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SYNAGOGUES IN ISTANBUL

The word Synagogue originates from the Greek language. “Syn” means together and “ago” means bring. “Synagogue” thus denotes the concept of “assembling together.” At the same time, synagogue can also be referred to as a “Bet ha-Tefillah (house of worship)”, a “Bet ha-Midrash (house of study)”, and a “Bet Aam or Beth Kenishta (public house or community house)”, for its different services.

The oldest synagogue remains in Turkey are dated to the 3rd century, and can be seen in Sardis, near Izmir. The synagogues in Istanbul were built by Jews who came to the city in the Byzantine era, when the city was known as Constantinople. It is recorded that the first synagogue was built in 318 in the town of Halkopratia, where many Jews worked as coppersmiths. This synagogue was converted to a church in 450, during the reign of Theodosius II. Many synagogues were built in various neighborhoods in Istanbul during each period since that time.

After the conquest of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453, many Jews continued to live in the city. In 1492, Sultan Bayezid II welcomed the Sephardi Jews, who were expelled from Spain, to the Ottoman territory, and thus the population of the Jews in Anatolia, especially in Istanbul, increased immediately. Those Jews were mostly artists, handicraftsmen, and merchants in their homeland, Spain, where they lived together with Muslims and Christians. Under Ottoman rule, they offered their knowledge and skills to their new land, dealing with medicine, typography, manufacture of firearms, textile dyeing and weaving, leather making, and copper-smithing. When we look into Ottoman archives, we learn that there were synagogues in the 15th and 16th centuries as a part of Halil Paşa Birgosu (today near Bahçekapı), the neighbor of Eminonü Balat Hacı İsa and the Tahta Minare area. According to Ottoman documents, the temple for Jews to pray was called “sinavi.” During the 17th century, many synagogues were built in the Galata area.

Due to natural disasters such as earthquakes and fires, as well as expropriation and migration into Istanbul throughout the centuries, there are no synagogues remaining from the Classical Ottoman period. Since the 17th century, re-constructions and repairs of synagogues have been made under Ottoman architectural influence. Thus, synagogues in Istanbul have no significant architectural features, styles and typologies of their own. In general, synagogues in Istanbul have a rectangular or square shape, and most of them are made of wood and stone masonry. They are located in a courtyard or garden, which is surrounded by high walls. The Star of David motif can be seen on the entrances of courtyards.

Including the following synagogues, the total number of active synagogues open for worship in Istanbul is currently 20, 17 of which are open every month of the year and three are open only summer season:

Reference: Istanbul Sinagogları. Gila Erbeş (ed.), İzzet Keribar (photo), Maim Avigdor Güleryüz (text). Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik Basım ve Yayın A.Ş., 2008; ZACK, Joel A. The Historic Synagogues of Turkey / Türkiye’nin Tarih Sinagogları. Istanbul: Gözlem Gazetecilik Basın ve Yayın A.Ş., 2008; Doğan Kuban. Osmanlı Mimarisi. Istanbul: Yem yayını, 2007; tas-istanbul.com, jewishtoursistanbul.com, turkyahudileri.com

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