The first synagogue in Istanbul was built in 318 during the Byzantine period. It was constructed in the Halkopratia district, which was inhabited by many Jews. Although this synagogue was converted into a church during the reign of Theodosius II, many synagogues have been built throughout the city ever since, including the Prince’s Islands.
In 1176, Benjamin of Tudela, an important medieval Jewish traveler, reported that 2,555 Jews lived in Constantinople.
After the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, Jews from Hungary and France found a haven in the Ottoman Empire. Refugees from Sicily and Thessaloniki joined them.
When Sultan Beyazit II granted Jews exiled from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497) permission to settle, the Ottoman Empire experienced a massive immigration movement. Over time, Jews became soldiers, ministers, advisors to the army and doctors at the court of the sultans. At the same time, they shaped the Ottoman Empire with their knowledge and skills. They enjoyed religious freedom and established Jewish communities. They were also allowed to acquire property, which were subjected to special tax impositions, which is why Istanbul had numerous synagogues and other Jewish buildings and facilities as early as the16th century.
Ten years after the Turkish Republic was proclaimed, many German and Austrian Jews persecuted by the Nazis found refuge and a new future in Istanbul, which is why they increasingly settled in the city.
Turkey’s Jewish population has been in sharp decline. At the end of the 15th century 150,000 Jews lived in Turkey, 500 years later, however, only 100,000. Today, around 23,000 Jews still live in Turkey, the vast majority of whom, around 20,000, live in Istanbul.
The first of the four major mass emigration movements took place in 1918 after the end of the First World War. The second emigration movement occurred after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. The next mass emigration took place after the Istanbul pogroms that targeted Greeks and Armenians in 1955 and before the military coup in 1980.
Around 97% of the Jews remaining in the city are Sephardic Jews who came from Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey, North Africa and the Middle East. Only around 500 Jews are Ashkenazic and came from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Central, Northern and Eastern Europe.
The legal representative of the Turkish Jews is the Chief Rabbinate, whose headquarter is in Istanbul.
Only 20 of the once 40 Jewish synagogues in Istanbul remain active and are open for worship. The Ahrida and Yanbol synagogues are the oldest among them and have been active continuously since the 15th century.
To visit the synagogues in Istanbul, a prior registration and special permission from the Chief Rabbinate is required. It is best to make a reservation a few weeks prior to the planned visit using the contact form, which you can find on the website of the Chief Rabbinate.
https://www.turkyahudileri.com/index.php/en/contact. A copy of your identity card or passport is required during the procedure. Be sure to bring them with you on the day of your visit. The time and day of your visit are given by the rabbinate after approval.
Photo: Michael Summers