(500 Yil Vakfi Türk Musevileri, The Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews)
Housed in a building attached to the Neve Shalom synagogue near the Galata Tower, this museum was established in 2001 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire, and moved to its current location in 2014. The imaginatively curated and chronologically arranged interactive collection comprises photographs, video, sound recordings and objects that document the history of the Jewish people in Turkey. Visitors must have a photo ID with them to enter.
The history of Jews in İstanbul is as long as it is fascinating. Jews were granted freedom of religion and worship in Anatolia by the Seljuks (1077–1308), but weren’t treated as liberally by the Byzantines in Constantinople. This led many of them to view the Ottomans as saviours, particularly when Mehmet II made the following offer to Jews fleeing Spain in 1492: ‘The God has presented me with many lands and ordered me to take care of the dynasty of his servants Abraham and Jacob…Who, amongst you, with the consent of God, would like to settle in İstanbul, live in peace in the shade of the figs and vineyards, trade freely and own property?’ By the end of the Ottoman Empire, there were tens of thousands of Jews living in the city (10,000 in the neighbourhood of Balat alone, and nearly as many in Hasköy).
Alas, this enlightened state didn’t last through the centuries, and Jewish Turks were made to feel considerably less welcome when racially motivated ‘wealth taxes’ were introduced in 1942; these applied until 1944. Many members of the community emigrated to the newly established nation of Israel between 1947 and 1949 and others left when violence against Jews and other minorities was unleashed in the 1950s. More recently Islamist terrorists have bombed synagogues on a number of occasions, including here at the Neve Shalom and at Şişli’s Bet Israel synagogue on 15 November 2003. Twenty-four people (six Jews and 18 Muslims) died as a result of these bombings.
Fascinating objects in the museum’s collection include an array of Jewish ceremonial regalia with Turkish Ottoman influence, including a 19th-century hanukkiah (menorah made just for Hanukkah) in the shape of a minaret. Other highlights include a section about the Ladino language that includes musical recordings.
The Neve Shalom synagogue was built in 1951 and has the largest congregation in the city. It is possible to order kosher food packages to collect from the museum (call at least one day ahead); you can also enjoy a kosher meal in the museum’s cafe.
Approximately 17,000 Jews currently live in Turkey, with 1700 residing in İstanbul (most in the suburbs of Nişantaşı, Etiler, Kemerburguz and Gayrettepe). Sephardic Jews make up around 96% of this number, while the rest are primarily Ashkenazic. There are a total of 19 functioning synagogues in the city.
DOCUMENTS NEEDED FOR VISITING THE MUSEUM:
Officially issued identity card or a passport is necessary.