Sarah of Turnovo

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SARAH OF TURNOVO , also known as Queen Theodora of Bulgaria , was a 14th-century Jewish woman who lived in the city of Turnovo, then the capital of Bulgaria. Nothing is known about her life until 1346, when, according to a Greek document, Czar Ivan Alexander of Bulgaria "thrust out his former wife who was still living and substituted a Jewess …." The Jewess in question was Sarah, known for her beauty and intelligence. The Greek document makes it clear that the Czar "loved her for her beauty." He arranged for her baptism and she was renamed Theodora.

No document indicates whether Sarah objected to being converted, but there is some evidence that she did not turn her back on the Jewish people. While she was queen, she was believed to have influenced Ivan Alexander to exercise a more liberal policy toward the Jews of their land. As a result, the anti-Jewish legislation that was adopted by the Christian Church in 1352 was never fully implemented in Bulgaria. This fact has led a few historians to conclude that Queen Theodora may have had considerable impact on state affairs. Her influence, if indeed it existed, had no long-lasting effect, however, and ultimately caused a backlash. Several Jews were accused of fostering heresy, and when the czar repealed their death sentence, riots broke out and the accused were subsequently killed by a mob.

Sarah/Theodora and Ivan Alexander had a daughter named Tamar, who was married to Emperor Murad i (1360– 89), ruler of the Ottoman Empire. A few generations later, knowledge of Tamar's origins gave rise to rumors of a Jewish woman in the sultan's harem and it was suggested that Mehmed ii, son of Murad ii, was born of a Jewish mother.


S. Bowman, The Jews of Byzantium: 12041453 (1985), 277; S. Rosanes, Divrei Yemei Yisrael be-Togarmah (1907), 6; E. Taitz, S. Henry, and C.Tallan, The jps Guide to Jewish Women: 600b.c.e.–1900c.e. (2003), 86.

[Emily Taitz (2nd ed.)]