ISTANBUL — Turkey’s first and only Jewish museum, one of the very few museums of its kind in the Muslim world, opened 11 years ago to mark the 500th anniversary of the arrival of Spanish Jews to the Ottoman Empire.
More than a decade after its inauguration, the focus of the Jewish Museum of Turkey is on this group of arrivals and their descendants.
“We celebrate five centuries of togetherness of Turkish Jews and Turkish Muslims,” said Naim Guleryuz, the president and curator.
Housed in a former synagogue in a cul-de-sac in Istanbul’s Karakoy district, the museum celebrates the achievements of Ottoman and Turkish Jews from the late 15th century onward.
Jews reached Anatolia, Turkey’s heartland, long before Sephardi Jews from Spain were invited to settle in Ottoman lands by the sultan Bayazid II.
As Guleryuz writes in The Turkish Jews, a booklet visitors can purchase at the museum, the history of Jews in Anatolia began centuries before the migration of Sephardi Jews into the Ottoman Empire.
As he points out, ancient synagogue ruins have been found in Sardes and Miletus, while traces of Jewish settlement have been discovered near Bursa.
But at the Jewish Museum, the emphasis is on the Ottoman Empire and its successor state, the Turkish secular republic, which emerged in 1923.
The museum, located in a busy, semi-industrial neighbourhood, is the brainchild of Guleryuz, a 78-year-old retired lawyer and historian who has been involved with the Jewish community as a volunteer since 1951 and has written books about Ottoman Jews.
Guleryuz was president of the Quincentennial Foundation, which was established in the late 1980s to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the flight of Jews from Spain to the Ottoman Empire.
Festivities took place in 1992 and cast a spotlight on this important historical event. Guleryuz, however, was reluctant to wind things down.
”We decided we needed a permanent exhibition,” he said in an interview in his cluttered office. “We needed a museum.”
After four years of preparation, the Jewish Museum of Turkey was finally opened. Since Nov. 25, 2001, an average of 10,000 visitors per year from Turkey and abroad have streamed inside.
According to Guleryuz, there is only one other Jewish museum that’s even remotely like it, in Casablanca, Morocco.
Cairo’s Jewish museum, which showcased Jewish history in Egypt, closed years ago, he noted.
The Jewish Museum of Turkey was formerly the site of the 19th-century Zulfaris Synagogue, which shut its doors in 1985 after Jews moved away from the area.
After the old and decrepit building was thoroughly renovated, thanks to the financial assistance of the local Kamhi family, the museum welcomed its first visitors.
Visitors can view about 250 objects, documents and photographs, all illuminating the traditions and culture of Turkish Jews. The objects were drawn from family collections and auctions, mostly in Istanbul. Some 150 pieces are in storage, waiting to see the light of day.
The museum’s budget is derived from private sources. The Turkish government has no financial involvement. “We want to be self-sufficient,” said Guleryuz.
A walk through the museum reveals items from the ordinary to the sublime.
There are elaborate Torahs, intricately woven Torah scrolls and silver Torah shields. There are also photographs of the chief rabbis of the Ottoman Empire and of the present republic.
A section on Turkish Jewish composers reveals that the Turkish Air Force March was composed by Isak Algazi, with lyrics by Isak Ferrera.
A photographic gallery of Jews in politics and government shows Ottoman Jews with moustaches wearing fezzes.
There is a replica of the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne, which recognized Turkey as an independent state within its present day boundaries and accorded minority rights to Jews and Christians.
Photographs of Jewish war heroes from World War I and the subsequent War of National Independence are on display as well.
Turkey’s decision to admit Jewish professors from Nazi Germany in 1933 is noted in another gallery. Turkey’s role in saving Jews during the Holocaust is explained by means of text, photographs and maps.
The cultural folkways of Turkish Jews unfold through the medium of costumes, wedding dresses, jewelry and amulets.
Circumcision tools and a circumcision chair tell quite another story, while a tuxedo and fez, a flowing white dress and marriage certificates speak to another phase of the Jewish life cycle.
The Jewish Museum of Turkey has a tale to tell and tells it reasonably well.