Istanbul's Jewish Face
Istanbul's Jewish Face
Exploring Jewish History in Istanbul...
Jews have had a presence in Istanbul's culture and what is now modern day Turkey for close to 2,400 years, and played an especially important role in the success of the Ottoman Empire. Following the conquering of Constantinople in the 15th century, the city was in ruins. As a way of gathering manpower and skill, Sultan Mehmet II ordered Christians, Jews and Muslims from across the Empire to be resettled in Istanbul. Many of the arriving Jews worked hard to establish lucrative commercial and business enterprises and they were later joined by a significant population of Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had been expelled from Spain or else fled during the Spanish Inquisition.
Although far from ideal, minority religions enjoyed a large degree of tolerance under the Ottoman Empire. The Millet System – which allowed for separate legal systems for different groups in the Empire - organised communities on the basis of religion, granting them considerable administrative autonomy. By the start of the 20th century, the Ottoman Jewish population was estimated to be around 200,000. This fell dramatically following a number of key events including the loss of Ottoman territory to Balkan states; the 1942 ‘Valik Vergisi’ (Wealth Tax’) which proved punishing to many of the most successful Jews; and the creation of the Israeli state. Today’s Turkish Jewish population is estimated at around 26,000, the majority of which is settled in Istanbul. Most are Sephardic, with a small number of Ashkenazi.
To get an idea of how Jews have lived in Istanbul over the centuries, it’s worth taking a wander along the Golden Horn around Haskoy and through the backstreets of Galata, where most of the city’s Jews lived during Ottoman times. These vibrant areas have a lot to offer, including the beautiful Ahrida Synagogue in Balat, which dates to the 15th century; Neve Shalom, the largest working Sephardic synagogue in Istanbul; and the Ashkenazi Synagogue in Galata.
The Bet Israel Synagogue in Sisli is also worth a visit and there are a few smaller synagogues along the Bosphorus in areas such as Kuzguncuk and on the Princes’ Islands. There are also several Jewish cemeteries of interest in Istanbul, including the Jewish Italian Cemetery in Sisli and Haskoy Cemetery, the oldest graveyard in the city. Keep in mind that all those wishing to enter a synagogue in Istanbul must make an appointment in advance and show identification on entry.
For a more in-depth look into the Jewish history of Istanbul and the rest of the country, the Jewish Museum of Turkey offers some fascinating insights. Housed inside the Zulfaris Synagogue, it details more than seven hundred years of relations between Jews and Turks with a large array of exhibits and a special ethnographic section. Among its highlights is a history of the Jewish press in Turkey; the Edirne Letter, which encouraged persecuted European Jews to emigrate to the Ottoman Empire; and a special warrant from Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent which grants the Jews of Buda exemption from paying tax.
Istanbul’s Jews have been an important part of the city’s history for centuries and remain a small, albeit active, part of the community. Whether you wish to take in the city’s Jewish sites alone or enlist the help of a reputable tour agency, getting to know Istanbul’s Jewish face will help you to better understand Istanbul itself.
Istanbul’s Jews have been an important part of the city’s history for centurie
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