In the earliest days of Sephardic Jewish settlement in Izmir, dating from the 16th century, most of the Jewish inhabitants lived in the area surrounding Kemeralti bazaar, also the site of Bikur Holim and Shalom synagogues.[i] Later, however, many Jews moved to the Karataş neighborhood.[ii] Located in the city’s central Konak metropolitan district, Karataş was home to many of the city’s prosperous Jewish families. The poorest members of the community remained in the Mezarlıkbaşı quarter or around Havra Sokağı (Synagogue Street) in the Ottoman period, both of which were areas near the Kemeralti bazaar.[iii] Today the majority of Izmir’s Jews reside in Karataş and the Alsancak area.[iv] Though the neighborhood does not currently hold any official status, its area overlaps with the official Turgut Reis zone.[v]
The most prominent buildings in the Karataş area still in use today are the Beth Israel synagogue, the city’s largest, and the Jewish hospital, Karataş Hastanesi, which is run by a Jewish foundation. At the time when many of the city’s Jews moved from the Kemeralti area to Karataş, they secured permission from Sultan Abdulhamid II to construct a grand new synagogue in 1907.[hadassah] The synagogue, Beth Israel, was built in a basilica form with the Ark on the south wall.[vi] With seating for 600, the synagogue is the site of weddings and bar mitzvas and is currently in use.[vii] On the street where the famous composer, lyricist, and guitarist Dario Moreno of Sephardic origin, lived in the 1940s, stands one of the city’s most recognizable landmarks. Built for the public in 1907 by the wealthy Jewish businessman and philanthropist Nesim Levi Bayraklıoğlu, Asansör is a brick tower that houses an elevator and bridges the dramatic drop which separates the coast from the hillside above.[viii] Inspired by the elevators he encountered on a trip to Paris, Bayraklıoğlu decided to construct the tower to ease the burden of residents who had once had to climb 155 steps to traverse the divide.[ix] In the first decades of the 20th century the street on which it stood came to be known as Asansör Street (Asansör Sokağı). The tower was recently restored and now houses one of the city’s most famous restaurants.
History of the Jewish Community of Izmir:
Fleeing persecution in the 15th century, the Jews of Western Europe were invited to immigrate to the Ottoman empire by the sultans Muhammad II and later Bayazid II.[x] The Sephardic Jewish exiles from Spain and Portugal who arrived in the Ottoman Empire settled in various cities such as Salonika before later moving to the bustling seaport of Smyrna.[xi] The combination of the economic crisis in the textile industries of Salonica and Safed, along with Izmir’s lenient tax system, made the city an attractive destination for Jewish settlers.[xii] Gravestones marked with Jewish motifs indicate the presence of Jewish settlers in Izmir dating from 1540 to 1565. Under the leadership of Joseph Escapa of Salonika in the mid 17th century, the city became one of the major Jewish centers of the Ottoman Empire.[xiii] Jews played important roles in trade networks and worked as translators and agents for European merchants, banking houses and consulates.[xiv] Throughout the 18th century, however, a series of disasters (fires, epidemics, and earthquakes) did significant damage to the community and the city as a whole.[xv] Thousands of newly-destitute Jews were left with no choice but to live in cortejos, cramped, multi-family homes with shared bathroom and kitchen facilities. Today, around 5 of the cortejos can still be found in the Tilkilik Namazgah neighborhood.[xvi] In the 1772 fire, the city was destroyed and all of the synagogues were damaged, leaving the community without one until 1792.[xvii] The establishment of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in 1873 marked the beginning of a new era for the Jewish community.[xviii] In the years that followed the school’s opening, three Jewish newspapers were created and European dress was adopted.[xix] However, economic fortunes did not improve, and the Jewish population, which had numbered 40,000 in 1868, fell to only 25,000 inhabitants by 1905.[xx] After the Greco-Turkish War, which saw much of the city destroyed again by fire, the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, and the subsequent Great Depression, most Jews chose to emigrate.[xxi] 10,000 more of Izmir’s Jews left for Israel between 1948 and 1950. Today, Izmir’s Jews number about 1,500 of the city’s 4 million residents.[xxii] Though the community is small, it plays an active role in city life- several committees are in charge of running the Jewish hospital, the senior home and looking after the destitute.[xxiii] Children receive Jewish education at a Sunday school run by local mothers.[xxiv] The community is proud of its close ties to Turkey and of the tolerance historically shown for the Jews.