Persian Jews converted Turks to Judaism to create the rump of what would become today’s Jewish population, DNA research has revealed.
The fascinating insight, which shows that most Ashkenazi Jews descend from Turkey, was made possible by state-of-the-art computer modelling and genetic techniques.
The project, led by Israeli-born Dr Eran Elhaik, even pinpointed Iskenaz, Eskenaz and Ashanaz – three Turkish villages an ancient Silk Road route which still exist today – as part of the original Ashkenazi homeland.
It is the largest genomic study ever carried out on Ashkenazi Jews, and shows that most of today’s population are the descendants of Greeks, Iranians and others who colonised what is now northern Turkey more than 2,000 years ago.
Elhaik shows that locals were converted to Judaism by Jews from Persia, whose empire then home to the world’s largest Jewish communities.
He said the word ‘Ashkenaz’ likely derives from Ashguza, the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian term for Iron Age Eurasian steppeland people known as Scythians.
Concurrent analysis of Yiddish suggests that it was originally a Slavic language which the researchers think was developed by Jewish tradesmen travelling along the Silk Roads linking China and Europe 1,200 years ago.
It was only when the Khazar Empire began to decline around 1,000 years ago that the Jewish converts headed west, into central Europe, coming into contact with German-speaking peoples.
Elhaik and his team from the University of Sheffield publish their findings in scientific journal Genome Biology and Evolution and say their work helps settle an age-old debate about the origins of the 1,000-year old Yiddish language.
“The prevalent view claims Yiddish has a German origin, whereas the opposing view suggests a Slavic origin with strong Iranian and weak Turkic substrata,” they say.
“One of the major difficulties in deciding was the unknown geographical origin of Yiddish speaking Ashkenazic Jews,” they say, but their analysis “demonstrates that Greeks, Romans, Iranians, and Turks exhibit the highest genetic similarity with Ashkenazic Jews”.