Jewish Heritage tour of Istanbul for cruise and land travelers.

JEWISH ISTANBUL  - Full Day with Lunch

We will start our tour of the city first with a visit to the 500 Anniversary Foundation, Turkish-Jewish Museum commemorating the migration of Jews en mass from Spain & Portugal during the Inquisition in 1492.  

The museum is housed in a beautiful old Synagogue, the Zulfaris Synagogue dating back to the second half of the 17th century. Following the visit to the museum we will then drive along the shores of the Golden Horn and visit some of the major Jewish Heritage sites of Istanbul.  The first among these will be the Ahrida Synagogue in the Balat district of Istanbul where most of the old synagogues of the city are located.   Balat originally was a zone between the most pious Moslem district of Eyup on one side and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Greek Orthodox  Church in Fener.  The area was a hum of activity when the middle and upper middle class Jewish families were leaving here, while the really wealthy preferred the more modern parts of the city like Galata / Pera on the other side of the Golden Horn.  It was here in Balat that the Jewish Communities established the divisions between the Romaniote (Byzantine), Sephardic (from Spain and Portugal) and the Ashkenazi (from central and eastern Europe) and the Italian Jews.  

‘Yet in the early Ottoman period the neighbourhoods of Istanbul were organised in a different fashion.  During the 15th-17th centuries certain neighbourhoods, (Balat, Hasköy and Kuzguncuk) were so predominantly Jewish that they were locally recognised as “Jewish Neighbourhoods”, (Yahudi mahallesi).  The 19th century saw a shift to the district of Galata as a major focus of Jewish life.  All in all, Jews lived in most of the neighbourhoods of the city.  

The Jewish neighbourhoods that did witness a large influx of Jews were not by any means European style “ghettos”.  Jews tended to flock together for reasons of both social and religious, but there was never any pressure, either political or governmental, to isolate their presence in the city.’[1] The Ahrida Synagogue is the oldest and probably the most beautiful of all the Jewish synagogues of the city.  Named after the city of Ohrid in Macedonia and built by the Romaniote Jews of Byzantine in the early 15th century it dates back to pre-Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453.  

The Synagogue is also well known due to the rather devastating incident for the World Jewry, when in the 19th century, when Shabetai Zevi announced his Messianic Mission to the local Jewish community.  The building underwent its last major restoration in 1955 but due to the 500th Anniversary Celebrations considerable restoration also took place in the early 1990’s.  

The Synagogue can seat almost 500 people. The following Synagogue will be the Yanbol Synagogue, named after the Bulgarian city of Yanbol and again built in the Byzantine period.  The building was restored in 1875 and is open only during the festivities of Succoth.  We will then visit the Jewish Community Hospital ‘Or-Ahayim’, located not so far from the Synagogues, and built in 1899 with both local and foreign donations.  There is a little synagogue inside the hospital and is named after the Kadoorifamily from Iraq who had donated generously for the building of the hospital.  Though originally built by and for the Jews, today it serves a predominantly a non-Jewish population. Following the hospital we will try to visit the oldest of all the Jewish cemeteries in Constantinopolis.  Originally again dating back to the Byzantine period it ceased to be used as a cemetery since 1939.  We do have historical records that the first Chief Rabbi of Istanbul under the Ottoman rule of Mehmet the Conqueror, Moses Capsali, was buried here in 1499. 

Following the visit to the cemetery we will cross the Golden Horn to its northern shore and come to Haskoy.  Once a very predominantly Jewish neighbourhood with almost 11,000 strong in the 17th century.  The area was a almost a terminus for waves of Jewish immigrants arriving from all over the world then.  

Together with the already existing Romaniote Jews of Byzantine to whom a group of Ashkenazi Jews from Frankfurt were added in 1483 and the prominent families of Iberian Jews earlier, Haskoy became one of the main points of Jewish culture and heritage in Istanbul. ‘The story of Haskoy is in fact the story of Golden Age of Istanbul Jewry.  

