Photo Credit: courtesy, Ahrida Synagogue
The bima in the ancient Ahrida Synagogue in Istanbul is formed to resemble the ships that brought the Jews to the Ottoman Empire.

Jews in Istanbul will stream into a 500-year-old synagogue tonight (Wed. Mar. 23) to hear the reading of the Book of Esther, the Megillah, in the presence of the Chief Rabbi of Turkey. It’s an ancient tradition that no one would dare to disturb.

Entrance to the centuries-old Ahrida Synagogue in Istanbul’s Balat neighborhood.

The Ahrida Synagogue is a fairly modest building — one has to search hard within the numerous alleyways of the historically Jewish Balat neighborhood to find it — but nevertheless, it is tightly guarded. JewishPress.com managed to secure a precious half-hour interview under the authority of the Chief Rabbinate of Turkey, and when that time was up, two men came to ensure that the synagogue caretake closed and locked the doors and gates precisely on time. To the minute.

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“It is to make sure the synagogue stays safe,” we were told. There are cameras everywhere in the small synagogue, we also discovered. Everywhere. But that did not stop our guide from showing us everything there was to know about the house of worship he clearly loved.

“Hundreds of years ago, Jews made their way from Macedonia to the majestic city of Constantinople in search of a better life,” he explained. “There in the heart of what was later to become Istanbul, that small group of Jews built a modest house of worship in the Balat neighborhood.”

The Ahrida Synagogue, built in 1430 by the Jews of Ohry, Macedonia, is arranged in the Sephardic tradition with the bima in the center. Within a few years, the congregation grew, and was supplemented by those who had fled Spain in 1492.

“There are Ottoman documents dating to 1693 verifying the origins of the synagogue and the fact of its continuous use since that time,” he added.

The Ahrida Synagogue is especially famed for the shape of its bima, which is in the form of a “Tevah” – Noah’s Ark – and possibly the ships that brought the Jews to the Ottoman Empire. The mother-of-pearl inlaid door wings of the Ark that holds and protects the Torah scrolls within, and the high, magnificent wooden arched ceiling reflect classical Ottoman styles.

Torah ark with inlaid mother-of-pearl at Ahrida Synagogue in Istanbul.

The Ahrida Synagogue was restored in 1992 by the Quincentennial Foundation, within the framework of the quincentennial celebrations of the Jewish community’s existence in Turkey.

The synagogue is one of only two in Balat that still remain in active use. A second synagogue that opened for prayers for only a day earlier this year was found with nasty epithets spray-painted on the outside wall 24 hours later. But not so the Ahrida, where neighbors are happy to talk about its history, and point out the apartment of the first chief rabbi of Turkey (“It has a Star of David on the ceiling on the balcony, can you see it?”).

Apartment of the Chief Rabbi, locatec conveniently right across the street from Ahrida Synagogue.

One neighbor quietly said later, “Our streets were filled with people of many lands decades ago. It is very different now. This synagogue was open all the time back then, and the Jews prayed there all the time, every day. But after 1948, most of the Jews left. We miss them and our country is poorer for it.”

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Hana Levi Julian is a Middle East news analyst with a degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Southern Connecticut State University. A past columnist with The Jewish Press and senior editor at Arutz 7, Ms. Julian has written for Babble.com, Chabad.org and other media outlets, in addition to her years working in broadcast journalism.

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