The vast majority of the Jewish community in Turkey (currently estimated at 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. Read on for a short history about the Jewish community and an overview of notable synagogues in Istanbul.
Rise of Istanbul’s Jewish Community
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.
Also Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms in the 19th century and the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 found refuge in Turkey. And in 1933 Atatürk invited famous scientists under threat in Nazi Germany and Austria to find shelter and settle in Turkey. Turkey also served as a safe passage for many Jews fleeing the horrors of Nazism during World War II.
Remains of those days can still be seen in the Balat area along the Golden Horn and the Galata district in Beyoğlu — the centers of the Jewish community in Istanbul.
Decline of Istanbul’s Jewish Community
Unfortunately, a series of events triggered a massive emigration of Jews from Istanbul. First there was the wealth tax (Varlık Vergisi) of 1942. Although aimed at wealthy Turks, its effect on the Jewish community was catastrophic. An estimated 30.000 Jews, unable to pay their debts, fled the country.
Secondly there was the Istanbul pogrom of 6/7 September 1955 against the Greek, Jewish, and Armenian communities of Istanbul. Although more material then physical damage was done, this caused another massive emigration of these minorities, with some 10.000 more Jews fleeing Turkey.
Notable Synagogues in Istanbul
There are currently 26 active synagogues in Istanbul. Instead of listing them all, I decided to give an overview of the most notable ones from a tourist point of view.
- Neve Shalom Synagogue – located in Karaköy, this is the central and largest Sephardic synagogue in Istanbul. It was inaugurated on Sunday March 25, 1951 and is open to service (see details on their website). Unfortunately, Neve Shalom has been the target of three terrorist attacks.
- Ahrida Synagogue – one of the two remaining synagogues in Balat. It is the oldest and probably most beautiful synagogue in Istanbul. It was founded before the Muslim conquest of Istanbul in 1453 and has been in constant use ever since. Tourists can only visit by prior arrangement with a tour guide.
- Ashkenazi Synagogue – located near the Galata Tower, it is the only currently active Ashkenazi synagogue in Istanbul open to visits and prayers.
- Bet Avraam Synagogue – located behind the Sirkeci train station, it is the synagogue nearest to Sultanahmet.
- Bet Israel Synagogue – located in Şişli, it is currently the most populated synagogue in Turkey. The synagogue can be visited after making appointments with Neve Shalom Foundation.
- Caddebostan Synagogue – built in 1953 as a result of the increasing Jewish population in the Kadıköy district. It is the most populated synagogue on the Asian side of Istanbul.
- Yanbol Synagogue – the second of the ancient synagogues in Balat.
Visiting Synagogues in Istanbul
You can visit the synagogues only by prior reservation via the website of the Turkish Jewish community.
For every visitor, you should fill in a Visitor’s Info sheet and make copies of the visitors’ passports. You then send the passport copies as well as the filled in forms minimum four work days prior to the planned visit to the fax number or mail address mentioned there.
Jewish Museum of Turkey
Jewish Museum of Turkey is a cultural center inaugurated on November 25, 2001. In 2015, it moved to Büyükhendek Cad. No. 39, Şişhane, Beyoglu, next to Neve Shalom [Oasis of Peace] Synagogue.
The Museum collects, preserves, and exhibits knowledge about the cultural heritage of the Turkish Jews from the Ottoman Empire to the modern Turkey. It has three different sections:
- the history of the Jews in Anatolia
- a Judaica section which exhibits liturgical sacred artifacts including Torah scrolls, Megilat Ester and other ritual objects
- an interactive touch-screen map which shows all the synagogues and settlements of the Jewish life in Turkey
Visitors can visit the Neve Shalom Synagogue and sample Sephardic delicacies in the Habib Gerez Cafe. The museum is open daily, except on Saturday and religious holidays.