The seductive, slender minarets of monumental
mosques may be the ubiquitous symbols of Ottoman Turkey. But they tell only part of the
story of that sprawling and complex empire.
Jews were a substantial and influential piece of the Ottoman mosaic, especially those driven out of Spain in 1492. A long line of Sultans invited them in, and they prospered.
Once, almost every Turkish town had a Jewish quarter, or Yahudi Mahallesi. But today, few Jews can be found. Most have emigrated, many to Israel. Communities that once numbered in the thousands now cannot raise the quorum of 10 men needed for communal prayer.
The Jews' legacy is largely architectural, in the synagogues that still dot the old towns. Many have collapsed; others have been abandoned or converted to other uses; some remain centers of worship.
With the precarious -- and undocumented -- state of this architectural heritage in mind, and with grants from the Maurice Amado Foundation of Los Angeles and the Mitrani Family Foundation, I set out late last year with Devon Jarvis, a photographer; Ceren Kahraman, an architecture student from Istanbul, and a driver, Muharrem Zeybek.
In two months, we traveled 6,000 miles to document and analyze 50 synagogues and former synagogues, producing 3,000 photographs and 150 measured architectural drawings. An exhibition of some of our work will be on view at the 92nd Street Y in New York from Dec. 1 through 19.
The interior of each synagogue has a particular spirit, shaped by the generations who uttered their innermost thoughts within its walls.
In the recently renovated Ahrida Synagogue in Istanbul, the wooden Torah ark is decorated in floral and geometric patterns of inlaid mother-of-pearl in the finest Ottoman tradition. The platform where the Torah is read is shaped like a boat, a reminder of the ship that carried congregants from Spain.
The Yambol Synagogue down the street, named for Spanish Jews who made their way to Istanbul by way of Yambol, Bulgaria, has painted scenes on its dome. But instead of the expected representation of Jerusalem, it is an idealized vision of Yambol as it was in the glory days of the Ottoman Empire.
And in a melding of Jewish and Islamic traditions, the tall brass menorah in Beit Israel, the largest synagogue in Izmir, Turkey, has a central pole topped with the star and crescent, the traditional symbol of Islam and the Ottoman Empire.
In Istanbul, the abandonment of many old synagogues is a result of a shift of the Jewish community away from the old heartbeats, the Balat and Haskoy quarters in the old city, to outlying districts.
The vaulted Aboudaram Synagogue, its walls painted with Hebrew words that are still visible, used to echo with prayers; now a tool factory, it echoes with the grinding of machinery. Isak Aboudaram, who led us through the synagogue, which stopped functioning in 1950, descends from the family that founded it in 1869 and is a grandson of its last rabbi.
The once proud Great Synagogue of Edirne, near the Greek and Bulgarian borders, seemed on the verge of collapse: I thought to myself it could not survive more than one or two years. I overestimated. A few weeks after my return to New York I learned that a heavy rainstorm had sent the roof and three walls crashing down.
Some congregations endure despite their dwindling numbers. In Ankara, fewer than 100 Jews maintain a gemlike synagogue. Antakya (ancient Antioch) -- not far from the Syrian border, and much closer to Jerusalem than Istanbul -- still has a community of 60 Jews.
After a Friday of photographing the Antakya synagogue, I returned there in the evening expecting to find eight or nine old men. I was surprised to find about 30 worshipers, including a "choir" of six children joyfully shouting out the prayers. The rabbi, in his 30s, told me he made the 22-hour bus ride from Istanbul each week to lead services and teach the children.
"You feel the weight of the responsibility to tell others what is there," said Devon Jarvis, our photographer, summing up our experience. "It is overwhelming to walk into a space and realize that we were possibly the first to photograph it -- and more likely, the last."
© Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company