Bikur Cholim Synagogue
The Jerusalem Post reported that Izmir is Turkey’s third largest city with c4 million people. Izmir aka Smyrna is the principal seaport of Western Anatolia on the coast of the Aegean Sea.
The Jewish community in Izmir goes back to the C4th BC. The city’s oldest district, Kemeralti, was home to the densest concentration of Jewish landmarks in Roman Turkey. After the conquest of Jerusalem, Alexander the Great brought some Jews to Izmir. But during the Byzantine Empire, the data were unclear.
There were some strictures placed on synagogues planners in the Kemeralti district. They could not build structures that were higher than the mosques. So the synagogues were relatively small and intimate, but they were always special.
There was no record of the Jewish community there when the Ottomans conquered the city in 1424, although the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal in the late 1490s was a pivotal juncture in Jewish presence in Turkey. The most detailed information about Jewish communities in the Ottoman rule came when the Sephardic Jews settled in Izmir, as it became an important trade centre in C17th. Jews did have to pay the Ottomans a poll tax, but they were free to practise their religion unhindered, to run their own rabbinical courts and to impose penalties on sinners.
In the C19th, the Jewish population in Izmir was c20,000. Turkish Jews had a lot more freedom than European Jews and fewer riots. They did not experience the Inquisition, they did not go through WW2 nor the Holocaust. And Turkish Jews had much better relations with the state authorities than European Jews. Nonetheless post WW2, the local Jews started to immigrate to the newly founded Israel. Today only 2000 Jews are living in Izmir.
The synagogue descriptions and photos come from Eskinazi. Algaze Synagogue is one of the many synagogues in the Karatas district, built in 1724 by the Algaze family. Restorations in the C20th saw the bimah/reading platform located in the centre of the building surrounded by 4 columns and elevated by 4 steps. The interior of the Algaze Synagogue in Izmir is still light and airy.
Shalom Synagogue is one of the oldest synagogues in Izmir, built in the C16th, opposite Algaze Synagogue. The building survived the great fire, but needed two restorations in 1800 and 1841 anyway. The elevated bimah is surrounded by 4 columns and its ceiling has amazing geometrical shapes. The arched recesses running along the southern wall stands out, as does the unusual seating arrangements with cushioned benches set against the perimeter wall. This synagogue, like the vast majority of others in the now largely neglected market quarter, became a Sephardic community.
Signora Giveret Synagogue, built by Donna Garcia Mendes in the C16th, is also in the Karatas district. Originally built in Sephardic-style, 1841’s great fire damaged the synagogue, so the Yerushalmi family rebuilt the building entirely in a basilica design.. Seats of the synagogues are linear, and like the other synagogues in Izmir, the bimah is close to the ark. The hall is decorated by landscape art.
The Bikur Holim synagogue, founded in 1724 by Dutchman Shalom de Chaves, incorporated a vibrant mix of yellows and greens. The sumptuous interior design, with fine wood and marble structures and fittings, and delightful frescoes above the bima pillars, has frieze-like ceiling partitions. The building was devastated by fire twice and was beautifully restored both times.
In a 1904 order, Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid wanted Beth Israel Synagogue in the Karatas district for the Jews living locally. This synagogue was built in the church form, a result of the Italian effect in the C20th, and has two bimahs that were elevated by 4 steps. It remains very active.
Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue is the second most active site in Izmir. Its original look was lost because of restorations, and because this synagogue is now all concrete. It was built as 3 floors and the bimah is elevated by two steps.
Marble ark and chandeliers
Signora Giveret Synagogue
Izmir was divided into five separate districts: Muslim Turk, Armenian, The First Juderia-Jewish, Greek and Levantine districts. At that time Izmir hosted 34 synagogues that served, in the great 18th & C19th, a local Jewish population of c50,000. Today only 13 synagogues remain, and some of them are back-to-back. The proliferation of prayer houses and the ability of Jews to maintain their their heritage in Izmir was largely due to the local authorities’ benevolence.
Mordechai Kiriaty Foundation sponsored Izmir Project will restore and conserve 9 synagogues. The Foundation’s goal is to create a Jewish cultural centre and Museum under one expansive roof, incorporating the 9 buildings. The First Juderia is a unique quarter of Spanish-Judeo synagogue architecture that fed off the Golden Age of Spanish art and culture, and some Italian.
The Kiriaty Foundation is supported by prestigious international organisations eg the European Council and World Monument Fund. Local sponsors include the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism. And note iconic architect Daniel Libeskind is designing the Izmir Jewish Heritage Visitors’ Centre.
Map of Turkey
Izmir on west coast
As Izmir is located very close to Kusadasi Port, the private Izmir Jewish Heritage Tours cover some synagogues, old Jewish neighbourhoods, C16th Rabbi Shabtai Tzvi’s home and the ancient city of Sardis and its old synagogue ruins. Sardis was an ancient city that had a Jewish community in the C4th BC. Archaeologists found the Sardis Synagogue ruins during an excavation in the 1960s. The rectangular structure of the building was 120 ms long and 18 ms wide, big enough for c1000 people. The floor had wonderful mosaics that showed the community’s high economic status!