If you want to visit Turkey’s glorious historic synagogues, you must plan ahead and be mindful of security concerns, writes Mark I. Pinsky. In an article published several weeks ago in The Forward, he details his visits to centuries-old synagogues in Istanbul, Izmir and Bursa.
Security is a serious issue with Turkish synagogues, so there are no spontaneous visits. Well before you go, you (or your tour company) need to contact the Turkish Jewish Community (firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com), fill out and return a security form, send a photocopy of the front page of your passport and wait for a response. When you arrive, make appointments for each visit or service.
The process, he writes, is worth it. In Bursa, a city of 2 million across the sea of Marmora from Istanbul:
Gerush Synagogue was established in 1494, and survived the city’s catastrophic earthquake of 1855 with the loss of just a few of its red roof tiles. From the central dome hangs a crystal chandelier that lights the bimah. In a small side room are ancient texts in Hebrew, Spanish and Ladino, and pottery and delicate silk embroidery done by women of the congregation.
At both Gerush and up the lane at the Mayor Synagogue, founded by immigrants from the island of Mayorca, there is a unique architectural flourish: Above the back entrance to the sanctuary is a small, narrow balcony — a pulpit in the air — flanked by two narrow stairways. The balcony, which extends, tongue-like, from the wall, is used only on High Holy Days and special occasions.
In Izmir, Pinsky’s first stop was “the Street of Synagogues, a narrow, winding lane that is home to six to eight synagogues, depending on whether you count several burnt-out ruins, most dating back 300 years or more.”
Indeed there are believed to be 13 synagogues or remains of synagogues in the Synagogue Complex, out of 34 that once stood. There is currently a project under way to save and restore these buildings.
The Central Izmir Synagogue Complex, located in the heart of the historic city center, consists of nine adjacent synagogues constructed in diverse sixteenth century Sephardic styles. Despite their non-monumental exteriors, the sanctuaries exemplify exceptional interior planning and craftsmanship. Perhaps the most distinct characteristic of the Izmir synagogues is the unusual “triple arrangement” of the Torah ark, which creates a unique harmonious ambience. The central positioning of the bimah (elevated platform) between four columns divided the synagogues into nine parts.