Galilee to Galle: The ancient Jewish connection | Sunday Observer

Galilee to Galle: The ancient Jewish connection

Ancient ship with oars and sails
Ancient ship with oars and sails

Many Sri Lankans are not aware of the close trading ties the people of Israel had with ancient Ceylon. It is believed that by the 12th century there were around 3,000 Jews living in the island. Our nation has been a strategic port along the trading routes of commerce for centuries, and we still exert this dominance in terms of shipping. This geographical position together with our natural resources drew the attention of traders from all over the world. It was this trading desire which brought the astute Jewish to our shores. They have lived among us in peace. I spoke to some old folk in their late eighties, who remembered seeing Jewish people when they were children, in Colombo, Kandy and Galle: the Jews at times wore a white cloth with a blue border to cover their heads. It is said, a Synagogue existed along Steuart Place, Colombo 3.

King Solomon’s quest for exotic trade

Ruling Israel for 40 years King Solomon was the nation’s wealthiest and most farsighted king. He was the son of King David. The holy scriptures narrate how Solomon (Hebrew name Yedidyah, in Islam, Suleiman) asked God (Hebrew YHWH) for wisdom, and in turn he was blessed with all things. Though his father David desired to build the temple to keep the Ark of the Covenant, the actual implementation was by King Solomon. He was able to wield his influence across Israel, and is said to have collected 18,125 Kg of gold (666 talents) in a single year. He made an alliance with King Hiram, and further consolidated his reign over Israel. He enjoyed the pleasure of 300 concubines. It was in this background of abundance that he was ordered by the High Priests to procure cinnamon oil to be used at religious rites. This custom is found in the Book of Exodus 30 where Moses is asked by God to use cinnamon oil.

The island of Tarshish

King Solomon is said to have sent out his experienced fleet to an island in the ‘east’. It is from this port that he obtained not only his cinnamon oil, but also took peacocks, apes, sandalwood, pepper, gold, ivory, pearls and gems. The long return journey took three years, a most daunting voyage (Book of Kings Chapter 1 verse 23). Solomon had a well established naval fleet, which empowered Israel to excel. Sea trade was the key to trading among the Mediterranean nations. Chapter 9 of 2nd Chronicles talks of Solomon’s alliance for trade.

For decades, theologians and historians have debated about the location of the Island of Tarshish, on the ancient mariners map. Many opine, it is either the port of Ophir- in India or Galle in Serendib (Ceylon). Galle is a port with great trading history. Some facts to support the inclination that Ceylon was probably the exotic trading island of Tarshish are augmented by scripture (although getting geographical bearings is not accurate) - Psalm 72 says, Tarshish was an island far away, it had rivers and forests. The Old Testament book of Ezekiel 27 mentions trade ties with Tarshish, and ships of commerce.

Here, one must remember that the trading ships of that era relied on the wind (for their sails) and had crews of oarsmen. This is why in the Book of Jonah, when Jonah wanted to escape from God’s presence he chose Tarshish, which was miles away from the Levant. Along the perilous voyage he was subject to punishment and during the storm the oarsmen threw him into the sea. His rescue by a whale or dolphin is another day’s deliberation!

The skill of trading in peacocks is attributed to the Dravidian people. Ancient Tamils used this skill, and to date the peacock is a revered bird in the Hindu kovils of Jaffna. In his book of 1,863 Sir William Smith attests that the classical Tamil name for peacock Thogkai was assimilated into Hebrew lingo for peacock, as Thukkiyyim. This supports the argument that Solomon’s fleet sailed to our island. Even today we remain the world’s leader in gem stones and no wonder Solomon sought our island for trade. In 1845, James Emerson Tennant, the presiding Colonial Secretary also supported the fact that Solomon’s fleet traded in Galle. Samuel Bochart (French Bible scholar) tries to convince us that the Kudiramalai area of old Ceylon was the port of Tarshish. The old Phoenicians also recorded their trade in Tarshish where they got ivory and gems, from an island ruled by a king. Phoenicians also lived in Galilee, Israel, in lands gifted to Hiram by King Solomon. Solomon acquired sapphires and rubies from ancient Ceylon, which directs us to another fact. After building the Temple of Jerusalem, he was instructed on sewing the attire for the High Priests (of the Levite clan). Their breastplate had to be adorned with 12 gems, one for each tribe of Israel. These gems could only have been taken from Tarshish. Islamic writer Abdullah Edris records that there were four Jews in the council of King Kasyapa IV, along with 12 other councilors. The Queen of Sheba may also have traded with the island of Tarshish as she too gifted Solomon with spices. She is said to be of Ethiopian descent and her domain included Yemen.

