The ambitious “Izmir Project” is working to preserve the glorious heritage of one of the most storied communities in the history of Sephardic Jewry.

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. Izmir is Turkey’s third largest city and one of its major ports, and is also home to an incredible wealth of Jewish history.

Izmir’s ancient and historic Jewish community dates back to the second and third centuries in western Anatolia. During the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, Sultan Bayazid II welcomed Jews to the Ottoman Empire, most of them going to Salonika (now Thessaloniki), Tyre, and Constantinople (now Istanbul). It was in the middle of the 16th century, however, that Jews began to arrive in Izmir, which had become an important center of trade and thus attracted many Jewish merchants.
The hub of Jewish life in Izmir lay within the Kemeralty Bazaar, where nine synagogues that served the Jewish merchants and artisans stood on a single street called Havra Sokagi. By 1648, the city had become one of the three major Jewish centers in the Ottoman world.

Although the Jews of Izmir were citizens of a Muslim country, they lived autonomously, with their own chief rabbinate
religious schools, courts, and elected community council. Boasting
34 synagogues, the Sephardic Jewish community in Izmir thrived and contributed to the vibrancy of the city. By the end of the
19th century, Izmir’s flourishing Sephardic Jewish community had a population of 55,000.

Fast forward to the 20th century, when a wave of emigration to Israel and Istanbul in the 1940s and 1950s resulted in a drastic dwindling of Izmir’s Jewish population, which is now down to about 2,300. Most of the Jews who remain in Izmir reside in the desirable quarter of Alsancek with its modern Shaar Hashamayan Synagogue, and some still live in the Jewish quarter of Karatas where Bet Israel, the largest synagogue, stands. The historic synagogues in the Old Jewish Quarter have fallen into disrepair, and some are now in jeopardy of imminent collapse, endangering the preservation of this vital aspect of Jewish/Spanish culture. Of the 34 synagogues that once existed, only 13 remain.

A massive international undertaking is currently underway to restore and save the city’s rare Sephardic Jewish heritage for present and future generations. Called the Izmir Project, the restoration is being supported by the Kiriaty Foundation in Israel, the Municipality of Izmir-Konak, and the Izmir Sephardic Cultural Heritage Association. The goal of this expansive endeavor is the creation of The Jewish Heritage Museum of Izmir and a cultural complex within the site of the Kemeralti Bazaar. The museum will tell the story of Sephardic Jews from their expulsion from Spain during the Inquisition to their cultural impact on the city of Izmir. The project includes the restoration of six out of the 13 remaining ancient synagogues and the establishment of 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.

The core of the restoration project will include four contiguous synagogues that will ultimately comprise the Jewish Heritage Museum of Izmir – Hevra, Algazi (which existed in the time of the Shabbatai Zvi revolt in 1666), Signora Giveret (thought to be named for Dona Gracia Nasi, a generous benefactor who was known for bringing Marranos back to Judaism), and the ruins of the Orahim Kadosh Synagogue (also known as the Los Foresteros Synagogue), the one which is currently in the gravest condition of disrepair. These synagogues, combined with the nearby Shalom Synagogue, the Etz Hayim Synagogue dating from the 16th century, and the Bikur-Holim Synagogue, form a unique display of diverse Sephardic synagogue styles.

The Izmir Project’s other ambitious goals include the preservation of the ruined Kedosha Synagogue under a glass shelter, and turning its courtyard into a meeting plaza and a cafeteria. The shops that once existed under the Etz Hayim Synagogue will be renovated and turned into seminar rooms. There will also be additional spaces for exhibitions and cultural activities.

The imperative for restoring and preserving the great wealth of Sephardic heritage becomes obvious when one strolls down the Havra Sokagi, the street of synagogues. At first one sees very few signs that point to the existence of the ancient synagogues, since most of them are behind heavy wooden or iron doors. But once these doors are opened, the splendor that is revealed is breathtaking. Spanish architecture dominates the sanctuaries of three of the medieval-style synagogues, exquisitely furnished with Turkish carpets, Spanish-style carved wood bimahs 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 other styles of architecture, adding to the uniqueness of each synagogue.

Thousands of objects such as books, artwork, documents, and textiles gleaned from the historic synagogues will be catalogued and restored for eventual selection in the Jewish Heritage Museum. A great deal of work has already been done to conserve the Jewish community’s textile collection. From 2012 to 2014, students from the Department of Textile Conservation at the Helsinki Metropolia University of Applied Sciences in Finland, under the supervision of Professor Anna Hakari, came to Izmir to document the textiles, mainly Torah mantles, Torah binders, and Ark curtains.  They went through the delicate, painstaking process of cleaning and documenting what was found to be 212 fragile textiles of old Ottoman style and packing them up for storage in a climate-controlled storage room in the
Shalom Synagogue.

Furthermore, an urgent call was made for experts in Judaica and paper preservation to preserve a collection of 2,000 holy books from the 16th and early 17th centuries. These books come from the libraries of well-known rabbis of the time and are in a serious state of decay.

In addition to the ancient historic Jewish district, visitors can savor and explore the rest of Izmir’s ancient treasures and historical attractions. Izmir boasts a coastline of bountiful beaches.  Breathtaking views of spectacular mountains await visitors as they make their way along the Kordon, a long seaside promenade with plentiful parks, historical monuments, and numerous cafés where they can stop for a refreshing respite.  One of Izmir’s most ancient landmarks is the Agora of Smyrna, originally constructed for Alexander the Great over 2,300 years ago and then rebuilt by Marcus Aurelius after an earthquake. The Museum of Archaeology is a treasure trove of artifacts that illuminate the history of Anatolia with collections from excavations in ancient Smyrna, Ephesus, Pergamum, and Miletus. And next to the archaeology museum is the Museum of Ethnography which focuses on daily life in Anatolia during the Ottoman Period.

Izmir is on the road to regaining its prominence as a shining center of Jewish history. The Sephardic Jewish Heritage Museum and educational complex will ensure that its historical presence and architectural heritage will continue to live and flourish, and that the city of Izmir will be given its rightful place in the annals of Sephardic Jewry.

Linda Tucker is a freelance writer on Jewish topics.