Situated along the Marmara Sea at the Bosporus Narrows – the 40-kilometer-long waterway that connects the Black Sea with the Mediterranean Sea – is the ancient city of Istanbul. The Bosporus does not separate Europe from Asia; Turks feel it actually joins them together, which perfectly sums up the mentality of positive affirmation for a people who are straddling two continents and many different cultural influences.
Istanbul is a city of contrasts, a mix of religions and cultures and the melting pot between two continents. So whether you call it Turkey or Türkiye, it is a country of historic significance and modern relevance, and Istanbul is the top jewel in its crown.
One cannot visit a country with a culture as rich as that of Turkey without paying homage to some of its outstanding sites. In Istanbul, there is the Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace, with its display of Ottoman royal splendor that includes the famous emerald dagger, as well as the Dolmabahçe Palace. But there are also humble and often chaotic places, such as the Misir (spice) Bazaar and the Grand Bazaar. One should also visit The Galata Tower and even climb to the top for a birds-eye view of the city.
On our most recent trip, we also visited the Sufie Museum, hoping to catch a dancing exhibition, but sadly, none was going on. I was so looking forward to tapping into the mystical experience Sufie dancing engenders in its disciples and its audience alike. And, of course, one must not miss the boat ride on the Bosporus or the traditional hammam (Turkish bath) treatment – an experience like no other.
During this trip, our small group of Jewish Heritage writers stayed at the Galata Istanbul Hotel MGallery, which is located in the old section of Istanbul. The street was once the financial district of the city, and locals referred to it as Bank Street due to the many banking institutions that were located there. The area is now being revitalized, and many of the old bank buildings are being turned into luxury hotels.
Galata neighborhood was predominantly Jewish
For 500 years, the Galata neighborhood was predominantly Jewish. One of our expert Jewish guides, Reyna Leon, grew up there and recounted her memories of a close-knit community where all the children in the neighborhood studied together at the local yeshiva, and when not speaking Hebrew, they spoke Ladino.
Initially, Ladino, sometimes referred to as Judeo-Spanish, was the language of Sephardi Jews – a language that is sadly dying out in favor of Turkish. Reyna still speaks Ladino and is teaching it to her children, but she admits it is no longer in fashion even in the Jewish community.
Driving along the road that fronts the Bosphorus are palaces, parks, mansions, mosques and museums – a hodgepodge of architectural styles covering centuries. We turn east toward the Ortaköy neighborhood to visit a Sephardi Jewish cemetery dating from the 1700s but still active today and serving the 20,000 Jews still living in or around Istanbul. The cemetery sits on a hill overlooking the Bosporus in the shadow of the First Bridge.
IN ISTANBUL, the locals refer to the bridges according to when they were built rather than by their given names. The caretaker Burhan, in service to the cemetery for 31 years, shows us around, starting with the ancient monuments and ending with the most recently erected ones. The cemetery is filled with light and color. The day is spectacular – the sky a cerulean blue, reflected in the color of the sea, while the rich green cypress trees provide shade over the scattered stone monuments spread down the hillside with their inscriptions and decorations highlighted by the morning sun.
The cemetery is impressive, not only for its age and spectacular location, but also for the number of graves that cover its vast area. More astonishing is that this is only one of seven still active Jewish cemeteries in Istanbul, giving credence to the longevity of its Jewish presence.
After the traditional washing of the hands, we move on to Synagogue Etz Ahayim (Fruit of Life), which was originally built in 1703. Although the building was destroyed by fire on more than one occasion, it has always been rebuilt and is still in use today, serving both the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities.
Etz Ahayim Synagogue is of great significance in the history of Turkish Jewry. During the 18th century, one of the most famous European Kabbalists, Rabbi Naftali Ben Isaac Katz, paused in Ortaköy on his journey from Russia to Jerusalem and founded the Midrash there (a religious school). Tragically, he became ill, died and was buried in the Ortaköy Cemetery. We, like pilgrims from all over the world, visited his grave site at the cemetery on which caretaker Burhan had kindly laid out some of Naftali’s published works for us to see.
From Ortaköy, we returned to the Galata district to visit the largest of Istanbul’s 20 still open synagogues. Neve Shalom (Oasis of Peace) is not only Istanbul’s central synagogue for Sephardi Jews, it is the seat of the Chief Rabbinate. Sadly, for security reasons, permission is needed to visit all Jewish monuments and houses of worship.
Neve Shalom survived Palestinian terrorist bombing attacks in 1986 and 2003, as memorial plaques on the wall in honor of those who perished attest to. Bullet holes in the synagogue are harsh reminders that we live in troubled times, as are the heavy protective walls and doors under lock and key that secure religious buildings from intruders.
Neve Shalom, as well as many of the synagogues we visited, sits behind a concrete wall, so its façade is not visible from the street. Menahem Zambako, the gabbai and president of the foundation, welcomed us and showed us around the impressive building.
He then led us to the Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews, which is connected to Neve Shalom. There we were met by Deniz Baler Saporta, executive director of the Jewish Community of Turkey; English spokesman Silvuo Silven Ovadya; and Nisya Isman Allovi, curator extraordinaire of the museum.
This is without a doubt a must-see for all visitors to Istanbul, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. The three floors of the museum are located in a nonfunctioning 19th-century synagogue building, renovated on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Sephardi Jews to the Ottoman Empire from their expulsion first from Spain and later from Portugal. Decorative maps highlight the Diaspora in great detail.
The captivating state-of-the-art layout is interactive, informative and beautifully designed with creative aids to help tell the story of the Jewish presence in Turkey. One could get lost in this travel through time told from a very human perspective.
One bit of trivia that I found interesting was that in the early days, people wore traditional costumes that illustrated their status in life. Jews were relegated to wearing clothes that indicated their religion, profession and social status at a glance and were restricted from wearing colors and fabrics worn by Muslims. Happily, by the 19th century, these restrictions were lessened when all citizens were given equal rights, and forced distinctions in clothing were eliminated. By the 20th century, European fashions replaced traditional clothing for everyone.
There were many neighborhoods in greater Istanbul that we visited and so many synagogues, all having their own stories to tell of the Jews who built them and worshiped, and it’s impossible to recount them all. Suffice to say, a tour guide knowledgeable of Jewish history is a must to get the full experience. Invaluable to our group was the aforementioned Reyna Leon (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Beki Sulam (email@example.com).
Istanbul is a most vibrant and exotic city with its ancient and modern wonders. But it was time to move on to other cities, such as colorful Balat, with its oldest synagogue from circa 1570; Bursa, famous for its silk trade allegedly stolen from China; Sardes, with its historic ruins; and of course Izmir, with its ancient and current Jewish heritage.
For further information please visit: Turkiye Tourist Board (www.goturkiye.com); Deniz Baler Saporta, executive director of the Jewish Community of Turkey (www.turkyahudileri.com); the Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews (www.muze500.com); the Galata Istanbul Hotel MGallery (www.thegalataistanbul.com).