The Great Synagogue in Edirne, Turkey, has been reopened after a $2.5 million, 5-year government-funded restoration process that brought the once-ruined building back to its original glory. Only one Jew is believed to live in the town, but the synagogue will be consecrated for religious use as well as for general cultural purposes as a museum.
The synagogue’s bright yellow exterior is a burst of light among the dilapidated wooden houses and concrete apartment blocks in Edirne’s former Jewish quarter. Inside, painters painstakingly decorated the ceiling with thousands of stars, as beams of sunlight passed through a colonnade of neat arches.
“It looks like its old self,” said [the town’s last Jew, Rifat] Mitrani, standing beside the polished marble of the ark bearing the Ten Commandments.
Hundreds of people — including foreign dignitaries, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister and Government Spokesperson Bülent Arinç and other government officials, as well as what officials estimated as 500 members of the Turkish Jewish community — attended the rededication events March 26. These included the first religious service to be held there in 46 years, Hurriyet Daily News reported. It was conducted by Davud Azuz, who had led the last service at the synagogue 46 years ago.
Before the ceremony, Turkish officials and members of the Jewish community visited the Jewish cemetery in Edirne.
The synagogue, with two low side towers and tripartite facade, replaced 13 synagogues that had been destroyed in a fire that swept Edirne in 1905. It could accommodate 1,200 worshipers, 900 men and 300 women.
A press release from the Turkish embassy in Washington DC said construction began in January 1906 after “gaining the permission of the Ottoman Government and following the edict of Abdul Hamid II. The site, in Edirne’s former Jewish quarter, previously hosted the Mayor and Pulya Synagogues in the county of Kaleiçi.”
French architect France Depré, it said, is believed to have modeled the Edirne synagogue, known as the “Kal Kadoş Agadol” or the Great Synagogue, on the Ottoman Sephardic Synagogue in Vienna. The Edirne synagogue was opened for service on the eve of Pesach in April, 1909 and was used by the Jewish community until the 1970s and 1980s. After it was finally abandoned in 1983, it and stood derelict for decades; undergoing further damage when Its roof collapsed in 1997, leaving only the walls and facade.
The refurbishment began in 2010, the press release said, “as part of an effort to support religious freedom and social life requirements of various religious groups in Turkey.” It was overseen by Turkey’s Prime Ministry General Directorate of Foundations.
The project restored the synagogue’s roof, lead-clad domes and opulent interior, it said. Steps in the process included:
— Cleaning and fortification of foundations and reconstruction of demolished walls; erection of steel construction and remounting of the roof..
— The Hebrew inscriptions on the walls of the synagogue were read, transcribed and translated with the contribution of the Turkish Jewish Community and the Chief Rabbinate of Turkey.
— Floor covering task was completed by an Armenian Master, Baron Nalbant, in accordance with the original patterns and colours.
— Restoration works were conducted in consultation with a Scientific Committee composed of five experts in their fields.
The Daily Sabah news site reported:
Initially earmarked to serve as a museum, it was later decided to use it both as a museum and a synagogue. There is no Jewish community in Edirne, save for one family, although previously some 20,000 Jews lived there in the early 20th century. Most emigrated to Istanbul, other cities or abroad either for economic reasons or live in Israel after its creation. In 1934, a nationalist mob launched attacks on the Jewish quarters of Edirne, looting stores and beating up Jews. Similar incidents were reported in nearby towns where Jews lived, which led to a larger exodus of Jews from the northwestern Turkey.
Last fall, there was a ruckus over the synagogue after what appeared to be an attempt to use the nearly-completed restoration of the synagogue 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 to be used solely as a museum. Citing the Israeli police action at al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem earlier that month, and admitting “huge hatred,” he 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.
This triggered outrage, and 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.