"The Lost Messiah" is the astonishing story of Sabbatai Sevi, a 17th-century rabbi who through the mysticism of the kabbalah convinced vast numbers of Jews throughout Europe, the Middle East and North Africa that he was the long-awaited Messiah. Many of his followers were disappointed when he embraced Islam on threat of execution from the Turkish sultan, but many others continued to believe in him. Some of them even converted to Islam, creating the sect known as the Donme - outwardly Muslim, yet clinging secretly to Judaism. Today, a few Sabbatians still secretly hold true to their beliefs, patiently waiting for their Messiah to return and lead them to redemption; they believe that Sabbatai is not dead but merely hidden from human view, despite more than three centuries having passed since he left them. When John Freely came across the name of Sabbatai Sevi in an old Jewish bookshop in Istanbul, he was instantly fascinated by the story and journeyed to Ismir, the Aegean port of Turkey and Sabbatai's first home. Brilliantly evoking the vanished world of the 17th-century Jewish diaspora in the Ottoman Empire, his journey moves to the ghettoes of Venic and Rome, the bazaars of Cairo and the rabbinical schools of Jerusalem and Safed. Ranging from the Sultan's palaces in Istanbul to the synagogues of North Africa and out to the isolated Jewish communities of the Yemen and the remote reaches of Albania, Freely's remarkable quest takes us deep into the esoteric world of Jewish mysticism and the messianic cult which still inspires belief today.
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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)From Publishers Weekly:
Historian and travel writer Freely retraces the 17th-century rabbi Sabbatai Sevi's steps from his birth in Izmir (in Turkey) to his exile and death in Dulcigno (in northern Albania) in this plodding and workmanlike account-part travelogue, part detective story and part religious history.. Sevi traveled through the Ottoman Empire declaring himself to be the Messiah; he claimed to be born on the Ninth of Ab, the traditional birthdate of the Messiah, and fervently studied the mystical texts of the Kabbalah. Although he gathered some followers, most thought he was a madman and a fool. When he began to declare that fast days should become feast days, that women could read from the Torah and that Jews could pronounce the sacred name of God (YHWH), the rabbis in Istanbul drove him out of the country. Sevi became the target of even greater animosity when he converted to Islam. After his conversion he maintained a syncretistic religious lifestyle, trying to convert his followers to Islam, yet still proclaiming himself the Jewish Messiah. After his death, many of his followers declared that he had not died but that his presence was hidden, and that he would appear again at the end of time. Drawing upon the writings of Gershom Scholem and others, Freely offers a fascinating glimpse into a little-known chapter of Jewish religious history. However, he depends too heavily on secondary source material, encumbering his own writing with lengthy quotations that fail to illuminate Sevi's exciting story.
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