Istanbul museum honours arrival of Jews from Spain

Nancy Wigston on the Camondo Stairs in Istanbul

It’s a thrill to arrive in Istanbul these days, a city thronging with tourists from all over the world. Most visit – and patiently line up for – famous landmarks such as the Hagia Sofia (“holy wisdom”), a vast domed structure designed by Greek architect-mathematicians for the Emperor Justinian.

This architectural marvel oddly encapsulates Istanbul’s long history. First built as a Byzantine cathedral (537 CE), it became a mosque under Ottoman rule (1453-1930) and finally, a museum, in 1935, under the Turkish Republic’s modern leader, Mustafa Kamel Atatürk. Times change, but Hagia Sofia endures.  

Another must-see is Topkapi Palace, a connected series of low buildings where sultans lived for hundreds of years (1465-1856), busily amassing priceless treasures such as painted miniatures, weaponry, clothing – and a staggering number of jewels. Highlights such as the fiery (86 carats) Spoonmaker’s Diamond and a famous, jewel-encrusted dagger are enough to make you forget about the queues outside. And if that dagger looks strangely familiar, you’re probably a fan of the other Topkapi, the 1964 classic film heist, with Oscar-winner Peter Ustinov.

Walkable Istanbul – there’s also an easy-to-use city tram system – attracts visitors from Japan, Australia, Scandinavia, and all parts of Europe and North America. And why not? The city on the Bosphorus Strait connects the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara – with one side referred to as “Asian,” the other “European.”

On a delightful morning spent touring Jewish Istanbul, I learn that the city embodied the cosmopolitan ideal as far back as 1492, when Sultan Beyazid II sent navy ships to rescue Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. The sultan valued the expelled Jewish communities, ordering that Sephardim be made welcome in his realm. More than 150,000 accepted his invitation. 

 “The Ottomans took all the civilized people,” said Alp (“like the mountains”), my guide to Jewish Istanbul. Fleeing Jews brought with them the new skill of printing, he said, along with advances in medicine and dentistry. As we approach the old Jewish district – this was once a colony of the Republic of Genoa (1273-1453) – Alp points out the landmark Galata Tower, used variously as a lookout, fire tower and lighthouse.

Not only is this cone-shaped building clearly visible from most points in the old city, it’s more evidence – should more be necessary – of Istanbul’s constantly evolving nature. The tower is now home to an elegant restaurant offering spectacular views – and belly-dancing shows at night.

Istanbul’s Jewish community currently numbers around 20,000, Alp told me. A great number of Turkish Jews voluntarily emigrated in 1949, after Turkey officially recognized the State of Israel. “We still have freedom of religion,” said Alp firmly. Istanbul has 22 synagogues, 120 churches, 999 mosques. On the car-free clutch of islands – the Princes’ Islands – in the Sea of Marmara, three synagogues stay open for summer services and are reachable by ferryboat.

In 2001, a new Jewish Museum of Turkey was opened – a project spearheaded by the Quincentennial Foundation, composed of both Muslims and Jews – in the 17th-century Zülfaris (“bridal lock of hair”) Synagogue. Reached by climbing a flight of steep stairs, the synagogue – which had once served the city’s Thracian community – had closed for services in 1985. The museum now honours the 500-year-history of the arrival of Jews from Spain, with exhibits, photographs and religious artifacts, collected from centuries of community life. Since its opening, the museum has evolved into a chic venue for exhibits and musical events.

 “Security can be tight,” says Alp, as we near Neve Shalom Synagogue (1951), the city’s largest Sephardi temple. Indeed, guards outside are wearing bulletproof vests and are noticeable in the otherwise quiet street. Three terrorist attacks have targeted Neve Shalom – in 1986, 1992 and 2003 – at a cost of 50 lives. Bullet holes mark the temple’s exterior and some of the chairs inside. The attacks prompted an exodus of 80 to 100 Jews from the district, Alp told me. “Some just locked their doors and took the keys. Others moved to the Asian side of the river.” In the 1990s, squatters briefly occupied some empty buildings, but more recently the old streets have witnessed the birth of a burgeoning theatrical and artistic quarter.

The morning brightens when we reach the Austrian (Franz Joseph I) Synagogue, dedicated by the Ashkenazi community to the Austrian emperor’s 1900 visit to what was then Constantinople. With a friendly “Shabbat Shalom,” guards usher me toward a winding staircase leading to the white-painted wooden women’s gallery. Here all is calm, beautiful, peaceful – as if the world outside has vanished.

The temple’s blue-painted dome is dotted with gold stars, a Magen David at its centre. Old chandeliers cast a soft glow; prayers are being sung; a group of boys are preparing for their upcoming bar mitzvahs. The Ashkenazi community has shrunk – it numbers about 800 – but on this morning the synagogue seemed as alive as it was a hundred years ago.

After leaving Franz Joseph I, we approach a lovely doubled-sided, curving staircase, a gift from the Italian-Turkish Camondo family, extremely prominent late 19th-century bankers to the Ottoman court. Baroque/art nouveau in design, the stairs connect Barkalar Caddesi (Bank) Street with the fashionable neighbourhoods above it. Rumour has it that the stairs were designed as a shortcut to school for the family’s children – and it’s certainly true that they remain a popular shortcut today.

But practicality can’t explain such unusual beauty, which once caught the eye of Henri Cartier-Bresson who famously photographed the Camondo stairs, a tradition that continues with visitors today. As we’re leaving the quarter, we fall into conversation with a family from the United States, wandering these old streets searching for their father’s roots. Born in 1912 in Constantinople  – the name was changed in 1930 – he left for Manhattan in 1939. How much more they would have discovered if only they’d arranged a tour in advance.

If You Go: I flew non-stop from Toronto-Istanbul on Turkish Airlines (; 888-596-6886) a member of Star Alliance; paid upgrades to comfort class available at Pearson. Visas for Turkey are required, payable on arrival. For general information:; Hakan Hackbekiroglu at was invaluable in helping me arrange my morning tour with Alp (passport photocopies, necessary to make reservations that are approved by Istanbul’s rabbinate, are then destroyed). Daylong tours of Jewish Istanbul are also available.