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Dona Gracia of the House of Nasi

by Cecil Roth

Bibliographic information

TitleDona Gracia of the House of Nasi
AuthorCecil Roth
PublisherVarda Books
Publication Date2001


Jewish history is rich in remarkable personalities. Among the most admirable of them is Dona Gracia of the House of Nasi, an extraordinary woman in every aspect. Banker, diplomat, philanthropist, defender of her people and promoter of its culture, she was revered by her sixteenth-century contemporaries and earned the highest esteem among Jewish historians in succeeding generations. The fact that she wielded enormous influence so many centuries before the so-called emancipation of women is in itself a tribute to her strength and nobility of character.

The noted historian Cecil Roth here presents the first full-length biography of Dona Gracia in the English language. He traces her career from its beginning among the Marranos (secret Jews) of Portugal and from her rise to financial power in Antwerp, through her wanderings to escape the Inquisition and return to the faith of her fathers, down to her declining years as “the Crowned Lady,” the dominant personality in Jewish affairs in the Turkish Empire. Dr. Roth recounts this poignant story of human devotion to a great cause. He also tells the story of the intense struggle which the Marranos waged for freedom of conscience. It is a great human drama, centering about a fascinating character, with all of Europe as its stage and with the highest representatives of sixteenth-century diplomacy as its dramatis personae.

About the Author 

Cecil Roth ---

Cecil Roth (1899-1970) is the author of numerous Jewish historical studies, among them, History of the Jews of Veniece, History of the Marranos, A Life of Menasseh ben Israel, A History of the Jews in England, The History of the Jews in Italy, A Bird’s-Eye View of Jewish History, and The Jewish Contribution to Civilization. He also served as editor in chief of the Encyclopedia Judaica.

Described by the New York Times as "a seemingly tireless scholar, linguist, historian, and writer," Cecil Roth was a renowned authority on Jewish history. After writing his first book on Italian history, Roth brought "together his historical research and his Jewish interests and knowledge to produce a series of works which [gave] him a unique place in Jewish historiography," wrote David Daiches in Commentary. Daiches went on to offer the historian this tribute: "[Roth had] always been a practicing Orthodox Jew, and he… had the advantages of Jewish and Hebrew learning that a living Orthodox tradition on good terms with a healthy secular culture can provide. Indeed, I am tempted to believe that Cecil Roth [was] a product of a phase of Anglo-Jewish history now fast declining, a phase in which it was possible to combine Orthodoxy, secular scholarship, and Jewish learning known from within and regarded as a natural part of one`s personal heritage.

"It [was] this inwardness with, for example, the history of Jewish liturgy or the structure of Jewish community life in different ages that enable[d] him to read a medieval or Renaissance Hebrew manuscript with an easiness about its terms of reference, an almost effortless familiarity with the hinterland of language and custom and cultural behavior that lies behind the words of a given document. That he [had] the languages--Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, German--goes without saying. More significant is the fact that he [had] a kind of commitment to the material with which he [was] dealing that [gave] a certain tone, a certain authority, an air of what might be called domestication in the material, which exists side-by-side with the historian`s objectivity in the establishment of facts and even a dryness in the handling of subjects calculated to make Jewish blood pressure rise… [Roth knew] what the true Jewish tradition is, [was] confident of its survival, and himself adhere[d] to it."


List of Illustrations



                    I.      The House of Mendes

Additional Note to Chapter I

                 II.      Antwerp

               III.      Venice

              IV.      Ferrara

Genealogical Tree

                 V.      Constantinople

              VI.      “The Heart of Her People”

            VII.      The Ancona Boycott

         VIII.      Journey’s End

Chronological Table




She lived in princely style, in an environment which was in Turkey but not of it. The charity that she dispensed was tremendous. Eighty paupers were fed each day at her table. (“Something must be wrong; must have cheated people somewhere,” spitefully reported Hans Dernschwam, unable to deny the meritorious act.) She was waited on by an elaborate train of attendants, many of whom had come with her from Flanders, or even from Portugal, those who were New Christians like herself adopting Judaism on their arrival if they had not done so already.

Although in such close relations with the Sublime Porte and constant intercourse with high officers of state, the family nevertheless lived in world of their own. It was no oriental household, but reproduced on the banks of the Bosphorus the domestic manners of a patrician family of Lisbon, Antwerp, or Venice. With the assent (according to Andres Laguna) of the sultan himself, the serving women and attendants did not wear the old-world Spanish wimples, like other Jewesses, but bodices and coifs in the Venetian style. They preserved not only European dress but an occidental manner of life. They used Don and Seora as titles of respect. Their domestic habits were Spanish; they heard sermons in the synagogue in the same language; they read Spanish books; they had intercourse with Spanish savants. Their cuisine was more reminiscent of Lisbon or Madrid than of the Golden Horn. They conducted their households in the Spanish or Italian styles; and they were kept in constant touch with life in the Peninsula by the unending stream of refugees from the fires of Inquisition who came to Turkey, in many cases under their auspices, in order to seek shelter (in the beautiful Hebrew phrase) “under the pinions of the Divine Presence.” They were surrounded by a large circle of scholars, dependents, visitors, servitors, mendicants, with a background much like their own.

