Ancient Synagogue, Diyarbakır (Diyarbakir), Turkey

The ancient synagogue in Diyarbakır, Turkey, is surrounded by city walls that rise 35 feet into the air, which may lend an outsider, a false sense of protection and resilience. These walls though, now listed as a World Heritage site [1], could not have possibly protected the Jews in this predominately Kurdish city, from the persectution that rendered the  community unable to protect and maintain its own heritage sites, especially once Diyarbakir became a battle ground in the recent war between the Turkish government, and its Kurdish population. 


Ancient Diyarbakir’s Synagogue: Shockingly little is currently known about the synagogue that once housed the once flourishing community of Diyarbakir. With even a lack of available photos of this synagogue online, we are forced to assume, based on the influx of Jews from Spain and Portugal beginning in the 15th century, that the site has taken on architecture with a Sephardic influence, similar to those sites in other Turkish cities such as Istanbul. One unlikely individual has recognized this tragedy, and has made it his goal to, through reviving the synagogue, change this. Mayor of Diyarbakir from 2004 to 2014, Abdullah Demirbas has been vocal with his opinion that the Jewish community has a definitive right to be in the city, and with this attitude, he has done everything in his power to uplift the crumbling site; Demirbas has publicly stated that "It is their land and our responsibility to make sure that they are recognized and honored here in our city." [2]. Unfortunately though, due to extraneous circumstances, Demirbas has been more successful with, for example, an Armenian church in the city, which has been reopened, and now stands as the largest church of its kind in the whole of the Middle East [3]. The synagogue's fate has been considerably and constantly complicated by conflict between the Turkish government and Turkey's Kurdish population, who view Diyarbakir as a potential capital for an autonomous state; sniper fire of the state and the Kurdistan Worker's party have recently riddled the city [4].

Jews of Turkey: Synagogue ruins nearby Izmir, a city on the western coast of Turkey, have revealed that Turkey has hosted Jewish communities since, at least, the early 3rd century, B.C.E. Later signs of Jewish settlements and hints towards these community’s involvement in trade endeavors across Anatolia, has led Historians to assume that the region constituted a prosperous environment for the ancient Jewry [5].

As though, any Jewish population is subject to the flux of the geopolitics of whichever area they may be inhabiting, the rise of the Byzantine empire in 330 CE, an empire principally dominated by Christian ideology, drastically altered what one could expect as a Jew residing in Turkey. Just twenty years after the consolidation of the Empire, the Jews had organized a mass revolt against Emperor Gallus, who stood firmly behind the policy of forced conversion. This backlash by the Jewish community though, only led to nearly intolerable living conditions, involving policy barring Jews from running for public office, constructing new synagogues, electing a Nazi, and further, implementing crushing financial burdens for the Jewish community explicitly [6]. The prominent political and religious leaders of the Empire, were fond of linking the Jews to deicide, or the death of Jesus of Nazareth. This deicidal notion was seized by later proselytizers, famously John Chrysostom who expands this idea and makes an inexplicable link towards defining the Jews as a murderous group of people in general, stating that “‘they sacrifice not sheep and calves but the souls of men’”. If this is to be accepted, the possibilities for the demonization of Jews truly become endless. If Chrysostom’s words are to be believed then it becomes acceptable to the general public to call Jews “evil” pigs or depraved demons, potentially “‘fit for killing’” themselves. This depicts the slippery slope that is the history of Jews in the context of Christian collective thought; Byzantine became a breeding ground for anti-Semitism. Converting to Christianity became a political and social maneuver for citizens, shrinking the space for Jewish inclusion or expression. Much of the Empire’s extreme distaste for its Jewish population has been explicated through the understanding that Christianity, as a young, and newly blossoming faith, needed to ascertain means of segregating itself from the original Abrahamic religion, in order to come into its own [7]. 

Long term relief as the Ottoman Empire, an Islamic Empire, conquered, and thus replaced the Byzantine Empire in 1453. As the Ottoman’s conquered various cities in Byzantium, on their path to consolidating power in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, they offered the Jewish community protection, a priceless gift to a group of people who have been marginalized and persecuted for centuries prior. The Ottoman’s offered individuals of Abrahamic faith protection through granting them dhimmi status; dhimmi’s paid for their ruler’s tolerance through a tax, known as a jizya, and a few other legal prohibitions (these prohibitions, or protections were, in no way, consistently enforced). This agreement gave the Empire a way to regulate its incredibly diverse citizenry, and gave the Jewish community time to recover from life under the Byzantine Empire [8]. Ottoman rulers such as sultan Mehmet II, recognized the safety that his domain could provide for struggling groups, and therefore, he went so far as to invite and encourage Jews from areas in Europe that the Empire had not yet pulled under its influence [9].

In relation to Jewish history though, the Ottoman Empire becomes perhaps most notable in the year 1492, the year in which King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella truly solidified their title of the “Catholic Monarchs” through their expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. Sephardic families began treks that would land them throughout the Mediterranean, and into the farthest eastern reaches of the Ottoman empire. As the Jews settled in one land, such as Portugal, or Navarre, only to quickly re-experience the familiar ultimatum of conversion or expulsion, the Turkish ruling Ottoman Empire served as a final, somewhat stable point of settlement. Sultan Bayazid II is remembered for his statement, “You call Ferdinand a wise king, he who impoverishes his country and enriches our own”, and thus his recognition of the worth of the Sephardim. By 1500, over 8000 Jewish homes could be found in the city of Istanbul. A Golden Age ensued in the Empire, that lent the Jews an unfettered opportunity to display their skills; Jews brought the Empire its first printing press, and negotiated some of the Empire's most complex, and delicate diplomatic challenges [10]. 

The city of Diyarbakir, located in Southeastern Turkey, stood as the epitome of this “Golden Age”, by way of its unmatched cultural and religious diversity [11]. The success of the cities diverse make-up unfortunately though, lasted only until WWI, when the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire birthed a new Turkish nation, eager to embark on a project of homogenization. The discriminatory policies that this project brought in its wake, prompted a mass migration of Jews from Diyarbakir to other Turkish metropolises or to Europe, therefore forcing the community to abandon the city’s ancient synagogue. This, mixed with the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, diminished the population of Jews in Turkey from 80,000 to 18,500, with a vast majority of the community residing in Istanbul today [12]. 

Diyarbakir, Turkey

© Mapbox, © OpenStreetMap