This is major — a vast Digitized Database of Turkish Jewish Cemeteries has just been launched online and made available to the public by the Goldstein Goren Diaspora Research Center at Tel Aviv University.
Called A World Beyond: Jewish Cemeteries in Turkey 1583-1990 and dedicated to the memory of the oriental studies scholar Bernard Lewis, who died in 2018, the database is the culmination of decades of research by Prof. Minna Rozen and comprises digital images and detailed textual content of more than 61,000 Jewish gravestones from a variety of communities in Turkey from 1583 until 1990. Rozen’s onsite documentation of the cemeteries was carried out in 1988-1990. The material was digitized in the 1990s but until now had not been publicly accessible.
The computerized database, containing 61,022 Jewish tombstones from across Turkey, is the largest tombstone database in the world. The fruit of the labor of numerous individuals and bodies, its primary goals are to preserve the remnants of the gradually-disappearing Jewish life in Turkey, aid scholars to paint a broader and richer picture of the past, and enable interested laypersons to search for their roots. […]
The website offers a sophisticated research platform that enables a very broad range of search options, including the epigraphical content of the gravestones, the materials used, and their ornamental elements. This website is unique in the academic world both for its sheer size and for the research opportunities it opens up to its users.
The database provides access to detailed information on Jewish cemeteries in a score of towns and cities around Turkey, from big city cemeteries with thousands of graves, to out of the way graveyards with only a few dozen:
Using the complex search functions, you can seek out individual gravestones or search the cemeteries by a range of criteria, including date, type of tomb (eg. slab, upright, coffin-like), name and/or sex of the deceased, type of ornamentation of the gravestone, and more.
the database is considered a “beta” version and the project team recognizes that there are still some kinks to be be worked out. They ask that users point out glitches and suggest improvements by contacting them at firstname.lastname@example.org
The web site (under “About this Project”) described the inception of this project more than 30 years ago:
In the mid-1980s, Prof. Bernard Lewis, one of the great historians of the Ottoman Empire and Muslim world was approached by Nuri Arlasız, an avid collector of Ottoman art. Nuri Bey to whom no beauty in the world was alien , urged Prof. Lewis to help save the Jewish cemeteries of Istanbul and prevent their treasures from being plundered or destroyed by natural causes. Then in 1987, a group of Istanbuli Jews got together and organized a series of events marking the 500th anniversary of Spanish Jewish settlement in the Ottoman Empire, to be held in 1992. Sanctioned by the Turkish Republic, the enterprise was headed by the businessman Jak Kamhi.
Rather than seeking to preserve and restore the Jewish cemeteries, Prof. Lewis – whose vision and support defined this project – proposed that they should be documented, understanding that they would have little chance of surviving in the absence of a live Jewish community and in a culture in which tombs are generally not venerated.
In 1987, Prof. Minna Rozen, responsible for generating the database, was sent to Istanbul to examine the feasibility of the project. A working framework having been created, the Quincentennial Foundation (500 Yil Vakfi)—established by Turkish Jewry to mark the 500th jubilee of Spanish Jewish settlement in the Ottoman Empire —and the Annenberg Institute in Philadelphia, then directed by Prof. Lewis, agreed to jointly carry it out.
Prof. Rozen took a sabbatical from Tel Aviv University, spending two years (1988–1990) documenting the Jewish cemeteries across Turkey. During this time, a team of two photographers, twenty workers, and three research assistants cleaned up, mapped, photographed, and arranged over 100,000 photos of 61,022 Jewish tombstones. Not all the cemeteries in the country were documented, an emphasis being placed on the most ancient and those under threat of disappearance due to urban expansion or neglect. When Prof. Rozen returned to Israel with the fruit of her research, the Annenberg Institute terminated its support for the project.
At this point, Prof. Lewis stepped in personally, through Tel Aviv University, with a gift of $50,000 to enable the deciphering of the inscriptions and the digitalization of the photos. The Israel Science Foundation awarded Prof. Rozen a grant of $60,000 for the same purpose. The deciphering and scanning of the inscriptions, carried out under her supervision and guidance, continued until 1999. At the same time, Prof. Rozen and Mr. Jacob Feigerson designed a research software to extract the greatest possible amount of historical information from the material. This formed the basis for the database. Since then, the database and program have served as the bedrock for numerous studies published by Prof. Rozen and her students. Only now, however, has the Goldstein-Goren Diaspora Research Centre at Tel Aviv University received funding to upload it and make it accessible to the public at large.