This is a photograph of the Yanbol Synagogue in Istanbul, Turkey. The synagogue was built in the Byzantine period by Jews who had arrived in Istanbul from Yanbol, Bulgaria. The synagogue was rebuilt in the eighteenth century and has gone through many renovations since, particularly after the fire of 1895.
The bimah, the prayer platform, is in the centre of the synagogue with the seats surrounding it. The floor and steps to the bimah are covered with rugs. Large chandeliers are hanging from the ceiling and intricate woodwork can be seen on the seats, bimah, and doors of the ark. A large stained glass window is set above the ark, and the women’s balcony can be seen on the left-hand side of the synagogue. Although not visible in this photograph, the ceiling is decorated with oil paintings of landscapes and other floral motifs. The Yanbol synagogue is one of two synagogues remaining in the Balat neighbourhood of Istanbul and is only open on major holidays and some Shabbat services due to the decline in the Jewish population.
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Jews in Turkey – The story of Jewish settlement in Turkey began in the fifth century BCE, and mentions of Turkish Jewish communities can be found in the writings of the first-century CE Jewish historian, Josephus. Archaeological evidence from the ancient city of Sardis shows that Jews lived there from the fourth century. With the rise of the Ottoman Empire, the situation of the Jewish community depended on the particular Sultan who was in power. The Jewish community during the Ottoman times comprised Romaniote Jews, the community from the Eastern Mediterranean, a Karaite community. In the fifteenth century, Rabbi Yitzhak Sarfati, a leader of the Turkish Jewish community, wrote a letter to European Jewry, urging them to move to Turkey as it better to live among Muslims than Christians. The next wave of Jews to arrive in Turkey were Sephardi Jews who had been expelled from Spain in 1492. The Muslims in Turkey were interested in the skills that the Jews brought, especially in the areas of commerce and printing, and treated them with tolerance. The increase in size, prosperity, and influence enjoyed by the Jewish community during the years 1300–1600 saw a decline in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as Greek influence grew. By the beginning of the twentieth century, almost 200,000 Jews lived in the Ottoman Empire. With the end of the Empire and the beginning of the nationalist, secular state of Turkey, the Jewish population of Turkey declined. During World War II, Turkey remained neutral and many Jews escaping Nazi Germany traveled through Turkey on their way to other countries. Some Turkish diplomats, working independently, saved Jews during the Holocaust. With the creation of the State of Israel, many Turkish Jews immigrated to Israel. Turkey recognized Israel in 1949, making it one of the first countries to do so, and by 1951 nearly 40% of the Turkish Jewish community had moved to Israel. In 2012, 17,400 Jews lived in Turkey, almost entirely Sephardi and most living in Istanbul. In recent years, the situation of the community has declined, and the Neve Shalom Synagogue of Istanbul has suffered three terrorist attacks. These changes are due, in particular, to the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the deterioration of the diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey. There are 26 active synagogues in Istanbul today, a Jewish museum, an elementary and secondary school, various social organisations, and a Jewish newspaper.
Synagogue Design – The design of synagogues is influenced by the place, time, and community that built it. All synagogues face toward Jerusalem and include certain features such as the ark (aron hakodesh) where the Torah scrolls are kept, a curtain (parochet) in front of the ark, a prayer platform (bimah) from which the services are led , and a lamp that is kept constantly lit (ner tamid). In Orthodox synagogues men and women sit separately, while in Reform and Conservative synagogues families sit together. In many Sephardi synagogues the congregation sits around the bimah, while in Ashkenazi synagogues the congregation sit in rows facing the ark. Karaite synagogues differ from the more common synagogues and do not have any seats. While some synagogues are very simple in style, others are very ornate and include stained glass windows, intricate designs on the walls, and candelabras. There are very few traditional guidelines for synagogues except that they should include windows and be the tallest building in the area. In many places, however, Jews were not allowed to build tall buildings, and some synagogues were even built below ground level. For these reasons, synagogues were often built hidden within existing buildings or protected by a high wall. The emancipation of the Jews in nineteenth-century Western Europe impacted the architecture of synagogues, and large, elaborate synagogues were built, often in central locations.