Discover the Jewish Heritage and the Historic Synagogues of Istanbul, Turkey

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    The Jewish presence in Turkey traces its roots back to the 4th century BCE, with archaeological discoveries confirming Jewish settlements in various regions, including the Aegean areas such as Sardis, where ancient synagogue ruins have been found, as well as Miletus, Priene, and coastal cities like Bursa along the Mediterranean and the Black Sea.

    In 1492, Sultan Bayezid II extended a hospitable refuge to Jews escaping the Spanish Inquisition. By 1535, approximately 56,000 Jews had made Istanbul their home. This Jewish community played a pivotal role in shaping Turkey’s economic, cultural, and political landscape, contributing significantly during the eras of both the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic, which emerged after the War of Liberation under the leadership of Kemal Ataturk.

    Istanbul, a city that uniquely straddles two continents—Europe and Asia—has long captivated travelers. Beyond the cruise ships traversing its shimmering waters and the historic bazaars nestled inland, Istanbul reveals itself as a city steeped in a rich and enduring heritage. Its breathtaking skyline, adorned with countless minarets, majestic onion domes, and graceful bell towers, is a testament to the city’s enduring splendor.

    Istanbul stands as a top choice for Jewish travelers, with its bustling airport ranking among Europe’s busiest and serving as a vital transit point for travelers to various destinations. Two separate Jewish places of prayer could be found inside the contemporary international terminal of Istanbul Airport, thanks to a thoughtful gesture by Turkish Airlines.

    These places of worship can be discovered within the regular and business-class lounges, offering travelers a sacred space to connect with their faith. Rabbi Mendy Chitrik, the Chabad emissary and Ashkenazi rabbi of Turkey, shared insights with NYTJG, stating, “Turkish Airlines provides between 600 and 5,000 kosher meals daily, and we supply the synagogues with prayer books in both Ashkenazi and Sephardic traditions to cater to the diverse needs of those passing through the airport.”

    In addition to these spiritual amenities, the airport is equipped with a convenient kosher vending machine, and you can even enjoy hot kosher meals in select airport lounges. Turkish Airlines, as the world’s largest carrier, connects passengers to 122 countries, including an impressive ten daily flights between Tel Aviv and Istanbul.

    Presently, Istanbul boasts 16 synagogues open for worship. These synagogues typically feature rectangular or square architectural designs, crafted predominantly from wood and stone masonry, and are hidden away in serene courtyards or gardens, surrounded by walls with Star of David motifs at their entrances. To ensure the security of these sacred spaces, visitors must make prior arrangements through the office of the Chief Rabbi in Istanbul. These synagogues are strategically situated on both the European and Asian sides of the city, providing a spiritual haven for the Jewish community and travelers alike.

    Neve Shalom Synagogue – New York Jewish Travel Guide

    Neve Shalom, the largest central Sephardic synagogue in Istanbul, bears the meaningful name “Oasis of Peace” and has been a place of significance since its inauguration on March 25, 1951. While it has hosted many happy events, including weddings and bat mitzvahs, it has a somber history tainted by tragic occurrences. Inside the synagogue’s lobby, a poignant memorial plaque commemorates both Jewish and Muslim victims who lost their lives in two devastating terrorist attacks during Shabbat prayers, one in 1986 and another in 2003. These acts of terror claimed the lives of 22 Jews and five security guards.

    The synagogue has deliberately preserved the haunting reminders of these attacks, with visible bullet holes and bomb blast damage at the base of the black wrought-iron railing around the bimah. A seared marble panel remains embedded in the wall near the ark. It’s worth noting that Neve Shalom is distinguished as the sole synagogue along the Golden Horn that houses an intact Jewish ritual bath, or mikveh.

    Silvyo Ovadya, serving as President of the Quincentennial Foundation, shared with NYJTG, “The striking eight-ton chandelier hanging from the dome serves as a poignant symbol of solidarity. It was sent on loan from the Buenos Aires Jewish community by the Israeli Foreign Ministry, as they too have tragically endured brutal attacks over the years.”

    A remarkable site in Istanbul, the Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews, stands as a unique treasure, being the only Jewish Museum in Turkey. It offers a comprehensive narrative, detailing the establishment of the Turkish Jewish Community and highlighting its profound contributions to Turkish society throughout history. Moreover, the museum provides valuable insights into the historical openness and hospitality extended to the Jewish people in Turkey by past rulers and governments.

    Mr. Ovadya also mentioned that the museum receives approximately 15,000 visitors annually, with a remarkable surge to over 2,000 visitors per day during the European Day of Jewish Culture, celebrated on September 4 at Neve Shalom under the theme “The first Jews of Anatolia.” This event, a tradition since 2001, is organized with the aim of fostering a deeper understanding of Jewish culture and lifestyle. Importantly, it is free and open to the public, primarily targeting the local population.

    Participants at this event are offered a unique opportunity to immerse themselves in the culture and heritage of the Turkish Jewish community. They can enjoy concerts, documentaries, exhibitions, book presentations, and even savor delicacies from Turkish Jewish cuisine. Among the most beloved and popular attractions is a captivating Jewish wedding ceremony, complete with all its cherished traditions and rituals.

    Silvyo Ovadya, President of the Quincentennial Foundation – New York Jewish Travel Guide






















    Nisya İşman Allovi, the director and curator of the Quincentennial Foundation Museum, told NYTJG, “Jews have been living in Turkey since the fourth century B.C. Judaism is an ancient religion and culture, but it still has many unknown or misunderstood elements. With all these activities every year, we will overcome these prejudices, demystify the Jewish world, and promote understanding.”

