Turkish synagogues get a makeover as Izmir strives for UNESCO stamp


Synagogue Street, a narrow lane with a mishmash of colors and smells of fishmongers and spice vendors, sits in the heart of Izmir, Turkey’s third largest city. The street begins two steps from the agora of the Hellenistic period and meanders through the historic shopping center. It takes its name from the nine nearby synagogues, four of which were in ruins until half a decade ago.

“Unlike the hidden Jewish ghettos in many European countries, the street of the synagogue – or better, the district of the synagogue – is right in the heart of the city”, Nesim Bencoya, coordinator of the Izmir Jewish Heritage Project, told Al-Monitor. “It is a compact district with its synagogues, its cortejos [houses where families lived together], a rabbinate and many shops and businesses in the streets that crisscross Kemeralti, the commercial center. It is also an area where synagogues rub shoulders with mosques, where businessmen from the Muslim, Jewish and Orthodox community engage in commerce and where songs in Turkish, Greek and Ladino are sung one after another in the streets. neighboring taverns.

For the past 12 years, Bencoya has gone door to door for support for his plans to revive the region and build a Jewish heritage center that would attract locals and tourists.

“Our community is now less than 1,000 people,” Tilda Koenka, tour guide and project assistant in the project, told Al-Monitor. “But Izmir’s Jewish heritage is of global interest – it shows the role Jews played in the city.”

At its peak in the mid-19th century, the Jewish population of 50,000 was the second largest community after the Greeks in the city known in the Ottoman Empire as “Izmir, the infidel.” The city had 34 synagogues, a sophisticated hospital, local Torah schools and a posh college offering a program in French. The city’s first printing press was a Jewish press, printing books in Hebrew, Ladino, and eventually English, and boyoz, the Jewish pastry shop whose name “bollos” means “bun” in Ladino, has become one of the city’s staple foods.

Many Jews chose to emigrate to France, the United States and Latin America as the weakened Ottoman Empire was ravaged by wars. Further to the left when Israel was founded in 1948 to start new life in the nascent state, especially after Ankara imposed heavy taxes on them known as the Wealth Tax during WWII. Fearing exile or death if they could not pay, members of the Jewish community quickly liquidated their assets and wealth shifted from non-Muslims to Muslims. The Ladino language has fallen silent on the streets and disused synagogues have collapsed.

“The restoration work is huge,” Bencoya told a group of reporters as he stood in the narrow corridor that connected the Hevra and Foresteros synagogues. “Only a year ago the rubble was a meter high here. ”

Today, thanks to the support of the German Consulate in Izmir and the Israel-based Mordechai Kiriaty Foundation, the elaborate wooden sculptures on the ceiling of Ets Hayim Synagogue, the sumptuous mosaics on the floor of Hevra and the corridors of the Foresteros that connect several synagogues to each other have resurfaced.

“This unusual group of synagogues bears a typical medieval Spanish architectural style,” said Bencoya, explaining that Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 Alhambra decree, brought their aesthetic to the Ottoman Empire. But the Jewish presence in the region predates the Spanish edict by several centuries, as evidenced by late Roman synagogue in Sardis, 97 kilometers from downtown Izmir.

For Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut, head of the European Union delegation to Turkey, the renaissance of Jewish heritage goes beyond architecture. The The EU provided about half a million euros ($ 688,000) for a three-year project to preserve Jewish heritage in Izmir. The project will finance the creation of the Izmir Jewish Cultural Heritage Platform, workshops with local and European stakeholders, the development of a strategic plan for the restoration of the old Jewish quarter and the publication of several books on Jewish cultural subjects such as food and music.

The renovation of the Jewish quarter fits well with the ambitions of Tunc Soyer, the city’s multilingual mayor, to put Izmir on the world map as a city of culture.

“The most essential job of a mayor is to protect the nature and culture of his city and to preserve diversity for future generations,” Soyer told a small group of journalists on the sidelines of the Cités Culture Summit. and United Local Governments (UCLG) in Izmir on September 7. 9-11.

An unapologetic socialist, Soyer was elected in 2019 on a ticket from the Republican People’s Party to the city considered a bastion of secular opposition. He celebrates special occasions with the Italian protest song “Bella Ciao”, exchanges tweets with the mayor of Paris who has become socialist presidential candidate Anne Hidalgo and pledges to make the booming metropolis of Izmir a “cittaslow“, a city made up of self-sufficient neighborhoods with green corridors leading to the countryside.

The municipality renovated Synagogue Street and helped transform the Oratory of Beit Hillel into a small museum. City sources say a larger plan has also been drawn up, but not finalized, in line with Izmir’s efforts to put the city’s historic center on UNESCO’s World Heritage List. In 2020, it was on the UNESCO Tentative List – the first step in the process of recognition as a World Heritage site.

“We intend to make Izmir one of the cities with the most UNESCO sites in the world,” Soyer said, noting that the archaeological sites of Ephesus and Pergamon are already on the permanent list. . “Izmir is home to many civilizations and has a lot to offer World Heritage. It is a place where different cultures, peoples and religions coexist. It is one of the oldest and largest open-air museums in the world.

The area includes traces of the Hellenistic period, ancient Rome, the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman Empire. The symbol of the city, the octagonal clock tower built to mark the 25th anniversary of the enthronement of Ottoman Sultan Abdulhamid II, is also there. The clock itself was a gift from German Emperor Wilhelm II, but it was local businessmen, including two notable Jewish merchants, who helped finance the construction of the tower to show their allegiance to the Sultan.

“The Jewish Heritage Project is an important project that fits into the larger picture of Izmir’s multi-layered and multi-cultural identity,” Serhan Ada, an Izmirian who is one of Izmir’s, told Al-Monitor. brains behind the UCLG Summit. “But with Izmir, it’s not just about the past. The city is renewing itself, with its young artists who return to produce here, because they can find a respite in the city.


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