Turkish-Jewish history spans two-and-a-half millennia
Members of Turkey’s Jewish community in front of the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Galata, İstanbul
Still, according to a report on religious minorities in Turkey prepared by the Foreign Ministry in December 2008, there are only around 25,000 Jews living in Turkey today, the vast majority of whom reside in İstanbul, with a community of about 2,500 in İzmir and other smaller groups located in Adana, Ankara, Bursa, Çanakkale and İskenderun.
Thus, it is high time to take a deeper look at the Jewish community in Turkey today. Let's discover what its roots and beliefs are and explore some stories that may reveal essential aspects of Jewish history on what is now Turkish soil.
Indeed, Jewish communities have inhabited Asia Minor since the fourth century B.C.; remnants of Jewish settlements have been discovered along the Turkish Mediterranean and Aegean coasts as well as near Bursa, in the Southeast and in the Black Sea region. The ancient ruins in Sardis, east of İzmir, are surely worth a trip in this regard. Its synagogue, impressive especially because of its well-preserved floor mosaics and its colored stone walls, was established during the Roman era.
Jewish life in modern-day Turkey began flourishing under Ottoman rule. Recognized as a separate "millet," a kind of legally protected religious minority group in the empire's governmental system, Jews were free to run their own religious, cultural and educational institutions. The Etz ha-Hayyim synagogue in Bursa -- the empire's capital for many years -- was the first Jewish house of worship established under Ottoman rule and was in use for more than 600 years.
İstanbul in particular experienced a wave of Jewish immigration in the mid-15th century. After the Ottoman conquest of the city from the Byzantines, their diverse skills were needed to transform the city into a flourishing capital. Hence, Jews from all over the empire -- mainly from the Balkans and from Anatolia -- were resettled in the city.
According to the Jewish Virtual Library Web site, Jewish households in İstanbul numbered 1,647 in the year 1477, making up an estimated 11 percent of the total population of İstanbul. Half a century later 8,070 Jewish houses were listed in the city, and during the 16th and 17th century, it is even estimated that İstanbul had a Jewish community of 30,000 individuals. Communities also developed in western and northern Anatolia, notably in Bursa, İzmir, Aydın, Tokat and Amasya.
The rapid increase can be explained by a great influx of Sephardic Jews (Jews from Spain) into the empire. Sultan Bayezid II, in 1492, issued a decree to invite the community, therewith saving them from strong pressures in Spain, where King Ferdinand wanted them to convert to Christianity or to leave. In a short time, the Sephardic Jews became the predominant power of the empire's foreign communities in commerce and trade as well as in diplomacy.
Jewish museum celebrates 500 years of friendship
In this context, it is worth having a look at the Jewish Museum of Turkey located in the Zulfaris Synagogue in the Karaköy district of İstanbul. The museum contains loads of material relating to the Jewish members of the Ottoman Parliament, physicians at the Imperial Court, diplomats, academicians, police officers and civil servants. Moreover, the museum's Web site (www.muze500.com) is a real treasure chest for anyone interested in Jewish religion, culture and history in Turkey.
The museum was founded in 2001 by the Quincentennial Foundation (500. Yıl Vakfı), an organization established in 1982 and made up of 113 Turkish citizens, both Jews and Muslims, to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Sephardic Jews to the Ottoman Empire. Its general aim is “to bring the diverse and rich legacy of Turkish Jewry to a greater audience,” as written on the museum's Web site.
The Jewish population, however, decreased noticeably by the end of the 20th century. While at the start of the 20th century the Jewish population had reached nearly 500,000, the following decades were marked by some very sad chapters of Turkish history: Increasing ethnic tensions and dire economic conditions prompted a heavy decrease in minority populations, including Jews.
Nonetheless, Turkey continues to have a small Jewish population today. It is legally represented -- as it has been now for many centuries -- by the hahambaşı, the chief rabbi, whose headquarters is in the Beyoğlu district in İstanbul. He is assisted by a religious council and dozens of lay counselors, who defend the community's affairs against the Turkish state and run daily matters. The rabbinate Web site, which contains useful information, can be reached at www.musevicemaati.com.
Officially recognized as a minority, today the community runs some 36 synagogues, two hospitals, a kindergarten, an elementary school and a high school. Moreover, Turkish Jews currently operate 18 foundations, called “vakfı,” a designation for properties of religious or charitable purpose. Representatives of Jewish foundations and institutions meet four times a year as a so-called “think tank” to exchange opinions on different subjects concerning the community.
And still there are many footprints of Jewish people to discover in Turkey. If you wish, for example, to go on a walking tour of Jewish heritage sites in Turkey, you can find more information at the Web site www.turkeytravelplanner.com. Its author, Tom Brosnahan, has listed some of the most interesting and accessible Jewish sites of interest. Especially fruitful to explore in İstanbul are the banks of the Golden Horn, where many Jews settled in Ottoman times. Some synagogues there are very old, like the Ahrida Synagogue in the Balat district, which dates from the mid-15th century. The Kuzguncuk and Haskoy cemeteries constructed in the 15th and 16th centuries in İstanbul are still in use today, with the latter containing a small museum, too.
INFO BOX: JUDAISM
Judaism has a history spanning close to four millennia. The religion traces its origin back to the first “patriarch,” Abraham, who around 1800 B.C. established the belief that there is only one God, the creator of the universe. As the oldest surviving monotheistic religion in the world, many of its texts and respective beliefs -- as collected foremost in the Hebrew Bible and other related texts such as the Talmud -- are also central to the other two Abrahamic religions, Christianity and Islam. Moreover, Abraham, together with his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob are not only referred to as the founding fathers of Judaism but are seen as the common ancestors of all Jewish people. Living in the ancient Near East, their descendants, then under the leadership of Moses, crystallized into the Jewish nation some centuries later (around 1300 B.C.) and lived in what later came to be known as the land of Israel.