Once a jewel of the Diaspora, 150 years ago the Jewish community of Izmir on Turkey’s Aegean coast numbered over 30,000. It was the hometown of notable figures, from the Ladino singer Dario Moreno to the renowned Rabbi Haim Pallachi. Today, the city’s Jewish community has dwindled to barely 1,000 members.
But Izmir’s residents and visitors will soon be able to get a taste of what the city was like when it was home to the third-largest Jewish community in the Ottoman empire.
Thanks to the Izmir Jewish heritage project, nine historic synagogues in Izmir’s old town, known as Kemeralti, have been restored and will soon be open to the public as museums, starting in June. The neighborhood, which sits not far from a promenade on the Gulf of Izmir, is one of the largest open markets in the world, attracting tourists from all over Europe and beyond
Six of the nine synagogues stand next to each other, practically wall to wall, surrounding a courtyard, while the other three are dispersed throughout the neighborhood. In addition to the synagogues, also undergoing restoration is the former office of the city’s chief rabbi. Just a few minutes’ walk away in the neighborhood is the childhood home of Shabbetai Tzvi and a building that once housed a kosher winery.
Once complete, the synagogues will serve as a living museum to Izmir’s Jewish history, with exhibits on local customs as well as on the history of the individual synagogues and their congregants — such as the Algazi synagogue, which is named after the musical family of its rabbi, or the Portekiz synagogue, which was founded in the 16th century by North African Jews of Portuguese descent.
Nesim Bencoya, director of the heritage project, said that “Even if there will not be one single Jew in Izmir, people will be able to say, look, there was a Jewish civilization here”.
Bencoya said that his project, which is mostly funded by the European Union, was inspired by the restoration of other historic Jewish neighborhoods, such as that done in Prague, whose Jewish quarter is now a major attraction for visitors to the central European city. Small towns in Spain are also looking to renovate (and in some cases unearth) ancient synagogues.
Jews have lived in Izmir, once known in Greek as Smyrna, since antiquity. Since the city was also a center of early Christianity, Jews are mentioned in church documents dating back to the second century CE. The oldest of the restored synagogues, Etz Hayim, is attested to in records as far back as the 1600s, but local tradition holds that it has been around since the era of the Byzantine Empire.
The relative tolerance afforded by the Ottoman Empire allowed the community to flourish, and by the turn of the 20th century, Ladino-speaking Jews made up 10 percent of the city, the second-largest non-Turkish group after Greeks, who made up about half the city.