Situated across two continents, Istanbul is a bridge between Eastern and Western cultures; one of its particularly meaningful qualities is that it is a unique city in which mosques, synagogues and churches have served people in perfect peace and harmony uninterruptedly for 550 years. In 2001, a new link was added to this city’s rich cultural chain: The Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews.
The building of the museum, once the Zülfaris synagogue, is referred to as Kal Kadosh Galata in the records of the office of the chief rabbinate. Zülfaris is a shortened form of Zülf-ü Arūs, Ottoman Turkish for “the forelock of the bride”, which used to be the name of the street where the museum is located. This street was later renamed “Perçemli Sokak” - “The Street with Forelocks.”
A synagogue is known to have existed in the current location in 1671 and we know from records that it occasionally underwent repairs. During its years of service, the synagogue hosted numerous weddings. It was used for worship by Jews of Thracian origin (particularly those from the Thracian city of Edirne) in 1979, but it was closed for religious services in 1985 since there were no more Jews left residing in the neighborhood.
When the The Quincentennial Foundation decided to establish a museum to foster tolerance as part of its celebratory activities, the Neve Shalom Foundation, the owner of the building, allocated it to be used as a museum. The museum was brought to completion, thanks to valuable contributions from Mr. Jak Kamhi and his family, as well with the suggestions and designs of Mr. Naim Güleryüz, and the The Quincentennial Foundation Museum of Turkish Jews; it was inaugurated on November 25, 2001.
As is stated in the brochure, the aim of the museum is to promote, both at home and abroad, the story of 700 years of amity between Turks and Jews; this story began in 1326 with Orhan Bey’s conquest of Bursa and continued with Sultan Bayezid’s warm welcome of the Sephardic Jews, who preferred expulsion from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492 to giving up their faith and freedom to follow their Judaic traditions. It is also a mission of the museum to display the humanitarian spirit of the Turkish nation through historical documents and objects.
A Short Tour of the Museum
There is a verse from the Torah inscribed above the entrance door of the museum: “... and seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away ... and pray unto the Lord for it.” (Jeremiah, 29:7)
In the entrance courtyard is a unique sculpture by the artist Nadia Arditti - The Soaring Flame - dedicated to the Turkish Jewish soldiers who fell while defending their homeland, that is, Turkey. The stairs up which countless brides ascended on the arms of their fathers and descended on the arms of their husbands, lead to the main synagogue hall on the first floor. In this hall, the history of Turkish Jews, their cultural heritage, solidarity and interaction with the larger Muslim community is exhibited through objects, documents, imperial edicts and photographs. A special panel is dedicated to the printing press in the Ottoman State, various printed books and also to the history of the Turkish-Jewish press.
Another interesting spot is the classical Turkish music corner. Many musical maqāms and pieces were composed by Ottoman Jewish composers; today these maqāms are still in use and the musical pieces are still performed. In addition, most of the prayers and hymns performed in synagogues on special religious occasions were composed in classical Turkish music maqāms. For example, at Passover Isfahan and acemaşīrān are used, at Shavuot (the rose festival) māhur is used, at Purim (the candy festival) sabā is used, and at Hanukkah ushshāq is used. There is also a living tradition of Sufi music, known as Maftirim, developed by Mawlawi dedes and rabbis in Edirne in the seventeenth century.
Also, in this hall are examples of the Turkish Jewish participation in and contribution to different aspects of social life, such as foreign affairs, parliament, military service and almost all types of sports.
Another significant feature in this hall is the “corner of honour” related to World War II. This section contains documents about scientists who sought refuge in Turkey after being expelled from German and Austrian universities. These professors, most of whom were Jewish, made valuable contributions in the development of the Istanbul and Ankara universities that welcomed them. The same corner also sets aside ample space for the great efforts exerted by Turkish diplomats working in Nazi-occupied countries in order to save as many Turkish Jews living in those areas as possible from Nazi atrocities and death.
Various monographs are displayed in the upper balcony, which at one time was used as the women’s section of the synagogue.
On the ground floor, which is arranged as an ethnographic section, family heirlooms and various similar objects illustrate a common cultural heritage, with clothes of Turkish Jews and objects related to their customs and traditions, from birth to circumcision ceremonies, and from dowries to weddings displayed in the showcases.