Housed in the ornate 19th-century Zullfaris synagogue near the Galata Bridge, this museum was established in 2001 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the arrival of the Sephardic Jews in the Ottoman Empire. Its modest but extremely well-intentioned collection comprises photographs, papers and objects that document the mostly harmonious coexistence between Jews and the Muslim majority in this country.
The history of the Jews in Turkey is as long as it is fascinating. In the late 15th century, Isaac Sarfati, Chief Rabbi of Edirne, wrote the following to brethren in Germany: 'Brothers and teachers, friends and acquaintances! I, Isaac Sarfati, proclaim to you that Turkey is a land wherein nothing is lacking, and where, if you will, all shall yet be well with you…Here, every man may dwell at peace under his own vine and fig tree.' At around the same time, Sultan Beyaz?t II proclaimed '…the Jews of Spain should not be refused, but rather be welcomed with warm feelings'. Alas, this enlightened state didn't last through the centuries, and Jewish Turks were made to feel considerably less welcome when racially motivated 'wealth taxes' were introduced in 1942 and violence against Jews and other minorities was unleashed in 1955, prompting many families to flee the country. More recently, Islamist terrorists have bombed synagogues on a number of occasions. Despite these recent events, the museum chooses to focus on the positive rather than the negative.
Approximately 23,000 Jews currently live in Turkey, with most residing in Istanbul. Sephardic Jews make up approximately 96% of this number, while the rest are primarily Ashkenazic. Today there are a total of 16 synagogues in Istanbul, all of which are Sephardic except for one. For a list of these see www.jewish-europe.net/turkey/en/synagogue