Jews: from India to Ceylon

Certain parts of India still have an active Jewish population. The original Jews had come to Cochin and settled down in Kerala. They were dark skinned Malabar Jews. Their colony was called Anjuvannam, and their leader was Rabban. They lived here for 1,000 years. Later, in the 16th century Jews from Spanish and British origin came to Madras and engaged in diamond business. These migrants learnt to speak Malayalam and Tamil. The third wave of Syrian Jews came to the Kanyakumari region of India. Another segment of visiting Jews settled down in Karachi, Lahore and Peshawar until the Partition of India in 1947. There is a small community of Telugu speaking Jews claiming lineage from Ephraim.

The Jews of Cochin claim their forefathers supplied King Solomon’s Temple with teak trees. The teak was shipped to Judea. With time the Jews inter married and it’s believed some came to live in Ceylon. Interestingly, the first Miss India beauty queen in 1947 was a Jew named Pramila Victoria Abraham.

The Jewish communities in 16th century Ceylon were subject to persecution by the Portuguese. In fear they abandoned their faith and surnames. Among them was a sub clan of Vishvakarma people. They were skilled blacksmiths, metal workers, goldsmiths and stonemasons. The goldsmiths assimilated into the Tamil community and identified as Thattar.

Even today, the Tamil speaking Thattar caste exists and they are veteran goldsmiths. They were once money lenders who made good profit. In addition, there were Burghers in Ceylon who came from Jewish lineage. J.B. Muller identifies some of these surnames as Altendorff, Felsinger, Joseph, Koch, Schneider, Martensteyn, Werkmeister and Oppenheimer. Ceylon had two Jewish Chief Justices, Sir Alan Rose and Sir Sidney Abrahams.

The vanished tribe

In recent decades, a few Jews were identified in Sri Lanka. Perhaps, the most prominent being the poet, Anne Ranasinghe. She was a Jew born in Germany in 1925 as Anneliese Katz. When she was a nurse in London she married her Sri Lankan husband who was a famous gynaecologist.

Some seniors believe, the late Member of Parliament Pieter Keuneman was of Jewish descent although he was attributed to be a Dutch Burgher. He had worked as a Features Editor at Lake House. The Commonwealth War graveyard in Kandy has a monument for a member of the Royal Air Force named Rosenfield who was a Jew. He died aged 26, in February 1946 and his memorial stone is marked with the Star of David.

I was able to locate two other gravestones in the Borella cemetery. They had Hebrew inscriptions. One is of Joseph Bin Boim who died in 1888, and the other of an eight year old girl named Lizzie Feinoten from 1908. The grave diggers said, there should be a few more graves but we could not find them, as it started raining.

Sustaining a solitary flame of Jewish culture in Colombo is the Chabad House. This former colonial bungalow is located opposite Cinnamon Red hotel. Chabad House caters to a few folk from Israel and visiting Jewish businessmen. The resident rabbi is Shneor Maidanchik, who said he is happy to be here and represent the goodwill of Israel.

The mission serves home cooked kosher food in keeping with Jewish culture. Could the once busy port of Tarshish reveal any more secrets of her vibrant trading with Solomon’s fleet? The Jews of Ceylon have become a forgotten chapter in our diverse history. Their ancient generations did enrich our island in many ways.