Istanbul has always been quite an important metropolitan city throughout history. Muslims, Anatolian Greeks, Armenians, Jews, Levantines, and expat Europeans have lived in Istanbul for centuries. Multicultural, multilingual, and multi-faith locals of the city have contributed a great deal to Istanbul and its culture in many ways.
Romaniote Jews who have lived in Turkey* since the Roman Empire were also known as Byzantine Jews. Jewish people from Central and Northern Europe who now are living in Turkey as well as other several Jewish communities are usually called Ashkenazi Jews. The Jewish community made up of those forced to leave Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497 (or convert to Christianity) are Sephardic Jews. They settled in the Ottoman Empire upon the invitation of Sultan Bayezid II to come and live freely as Jews.
When the mighty Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans, Mehmet II, the Conqueror, provided the Jewish community with privileged status allowing them to repair their synagogues in the cities and moved Jewish people from the Balkans and several locations in Anatolia to Istanbul. The new settlement areas of Jewish communities today include where the New Mosque is located, as well as in the Balat district.
When the Sephardic Jews arrived and settled on Ottoman land and in Istanbul, they contributed a lot to commerce, industries, finance, firearms production, artillery, printing and typography, textile production, jewellery making, medicine, and other fields of science. Royal jewellery makers of the Ottoman Palace, financial consultants of the Sultans, and private doctors of Sultans and the Palace were always Jewish.
The first stop on our tour will be Ahrida (Ohrida) Synagogue located in the Balat district; it is an old temple known to have existed in the Byzantine Empire period. Of the many temples in the Balat district, Ahrida Synagogue is the largest and most splendid.
We will continue our stroll on the streets of Fener-Balat districts, which are old Greek and Jewish neighborhoods. Most buildings in these districts have two-storied houses built with bricks.
The Neve Shalom Synagogue in the Galata district is a Sephardic Synagogue, and its name means “Oasis of Peace.” The majority of the bar mitzvah and wedding ceremonies of Istanbul’s Jewish community are held in this synagogue. In the Neve Shalom Synagogue, we will also visit the museum, also known as the 500th Year Foundation, which shows the religious and cultural heritage of the Turkish Jews, the roles they have played for the state and public life, and their major contributions to the social and cultural life of Istanbul. Afterward, we will walk around the most beautiful alleys of ancient Galata.