David Sas­soon and Sons, edit­ed, cour­tesy of the publisher

Through the dark­ened streets, the rich­est man in Bagh­dad fled for his life.

Just hours ear­li­er, David Sas­soon’s father had ran­somed him from the jail where Bagh­dad’s Turk­ish rulers had impris­oned him, threat­en­ing to hang him if the fam­i­ly did not pay an exor­bi­tant tax bill. Now a boat lay wait­ing to take thir­ty-sev­en-year-old David to safe­ty. He tied a mon­ey belt around his waist and donned a cloak. Ser­vants had sewn pearls inside the lin­ing. Only his eyes showed between the tur­ban and a high-muf­fled cloak as he slipped through the gates of the city where gen­er­a­tions of his kin had once been hon­ored,” a fam­i­ly his­to­ri­an wrote. It was 1829. His fam­i­ly had lived in Bagh­dad as vir­tu­al roy­al­ty for more than eight hun­dred years.

For more than a thou­sand years, Jews had flour­ished in Bagh­dad, known in the Bible as Baby­lon. When Europe was mired in the dark­ness of the Mid­dle Ages, Bagh­dad was one of the most cos­mopoli­tan cities in the world. It was home to some of the world’s lead­ing math­e­mati­cians, the­olo­gians, poets, and doc­tors. With­in this world, Jews flour­ished. They first arrived in 587 b.c., when Baby­lon’s King Neb­uchad­nez­zar laid siege to Jerusalem, and upon vic­to­ry car­ried 10,000 Jew­ish arti­sans, schol­ars, and lead­ers-Judais­m’s best and bright­est-to Bagh­dad into what the Bible dubbed the Baby­lon­ian Cap­tiv­i­ty.” The book of Psalms famous­ly doc­u­ment­ed the despair of these dis­placed Jews:

By the rivers of Baby­lon, there we sat down

Yea, we wept, when we remem­bered Zion.

In fact, the Baby­lon­ian Cap­tiv­i­ty” changed the course of Jew­ish his­to­ry. Jew­ish learn­ing and reli­gious inno­va­tion blos­somed, giv­ing Jews the reli­gious, polit­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic tools-and a way of think­ing-they would use to sur­vive and thrive around the world over the next mil­len­nia and through to today. It marked the start of the Jew­ish dias­po­ra: the dis­per­sal-and sur­vival-of Jews around the world, even when they made up just a small sliv­er of the pop­u­la­tion. When the Per­sians con­quered Bagh­dad and offered the Jews the chance to return to Jerusalem, only a few accept­ed. Most decid­ed to stay. Bagh­dad’s Jews con­sid­ered them­selves the Jew­ish aristocracy.

David Sas­soon, cour­tesy of the publisher

Pre­sid­ing over this dynam­ic, self-con­fi­dent com­mu­ni­ty-lead­ing it and nur­tur­ing it-loomed the Sas­soons. Trad­ing gold and silk, spices and wool across the Mid­dle East, the Sas­soons became Bagh­dad’s rich­est mer­chants. Start­ing in the late 1700s, the Ottoman Turks appoint­ed the leader of the Sas­soon fam­i­ly as Nasi,” or Prince of the Jews”-their inter­me­di­ary in deal­ing with Bagh­dad’s influ­en­tial Jew­ish population.

Pre­served among the Sas­soon fam­i­ly papers are mem­o­ran­da in Turk­ish and Ara­bic that tes­ti­fy to the sweep of the Nasi’s pow­er. The Nasi Sas­soon nego­ti­at­ed loans, planned bud­gets, devised and col­lect­ed new tax­es. He was the de fac­to sec­re­tary of the trea­sury, charged with build­ing a mod­ern finan­cial sys­tem. When the Nasi trav­eled to meet Bagh­dad’s Turk­ish ruler at the roy­al palace, he was car­ried on a throne through the streets; Jews and non-Jews alike respect­ful­ly bowed their heads.

Start­ing in the late 1700s, the Ottoman Turks appoint­ed the leader of the Sas­soon fam­i­ly as Nasi,” or Prince of the Jews”-their inter­me­di­ary in deal­ing with Bagh­dad’s influ­en­tial Jew­ish population.

Buoyed by these con­nec­tions, the Sas­soons built a multi­na­tion­al eco­nom­ic empire that extend­ed from Bagh­dad across the Per­sian Gulf and Asia. Mer­chants from across the Mid­dle East and from India and Chi­na passed through the Nasi’s lux­u­ri­ous home and com­pound. They lounged in his walled court­yard, shad­ed by orange trees, to escape the 120-degree heat. Under­ground store­rooms held the fam­i­ly’s gold.

