ON 16 SEPTEMBER 1666, a Jew from the Turkish city of Izmir was brought into the presence of Mehmed IV, sultan of the Ottoman empire. The sultan was perhaps the most powerful man on earth, although Louis XIV of France would have run him a close second. Certainly he was ruler of an empire which, although beginning its long decline, was still the greatest of the seventeenth-century world.
The sultan's captive was ruler of a realm of hope and dream. His name was Sabbatai Zevi. His Jewish followers, who were many—the majority of the Jews of the time—often preferred to call him Amirah, the Hebrew acronym for ‘our Lord, our King, may his majesty be exalted’. ‘Messiah of the God of Jacob’ was one of his less extravagant titles. For more than eighteen years, since the summer of 1648, he had been declaring himself messiah. Only in the past year and a half, however, had anyone listened.
Now Sabbatai Zevi was an international celebrity, the most notorious messianic claimant since Jesus of Nazareth. Jews everywhere were breathless for the expected news of how he would graciously, bloodlessly, receive the empire from the sultan and go on to establish his dominion over the earth. All over the Jewish diaspora redemption was the daily expectation, prayer and penitence and Torah study—to prepare the world for its imminent salvation—the daily routine. Those Jews who doubted Sabbatai's messiahship might, in places like Venice or Amsterdam, be lucky to escape with their lives.
The sultan, looking down from his latticed alcove, would have seen a fleshy, bearded man of 40, perceived, at least by his followers, as radiantly handsome. Sabbatai Zevi would have looked up and seen or imagined— what? Certainly a man who held his life in his hands, who could destroy it at any moment and had every reason to do so. What the sultan, or the Turkish grandees who spoke in his name, threatened or promised to do to the helpless messiah, we cannot be sure. The sources on the encounter are many, their reliability doubtful.