe/Near East/North Africa
732 to 1492
Though repeated attempts were made in the centuries after its
demise, the Roman Empire was the only entity that ever united
the Mediterranean in a single political system. Although North
Africa and the Near East became part of a great Islamic empire
in the 8th century, that empire did not last long.
Western Europe continued to be fragmented for centuries. While
many states were sometimes included in a "Holy Roman Empire"
there was little political substance behind this grand title.
Only the Byzantine Empire held on over the centuries, gradually
fading away until it was extinguished in the 15th century
The unifying forces of the Mediterranean in this period were not
so much political as they were religious. Western Europe remained
Christian, answering to the religious authority of the bishop
of Rome, the pope. The Byzantine Empire also remained Christian,
with its own church patriarch in Constantinople. In the Muslim
lands of the Near East, North Africa, and Spain there was a similar
continuity. Empires came and went, dynasties changed, but Islam
and its legal system provided a glue that bound widely diverse
A Jewish minority was sprinkled throughout this political and
religious arena. In an era when religion was so central to society,
Jews were forced to the margins, where they were vulnerable to
periodic outbreaks of religious intolerance.
The Jews of Arab countries, the Must'arabs, spoke Arabic, ate
almost the same food as their Muslim neighbors, and gave their
children names that were common in the Muslim community. They
shared in the great renaissance of culture and commerce in the
Muslim world that continued into the first centuries of the 2nd
The Sephardim, the Jews of Spain and Portugal, were closely linked
to cultures of the Iberian Peninsula. They joined first with Muslims
and then with Christians in a period of brilliant intellectual
and artistic achievement.
No matter where they lived, Jews remained dedicated to their unique
heritage. Though their mother tongue might be the language of
the land where they lived, a rudimentary knowledge of Hebrew made
it possible for the more educated among them to communicate with
Jews anywhere in the world.
Jewish communities were connected through the correspondence of
scholars and through commerce. As early as the 9th century, Jewish
traders known as Radanites linked communities along a route from
Spain to Eastern Asia. Over the centuries Jewish merchants helped
spread Jewish as well as secular knowledge from one culture to
Because of their links to international trade and their experience
in handling financial matters, Jews were invited into many kingdoms
of Europe. By the 12th century European economies were expanding
and Northern Europe was becoming, for the first time, an important
center of world culture. Jews prospered on the fringes of Christian
society, serving at first as merchants and then as lenders of
money to the developing economies of Europe.
Because their presence was a matter of fiscal policy, however,
when fiscal policy changed, entire Jewish communities could be
expelled. In the 13th, 14th, and 15th centuries, there were increasing
waves of expulsions, as Jewish communities were caught in the
crossfire of political, religious, and economic conflicts of a
Europe reeling from the social repercussions of its rapid economic
Throughout western Europe Jews were attacked, their property was
confiscated, and entire communities expelled. In Central and Eastern
Europe, however, there were lands that wanted Jewish capital and
could benefit from Jewish commercial skills. It was to these lands,
especially to Poland, that many Jews now went, to build what would
become the great world of eastern European Jewry.
The final, and most tragic, expulsion of western European Jews
came in 1492, when the Jewish community of Spain, the largest,
most prosperous, and most illustrious Jewish community in the
world, was expelled on pain of death.