Discover the Jewish Heritage, and The Historic Synagogues of Istanbul, Turkey
A Jewish community has existed in Turkey since the 4th century BCE, as archaeological findings have indicated Jewish settlement in the Aegean region such as in Sardis with ancient synagogue ruins, Miletus, Priene, and Bursa on the Mediterranean, Black Sea coasts. In 1492, Sultan Bayezid II offered refuge to the Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition; by 1535, approximately 56,000 Jews lived in Istanbul. The Jewish community in Turkey contributed to the economic, cultural, and political life during the times of the Ottoman Empire as well as the Turkish Republic after the War of Liberation, whose founding father was Kemal Ataturk.
Straddling both Europe and Asia, Istanbul has long been a destination for travelers. But beyond the cruise boats on the glistening channel, or the ancient markets further inland, lies a city famous for its rich heritage. Beautiful, magnificent, and immense, Istanbul is a city of splendor by its skyline marked by hundreds of minarets, impressive onion domes, and bell towers.
Istanbul is a popular destination for Jewish travelers, and its airport, one of the busiest in Europe, is often a transit point for other destinations. Istanbul Airport has a synagogue in its new international airport, with two small but cozy Jewish prayer rooms that were initiated by Turkish Airlines. These synagogues can be found in the regular and business class lounges. Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, the Chabad emissary and Ashkenazi rabbi of Turkey, told NYTJG, “Turkish Airlines provides between 600 to 5,000 kosher meals every day and we provide the synagogues with the prayer books in both Ashkenazi and Sephardic so everyone who passes through the airport can pray.” In addition, the airport has a kosher vending machine and even hot kosher meals are sold in some of the airport lounges. Turkish Airlines, the world’s largest carrier, has flights to 122 countries, including 10 daily flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul.
With 16 synagogues open for worship today, synagogues in Istanbul have rectangular or square shapes, and most of them are made of wood and stone masonry. Most are in a courtyard or garden surrounded by a high wall. The Star of David motif can be seen on the entrances of courtyards. For reasons of security, visitors seeking to gain access to the synagogue must apply in advance to the office of the Chief Rabbi in Istanbul. Synagogues are situated both on the European and Asiatic sides of the city.
The largest central Sephardic synagogue is Neve Shalom, meaning “Oasis of Peace,” which opened its doors on March 25, 1951. While it has witnessed many happy events and ceremonies for weddings and B’nai mitzvahs, unfortunately, it is also known for some brutal attacks that have occurred. A memorial plaque is displayed with the inscribed names of the Jewish and Muslim victims in the lobby of two terrorist attacks in which 22 Jews and five security guards were killed in 1986 and 2003 during Shabbat prayers. The synagogue has preserved the bullet holes and bomb blast at the base of the black, wrought-iron railing around the bimah, with a seared marble panel left in the wall near the ark. Neve Shalom is the only synagogue on the Golden Horn that has an intact Jewish ritual bath (Mikveh).
Silvyo Ovadya, President of the Quincentennial Foundation, told NYJTG, “This stunning eight-ton chandelier hanging from the dome was sent by the Israeli Foreign Ministry on loan from the Buenos Aires Jewish community to show solidarity since they have also sustained brutal attacks over the years.”
The Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews is a gem and is the only Jewish Museum in Turkey. It explains how the Turkish Jewish Community was established and its contribution to Turkish society over the centuries. It also shows how open and accommodating previous rulers and governments were in Turkey to the Jewish people.
Mr. Ovadya added that the Museum has about 15,000 visitors per year and over 2,000 visitors per day for the European Day of Jewish Culture, which is celebrated on September 4 at Neve Shalom, with the motto of “the first Jews of Anatolia.” The event, which has been organized since 2001, he said, “for a better understanding of Jewry’s culture and lifestyle,” is free and open to the public. It is aimed mainly at the local population and the participants have the chance to wander through the Turkish Jewish community’s culture and heritage, where they can experience concerts, documentaries, exhibitions, book presentations, and even delicacies from Turkish Jewish cuisine. One of the most popular events held is a Jewish wedding ceremony staged with all the traditions.
Nisya İşman Allovi, the director and curator of the Quincentennial Foundation Museum, told NYTJG, “Jews have been living in Turkey since the fourth century BC. Judaism is an ancient religion and culture, but it still has many unknown or misunderstood elements. With all these activities every year, we will overcome these prejudices, demystify the Jewish world, and promote understanding.”
In the same district, you will find the Galata Tower, one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks and tourist attractions, rising on the European side of the city. Jewish residents of the city have traditionally referred to the tower as La Kula, the Turkish word for tower adopted into the Judeo-Spanish or Ladino language spoken by older generations of Sephardic Jews. Today, the tower functions as a 360-degree viewing platform of Istanbul.
