The Jewish Community and Notable Synagogues in Istanbul

Inside the Ahrida Synagogue in Istanbul, Turkey

by Erlend Geerts

in Sightseeing

The vast majority of the Jewish community in Turkey (currently estimated at around 26.000 people) lives in Istanbul. This is only a fraction of the 500.000 Jews that once lived in Istanbul during the Ottoman Empire — a time when Jews and Christians made up 40% of Istanbul’s population. Read on for a short history about the Jewish community and an overview of notable synagogues in Istanbul.

Rise of Istanbul’s Jewish Community

The current Turkish community is a remnant of the great influx that took place during the Spanish inquisition in 1492. Sephardic Jews (or Spanish Jews) were forced to convert to Christianity or flee their homes. Ottoman Sultan Beyazid II granted these Jews (with their European scientific and economic knowledge) to take refuge in the Ottoman Empire and allowed them to live on the banks of the Golden Horn.

Also Russian Jews fleeing the pogroms in the 19th century and the Bolshevik Revolution in 1971 found refuge in Turkey. And in 1933 Atatürk invited famous scientists under threat in Nazi Germany and Austria to find shelter and settle in Turkey. Turkey also served as a safe passage for many Jews fleeing the horrors of Nazism during World War II.

Remains of those days can still be seen in the Balat area along the Golden Horn and the Galata district in Beyoğlu — the centers of the Jewish community in Istanbul.

Decline of Istanbul’s Jewish Community

Inside the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul, Turkey.

Inside the Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul.

Unfortunately, a series of events triggered a massive emigration of Jews from Istanbul. First there was the wealth tax (Varlık Vergisi) of 1942. Although aimed at wealthy Turks, its effect on the Jewish community was catastrophic. An estimated 30.000 Jews, unable to pay their debts, fled the country.

Secondly there was the Istanbul pogrom of 6/7 September 1955 against the Greek, Jewish, and Armenian communities of Istanbul. Although more material then physical damage was done, this caused another massive emigration of these minorities, with some 10.000 more Jews fleeing Turkey.

Notable Synagogues in Istanbul

There are currently 26 active synagogues in Istanbul. Instead of listing them all, I decided to give an overview of the most notable ones from a tourist point of view.

  • Neve Shalom Synagogue – located in Karaköy, this is the central and largest Sephardic synagogue in Istanbul. It was inaugurated on Sunday March 25, 1951 and is open to service (see details on their website). Unfortunately, Neve Shalom has been the target of three terrorist attacks.
  • Ahrida Synagogue – one of the two remaining synagogues in Balat. It is the oldest and probably most beautiful synagogue in Istanbul. It was founded before the Muslim conquest of Istanbul in 1453 and has been in constant use ever since. Tourists can only visit by prior arrangement with a tour guide.
  • Ashkenazi Synagogue – located near the Galata Tower, it is the only currently active Ashkenazi synagogue in Istanbul open to visits and prayers.
  • Bet Avraam Synagogue – located behind the Sirkeci train station, it is the synagogue nearest to Sultanahmet.
  • Bet Israel Synagogue – located in Şişli, it is currently the most populated synagogue in Turkey. The synagogue can be visited after making appointments with Neve Shalom Foundation.
  • Caddebostan Synagogue – built in 1953 as a result of the increasing Jewish population in the Kadıköy district. It is the most populated synagogue on the Asian side of Istanbul.
  • Yanbol Synagogue – the second of the ancient synagogues in Balat.

Visiting Synagogues in Istanbul

You can visit the synagogues only by prior reservation via the offices of the Chief Rabbinate (+90 212 293 87 94).

You should make reservations during office hours (Mon-Thu: 9:30-17:00; Fri.: 9:30-13:00) and at the least 24 hours before your planned visit.

Make sure to have the passport numbers of the people planning to attend the visit and their full names at hand while making the reservation. Also, carry your passport with you for security checks during your visits to all synagogues.

Jewish Museum of Turkey

The Jewish Museum of Turkey, located in Istanbul.

The Jewish Museum of Turkey, located in Istanbul.

Jewish Museum of Turkey, located in Karaköy, is a cultural center inaugurated on November 25, 2001. The Zulfaris Synagogue was restored and remodelled to serve as the museum building.

It contains a huge collection of old photographs, documents and religious objects relating to Istanbul’s Jewish population. The museum is open daily, except on Saturday and religious holidays.

Photo Sources (1) (2)

What's Next

marcia sime August 20, 2011 at 7:03 pm

My husband and I will be in Istanbul on Tuesday, September 20th. We would like to visit one synagogue. We will have a private guide. Which synagogue would you recommend? Any other advice? Thank you.

Erlend Geerts August 22, 2011 at 7:18 am

Hi Marcia,

I would recommend either the Neve Shalom Synagogue (the largest Sephardic synagogue) or the Ahrida Synagogue (generally perceived as the most beautiful synagogue).

Also, don’t forget to contact the offices of the Chief Rabbinate to make reservations and get permission. You can find more information about that in the post above.

Enjoy your stay in Istanbul.

Rita October 21, 2011 at 6:28 am

I am looking to visit Istanbul next month and need the e-mail address of the Neve Shalom Synagogue or the Office of the Rabbinate.

I am also looking for the address of any Jewish museum or place of interest. Can you help me please. Thanks, Rita Lewis

Erlend Geerts October 21, 2011 at 7:35 am

You can find the offices of Turkey’s Chief Rabbi (Hahambaşı) at Yemenici Abdullatif Sokak No. 23, which is not far from Tünel Square in Beyoğlu, Istanbul. You can mail them via info@musevicemaati.com or by filling in a contact form on their website. Alternatively, you can reach them at +90 212 243 51 66.

Since you need to get permission to visit the synagogues from the Chief Rabbinate, I suggest you contact the offices first and tell them what you would like to visit. They will then provide you with the details you want.

Marleen October 4, 2011 at 8:47 pm

Hi there,
Two questions”:
Do you need rabbinate permission to visit the Zulfaris museum or is it open to the public??
Do we need to have a guide with us in order to visit the Ahrida Synagogue = would that mean rabbinate permission PLUS the expense of a guide??
Any suggestions helpful. We have 1 long morning to visit Jewish Istanbul on Nov 3rd.
Thank you!!

Erlend Geerts October 6, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Hi Marleen,

You don’t need permission from the rabbinate to visit the Zulfaris museum. It is open to the public.
As for visiting active synagogues, you do need permission from the rabbinate. In case of the Ahrida Synagogue, you must make arrangements with a tour guide. You best bet is to contact the rabbinate and ask for a good tour guide they work with to visit it. It is my understanding that the tour guide will get you the permission of the rabbinate too. Don’t wait for the last moment though, since this may take a bit of time.

Kind regards,
Erlend Davis

Susan E. Hasson January 31, 2012 at 1:19 am

I will be visiting Istanbul April 5, 6, and 7, 2012, during Passover. I would like to visit the Synagogue – I am Sephardic; my grandparents immigrated from Istanbul to the USA in the early 1900′s. I would like to arrange for a tour and a visit to the Jewish Museum during my visit.

I am also trying to locate Corrine Soriano, a resident of Istanbul. I met Corrine in 1980. She is also a cousin of a friend of mine – Nellie Halfon from Seattle, Washington where I live. Perhaps you could either send her my email address or send me her phone number and email address so that I may correspond with her prior to my arrival. Thank you – Susan E. Hasson, surehappy@aol.com

Erlend Geerts February 7, 2012 at 3:53 pm

Hi Susan,

We don’t organize tours nor do we arrange tickets for visits of any kind. To make reservations, I suggest you follow the steps as explained in the article.

I’m afraid I also won’t be able to help in your search for your friend. Istanbul doesn’t have yellow pages, let alone a directory with all email addresses. May I suggest FaceBook to try to find acquaintances you lost track of?

Enjoy your stay,
Erlend

vivian unger February 29, 2012 at 7:50 pm

hie, i my husband and i will be in istanbul in june 2012, can u tell me if there are any kosher restaurants or somewhere we can order food to go?
thanks, vivian

Erlend Geerts March 1, 2012 at 12:16 pm

Hi Vivian,

You may want to check out Eating Kosher in Istanbul by the Jewish Turkish Community.

Kind regards,
Erlend

M. Block March 28, 2012 at 10:01 pm

We will be in Istanbul for the High Holidays and was wondering if it was possible to get tickets to one of the synagogues to attend services?

Erlend Geerts March 29, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Hi,

We don’t organize tours nor do we arrange tickets for visits of any kind. To make reservations, I suggest you follow the steps as explained in the article and in the comments.

Kind regards,
Erlend

Cleston Oliveira September 5, 2012 at 9:37 pm

Hi,

My partner and I will be in Istanbul during rosh hashanah this year and we would like to attend service at the Ahaym Synagogue which is the closest to where we’ll be staying – does anyone know how I can contact the community about reservations for service and seder?

Thanks and best regards;

Cles

Avner March 10, 2013 at 1:28 pm

Hi

I am going to be in Istanbul this coming passover (2013) , I would like to know if there is
any organized Seder that I can attend to . I also want to visit one of the active Synagogue
I will be staying in the old city of Istanbul. I was trying to call the number above but there wasn’t any answer.Please let me know how can I contact the community .

Thanks
Avner

Erlend Geerts March 11, 2013 at 7:32 am

Hi Avner,

Maybe try this number: +90 212 243 5166, fax +90 212 244 1980.

If you can’t reach them this way, try filling in the form on their website.

Kind regards,
Erlend

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