At the end of the fifteenth century, Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition began to settle in the Kemeralti district of Izmir. Over the next 300 years, the prosperity and creativity of the Ottoman Jews was notable. At its peak in the nineteenth century, the Jewish population of Izmir reached approximately 50,000. The Central Izmir Synagogue Complex, located in the heart of the historic city center, consists of nine adjacent synagogues constructed in diverse sixteenth century Sephardic styles. Despite their non-monumental exteriors, the sanctuaries exemplify exceptional interior planning and craftsmanship. Perhaps the most distinct characteristic of the Izmir synagogues is the unusual “triple arrangement” of the Torah ark, which creates a unique harmonious ambience. The central positioning of the bimah (elevated platform) between four columns divided the synagogues into nine parts. The Jewish population of Izmir has been rapidly decreasing since 1944. Today, less than 2000 Jews live in the city and the community responsible for the synagogues lacks the resources to maintain or revitalize the complex.
2004 World Monuments Watch
Decades of neglect and inadequate maintenance have caused the synagogues to fall into disrepair. Additionally, seismic activity and environmental threats have further compromised their structures. When the Central Izmir Synagogues were listed on the 2004 World Monuments Watch, two of the sanctuaries—Evera and Kedosha—were already in ruins. The Beit Hillel and Etz Hayim synagogues, which had been abandoned for decades, were on the verge of collapse. Although the Signora, Algazi, Shalom, and Bikkur Holim synagogues were still occasionally used, years of water damage and insufficient maintenance had caused extensive damage. Inclusion in the Watch marked an increase of government interest in the synagogue complex and the site was declared part of a preservation priority project in the city. The resulting publicity attracted increased funding for restoration efforts from sources such as the municipal government and the chamber of commerce. Support in 2004 through WMF’s Jewish Heritage Program enabled the completion of emergency roof repairs at Shalom Synagogue.
Hidden behind walls and gardens, along the alleyways of the colorful historic bazaar, the Central Izmir Synagogues are an unparalleled testament to the city’s rich Jewish heritage. The oldest district in Izmir, Kemeralti dates back to Roman times and is home to the densest concentration of Jewish landmarks in all of Turkey. The six mosques surrounding the synagogue complex evince the centuries of peaceful co-habitation among the local Ottoman and Jewish communities. The Izmir Project, led by the Mordechai Kiryati Foundation, has been working closely with the local municipality and Jewish community to restore the seven extant synagogues of the Central Izmir Complex. Furthermore, they are planning to establish an on-site museum and educational center of local Jewish history. The Izmir Project hopes to emulate the successful rejuvenation of the Jewish Quarter of Prague. The revival of the historic city center has the potential to increase tourist activity and re-animate local commercial life while paying tribute the city’s extraordinary Jewish cultural legacy.