The average Jewish woman of Constantinople at this time was, to be sure, hardly of this type. A description written at the beginning of the seventeenth century probably applies faithfully enough to the period of a generation earlier. It is vivid, but hardly flattering in some particulars:

The elder mabble their heads in linen, with the knots hanging down behind. Others do wear high caps of plate, whereof some I have seen of beaten gold. They wear long quilted waistcoats, with breeches underneath, in winter of cloth, in summer of linen; and over all, when they stir abroad, loose gowns of purple flowing from the shoulders. They are generally fat and rank of their savours which attend upon sluttish corpulency. For the most part they are goggle-eyed. They neither shun conversation nor are too watchfully guarded by their husbands. They are good work-women, and can and will do anything for a profit, that is to be done the art of a woman and which suits with the fashion of these countries. Upon injuries received or violence done to any of their nation, they will cry out mainly at their windows, beating their cheeks and tearing of their garments…. They are so skilled in lamenations, that the Greeks do hire them to cry at the funerals.

Dona Gracia’s way was made easier for her to some extent by reason of the fact that it was no new thing for the Turks to see Jewish women even of this type busying themselves with public affairs and sometimes influencing them. An English contemporary presents a graphic picture of the background of their activity:

The sultanas have leave of the king that certain Jewes women may at any time come into the seraglio unto them, who being extraordinary subtle queans and coming in under the colour of teaching them some fine needlework, or showing them secrets in making waters, oils and painting-stuff for their faces (having once made friendship with the eunuchs which keep the doors, by often bribing them) do make themselves by their crafty insinuation, so familiar with the king’s women, that they rule them as they please, and do carry out anything to sell for them, and buy and bring whatsoever the Sultanas shall have a will to. And hence it is, that all such Jewes women as frequent the seraglio do become very rich. For whatsoever they bring in they buy it cheap and sell it dear to them; and then on the contrary, when they have jewels to sell for the Sultanas (which are to conveyed out by stealth) they receive their true value for them of strangers, and then tell the simple ladies, who know not the worth of them (and are afraid to be discovered) that they sold them peradventure for half that which they had for them. By these means there come things of great price out of seraglio, to be sold at very easy rates; yet in the end the Jewes have but a bad market of it…

Foremost among these Court Jewesses, and probably one of the most busy persons in Constantinople at the time of Dona Gracia’s arrival, was one named Esther, now at the height of a reputation which was to continue unabated for over half a century, and then to end with gruesome tragicalness. Her husband, Rabbi Elijah Handali, had died after a very few years of marriage, so that she was left to her own way in the world. She obtained an entrée into the imperial palaces and made herself useful to the ladies of the harem in the Old Serai (now reserved for women), who could not get along in their silken captivity without some sort of outside contact. She assisted them in childbirth, purchased them cosmetics, brought the trinkets, told them news, carried their messages, and in the end became utterly indispensable. Suleiman the Magnificent himself recognized her services generously and, as early as 1539, when she can barely have been in her twenties, issued an imperial firman according her and her descendants special privileges and exemption from taxation. Generally, she was known as Esther Kyra, this being the title universally given in Turkey to these Court Jewesses, of whom, as we have seen, there were several at this time.


This is the biography of Dona Gracia, a Jewish woman who lived in the 15th century and whose personality is characterized by intelligence, shrewdness, generosity, and religious devotion. Born in Spain, she went to Portugal in 1492, following the expulsion of the Jews. In Portugal she was forcibly converted to Christianity and became one amongst many "New Christians," "Marranos," or "Conversos." At the age of 18 she married Francisco Mendes, the richest merchant in Lisbon at that time. Seven years later she became a widow and successfully took over her husband's business. Determined to reach Turkey where under the protection of the Ottoman Empire she would be able to profess her faith freely, she embarked on a long journey, which took 17 years. This journey took her to London, Antwerp, Lyon, Venice, Ferrara, Ancona, Ragusa, Salonika and finally Constantinople. Throughout her perils she proved to be highly courageous and an excellent businesswoman. She used her wealth and contacts to help Jews escape the Inquisition, became the self-appointed protector of the conversos, built houses of prayer and teaching, devoted herself to good works, and was know as "the heart of her people."

There are two importnat factors in the history of Dona Gracia: first, she represents one of the rare examples of fight against repression to the Jews by the use of commercial tactics (the Ancona Boycott), and the first to establish a Jewish colony in Paletine (Tiberias), a self-sustaining settlement for Jews and conversos from an hostile Europe.

The author Cecil Roth is a well-known historian. He clearly demonstrates his admiration for Dona Gracia, his praises are many, and openly admits to the fact that he has not been able to find any historical proof to the contrary. Despite this embellishment, Dona Gracia remains a distant character, she carries an aura of mystery which contributes to her "divinity." Had the Jewish faith room for "canonization" Dona Gracia would certainly be a downright candidate. Her name stands amongst famous Jewish women, and as her contemporary the author Samuel Usque says, "she is much a heroine as Miriam, Deborah, and Judith."

Esther Nebenzahl

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