Istanbul always has been a multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multicultural city. In neighborhoods like Fener and Balat, Karaköy, Ortaköy, Beyoglu, Kuzguncuk and Kadiköy you will still find mosques, synagogues, Armenian, Greek and other churches.
Not much is left of the vibrant life and culture of the non-Muslim communities. The minorities suffered heavily in the early days of the Turkish Republic (1923), when the nationalist ideology, imported from Europe, declared ‘Turkey for the Muslim Turks’. Discrimination was the norm until the beginning of the 21st century.
Of the 130,000 Greeks in Istanbul in 1923 approximately 1,500 are still in the city. Armenians are about 80,000 in number and Jews some 15,000.
Some of the empty synagogues have been turned into museums. The most beautiful one is the Zülfaris Synagogue. It is called the Quincentennial Turkish Jewish Museum as it was established by the Quincentennial Foundation in by 113 Turkish citizens, Jews and Muslims alike, to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of Sephardic Jews’ arrival from Spain to Istanbul (1492), the capital of the Ottoman Empire.
The museum is located in Karaköy, the neighborhood on the waterfront of the Galata bridge near the Galata tower. The word is the combination of “Kara” and “köy”. “Kara” probably originates in the Turkish word Karay, referring to a Turkic-speaking Jewish community called the Crimean Karaites. At one time they were a majority of the people who lived in this district. In modern Turkish, however, “kara” means “black” or “dark”. “Köy” means village.
The building is difficult to find as it is hidden in Karaköy at the Hırdavatçılar bazaar to the right of the entrance of the Tünel (English: Tunnel), a short underground railway line connecting Karaköy and Beyoğlu. Ask for the Perçemli Street.
The museum was officially inaugurated in 2001 and closed at the end of 2015. Then it moved its collection to a new address: the Neve Shalom synagogue in the Galata neighborhood.
The Zülfaris synagogue is empty again. The grand domed Neve Shalom synagogue, dedicated in 1951, is the central synagogue used by Istanbul’s Jewish community.
“We merged Neve Shalom and the museum together under the same umbrella so visitors can enjoy both when they come,” according to museum director and coordinator Nisya İşman Allovi. “If there is a wedding or other ceremony in the synagogue visitors can see the ceremony from the museum section.”
The old Zülfaris synagogue served part of the Jewish community between 1671 and 1985.
1882 – The marble frame surrounding the Ehal (Ark) was donated by Samuel Malki.
1890 – Repair work was carried out with the financial assistance of the Camondo Family.
1904 – Restoration work was conducted by the Jewish Community of Galata presided over by Jak Bey de Leon.
1968 – Went through substantial repair.
1979 – Assigned for worship for the Jews of Thracian origin.
1983 – Last wedding in Zülfaris.
1985 – Ceased to serve as synagogue due to lack of a congregation, and allocated to the Quincentennial Foundation by the Neve Shalom Foundation.
In 1492 some 120,000 Jewish people were forced to leave Spain. Sultan Bayezid II, the son of Mehmet the Conqueror, invited some 90,000 of the refugees to settle in Istanbul.
Many photographs are displayed on the walls of the museum depicting marriages of Jews in traditional clothes. There is also a large chair, used for the circumcision ceremony. A visit to the museum shows that there are more similarities between Turkish and Jewish traditions.
Also exhibited is a copy of the letter Albert Einstein wrote to the president of Turkey, asking him to help save Jewish academics. Turkish diplomats rescued several Jewish academics from concentration camps in Europe with Turkish passports.
The permanent exhibition has been expanded, and new sections have been added in the Neve Shalom museum. Among other things, a space for children has been created, and touchscreen computers have been installed, via which visitors can access further material and documentation.
Other new or planned new sections include special units for Judaica, the Jewish Community today, the Jewish life cycle and high holidays.
Although the local Jewish community is very much a minority — with no more than 26,000 citizens — Morris Levi, the executive vice president of the museum, said that the opening of the museum symbolises the intention to continue life on Turkish soil.
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