Ottoman Era Synagogue Reopens in Turkey

Turkey reopens the Great Synagogue in Edirne, following a restoration protect at a cost of $2.5 million.

Ben Ariel ,

The restored Great Synagogue in Edirne, Turkey
The restored Great Synagogue in Edirne, Turkey

Turkey on Thursday reopened a restored century-old synagogue built during the Ottoman Empire but closed for several decades, AFP reported.

A special ceremony was held at the Buyuk Sinagog (lit. the Great Synagogue) in the northwestern city of Edirne. It was attended by top officials including Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc, as well as leaders of the Turkish-Jewish community, the report said.

The synagogue - which served the Jewish community in Edirne until 1983 and a few years later suffered a roof collapse - was reopened as an active place of worship after a five-year $2.5 million restoration project.

The restoration project saw the synagogue's lead-clad domes and stately interior as well as its precious Torah scrolls restored.

Leading the first service in the restored synagogue - built in 1907 under Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II - was Rabbi David Azuz, state-run Anatolia news agency reported.

He had also led the last prayer service before the synagogue was closed to worship, noted AFP.

The project is seen as part of efforts under the 12-year domination of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to lift restrictions on Turkey's small but historically significant non-Muslim religious minorities.

Authorities in Ankara insist the restoration of the synagogue shows their tolerance towards Turkey's 20,000-strong Jewish community, many of whom trace their ancestry back to Jews who started to take refuge in the Ottoman Empire in the 15th century following their expulsion from Spain.

"The faithful restoration and reopening of the Great Synagogue stands as another example of the culture of peaceful coexistence on Anatolian soil," the office of the Turkish prime minister said in a statement quoted by AFP.

The reopening comes after a wave of anti-Israel sentiment in predominantly Muslim Turkey.

Several months ago, American officials expressed deep concern over the rising levels of anti-Semitism in Turkey. A report late last year revealed that young Turkish Jews were leaving the country in droves as a result of the anti-Semitism.

Turkey has seen a rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes since the rise of Erdogan's Islamist AKP party. Although violent attacks are still relatively rare, anti-Jewish incitement has become commonplace.

Dursun Ali Sahin, the governor of Edirne, drew ire in November after suggesting that the synagogue be turned into a museum as a reprisal for Israel's policies over the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem.

Sahin apologized for his comments after an outcry from the Jewish community and the work on the synagogue resumed after a brief delay.

Amid the concerns over anti-Semitism, Erdogan took the time in December to send Turkish Jews a greeting for the holiday of Hanukkah.

The Turkish president said in his greeting that Turkey would carefully preserve its rich cultural and historical heritage, while highlighting that Turkey’s Jewish citizens were “the fundamental elements of Turkey.”