There was a disturbing ruckus this past week over what appeared to be an attempt to use the nearly-completed restoration of the 1907 Büyük Synagogue (Great Synagogue) in Edirne, Turkey as a political tool within the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
On November 21, the governor of Edirne, Dursun Şahin, told reporters that he would order the synagogue, undergoing an approx, $2 million restoration since 2010 in the city’s old town Kaleiçi district, to be turned into a museum. Citing the Israeli police action at al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem earlier this month, and admitting “huge hatred,” he clearly targeted restriction of the Edirne synagogue restoration in retaliation for this, claiming it was unfair to care for Jewish sites or foster Jewish projects in Turkey while Israeli “bandits blow winds of war” at Muslim sites.
As the daily Hurriyet reported:
“While those bandits blow winds of war inside al-Aqsa and slay Muslims, we build their synagogues,” Şahin said.
“I say this with a huge hatred inside me. We clean their graveyards, send their projects to boards. But the synagogue here will be registered only as a museum, and there will be no exhibitions inside it.”
Şahin’s words triggered outrage.
“Developments in the Middle East do not give anyone the right to turn Turkish Jews, who are proud to be a part of the Ottoman and Turkish nation, into targets. We are concerned over such a statement voiced by a governor who represents the state,” the Turkish Jewish Community and the Office of the Chief Rabbi said in a statement.
An opposition political leader called for Şahin’s resignation “to save the dignity of his post and Turkey’s honor,” citing “hatred and anti-Semitism.”
In the end, Adnan Ertem, the director general of the state’s Directorate General of Foundations, which owns the building, stepped in. In a statement November 22, he told Anadolu Agency that once restored, the synagogue — as originally planned — would be used for general cultural purposes but also for Jewish worship.
“All decisions regarding the functions of the buildings owned by the Directorate General of Foundations are taken by the directorate,” he told Anadolu. “Our intentions is to keep that building as a house of worship to serve all visitors.”
He said in a statement, “It will serve both as a place of worship and a museum, just like the Sultanahmet Mosque or the Süleymaniye Mosque.”
The synagogue, with two low side towers and tripartite facade, was built in 1907 to replace the city’s 13 synagogues that had been destroyed in a fire that swept Edirne in 1905.
It was used by the Jewish community until the 1970s and 1980s, but abandoned in 1983 and stood derelict for years. Ownership was transferred to the Foundations Department in 1995. The building’s roof collapsed in 1997, leaving only the walls and facade.