In the nine­teenth and twen­ti­eth cen­turies, as their wealth and for­tune expand­ed, the Sas­soons became accus­tomed to busi­ness allies and rivals call­ing them the Roth­schilds of Asia” for the rapid way their wealth and influ­ence spread across Chi­na, India, and Europe. But pri­vate­ly they con­sid­ered the com­par­i­son mis­lead­ing-and a lit­tle demean­ing. In the Sas­soons’ minds, the Roth­schilds were arrivistes‑a poor fam­i­ly that in one gen­er­a­tion had leapt from the ghet­tos of Europe to busi­ness promi­nence and polit­i­cal influ­ence. The Sas­soons may have been unknown to the Chi­nese emper­or, the Indi­an raj, or the British roy­al fam­i­ly, but they had been rich, promi­nent, and pow­er­ful for centuries.

David Sas­soon was born in 1792 and trained from child­hood to become the future Nasi. He was a busi­ness prodi­gy with an extra­or­di­nary gift for lan­guages. At thir­teen, he start­ed accom­pa­ny­ing his father to the count­ing houses”-the fore­run­ners of banks and account­ing firms-where the Sas­soon rev­enues were cal­cu­lat­ed. He was tutored at home in Hebrew (the lan­guage of reli­gion), Turk­ish (the lan­guage of gov­ern­ment), Ara­bic (the lan­guage of Bagh­dad), and Per­sian (the lan­guage of Mid­dle East­ern trade). Six feet tall, David stood head and shoul­ders over his fam­i­ly and the peo­ple he would one day lead.

As David was prepar­ing to assume his vaunt­ed role as Nasi, the com­fort­able posi­tion the Sas­soons and the Jews of Bagh­dad had enjoyed for cen­turies col­lapsed. A pow­er strug­gle among the Ottoman rulers of Bagh­dad put a fac­tion hos­tile to the Jews in pow­er. Des­per­ate for mon­ey to boost a col­laps­ing econ­o­my, the Turks began harass­ing and impris­on­ing the Sas­soons and oth­er wealthy Jews, demand­ing ran­som. David sought the help of the Turk­ish sul­tan in Con­stan­tino­ple on behalf of the Jews and Sas­soons of Bagh­dad, accus­ing the city’s rulers of cor­rup­tion. But he was wrong to put his trust in the impe­r­i­al gov­ern­ment, and word quick­ly reached Bagh­dad of his betray­al. He was arrest­ed; the Turk­ish pasha ordered him hanged unless the fam­i­ly paid for his release. Tak­ing mat­ters into his own hands, his elder­ly father bribed his son out of prison, hus­tled him through the city in dis­guise, and char­tered a boat to get him to safety.

David left Bagh­dad in a state of rage and help­less­ness. He had just remar­ried fol­low­ing the death of his first wife of twen­ty-five years. He was aban­don­ing his new bride and his chil­dren. All the glo­ry of the Sas­soons, their wealth and posi­tion, had been promised to him and was now snatched away. As the ship sailed away, he turned toward the dis­ap­pear­ing shore and wept.

It was an exo­dus that would even­tu­al­ly lead the fam­i­ly to Shang­hai, and to unri­valled wealth and influence

From The Last Kings of Shang­hai: The Rival Jew­ish Dynas­ties That Helped Cre­ate Mod­ern Chi­na by Jonathan Kauf­man, pub­lished by Viking Books, an imprint of Pen­guin Pub­lish­ing Group, a divi­sion of Pen­guin Ran­dom House, LLC. Copy­right © 2020 by Claimant.

Jonathan Kauf­man is a Pulitzer Prize-win­ning reporter who has writ­ten and report­ed on Chi­na for thir­ty years for The Boston Globe, where he cov­ered the 1989 mas­sacre in Tianan­men Square; The Wall Street Jour­nal, where he served as Chi­na bureau chief from 2002 to 2005; and Bloomberg News. He is the author of A Hole in the Heart of the World: Being Jew­ish in East­ern Europe and Bro­ken Alliance: The Tur­bu­lent Times Between Blacks and Jews in Amer­i­ca, win­ner of a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award. He is the direc­tor of the School of Jour­nal­ism at North­east­ern Uni­ver­si­ty in Boston.