The Lost Messiah

The Lost Messiah : The Astonishing Story of Sabbatai Sevi

3.61 (44 ratings by Goodreads)
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This is the astonishing story of Sabbatai Sevi, 17th-century rabbi, Kabbalist and probable manic depressive, who convinced large numbers of Jews throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa that he was their long-awaited Messiah. And then, on threat of painful death from the Turkish Sultan, apparently converted to Islam and in so doing created the strange Donme sect - outwardly Muslim, yet clinging secretly to Sabbatai's strange form of mystical Judaism - a sect that may survive to this day. When John Freely came across this remarkable story in an old Jewish bookshop in Istanbul, he was instantly fascinated. Brilliantly evoking the world of 17th-century Jewish diaspora in the Ottoman empire, the ghettoes of Venice and Rome, the bazaars of Cairo, the Sultan's palaces in Istanbul and the synagogues of North Africa, Freely takes us deep into the esoteric world of Jewish mysticism and a messianic cult which still inspires belief in the more

Product details

  • Paperback | 288 pages
  • 128 x 194 x 20mm | 240g
  • Penguin Books Ltd
  • London, United Kingdom
  • New edition
  • 16pp b&w illustrations, bibliography, index
  • 0140284915
  • 9780140284911

Review quote

"This is a tantalising account of a true enigma." Glasgow Heraldshow more

Review Text

Physicist turned travel writer Freely (Inside the Seraglio, not reviewed) counts three decades spent tracking down a 17th-century rabbi who became one of the most curious figures in the history of Judaism. Figuratively walking the length and breadth of the Levant, the author initially neglects to ground his readers, preferring to mete out history piecemeal as he unfolds the story. But the essential facts congeal: hounded from Catholic Spain for a century, murdered in Catholic Poland, Jews from all over Europe found tolerance, security, and even comfort in the seats of power of the Turks' Ottoman Empire, the mightiest Islamic kingdom ever known. Thus, in Izmir (Smyrna), a charismatic rabbinical student named Sabbatai Sevi proclaimed in 1648 that he had been anointed as Messiah, Redeemer, King of the Jews who would lead them back to the Holy Land. Given to both spiritual visions and unholy depressions, Sevi apparently had a riveting gaze and a melodious singing voice, and seems to have been regarded as something between a rock star and Bonnie Prince Charlie by Jews, Muslims, and gentiles alike. He rapidly gained both fanatic followers and powerful enemies, the latter primarily in the conservative orthodoxy, and no wonder: He constantly tinkered with the liturgy, flip-flopped feast days and fast days, blew away the Torah's sexual prohibitions, and even encouraged women to peruse the holy writ, forbidden to them by tradition. As an ultimate outrage, Sevi readily embraced the Islamic faith under a sultan's death threat, then blithely convinced members of his cult, known thereafter by the Turkish word for "turncoats," that it was all part of God's great plan for him. Remarkably, direct descendants of those Islamic, crypto-Jewish believers, ostracized and persecuted over three centuries, remain in a few distinct Levantine communities to the present day, and the author has visited several. Lacks critical perspective, but patient readers will be fascinated. (Kirkus Reviews)show more

Author information

John Freely was born in New York in 1926, joined the US Navy at the age of seventeen and served in the Second World War. He received a Ph.D. in physics from New York University in 1960, and since then he has lived in New York, Boston, London, Athens, Istanbul and Venice. Freely's first book was STROLLING THROUGH ISTANBUL. Since then he has written over twenty books, including ISTANBUL and INSIDE THE SERAGLIO (1999).show more

Rating details

44 ratings
3.61 out of 5 stars
5 18% (8)
4 41% (18)
3 30% (13)
2 7% (3)
1 5% (2)
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