Jewish heritage revived: Kemeraltı synagogues in Izmir to reopen as museum

Kemeraltı Synagogues.

Built by Sephardic Jews who immigrated from Spain to Anatolia, Kemeraltı synagogues quarter of the Aegean province of Izmir will soon welcome visitors as an open-air museum.

Izmir is one of the many Turkish cities to have hosted different cultures and beliefs throughout history. The texture of Izmir, where Jews, Greeks, Armenians, Levantines and Turks have all lived, still bears traces of this multiculturalism.

There is no doubt that the Jews came first among the peoples to contribute to the cultural structure of Izmir in history. With the support of the Ottoman Empire, which embraced the Jews fleeing the Inquisition, Jews came from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and settled, building important cultural riches in Anatolian lands since their arrival. In Izmir, which houses synagogue ruins dating back to ancient times, this Jewish community also played a major role in the city’s multicultural identity and constructed spellbinding synagogues for worship here.

The Jewish people reportedly constructed 34 synagogues in Izmir over the course of history, nine of which can be found in the Kemeraltı quarter. These Kemeraltı synagogues will soon serve as cultural centers and host visitors following preservation and restoration work. Among them are the Bikur Holim, Bet Hillel, Portugal, Etz Hayim, Hevra, Şalom, Algazi, Forasteros and Sinyora synagogues.

While some of these synagogues remained open to worship uninterruptedly for 300-400 years, others became unusable due to earthquakes, fires and neglect. To remedy the situation, the Izmir Jewish Community set to work to protect the places of worship. Conservation and restoration are being carried out within the framework of the Izmir Jewish Heritage Project, which is being executed in cooperation with local governments, national and international organizations, and various nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).

The first phase of the restoration of the synagogues and streets that connect them will be completed in June this year, and the region will be opened to visit with tour packages. Within the framework of cultural tourism, they will also host events like exhibitions and concerts in some of the synagogues to draw in more interest, with an eye on cultural tourism.

Priority in conservation work

Coordinator of the Izmir Jewish Heritage Project, Nesim Bencoya, told Anadolu Agency (AA) that they set out to protect the Jewish cultural heritage and within this scope are working to establish an open-air museum and visitor center in the area home to the synagogues.

Noting that nine synagogues and one chief rabbinate building fall within the project, Bencoya elaborated on the work being done: “We are currently in the phase of salvage work. Besides synagogues that work as a whole and have good structures, there are also collapsed synagogues in this area. First of all, we are carrying out work to restore and protect those synagogues. We restored Bet Hillel Synagogue and Hayim Palaçi Memorial House with the support of the Izmir Metropolitan Municipality. The Etz Hayim Synagogue was first restored with the help of the U.S. Embassy, then the Izmir Development Agency (IZKA) and the Izmir Jewish Community. The Hevra and Forasteros synagogues had completely collapsed. We took one under protection last year, and we continue the conservation work on the other.”

The Shalom Synagogue. Photo: Jewish Telegraphic Agency

According to the news of Daily Sabah, the project coordinator said they plan to showcase the synagogues as an open-air museum, which will open to visitors in the middle of the year. However, “This does not mean that the works will be totally completed in these places,” Bencoya noted, adding “but those who come to Kemeraltı will be able to visit these cultural centers and feel the spirit of history.”

Pointing out that the Jewish museums in Berlin and Prague host approximately 750,000 visitors from all religions and nationalities throughout the year, Bencoya said: “World-famous Jewish museums attract tourists from all over the world. We, likewise, want 300,000 visitors to Kemeraltı synagogues in the first phase. This is an attainable goal as synagogues that have been built so close to each other in just an area are not seen in any other part of the world. With these synagogues, a direct connection has been established between Spain and Izmir.”

Emphasizing the many facets of the Jewish heritage, Bencoya said the food and music of the Sephardic Jews could also serve as an advantage in terms of tourism. He underlined that the region should be actively promoted and introduced abroad in terms of tourism, adding: “We think the Jewish cultural heritage will be an important source of income for the city. The whole region will benefit from this tourism activity with accommodation, gastronomy and shopping opportunities.”

Kemeraltı synagogues

The building of the Bikur Holim Synagogue was donated by Salomon de Ciaves, who was a Portuguese-born Dutch immigrant from Izmir, in 1724. De Ciaves also ensured that all the books and sacred objects needed for a synagogue were purchased, in addition, he donated some of the adjacent houses and shops to the synagogue to generate income. This basement of this Kemeraltı synagogues was used as a hospital during one of the frequent epidemics in the city. Therefore, it was named “Bikur Holim,” meaning patient visitation, from then on.

Bet Hillel Synagogue was established by the Palaçi family. Rabbi Hayim Palaçi and his son Rabbi Avraham Palaçi were the greatest religious scholars of their period. It is said that their fame crossed the borders of Turkey and even Jewish religious figures came to Izmir to consult these two rabbis. Rabbi Hayim Palaçi was awarded the order of “religious man in charge of justice” by Sultan Abdülmecid. After the restoration by Izmir Metropolitan Municipality, the synagogue was opened to visitors as Hayim Palaçi Memorial House.

The Portuguese Synagogue reflects where its founders immigrated from with its name. The synagogue was used as a center by those who were against the Sephardic Jewish mystic and Rabbi Sabbatai Zevi. But Sabbatai Zevi and his supporters broke into the synagogue, expelled the rabbis and began to use it for their own purposes. The synagogue was also damaged during a fire in 1976.

Etz Hayim is a synagogue left from the Byzantine period. The synagogue has survived many fires and earthquakes over its history. After being damaged by a fire in 1841, a philanthropist named Daniel De Sidi repaired the building in 1851.

Hevra Synagogue is also known as the Talmud Tora Synagogue. This synagogue was also suffered a lot of damage in several incidences and was rebuilt. Although it was reconstructed by the brothers Çelebi and Menachem Hacez after a fire in September 1838, it burned in another fire once again in 1841.

Şalom Synagogue, which is also known as El Kal de La Tromba, was allocated to Jews arriving from Aydın in the 1930s. The building was started to be called Aydınlılar Havrası (The Synagogue of Those from Aydın). As one of the most authentic synagogues in Izmir, the construction bears engraving-like decorations called “kalem işi.” In the decoration of the synagogue, the Jews were inspired by the Ottoman galleons that brought them from Spain in the 15th century.

The Algazi Synagogue was commissioned by Ishak Algazi from the Algazi family, who raised important religious scholars in their period. After Beth Israel Synagogue, it is the largest Jewish place of worship in Izmir. The synagogue, also known as Algaze, differs from the others as it does not have an area just for women known as the “azara.”

It is thought that the Forasteros Synagogue, which literally means “foreigners,” was founded by foreigners who immigrated to Izmir from the Aegean islands, Greece and various European countries, but its date is unknown. According to another argument, the synagogue was built in the 17th century by foreign traders (Los Frankos). The synagogue, which was thought to have been completely destroyed and rebuilt in the 1688 earthquake, was renovated once again after 1841, following various outbreaks of fire.

According to popular belief, the Sinyora Synagogue was built with donations of Dona Gracia Nasi, famously known by her nickname La Senora, who held an important position in the Ottoman Empire with a role of leadership in the Sephardic world. Burned several times in the 16th and 17th centuries, the building was completely destroyed in the fire of 1841 and was rebuilt with the contributions of Moiz Bengiat Yerushalmi.