North of the Golden Horn is the historical Italian synagogue known as Kale de Los Frankos, which is only open for Shabbat services, although it can be visited on weekday mornings. It was established by the Italian-Jewish Community in the 19th century. The front entrance highlights the Gothic-like facade and marble staircase while the exterior appeal is well preserved, with double hanging arches in the balcony prayer hall painted completely white and surrounded by the women’s gallery on the second floor. Today, the Italian community, which numbers only a few hundred congregants, continues to host music recitals, in which recent visitors had an opportunity to listen to performers at their rehearsals.
In the Balat district, the Ahrida Synagogue is the most famous of Istanbul’s old synagogues; it was built in 1460 and named for its founders’ home village in Macedonia. One of the remarkable features of the Ahrida is its Teva (Bima), which is in the shape of the prow of a ship. Local tradition says that it symbolizes either Noah’s Ark or the Ottoman ships which transported the Sephardim from Spain to Turkey. Its design is impressive and memorable. Two other buildings are in the garden, the Midrash and a heavy stone and brick structure, the old Adjara, which is now a hospice. The Ahrida was also known for being the synagogue where Sabbatai Zevi, founder of the Jewish Sabbatian movement, prayed. The synagogue was renovated in 1992 by the Quincentennial Foundation for the celebration of the 500th anniversary of Sephardic Jews’ arrival to the Ottoman Empire
Several hundred feet from the Ahrida Synagogue stands the Yanbol Synagogue, which is one of the two remaining ancient synagogues preserved in Balat. Bearing the name of the small city in Bulgaria where the members of the founding community originated, the synagogue was rebuilt in the 18th century and restored several times subsequently. Illuminated by its numerous windows, the large hall is crowned by an elegant wooden ceiling decorated with oil paintings of landscapes and other floral motifs. The Tevah in the middle of the hall faces Aron. Today it is only open on major holidays and some Shabbat services due to the decline of the area’s Jewish population.
Just south of the Bosphorus Bridge is Kuzguncuk, an area more peaceful and quieter than other parts of the city and renowned for its colorful houses. Two synagogues here played an important part in the life of the Judeo-Spanish community in Istanbul: Bet Yaakov Synagogue, which was built in 1878 and is currently the only synagogue functioning, and Bet Nissim Synagogue, built in the 1840s.
Though the Kuzguncuk district is also known as Little Jerusalem, as it once had a large and active Jewish community, it now has few Jewish residents. The Bet Yaakov Synagogue is used only on holidays and special occasions and is open on Shabbat. . The earliest evidence of a Jewish presence in the neighborhood was a tombstone dated 1562.
Haskoy is one of the oldest residential districts in Istanbul where Jews used to live and has one of the older, still-used Jewish cemeteries, with tombstones dating from the 15th century. There are nearly 22,000 graves and one of the renowned kabbalists Rabbi Naftali Hacohen Katz is buried there. Rabbi Raphael Benchimol of the Manhattan Sephardic Congregation of Manhattan has written two volumes of biographies about this sage, with one volume highlighting many fascinating stories about his greatness and his ability to perform miracles. (The two-volume set is called Rabbi Naftali HaKohen Katz: His Life, Legacy, and Ethical Will and is available on Amazon.com).
There was an ongoing dispute between Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews (who make up five percent of Turkish Jews) concerning burial sites in cemeteries. An ad placed in the daily Shalom newspaper by the office of the Chief Rabbi stated that the Sephardic community was reserving burial places in Ashkenazi cemeteries and the Ashkenazim were doing the same in Sephardi cemeteries. This was creating a “big problem” for the community and The Chief Rabbi asked people reserving burial plots in the other’s cemeteries to consult him first. The Ashkenazi Foundation said that their “door is open to everyone. The Sephardi cemeteries were running out of room. Until now, intermarried Sephardic and Ashkenazi are buried side by side either in the six Sephardic cemeteries or the one for Ashkenazi Jews.” Another large and older Jewish cemetery is the 650-year-old Nakkaştepe. The Beit Yaakov Synagogue Foundation is responsible for maintenance and burials. The plaque denoting the names and the graves of revered tsadikim from the 14th and 15th centuries is displayed at the entrance.
For more information:
To plan a trip to Turkey, contact the Turkey Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA) or go to https://www.tga.gov.tr/about-us/
Fly Turkish Airlines – https://www.turkishairlines.com/
Ela Turizm – Historical religious tours. – https://www.elaturizm.com.tr/index.aspx
Story & photography by Meyer Harroch – New York Jewish Travel Guide & New York Jewish Guide.com
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Turkey Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA)