Saturday 25 February 2012

A mosque, two synagogues and a cafe - Istanbul explored a bit more

The Istanbul sky-line is instantly recognisable due to its many and glorious mosques. The Blue Mosque, the Suleyimaniye Mosque, Yeni Cami and of course the cathedral/ mosque Aya Sofya all attract thousands of visitors every year and are rightfully near the top of this city's list of attractions.

The Rustem Pasa mosque is a little overlooked in this embarrassment of riches, but its attractions rival the better known "stars" of the city. The mosque, designed by the great architect Sinan, was built in 1561 above the shops of the Spice Bazaar, for Rustem Pasa, son in law of, and grand vizier to, the Sultan Suleyman I. Clearly ahead of their time in terms of ideas for regeneration, rents from the shops in the bazaar were intended to cover the costs of maintaining the mosque.

Istanbul by Yekkes
Detail of ceramics in Rustem Pasa mosque
The mosque is decorated throughout with staggeringly beautiful Iznik tiles. The tiles cover almost every surface from the floor to the cupola in a riot of colour, geometric patterns and floral designs, maintaining the Islamic prohibition of depicting living beings in art. The courtyard affords shade from the oppressive heat of an Istanbul summer and despite the fairly regular groups of tourists visiting, it is possible to sit quietly and undisturbed in this little haven hidden above some of the city's busiest streets. I enjoyed a few contemplative moments in the shade, watching groups of mainly German tourists moving in and out of the main prayer hall whilst the mosque attendants reminded visitors to remove their shoes and women to cover their head on entering the building.

According to Peter Clark in his excellent book "Istanbul: A cultural history" Rustem Pasa had a bit of a reputation for being "tight fisted, commercially minded and an exacting tax gatherer". He may well have been unpleasant but he clearly had the good taste and great presence of mind to engage the genius Sinan to design the mosque. Sinan is himself, a fascinating figure. Born into a Christian family in Anatolia, he was brought to Istanbul in the annual "devsirme"- a round up of talented young non-Muslims. Trained as a military engineer he later won the patronage of Suleyman l and in 1538 became the chief imperial architect. He died in 1588, aged 97, and in his time built 131 mosques and at least 200 other buildings.

Istanbul by Yekkes
Torah scrolls, Istanbul
In addition to Istanbul's famous and beautiful mosques, the city boasts many churches and a surprisingly large number of synagogues. There has been a Jewish presence in this city since Byzantine times, but the 1492 expulsion from Spain is estimated to have brought 40,000 Jews to the relative safety of Ottoman Istanbul. The Jewish population of the city peaked in the 19th century at about 55,000. This has declined significantly since then to something like 20,000 today, but with many choosing to leave since the move towards a less secular form of government in Turkey in recent years.

During the second world war, large numbers of Jews found refuge in Turkey and the Turkish Ambassador to France, Behic Erkin, was instrumental in helping several thousand Turkish born or descended Jews to escape either to Turkey or to live under his protection in France. His grandson, Emir Kivircik has written an interesting book about him called " The Turkish Ambassador" available in a somewhat idiosyncratic but readable English translation.

There are many examples of non-Muslims achieving high office during Ottoman times, but it would not be true to say that there were not periodic moments of danger for the Jews in Turkey. This included during the second world war when many people in Government were pro-German and large numbers of the Jewish, Armenian and other non-Turkish communities were impoverished by the Varlik Vergisi, or wealth tax, imposed on them. Morris Farhi writes about this period in his novel "Young Turk" which follows a group of teenage friends discovering adulthood. People who did not pay the tax were placed in a concentration camp near Erzurum in Eastern Turkey where at least 20 died as a result of the conditions.

Istanbul by Yekkes
Neve Shalom synagogue
On my first visit to Istanbul in 1996 I tried unsuccessfully to visit one of the city's synagogues. Unable to get access at the front of the building I went into a side street to see if there was another entrance. Spotting a gateway with a policeman on duty I thought that must be it. I couldn't have been more mistaken. It was a state run brothel and the guard laughed hysterically and told me to visit the Grand Bazaar instead! This time I managed to visit two of the city's working synagogues. This is no mean feat and requires careful advanced planning, involving making an application ahead of your visit and producing your passport on arrival at the synagogues. There are also strict security checks on arrival, especially at Galata's Neve Shalom synagogue.

Over the years, Neve Shalom has suffered three terrorist attacks. In October 1969 a stick of dynamite was thrown through a window in the early hours of the morning causing damage but not injuring anyone. On 6th September 1986, during the morning service, Arab terrorists managed to get inside the synagogue, throw bombs and machine gun 25 people to death within a few minutes. The synagogue has a clock where the time is stopped at 9.17 a.m. the time of the attack, whilst a metal frame encloses traces of the bomb explosion and gunshots on the wall. A third attack was thwarted in 1992, but on November 15th 2003 a van carrying 250kg of explosives was detonated outside the synagogue killing 6 Jews and 18 Muslims and injuring hundreds of people.

The calm interior of Neve Shalom belies these terrible events. Once through the security checks you are free to admire the spacious synagogue, the beautiful cupola and the women's gallery, protected with Ottoman style screens so as not to distract the men! On leaving the security guard lifted my yarmulke from my head. I thought this was because he didn't realise it was mine and not one borrowed from the synagogue. I was wrong. He told me it wasn't safe to wear it in the street.

Ashkenazim are a small minority in the Istanbul community, numbering about 700, down from a peak of 10,000 in 1925. The Yuksekkaldirim Ashkenazi synagogue in Galata was inaugurated in 1900. Much smaller than Neve Shalom it has a homely feel to it, boasts a beautiful cupola and an interestingly curved women's gallery. When I visited a few older men from the community were chatting in the doorway and after confirming my identity I was given a warm welcome by the shammes. Interestingly there is still a small Karaite community in Istanbul, and one Karaite man was present during my visit. Married to an Ashkenazi woman he complained that he was not fully accepted into the community.

Istanbul by Yekkes
Cupola of the Yuksekkaldirim Synagogue
There are still more than 20 working synagogues in Istanbul. Many others have closed and are now used for other purposes - the Zulfaris synagogue houses the Jewish museum whilst the former Tofre Begadim synagogue now houses the Schneidertempel arts centre. It is hard not to think there will be more closures as the slow but sure exodus of Turkey's Jews continues.

Some distance from the main tourist areas, at the top of the hill in Eyup Cemetery, stands the Pierre Loti cafe. The cafe is named after the French novelist Pierre Loti who visited Istanbul several times in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He quickly became a Turkophile, wearing local dress, smoking the nargilah and allegedly frequenting this cafe. Most famous for his romantic novel "Aziyade" he was also an early travel writer. His book "Constantinople the Way it Was and The Green Mosque at Bursa" can still be purchased and is an interesting example of an early travelogue.

Whether this is the cafe he frequented or not, it is extremely popular with tourists who make the Pierre Loti pilgrimage here to see the pleasant 19th century interior of the cafe, to buy memorabilia from the shop (including some pretty good reproductions of old postcards) and to take in the fantastic views from  the hilltop across the Golden Horn. Sitting outside the cafe nursing a Turkish coffee with the obligatory piece of lokum (Turkish delight), breathing fresh air and enjoying the view, I could understand why Loti might have come here to relax away from the crush of the city and to hold court with his apparently many admirers. In his introduction to "Constantinople the Way it Was", Faruk Ersoz tells us that "Istanbul ladies had him followed so as not to miss the slightest detail of his conduct and his dress". Early paparazzi or stalking perhaps.

Istanbul by Yekkes
The kitchen of the Pierre Loti cafe
For more photographs of Istanbul, look here.

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