Located in the northwestern region of Anatolia, Bursa, Turkey’s fourth-largest city, holds a captivating allure steeped in mystery and legend. It held the distinguished honor of being the inaugural capital of the Ottoman Empire, reigning from 1326 to 1363. Today, Bursa stands as a vibrant and modern metropolis, offering a treasure trove of historical gems that can be savored without the hustle and bustle of overwhelming tourist crowds. The locals in Bursa exude a genuine warmth, embodying qualities of friendliness and hospitality.
Bursa has gained renown for its illustrious silk market and the exquisite silk products it boasts. A visit to the Silk Bazaar, known as Koa Han in Turkish, is an absolute must for those seeking luxurious indulgence. Complementing this silk splendor is the remarkable Green Mosque and Tomb, set against a backdrop of lush parks and verdant expanses. It’s these abundant green spaces that have earned the city the endearing nickname of “Green Bursa.” When you experience the city’s rich tapestry of history and the welcoming embrace of its inhabitants, you’ll quickly understand why Bursa holds a cherished place among my favorite destinations to explore in Turkey.
Bursa’s rich Jewish heritage is prominently showcased through several significant landmarks. The Etz Chaim Synagogue, also known as the “Tree of Life” Synagogue, holds the distinction of being the first synagogue constructed during the Ottoman Period. Additionally, the Geruş Synagogue and the Mayor Synagogue, originally established to provide sanctuary to Jews from Mallorca, stand as noteworthy Jewish religious edifices.
Of these historical synagogues, only two remain active today, with the Gerush Synagogue being the more imposing and well-preserved of the two. The Mayor Synagogue, built in the late 15th century, has undergone renovations and primarily serves as a museum in its current capacity.
The Mayor Synagogue, with a remarkable history spanning four centuries and an initial seating capacity of 100 to 150 people, remained in use until 1975 when financial constraints led to its closure. According to the Turkish government, the building still plays a role in hosting special events and serves as a venue for the ritual washing and preparation of the deceased for burial. Bursa also takes pride in maintaining a meticulously kept Jewish cemetery, further attesting to the city’s reverence for its Jewish heritage.
The Jewish community in Bursa has experienced a significant decline in population over the years. In 1939, there were approximately 2,400 Jews residing in the city. However, by 1969, this number had dwindled to a range of 350 to 400 individuals. By the year 1977, the Jewish population had further decreased to just 192 members.
The trend continued, and with the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, there was a continued emigration of Jews from Bursa to Israel, leading to a further reduction in the community’s size. Today, the Jewish community in Bursa consists of only around 60 members, highlighting the significant demographic changes that have occurred over the decades.
The Gerush Synagogue underwent a notable renovation during the 1700s, resulting in an inviting and aesthetically pleasing space. Distinguished by its ample natural light and distinctive architectural layout, the synagogue boasts a circular arrangement of pillars encircling the central bema, which serves as the focal point of the room and provides structural support for an elegant dome that gracefully arches overhead. Along the walls, benches provide seating, while the ark stands opposite the entrance. Notably, stained-glass lights adorn the entrance door, adding to the synagogue’s charm and ambiance. The Torah scrolls housed here hold historical significance, having been brought to Bursa from Spain by Sephardic immigrants five centuries ago.
During our visit, we had the pleasure of meeting Joseph Hazzan, a devoted volunteer at the synagogue and a native member of the community. Joseph shared with NYJTG that Rabbi Isaac Behar, traveling from Istanbul, presides over the Shabbat services at the synagogue. However, maintaining a minyan, the quorum of ten required for certain Jewish prayers can be a challenge. Joseph explained, “Three out of four Shabbats, we manage to assemble a minyan, and our services are conducted in Hebrew.” He went on to mention that it becomes even more challenging during the summer when many community members are away on holiday, making it a stroke of luck to achieve a full minyan for two consecutive Shabbats. Notably, Joseph’s family dynamic adds a unique layer of diversity to the community, as he is married to a Muslim woman who has not yet converted, and their 15-year-old daughter celebrated her bat mitzvah at the synagogue.
The Bursa Jewish community is notably small, comprising just 20 families, most of whom are elderly, without young children, and with only a few women in attendance. The restoration and ongoing maintenance of the synagogue have primarily been made possible through the support of the Turkish Jewish Community in Istanbul. Joseph also shared that during the Jewish holidays of Succoth and Passover, the synagogue sees larger congregations coming together for services, which are then followed by a delightful and traditional Turkish breakfast spread. This breakfast typically includes Bourekas (savory stuffed turnovers), Boyos (small spinach pies), cheese, coffee, and Arak.
In the past, members of the Jewish community in Bursa would make a journey to Ankara to pay homage to the Mausoleum of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic. It is a common practice in many communities to offer prayers for the well-being of the country and its government, in accordance with the command from 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 is reflected in a Jewish prayer for Atatürk, present in a pre-1938 Turkish adaptation of the “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.
The author took part in a press trip sponsored by the Turkey Tourism Promotion and Development Agency (TGA).