Jews’ Long History in Turkey

The Jewish presence in Turkey usually is dated to 1492, when the Ottoman emperor Beyazit II welcomed Jews fleeing the Spanish Inquisition to his territory.

In fact, though, Jewish life in the area has been traced back to at least the fourth century B.C.E. During the Byzantine period, a community of Greek-speaking Jews lived in Istanbul, then called Constantinople.

But the Jewish community in what is now Turkey started truly to develop only after the arrival of the Spanish Jews in 1492, who created important centers of Jewish life in Istanbul, Izmir and Salonika, which is now part of Greece.

The Ottomans provided a sort of limited autonomy to the religious communities under their rule, which allowed Jewish life in the empire to flourish. For example, many of the Ottoman court physicians were Jewish.

At the beginning of the 20th century, just before the dissolution of the empire, the Jewish population in the area that is now Turkey numbered more than 100,000, mostly Sephardim, with sizable Jewish communities ranging from the country’s Anatolian heartland to its Aegean coast and its border with Syria.

Turkey’s Jewish population today is estimated at 25,000. Driven away by political and economic turbulence and lured by the possibility of living in nearby Israel, Turkish Jews left the country in great waves starting in the late 1940s. They left behind Jewish communities that — with the exception of Istanbul, and to a lesser extent Izmir, which has a Jewish population of around 2,000 — are either struggling to survive or have ceased to exist.

In Istanbul, the community maintains several institutions, including synagogues, a high school, old age homes and a hospital. As in Ottoman times, the community is headed by a chief rabbi known as the haham bashi.

Jews and Muslims traditionally have gotten along well in Turkey, which is officially secular and which — as a non-Arab country — has pursued policies starkly different from its Arab neighbors.

Military and economic ties with Israel are strong, and despite having earned Turkey harsh criticism in the Arab world, those ties have persevered under governments of varying ideologies.

PhotographyImages from the Territory of Belief

Top, “Encampent in the Wilderness of Paran, Sinai,” circa 1875.Above, “Moses’ Well, Jebel Musa,” 1868-69. Below “Arab Man inProfile,” from the 1850s. Photos from “Revealing the Holy Land,”1997.


In the company of his friend, fellow world traveler andphotographer Maxime du Camp, French novelist Gustave Flaubert visitedJerusalem in 1850. The urbane and sophisticated Flaubert wasdecidedly unimpressed with this crumbling backwater of the OttomanEmpire: “Jerusalem stands as a fortress; here the old religionssilent rot away. One treads on dung; ruins surround you wherever youreyes wander — a very sad and sorry picture.”

That same year, a Rev. George Wilson Bridges also made his way tothe Holy City. An English cleric and an amateur photographer, Bridgesand his young son traveled through Palestine as part of a seven-yearjourney around the Mediterranean and the East. Bridges undertook thejourney as a form of solace: He had just buried his wife and daughterin Jamaica — victims of a tropical fever they contracted while thereverend was there doing missionary work. Steeped as he was in griefand religious conviction, Bridges found that Jerusalem’s atmosphereof melancholia and desolation suited him. “What sight,” he observedafter witnessing Jews praying at the Western Wall, “even in thiswondrous city, so touching, so impressive as this — Jews mourningthe ruins of Jerusalem….”

These two travelers — one a littérateur seeking new imagesand impressions for his work and the other an emotionally strickenChristian — see the same patch of stony land in dramaticallydifferent contexts. As is vividly illustrated in a stunning new book,”Revealing the Holy Land: The Photographic Exploration of Palestine,”men such as Flaubert and Bridges were part of a larger stream ofdisparate travelers who trekked to 19th-century Palestine.

From the moment an image could be fixed, photographers beganjourneying to Jerusalem to capture images from the ancient holy city.Armed with newly invented equipment and a host of differingmotivations, patrons and agendas, they all saw — through theircamera lenses — what they wanted to see. Collected here (and soon tobe on display at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art), these remarkablepictures tell almost as much about Western attitudes toward the “HolyLand” as they do about the hardscrabble country itself. NitzaRosovsky’s informative essay further illuminates the historicalcontext of these images.

Occupying the lion’s share of the book are a series of photographsby Sgt. James McDonald, a member of England’s Royal Engineers. Takenduring the engineer corps’ meticulous land surveys of Jerusalem andthe Sinai, McDonald’s pictures reveal an expertise with earlyprocesses of photography. They also capture 19th-century Palestine’ssun-drenched, desolate beauty and hint at England’s imperialisticdesigns on it.

Land surveyorsweren’t the only ones drawn to Palestine. Westerners in general,whether they were armchair travelers or early tourists, werefascinated with the mysterious Holy Land, which, until the mid-19thcentury, had only been represented by religious Renaissance art,illustration and sentimental contemporary painting. The demand forphotographic images of Palestine gave rise to several prominentcommercial photographers, such as Frenchman Felix Bonfils andEnglishman Frank Mason Good. Occupied with a different agenda thanMcDonald, they produced popular pictures for an eager, paying public.Those early photos stimulated travel and pilgrimages to the area. Asbusiness flourished, entire studios were devoted to producingphotographs of biblical sites (accompanied by verses of scripture)and portraits of romanticized Middle Eastern “types.” Those images –of picturesque tents under palm trees and exotically costumed locals– are also included here.

“Revealing the Holy Land” captures the point where the historiesof picture-taking, Palestine, and the West’s Middle East policyintersect and interact. As such, it’s not only a beautiful book ofphotography but also an important document. The particular set ofculture clashes and competing interests that had just begun to takeshape in mid-19th-century Palestine continue to reverberate in Israelto this day — unresolved and as seemingly fixed as an oldphotograph.

“Revealing the Holy Land” (University of California Press, $25paper/$60 cloth) is available at bookstores. The exhibit goes ondisplay at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art from Jan. 29 through March29.