Under the charismatic leadership of Jews such as Moshe Hamon, personal physician and advisor to Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, it was in this neighbourhood that the timeless character of the Jewish community first crystallised.  The most and foremost among the places worth a visit is the Old-Age Home of Haskoy, Moshav Zekinim.  This building originally was the famous Camondo Institute between the years 1858-1889 and was considered as the best Jewish educational establishment in the old capital.  The Institute also had a separate branch with the sole purpose of training rabbis.  In 1970’s the building was converted to the Old-Age Home.  

There are approximately 60+ elderly residents served both by professional medical help and volunteers from the community. The area also houses some important synagogues especially of the once flourishing Karaite Jews of Crimean Peninsula in southern Russia.  Once the Russians conquered Crimea, in the late 19th century, many of the Karaite Jews immediately found refuge in Istanbul thus making the region as the centre of Karaite Jews in the Balkans.  This Karaite synagogue is called the “Bnai Mikra”.  As all of the Karaite Synagogues are this one is also is underground.  The principle of this practice originated from the Old Testament (Psalms 130:1) “From the depths I called to thee, O Lord”. 

Following the visit to the synagogue we will continue and move into the more modern parts of Istanbul, where the Jewish community of Istanbul has flourished.  The general history of Galata / Pera or Beyoglu, in Turkish dates back to the Byzantine times when this northern tip of the Golden Horn was a dynamic commercial centre and where the Genoese merchants of Italy had formed a rich mercantile community among which Jewish elements had an important role.  

This particular aspect of this trading colony was continued by the Ottomans after the conquest in 1453 as it also served their imperial interests and the Jews served loyally and faithfully as a conduit between the Moslem Ottoman Empire and the world at large.  Later on in the late 17th century and onwards the district became the part where all the foreigners residing in the Ottoman capital, including all the corps diplomatique with their lavish ‘chancelleries and residences’.  Then in the 19th century, the area started to play another important role in the Imperial designs.  First home to many modern ideas and tools the Pera district became the European face of Istanbul at the time, allowing the initial ideas of political, economic and social reform being discussed in its cafes, restaurants and clubs.  It was in this mood that the Tunel ‘tunnel’-first ever metro outside Europe was opened in 1875, the Pera Palace Hotel served the likes of European kings, princes and princess’.  

When the old defensive walls of the Genoese settlements were torn down the Buyuk Hendek Street came into existence and this was the centre of the Jewish quarter of the city.  By the late 19th century Pera had over a dozen Jewish owned banks and some very prominent families such as the Camondo family.  Obviously the most active of the Jewish synagogues today in Istanbul is the Neve Shalom Synagogue.  The building we shall be visiting was built in1952 but a synagogue of the same name is said to have existed since the 15th century.  Unfortunately the Neve Shalom Synagogue became the focus of international news in 1986 when Arab terrorists attacked it on September 06th Sabbath morning killing 21 worshippers and the elderly shamash.  

The massacre shocked the Jewish and Turkish communities the same condemnation of all levels of Turkish society followed. The region also has other several synagogues such as the Italian (1887), that served the Italian origin Jews and later also the Bulgarian Jews who banded together against the more traditional main segment of the Jewish community.  Another is the Edirneli (Adrianopolis) Synagogue that served Jews who had settled after their move to Istanbul, the Ashkenazi Synagogue which still is a functioning institution and for some the most beautiful and well-preserved synagogues of the city. Rates on IMPORTANT NOTE: All sites included in the program are under the security control of the Istanbul Chief Rabbi’s Office and are visited only on an appointment basis therefore, the clients are encouraged to book in advance.  Copy of passport is required to be submitted.

Please note, this is a sample itinerary and will be customized on request to add more sightseeing.  Our partners in Turkey have strong connection with the Jewish community , with advance notice, visit with Jewish community can also be arranged. There are some kosher restaurants which serve kosher meals.