A Promise Of Survival

Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Special To The Jewish Week

Located at the edge of the sparkling Aegean Sea is the wondrous jewel of a city called Izmir, once known as Smyrna by the Greeks. Not only is it Turkey’s third largest city and one of its major ports, it is also home to an incredible wealth of Jewish history.

The hub of Jewish life there was once located around the Kemeralti Bazaar which still serves the local community. Nine synagogues were built within the bazaar on a single street called Havra Sokagi to serve the Jewish merchants and artisans who worked nearby, but today only three of them have been preserved in decent condition, and they are only occasionally in use.

Walking down the street of synagogues, you will find little indication that they exist except for signs above heavy wooden or iron doors. Yet when these doors are opened, the splendor behind them simply takes your breath away. Spanish architecture dominates the sanctuaries of the medieval-style synagogues; they are exquisitely furnished with Turkish carpets, Spanish-style carved wood bimas and holy arks, and beautifully carved wooden benches with lush cushions that rim the perimeters. Luxurious chandeliers add a warm, glowing presence to their elegant interiors. As Jews came to Izmir from Amsterdam, Italy and North Africa, they brought with them various styles of architecture that added to the synagogues’ uniqueness.

Sadly, only a handful of Jews are active in the community today, which has left the upkeep of the remaining historic synagogues in jeopardy and endangered the preservation of Jewish/Spanish culture. Until now.

There is an exciting international project under way to create a Jewish heritage museum and cultural complex at the site of the historic synagogues in the Kemeralti Bazaar. The object is to restore the synagogues and to establish an academic research and conference center to be used by Jewish, Muslim and other communities to enrich their knowledge of Turkey’s multicultural heritage and foster intercultural dialogue. Three synagogues will be reconstructed, and together with four others slated for restoration will form a religious area. Thousands of objects such as books, artworks, documents and textiles gleaned from the synagogues will be catalogued and restored for eventual selection in the museum.

The project is in the planning stages now under the efforts of the Mordechai Kiriaty Foundation, an international foundation supporting cultural and educational endeavors; the municipality of Izmir-Konak; the Izmir Sephardic Cultural Heritage Association (ISCHA) and the American Friends of Izmir Jewish Heritage Museum, which together will manage and support the museum by raising funds and encouraging both Jewish and non-Jewish tourism.

While Izmir’s Jewish heritage complex is being constructed over the next five years, you can still savor and explore the richness of Izmir’s other ancient treasures and historical attractions now.

Izmir boasts a coastline of bountiful beaches that delight locals and tourists alike. Breathtaking views of spectacular mountains await as you make your way along the Kordon, a long seaside promenade with plentiful parks, historical monuments, and cafés.

One of Izmir’s most ancient landmarks is the Agora of Smyrna, originally constructed for Alexander the Great more than 2,300 years ago and then rebuilt by Marcus Aurelius after an earthquake. Its Corinthian columns still stand as a reminder of the busy Roman marketplace.

The Museum of Archaeology is a treasure trove of artifacts that illuminate the history of western Anatolia, with collections from excavations in Smyrna, Ephesus, Pergamon, Miletus and other surrounding cities that illuminate the Ancient Roman and Hellenistic periods. Next to the archaeology museum is the Museum of Ethnography which focuses on daily life in Anatolia during the Ottoman Period. You’ll see life-size dioramas that depict carpet weaving, bead making, saddlery, and clog making, as well as several rooms in an Ottoman home.

Another museum devoted to a more modern era is the Ataturk Museum, once used by the army during the War of Liberation and then turned into a hotel where Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, founder of the Republic of Turkey, stayed when in the city. Now the museum houses some of Ataturk’s furniture, books, and personal objects in reconstructed rooms such as his library, office and dining room.

Izmir is a city for walking, and visitors can stroll among hundreds of types of trees and flowers from various parts of the world in Kulturpark. The park’s many acres encompass Izmir’s exposition center where each year Turkey’s International Fair takes place, a zoo with exotic animals and several outstanding museums including the Museum of History and Art with objects from prehistoric to Ottoman times, the Museum of Arts and Sculpture featuring works of Turkish artists and the Ataturk Open Air Theater with room for 3,000 spectators.

Located in the center of the city along the waterfront, Konak Square is a lovely area for strolling and relaxing. It’s known for its landmark Konak Tower, an ornate oriental clock tower with four lovely fountains, and the small, elegant Konak Mosque.

Another city landmark located in the community of Karatas is the Asansor, an elevator built by a Jewish businessman in 1907 to allow people to get from one street to another without having to climb 155 steps. The panorama of the city from the top of the elevator is spectacular.

To visit the synagogues in the Kemeralti Bazaar, contact Izmir project official Nisim Ben Joya: benjoyanisim@gmail.com.

For travel and flight info: Turkish Ministry of Culture &Tourism: ny@tourismturkey.org and Pegasus Airlines from Istanbul: www.flypgs.com/en.

The Asanor elevator in the community of Karatas, top. Above, the interior of the Etz Chaim synagogue.

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