One of the most famous persons of his time and certainly somebody who had left inerasable traces among the ancient walls of the Old Town Ulcinj was doubtlessly Sabbatai Zevi. He was the man who had marked one part of the world’s cultural heritage, and who had significantly contributed not only to our history but to the world’s history too through his personality and his teaching. This man, whose intelligence was above average and who was highly educated, claimed himself to be the new “Messiah”, so that he left traces which even nowadays arise the curiosity of not only scientists and theologians, but of simple people too, who are trying to investigate every segment of his activities in the Ottoman Empire. Surely, his influence spread fast outside the borders of the Ottoman Empire and his name was mentioned with respect and honour in every synagogue of those times. Today, we the people living next to the Balshic Tower, where he had spent ten last years of his life, very often mention his name to many foreign and domestic guests, trying to make a real picture of his existence, not only locally.
He was born in Izmir in 1626 in one of the biggest towns in the Ottoman Empire. A big Jewish community lived there and in one of their most famous families a man was born who at the age of forty would dare to claim himself to be the new “Messiah”, in such a powerful Islamic state. As he was still a young man he was already respected and people liked seeing him and listening to him, even scientists, so that they all agreed that he was meant to become a leader. While being educated, he read every old holy book of the Jews and all those books were announcing the coming of the new “Messiah”. This title had been held by many before him like Bar Kobe, Jude Galilee, Jude Macabre, and the only one who had the full right to claim that title was Jesus Christ. Among the big Jewish population in Izmir Sabbatai Zevi was looking for freedom, he was a theologian of freedom and he realized that it was the biggest thing one can have in a faith. In his teachings, especially about the Talmud, the holy book of the Jews, he was so suggestive, that everybody thought he came from future, a person who was about to come and to take the Jewish people to their former homeland. He was born to be a leader. When he turned forty, he claimed himself to be the new “Messiah” explaining this by his genius and by some strange internal instinct that he had felt. He claimed this to all the people, to the whole world in the Ottoman Empire. By God’s will he declared to the whole world that the spirit of the Messiah was reincarnated in his body. Since then a lot of people had started believing in his “Messiahship”, and thus a whole movement was created which was going to culminate in 1666 in other parts of the world too. It was even accepted by the famous Nathan Gazette from Gaza announcing that he was the man who had been expected for 15 centuries, so that many Jews started coming from different parts of the world in big groups, hoping that he would take them to Israel and Palestine as it was written in old books.
Why 1666 ?
In a lot of holy Jewish books of the middle ages it was said and old astrologists also claimed that the new Messiah would appear in 1666. In fact, according to the Jewish astrology, number 1666 is the number of the wild animal of Apocalypse, 666 plus 1000 years of Satan’s rule. Thus, according to the revelation of Joseph it was counted that the day of the world’s overturn and countdown would be exactly the year 1666. It was then when the 1000-year rule of Jesus Christ was going to begin and the dead would rise from their graves and together with the living they would come out to court. Afterwards there would be peace, justice and welfare, God’s kingdom and paradise on earth. This was not just mere superstition, as people had always tried to reach future, at least the one relevant for them. Everything that was happening at the time of Sabbatai Zevi was religiously marked and in such a way defined. The salvation and the redeemer , that is the new Messiah, was necessary for the Jews because they had been suffering humiliation and oppression for centuries all over the world, every generation lived in belief that they were suffering more than the generations before them, and this was repeated from generation to generation. Not only in Constantinople, but in other big towns of the Ottoman Empire there were Jews coming from eastern states. This caused mass protests, especially in Izmir. In 1666 there was a lunar eclipse which had been correctly predicted two centuries earlier than the Jewish, Persian and Arabic astrologists announced it. In those times a lot of people defined this as the apocalypse of the Ottoman Empire. The idea of the redeemer was present on both sides. The Jews called their redeemer “Messiah“ whereas the Moslems called him „Mehdi“. There had been some earlier trials to proclaim some young people to be Mehdi, initialized by the mosque of Beyazit, who claimed the spirit of Mehdi being in them, however such trials were bloodily suppressed by the Janissaries and the Porta. The big vizier Kipril, of Albanian origin actually ruled with the Ottoman Empire at that time, since Sultan Mehmed IV was only 9 years old when his father was killed. After he had come from Erdena to Constantinople, he invited a scientist called Abdiu to his court, who had written the history of that time and whose writing taught us a lot about Sabbatai Zevi. Surely, the Sultan wrote some manuscripts himself, and that is the most trustful story about the history of that person who spent his last ten years as the Dizdar of the town of Ulcinj on the third floor of the impressive Balshic Tower.
The punishment and the curse of Sabbatai Zevi
As he had claimed himself for the Messiah, Zevi provided hope for people, hope towards liberation from slavery, hope for religious freedom. Old holy books had promised them so, and now there was the new Messiah. A great support was provided to Zevi by Nathan Gazatti from Gaza, who had confirmed his messiahship which resulted with the fact that in every synagogue in Italy, England and Germany the preaching was about Sabbatai Zevi as the new Messiah. The movement started spreading from Izmir fast and soon it captured Constantinople. Since Kiprili recognized the threat of this he decided to stop this euphoria especially after Sabbatai Zevi had addressed even the Sultan Mehmed IV with a letter in which he asked the sultan to renounce the Quran and Mohamed and to turn to the Talmud and the Jewish religion as well as to him as the new Messiah. Kiprili then ordered to curse and imprison Sabbatai Zevi. However, this did not very much disturb the adherents, as they believed, according to the legend, that he would come out of prison riding on a lioness and that they would together head towards Israel and Palestine where they would renew their state, which had been destroyed in ancient time by the Romans, so that in this way he would prove his messiahship. In reality Zevi had little chance to be rescued from the dungeon, despite the fact that his adherents believed in his prophetical and divine power.
