Bursa, Turkey’s fourth-largest city in the northwestern part of Anatolia, is shrouded in mystery and legend and was the first capital of the Ottoman Empire from 1326 to 1363. It is a modern, thriving city with many great historical sites that you can enjoy without having to cope with the masses of tourists. Bursa locals are pleasant, hospitable, and warm.
Bursa is famous for its silk market and gorgeous silk products, and you must treat yourself at the Silk Bazaar (Koa Han, as the silk bazaar is called in Turkish). Add to this the Green Mosque and Tomb and plenty of parks and green spaces, which also gave the city the name Green Bursa, and you’ll see why this is one of my favorite places in Turkey to visit.
Bursa’s Jewish past is also on full display. The Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) Synagogue was the first synagogue built during the Ottoman Period. The Geruş (exiled) Synagogue and the Mayor (resettled Jews from Mallorca) Synagogue are other important Jewish religious buildings.
Only two synagogues remain active, the more impressive being the Gerush (Exiled) Synagogue. The other one, the Mayor Synagogue, named for the Jews from Mallorca that found refuge here, was built in the late 15th century, has been renovated, and now functions mostly as a museum.
The synagogue, which has existed for 400 years and maintained a seating capacity of 100 to 150 people, was in use until 1975 when it was closed due to financial constraints. According to the Turkish government, the building is still used for special events and for preparing the dead for burial by ritual washing and cleaning. Bursa also has a meticulously clean Jewish cemetery.
In 1939, there were 2,400 Jews, and by 1969, only 350–400 remained. By 1977, that number had decreased to 192 Jews. Since Israel’s founding in 1948, the Jewish community in Bursa has dwindled to about 60 members.
The Gerush Synagogue was renovated in the 1700s. It is light, airy, and attractive, with an unusual floor plan: a circle of pillars surrounds the bema in the center of the room, supporting a dome. Benches are along the walls; the ark is opposite the entrance; and there are attractive stained-glass lights over the entrance door. The Torahs were brought from Spain by Sephardic immigrants five centuries ago.
We met Joseph Hazzan, a volunteer at the synagogue and a native community member, who told NYJTG, “Rabbi Isaac Behar from Istanbul comes every Shabbat to conduct services, but sometimes we barely have a minyan. Three Shabbats out of four we have minyanim, and the services are conducted in Hebrew,” he said. “It is much harder in the summertime when many members are away on holidays, so we are lucky if we have a full minyan for two Shabbats in a row.” Joseph is married to a Muslim who has not yet converted and has a 15-year-old daughter, who celebrated her bat mitzvah at the synagogue.
The Bursa community consists of only 20 families, most of them elderly, without children, and with only a few women in attendance. The synagogue restoration and maintenance have come mainly from the Turkish Jewish Community in Istanbul. Joseph added that “during the Jewish holidays of Succoth and Passover, there are larger crowds that attend services, which are followed by a beautiful typical Turkish breakfast” consisting of Bourekas (savory stuffed turnovers), Boyos (small spinach pies), cheese, coffee, and arak.
In the past, the Jewish community of Bursa traveled to Ankara to pay tribute to the Mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. It is common that prayers are said for the welfare of the country and government in many communities, following the command of Prophet Jeremiah (29:7): “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to God on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your peace.”
This tradition can be found in a Jewish prayer for Atatürk in a pre-1938 Turkish adaptation of “Bersih Sheme,” an Aramaic prayer recited when the Torah is removed from the Ark.
For more information:
To plan a trip to Turkey, contact the Turkey Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA) or go to https://www.tga.gov.tr/about-us/.
Fly Turkish Airlines: https://www.turkishairlines.com/
Ela Turizm: Historical Religious Tours: https://www.elaturizm.com.tr/index.aspx
Story and photography by Meyer Harroch, New York Jewish Travel Guide, and New York Jewish Guide.com
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Turkey Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA).