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Historic neighbourhood on the west coast of the Golden Horn rich in Jewish heritage

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Ahrida Synagogue in Istanbul is known for its boat-shaped tevah (the reading platform, known in Ashkenazi communities as a bimah). (Photo: Supplied)

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A couple of weeks ago, the most ancient synagogue in Istanbul still open to service, the Ahrida Synagogue, hosted an exclusive group of visitors. It was about launching a book on synagogues in Turkey – two volumes, the first one being all about synagogues in Istanbul and the second, about the ones in Thrace and Anatolia.

The Ahrida Synagogue is situated in Balat, a historic neighbourhood on the west coast of the Golden Horn, the estuary located in the European side of the city, connecting the Bosphorous to the Sea of Marmara. During the last couple of decades, Balat started to gain back its long-lost value because of the “in and out” demographic movements. 

The village being founded within the walls of the old city dates back to the Byzantine era. After Sultan Mehmet II, the Conqueror’s victory in 1453 and the fall of Constantinople to Ottoman rule, Balat or Palation, palace, as it used to be called in Byzantine times, became an important place. Romaniot Jews and Greeks from different parts of the conquered city were led to settle there. 

Then, during the reign of Sultan Bayazid II, the son of Mehmet II, both Jews and Muslims fleeing the persecution in Catholic Spain were received and placed in Balat. The Inquisition and the Alhambra decree issued by Isabella and Ferdinand in 1492 marked the start of a new age in Jewish history in the Ottoman capital.

The fact that Muslims, Greeks and Jews, both of Romaniot and Sephardi origin, lived in Balat for centuries now has been an excellent example of amity, respect and confidence.

However, Balat has been known as a Jewish village for a long time: When one thinks about Balat, he thinks about Jews and vice versa…

It was just before the capture of Constantinople by the Ottomans that Jews from the northern Macedonian city of Ohrid, Ahrid in Greek, came to settle in the village situated on the best possible place within the Byzantine walls. There, they built a kehilla, the oldest synagogue of Istanbul still in service today. The name Ahrida comes from this little town, still existing on the shores of the lake Ohri. 

Then the Sephardies poured in and founded a new synagogue just next to Ahrida. It’s said that over the centuries and too many occurrences – fire, social unrest, and so – these two synagogues merged to become today the oldest temple of Istanbul. 

What makes Ahrida so unique is its interior. Restored in the early ’90s, visitors are stunned with the Teva in the form of Noah’s Ark. Some historians think that this might also represent the boats’ prow that brought Sephardic Jews fleeing from Spanish persecution to the Ottoman capital.

Then there was a midrash in the synagogue’s garden, where Torah lessons were given. It also served as a school to the poor community, as it is commonly written that Jews living in this neighbourhood were not as rich as the ones living on the other sites of the city. The midrash served till the beginning of the 20th century. 

The synagogue also housed for a long time a rabbinical tribunal where the Halacha was enforced on community matters, and problems arising in the tiny communal circle were solved in peace. It’s recorded in the synagogue records that Sabettai Sevi, the false Messiah, attended services there, at the Ahrida, during one of his visits to the Ottoman capital.

Balat had 18 synagogues. Today only two serve the community, only on Shabbats and High Holidays. The second, after Ahrida, is the Yambol synagogue, also known as the Bulgarian synagogue, as it was founded by Jews from the city of Yambol, who came to the Ottoman capital starting from the 15th century. This synagogue was inaugurated in the 18th century and restored in the 19th century; thus, today’s structure is not original.

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Jewish life in Balat was based on daily commerce. Buying and selling was an essential activity. Young people also were going to work in different places of the city, mainly to Jewish companies… The education level was not too high if compared, let’s say, with Haskoy, another Jewish neighbourhood on the eastern part of the Golden Horn, where the Alliance Universelle Israelite started to operate as a secular school. Thus one can say that Balat was more traditional and conservative than any other Istanbul community.

Young people were also attracted by some sports clubs that started to operate towards the end of the 19th century. The most important one was the Maccabi Gymnastic Society (1895), which had a Zionist affiliation. Noting that Theodor Herzl convened the first Congress in Basel just during these times, Balat’s young people were motivated by its idea. 

The two visits that Herzl paid to Sultan Abdülhamit II, proposing to buy lands in Palestine then under the control of the Ottomans, his meeting with Emperor Wilhelm II of Germany at the gate of the agricultural school of Mikveh Yisrael and his call to enforce to Jewish presence in Eretz Yisrael, was a kind of stimulus for them.

Sport then became a “raison d’etre” for the Jewish youth. Indeed forming the “muscular Jew,” as Max Nordau had put it, was essential to build the new Jewish character. All that was exciting for the poor and poorly educated community in Balat.

Or-Ahayim, meaning, “Light of Life”, has been serving as a medical clinic and then a hospital in Istanbul for over 120 years. (Photo: doctorsofturkey.com)

While talking about Balat, it’s not possible to miss the 120 and so years old Jewish Hospital, Or Achayim, that today still serves the Jewish community and everybody that needs to be treated.

Founded in 1898 with the mandate of Sultan Abdulhamit II by Jewish philanthropists and idealist physicians trying to help the poor population of Balat, it was at the beginning a primary health care center. Then step by step, it turned out to be today, one of the most prestigious institutions in the community. 

It served during the Balkan War, WW1 and the War of Independence as an essential spot that extended health care services to the soldiers. It was also a shelter to Jewish immigrants fleeing the Bolshevic Revolution of 1917 and during the atrocities of WW2. Its historic building and beautiful garden on the shore of the Golden Horn are worth seeing.

Is Balat still Jewish? Who can say no?

The roots of Jews there go 600 years back… With its many synagogues that served over centuries, its Jewish institutions, hospital, shops, workshops, one can easily feel this character, even if there is no significant Jewish presence in Balat any longer.

Marsel Russo was born in Istanbul and was raised in a secular Jewish family. He holds a Chemistry degree and an MBA. His deep interest in the Jewish history of the 20th century, as well as other topics, has appeared since 2005 in Shalom, the weekly newspaper of the Jewish community of Turkey.

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Thank you for choosing TheJ.Ca as your source for Canadian Jewish News.

We do news differently!

Our positioning as a Zionist News Media platform sets us apart from the rest. While other Canadian Jewish media are advocating increasingly biased progressive political and social agendas, TheJ.Ca is providing more and more readers with a welcome alternative and an ideological home.

We revealed the incursion of anti-Israel progressive elements such as IfNotNow into our communities. We have exposed the distorted hateful agenda of the “progressive” left political radicals who brought Linda Sarsour to our cities, and we were first to report on many disturbing incidents of Nazi-based hate towards Jews across Canada.

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