How the Messiah became a Muslim
A few lines from the “World Chronicles“ written by the chronicler Abdia describe how Sabbatai Zevi converted to Islam. Respecting the order of the Sultan, Sabbatai Zevi was put in public naked and feeling ashamed he covered his genitals with his hands and thus caused Sultan’s laugh. Seeing that he had been circumcised according to Jewish tradition, the Sultan asked the mufti for his opinion about the self-proclaimed Messiah. The mufti who hated Shiites and Mystics and who had already punished a philosopher who was called Karabasa , but a lot of poets too, proclaimed Sabbatai to be more black than the Satan himself. The Sultan decided to put Sabbatai on trial telling him that he would accept his messiahship provided that the arrows he would be shot with, came back without hurting him. In order to avoid certain death, Sabbatai Zevi kneeled down in front of the Sultan begging him for his life as he was just a rabbi and that he was begging because of the son who was about to be born that night. Amazingly a few hours later one of the wives in the harem gave birth to a child and so the Sultan showed mercy and spared the life of Sabbatai Zevi. The Sultan then told Zevi to change his religion, for, if he had dared to ask this from a Sultan, then he was asking him to do so. And thus Sabbatai Zevi got the new name Mehmet Efendia and putting the turban onto his head, he had to go into exile to distant Ulcinj.
Life and death of Sabbatai Zevi in Ulcinj
The sultan spared the life of the self-proclaimed messiah, however, his adherents did not cease gathering, unable to believe that he was not the messiah. In order to avoid further gatherings and riots the viziers advised the Sultan to exile Sabbatai Zevi to the furthest town of the Ottoman Empire – Ulcinj, to stay there in its fortress. Although he was exiled,the Sultan gave Zevi a title – Dizdar, that is the keeper of the fortress, so that he arrived in ancient Ulcinj with his escort, where he spent his last ten years on the third floor of the Balshic Tower. The most famous prince of the Balshic dynasty Djuradj Balsha died in the same tower and today it carries his name. In this tower which was proudly standing on the highest point of the Old Town, Sabbatai Zevi found his peace, he was reforming the Talmud there and he was reading other theology books which he had. He spoke six languages and his intellignece was above average. He was also highly educated. It is said that he left town only twice, once he went to visit the Benedictine Monastry Rotaci in the vicinity of Bar, and the second time he visited the ancient town of Svach. He even wrote a few letters from Ulcinj among which the most significant was the one that he sent to one of his three wives, to Sara Elahun, who he had to leave in Izmir. In a few long fragments he mentioned the Ulcinj Albanians, he wrote about terrible earthquakes which had struck this town and he mentioned the thirty girls who had jumped from the Old Towns’ walls in ordder to avoid slavery. In the same way he described a special kind of grass growing on the walls of the town. He was a man of speech, therefore he did not write too much.
David’s star in the Tower of Balshic
Today on the third floor of the Balshic Tower one can see David’s star engraved into the white marble. It confirms the thesis that deep in his soul he remained a Jew. The place where his library once used to be is also obvious, where he used to keep the writings and the books of Halevi, Joseph Ephraim, Isaac Ben Solomon, Esra Maimonit and others. There was also the first publication of the Kabalist’s doctrine „Zohal“ from 1559 by Djon Bolica and Djerdj Byzantine as well as Pir Didakua from Raguza. In 1676 at the age of fifty Sabbatai Zevi died. His death was much discussed in the world especially among the Jews, as there were still a lot of them who considered him to have been a saint. His death was pretty much mysterious. According to a legend it was stated that he had died at the moment he saw a child fall off a fig tree without moving. According to the legend the child then stood up without having been hurt at all. According to some other legends he had already prepared himself for dying asking Julius Ambrosius, a man who was known as a master of balsaming people and animals, to do so with his body. It is possible this really happened. In any case he was buried close to a mosque outside the city walls in a special turbe – tomb, although his wish had been to be buried on a higher spot from where it would have been possible to see the sea, for those ones who would have visited his grave. It might be that his wish had not been fulfilled.
The mysterious turbe – tomb
Turbe – Pantheon where his grave is lcoated is still nowadays guarded with peculiar fanaticism and it is located on private property. The keepers of that turbe mysteriously keep his name and they will never confess to you that it is that turbe. In any case the tradition of that family should be preserved, however, we should continue exploring his mysterious life, especially the part which he spent among the ancient walls of the Old Town. There is no inscription on his grave, just a wooden sarcophagus; however, this family show great respect and honour to him claiming that it was actually some distant ancestor of theirs. Anyway, Sabbatei Zevi was a great person of his time, a man who managed to proclaim himself to be the new „Messiah“ making so many people believe him. Despite the fact that he had converted to Islam he remained a threat to the Ottoman Empire until his death. Therefore he was exiled to Ulcinj. We are convinced that plenty of tourists from all over the world would still be coming to his grave as a pilgrimage, provided that there was a hundred percent certainty that it was definitely his grave. Being close to his grave is an undescriptive feeling. He is a very strange historical metaphor and a motif to write down a lot of lines, he is at the same time a mystery and history. A very exciting moment indeed. What we can do is just continue discovering the mystery of his life and his work and to tell both domestic and foreign guests about this famous personality, who succeeded in marking a whole epoch. He is especially important for us as his name is closely connected to our town and thus he represents a significant part of our glorious and impressive cultural heritage.