History of Jews in Istanbul
Jewish History And Heritage Tours in Istanbul
The vast majority of the Jewish community in Turkey (around 26.000 people) lives in Istanbul. This is only a fraction of the 500.000 Jews that once lived in Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire — a time when Jews and Christians made up 40% of Istanbul’s population.
Origins Of Jewish People in Istanbul
The predominant rabbinate caregory was further subdivided into four groups: Romaiots, Ashkenazi, Italian and Sephardim Jews.
The Romaniots were the Jewish inhabitants of Greece and Byzantium. The Romaniots played an important role in the life of the city’s Jewish community during the formative years of the Ottoman Empire. But with the passing of time, Romaniots ceased to exist as a separate congregation.
Ashkenazim & Ashkenazi Jews
Ashkenazi Jews of European origin had settled in Istanbul prior to Ottoman conquest. The Ottoman victory ushered in a new era as Ashkenazi Jews swept in from the German lands, Austria, Poland and Russia. Fleeing porgroms and antisemitism, these Jews found a welcoming haven, assisted and encouraged by the Ottoman government.
Italian (Latin) Jews
Byzantine Empire‘s Constantinople had already contained a fair number of Jews hailing from Genoa, Venice and other cities of Italian Peninsula. Another influx of Italian Jews, many of whom had taken refuge in Italy after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition, flocked to Istanbul following the Ottoman conquest.
Sephardim – Spanish Jews
The current Turkish community is a remnant of the great influx that took place during the Spanish inquisition in 1492. Sephardic Jews (or Spanish Jews) were forced to convert to Christianity or flee their homes. Ottoman Sultan Beyazid II granted these Jews (with their European scientific and economic knowledge) to take refuge in the Ottoman Empire and allowed them to live on the banks of the Golden Horn. Especially Balat district.
Brief History Of Jews in Turkish Republic
Firstly Russian Jews who are fleeing the pogroms in the 19th century and the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 found safe shelter in Turkey.
In 1933 Atatürk invited some scientists under threat in Nazi Germany to find shelter and gave them prestigious educational jobs. Turkey also served as a safe passage for many Jews who are fleeing the horrors of Nazism during World War II.
The remains of those periods can still be observed in the Balat area along the Golden Horn and the Galata neighborhood in Beyoğlu — the main centers of the Jewish community of Istanbul.
Decrease of Istanbul’s Jewish Population (20th Century)
Unfortunately, a some unexpected events triggered a massive emigration of Jews from Istanbul.
First of these reasons was the “wealth tax” of 1942. Although aimed at wealthy Turks as well, its effect on the Jewish people was catastrophic. Roughly estimated 30.000 Jews, unable to pay their debts, left the country.
Second of these events: Unfortunately violent protests took place in Istanbul in 6/7 September 1955 against the Greek, Jewish, and Armenian people of Istanbul. Although majorly material damage was done, this caused another huge emigration of these minorities, with nearly 10.000 more Jews left Turkey.
What To Do For Visting A Synagogue in Istanbul?
You can visit some of the synagogues only by prior reservation via the website of the Turkish Jewish community.
For every single visitor, you have to fill in a Visitor’s Info sheet and provide copies of the visitors’ passports. You have to send the passport copies as well as the filled in papers at least four work days prior to the planned visit. You may find the contact information through the official website of the rabbinate: Turkish Jews Website
Notable Synagogues Of Istanbul
There are currently 26 active synagogues in Istanbul. Instead of listing them all, Its best to give an overview of the most significant ones from a tourist point of view.
Neve Shalom Synagogue
Located in Galata, this is the centrally located and biggest Sephardic synagogue in Istanbul. It was inaugurated on Sunday March 25, 1951 and is open to service. Unfortunately, Neve Shalom has been the target of series of terrorist attacks in the past.
Ahrida (Ohrid) Synagogue
One of the two synagogues in Balat former Jewish neighborhood. It’s the oldest and probably most attractive synagogue in Istanbul. It was founded before the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul in 1453 and has been in constant use ever since.
Located right next to the famous Galata Tower, it is the only currently active Ashkenazi synagogue in Istanbul open to prayers and touristic visits.
Jewish Museum Of Istanbul, Turkey
Jewish Museum of Turkey is located very near to Neve Shalom Synagogue, meaning you can cover these two significant sites in two hours. The Museum collects, preserves, and displays knowledge about the cultural heritage of the Turkish Jews from the Ottoman Empire period to the Turkey of today.
Private Jewish History & Heritage Tour in Istanbul
You may consider attending one of the Jewish history and heritage tours of Istanbul to see all notable Synagogues and Jewish Museum. You would be accompanied by an official tour guide, during your private Istanbul Jewish Sites tour.
Istanbul Jewish Sites Private Tours
Hiring a private guide helps you two ways: First: you need to make some necessary arrangements before visiting a Synagogue in Istanbul. Second: These places have a significant history, therefore a knowledgeable tour guide can assist you learn about the Istanbul’s Jewish history accurately.
Sources For The Article:
Jewish Sites Of Istanbul – A Guide Book By Ilan Karmi
theistanbulinsider.com Informative Website By Erlend Geerts
Jewish History and Heritage Tours in Istanbul By Serhat Engül