    In the same district, you will find the Galata Tower, one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks and tourist attractions, rising on the European side of the city. Jewish residents of the city have traditionally referred to the tower as La Kula, the Turkish word for tower adopted into the Judeo-Spanish or Ladino language spoken by older generations of Sephardic Jews. Today, the tower functions as a 360-degree viewing platform for Istanbul.

    North of the Golden Horn is the historical Italian synagogue known as Kale de Los Frankos, which is only open for Shabbat services, although it can be visited on weekday mornings. The Italian-Jewish community founded it in the 19th century. The front entrance highlights the Gothic-like facade and marble staircase, while the exterior appeal is well preserved, with double hanging arches in the balcony prayer hall painted completely white and surrounded by the women’s gallery on the second floor. Today, the Italian community, which numbers only a few hundred congregants, continues to host music recitals, in which recent visitors had the opportunity to listen to performers at their rehearsals.

    Located in Istanbul’s Balat district, the Ahrida Synagogue stands as the most renowned among the city’s ancient synagogues. Its construction dates to the year 1460, and it takes its name from the hometown of its founders in Macedonia. One of the most striking and distinctive aspects of the Ahrida Synagogue is its Teva, or bima, which is fashioned in the shape of a ship’s prow. Local tradition offers two interpretations: it symbolizes either Noah’s Ark or the Ottoman ships that carried the Sephardim from Spain to Turkey. The design of this teva is truly remarkable and leaves a lasting impression on visitors.

    Within the synagogue’s garden, you’ll find two additional structures: the Midrash and a sturdy stone and brick building known as the old Adjara, which has been repurposed as a hospice. The Ahrida Synagogue also holds historical significance as the place of worship for Sabbatai Zevi, the founder of the Jewish Sabbatian movement.

    In 1992, the Quincentennial Foundation undertook a renovation of the Ahrida Synagogue to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Sephardic Jews’ arrival in the Ottoman Empire, preserving this treasured piece of history for generations to come.

    The Ahrida Synagogue – New York Jewish Travel Guide























    A short distance from the Ahrida Synagogue, you’ll find the Yanbol Synagogue, one of the two ancient synagogues thoughtfully preserved in Balat. It takes its name from the small Bulgarian city where the founding community originated. Originally constructed in the 18th century, this synagogue has been the subject of several restoration projects over the years. Its magnificent main hall has a beautiful hardwood ceiling covered with oil paintings of landscapes with intricate floral themes and illuminated by several windows. At the heart of the hall stands the Tevah, positioned to face the Aron.

    Today, access to the Yanbol Synagogue is limited, primarily reserved for major holidays, and select Shabbat services, owing to the decline in the local Jewish population.

    Heading south of the Bosphorus Bridge to the tranquil Kuzguncuk district, you’ll encounter an oasis of calm distinct from the bustling cityscape. Kuzguncuk is renowned for its picturesque and colorful houses. Within this serene neighborhood, two synagogues have played integral roles in the life of the Judeo-Spanish community in Istanbul: The Bet Yaakov Synagogue, erected in 1878 and currently the sole active synagogue, and the Bet Nissim Synagogue, which dates to the 1840s.

    While the Kuzguncuk district was once affectionately known as “Little Jerusalem” due to its vibrant and sizable Jewish community, it has experienced a decline in Jewish residents over the years. Today, the Bet Yaakov Synagogue in Kuzguncuk sees limited use and is primarily open for holidays, special occasions, and Shabbat services. An older tombstone in the area shows that there have been Jews in the area since at least 1562.

    In Haskoy, one of Istanbul’s oldest residential districts historically inhabited by Jews, there is an equally ancient Jewish cemetery that remains in use to this day. This cemetery boasts tombstones dating back to the 15th century, with nearly 22,000 graves. Among the notable individuals interred here is the renowned kabbalist, Rabbi Naftali Hacohen Katz. His life and legacy have been meticulously chronicled by Rabbi Raphael Benchimol of the Manhattan Sephardic Congregation of Manhattan, who has authored a two-volume biography titled “Rabbi Naftali HaKohen Katz: His Life, Legacy, and Ethical Will.” These volumes offer a treasure trove of stories about Rabbi Katz’s greatness and his reputed ability to perform miracles, and they are available for purchase on

    Tombstone of Rabbi Naftali HaKohen Katz, Istanbul – New York Jewish Travel Guide

    An ongoing dispute has emerged between the Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewish communities in Turkey, with Ashkenazi Jews representing just five percent of the total Jewish population. This dispute centers around the allocation of burial plots within cemeteries. The Chief Rabbi’s office published an advertisement in the Shalom newspaper that brought attention to the issue that Ashkenazi and Sephardic community members were both booking burial plots in each other’s cemetery and vice versa. This situation was posing significant challenges for the community, prompting the Chief Rabbi to request that those seeking burial plots in each other’s cemeteries consult with him before making such arrangements.

    The Ashkenazi Foundation emphasized its inclusive stance, stating that its doors were open to all. It was noted that Sephardic cemeteries were facing limitations in available space. Until now, intermarried Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews had been interred together, either within the six Sephardic cemeteries or in the designated Ashkenazi cemetery.

    Additionally, a notable Jewish burial site is Nakkaştepe, with a remarkable history spanning 650 years. The Beit Yaakov Synagogue Foundation is responsible for its maintenance and overseeing burials. At the entrance of Nakkaştepe, a plaque proudly displays the names and resting places of revered tsadikim from the 14th and 15th centuries, preserving their memory for future generations.

    For more information:

    To plan a trip to Turkey, contact the Turkey Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA) or go to

    Fly Turkish Airlines:

    Ela Turizm: Historical religious tours.

    Story and photography by Meyer Harroch, New York Jewish Travel Guide, and New York Jewish

    The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Turkey Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA).

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