Jewish Sites in Galata, Istanbul

Jewish life in Galata began in Byzantine times when Galata was a separate walled city across the Golden Horn from Constantinople.

Galata (now called Karaköy) was ruled by the Genoese, who had among them numerous Jewish families. After the Ottomanconquest of Istanbul in 1453, many new Jewish settlers arrived, especially during the reign of Sultan Beyazit II.

From the 1500s onward, Galata was mostly Jewish. As recently as the late 20th century, Galata rang with the songs and street-games of Jewish children speaking Ladino (Judeo-Spanish).

Today most of Istanbul‘s Jews live in more desirable residential quarters, though Galata’s synagogues are still in use.

Sites in Galata include the Chief Rabbinate, the Neve Shalomand Italian synagogues, the Schneider Synagogue (Terziler Havrası, now used as an art gallery), the Zulfaris Synagogue Museum, a Jewish elementary school, and the Kamondo staircase.

Remember, you must obtain prior permission in order to enter synagogues. More…

Getting There

Galata is built on the steep hillside which stretches between Karaköy on the Golden Horn, and Beyoğlu on the heights above. The cylindrical Galata Tower (Galata Kulesi), topped by its conical roof, is a convenient landmark.

From Taksim Square: Galata is easily accessible from Taksim Square. Take the restored turn-of-the-century tramvay(tramway) which runs from Taksim to Tünel Square along İstiklal Caddesi.

From Tepebaşı: From hotels on Mesrutiyet Caddesi (Pera Palas, etc.) walk one long block west to İstiklal Caddesi, then turn right. You can take the restored tramway, or simply walk for five minutes to Tünel Square.

From Other Districts: Take a bus, taxi or ferryboat to Karaköy, then ride the Tünel, Galata’s little two-station underground train, from Karaköy up to Tünel Square. The Tünel was built by French engineers in 1875, and modernized several decades ago.

What to See

The office of Turkey’s Chief Rabbi is two minute’s walk from Tünel Square. From the Tünel building, cross İstiklal Caddesi walking obliquely to the left, and walk 1-1/2 blocks along Ensiz Sokak to its end. Turn left, then right onto Yemenici Abdullatif Sokak, and the Chief Rabbinate is near the end of the street on the right-hand side, at no. 23.

The Chief Rabbinate has been here since 1876, when the sultan still reigned.

After seeing the Chief Rabbinate, return along Ensiz Sokak to the Tünel building. Keeping the Tünel on your right, walk about 30 meters east and turn right onto Galipdede Caddesi. On the left-hand side just a few steps along the street is the former Galata Whirling Dervish Hall (Galata Mevlevihanesi), which now serves as the Museum of Ottoman Calligraphy (Divan Edebiyati Müzesi). The tekke is a wooden building set in a lovely garden, and is worth a visit.

Continue downhill on Galipdede Caddesi past music and bookshops, and workshops specializing in wood veneers, to the Galata Tower. The tower was originally the high-point in the Genoese fortifications which protected the town of Galata during Byzantine and early Ottoman times. In the nineteenth century as the population of Galata spread outside these walls, the tower was rebuilt and used as a fire watchmen’s post.

In the 1970s, restoration and modernization gave it a new function as an observatory, restaurant and nightclub. After paying an admission fee, you can take an elevator to the observation platform to enjoy the panoramic views of Galata and old Istanbul.

From the Galata Tower, walk northwest along Büyük Hendek Caddesi to the Neve Shalom Synagogue, at no. 67, midway between the Galata Tower and Sishane Square.

Neve Shalom is one of the larger synagogues in the city, designed and decorated in a modern style. Inaugurated on March 25, 1951, it is used for major functions of the community such as weddings and funerals. More…

Leave Neve Shalom, turn right, walk a few steps and turn right again onto the short, narrow lane called Lakerdaci Sokak. At no. 12 is the Musevi I. Karma Ilk Okulu, a Jewish primary schoolunder the aegis of the Turkish National Education Ministry. Though the entrance to the school is around the corner from the synagogue, the buildings are actually adjoining.

The larger street parallel to Lakerdaci Sokak is Sair Ziya Pasa Sokak. From the primary school, go to Sair Ziya Pasa Sokak and turn right, walking downhill. A few blocks along is the Italian Synagogue, on Sair Ziya Pasa Sokak at the corner with Laleli Cesme Sokak.

The Italian Synagogue was founded in the 1880s by Istanbul Jews who, because of factional disputes within the community, placed themselves under the protection of the Italian ambassador. There are two entrances to the synagogue, the main (front) entrance on Sair Ziya Pasa Sokak, and a side entrance at Laleli Cesme Sokak No 8. The front entrance should be used in order to appreciate the synagogue’s Gothic-like facade and marble staircase.

The interior is appealing, harmonious, and well preserved, with double hanging arches in the balcony, a deep dome with stars and stained glass windows, and Turkish carpets on the floor.

From the Italian Synagogue, walk east and north along Laleli Çesme Sokak to the Galata Tower, turn right, and walk down Camekan Sokak, keeping to the left when the street forks. It’s a ten-minute walk up steep streets and down from the Italian Synagogue to the next point of interest. Along the way you wander through the daily life of Galata: workshops, groceries, housewives hanging out laundry, children playing in the narrow streets or making their way to and from school.

Go down the stairs on the left-hand side of Camekan Sokak and at the end of the steps you come face-to-face with the Ashkenazi Synagogue, Yüksek Kaldirim No. 37, on a steep pedestrian street descending the hill from the Galata Tower to Karaköy.

Inaugurated in 1900, the facade of the Ashkenazi Synagogue is especially imposing, with three Oriental arches and octagonal rosette windows. Inside, the floors are of marble, the lofty dome is painted with stars, and the elaborately-worked ark of dark wood blends eastern European and Arabesque styles.

From the Ashkenazi Synagogue, go back up the steep steps to Camekan Sokak, turn left, and descend steeply to the Kamondo Staircase, a graceful curved double staircase joining the lower end of Camekan Sokak to the thoroughfare of Bankalar Caddesi(also called Voyvoda Caddesi). The staircase was built in the nineteenth century on the order of the Kamondos, the Jewish community’s most prosperous family.

From the staircase, turn left and walk downhill along Bankalar Caddesi to Karaköy Square. The Zulfaris Synagogue on Haracci Ali Sokak, dating from 1671, has been restored as a museum of Turkish Jewish life. The Zulfaris was the main venue for weddings and funerals until the construction of Neve Shalom.


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