On Sunday morning I finally manage to find the Greek Orthodox Church near Taksim Square open for orthodox mass. Some twenty-odd elderly souls, seven priests including their helpers. Chanted mass. More old ladies come in and kiss the picture of Jesus in the aisle. Magnificent church bearing witness to the wealth of the Greek community in Istanbul. And indeed, as mentioned in the blog on the Pope’s Visit to Istanbul, the Patriarchate in Istanbul is the leader of the 150 million of orthodox Christians in Greece, Russian, Serbia and Bulgaria but the flock is now very very small, no more than 2,000 Greeks now live in Istanbul.
Down Istiklal Caddesi, La Grande Rue de Péra, and I stop by for mass at San Antonio de Padua. A few more faithful here, some tourists, I think, as we are exhorted to look for Dio by a fresh-faced Italian priest. Italian presence, particularly from Genoa and Venice, was strong both before and after the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmet II in 1453.
I forego the service at the Dutch chapel and look for the English church. Gates locked. A number of Indians nearby, a couple taking water in for the afternoon service.
Down to Tophane and then to Galata to look for the Jewish Museum. I spot the Synagogue. Must be on the other side. Go up and turn right. Many young guys milling around. There’s a police checkpoint and metal detector going down to what seems to be the Museum. Well, nowadays many Jewish museums around the world have them. I’m surprised the Jewish Museum is so popular, particularly with these young men. I show my kimilk, my identity card, to the policeman, and ask him whether the Jewish Museum is there. No it is the genelev. I don’t know the word. Light dawns on me, this is Brothel Street. I’ve passed here several times and been asked if I want a lady. I am again. But the whores seem to stay indoors, not hang around bars like the Russian Natashas I have seen in other areas of Istanbul.
I finally find the Jewish Museum, a converted synagogue near Galata Bridge, near the traditional banking area of Istanbul. Balkan Jews were treated better by the Muslims than the Byzantines, and in the mid 1300s flocked to the “land where the flag with the crescent brought justice”. Many Jews came to Constantinople and Smyrna (Izmir) to escape the Spanish Inquisition in 1483. They were well accepted by the Ottoman Empire, who encouraged foreigners to settle in Constantinople and increase its wealth. The members of the Janissary Guard were initially all slaves, mostly from the Balkans; many of the harem slaves were Circassians. Just before the First World War, over 20% of the population of Istanbul were Greeks, and a similar proportion Armenian. These two groups, along with the Jews, some 5% of the population formed the trading and merchant class. The Greeks were the dragomans, the court interpreters. The Ottomans exacted taxes from the foreign national groups, the millets, but generally left them alone to run their own communities and increase the wealth of the Ottoman Empire. Harmony it seems, at least until near the end of the Empire, and the Armenian massacres of 1915, the Greek-Turkish war of 1919-1922 when Greece was awarded the area around Izmir, followed by increasing Turkish nationalism, and restrictions in foreigners to enter certain professions like dentistry, law and pharmacy. This was later followed by the looting of Greek businesses in 1955.
Islamists in France and elsewhere might ask: we left them alone to run their own communities. Why don’t they leave us alone to run our societies as we want to?
Most Istanbul Sephardic Jews spoke Ladino, Spanish mixed with a few Hebrew and Yiddish words. A few speakers still survive, and newspapers in Ladino with names like La Boz de Turkiye and La Buena Esperansa were published until the 1980s. Most learnt Turkish, as they became more and more integrated. I examine wedding invitations from the inter-war period. No Ladino here. All were printed in French, the language of Pera society. A few are also in Turkish.
The Jewish Museum is full of encomiums to both the Ottoman Empire and the Republic. In 1933 Albert Einstein sent a letter to Atatürk asking him to accept 33 top Jewish scientists who had lost their jobs in Germany, and Atatürk welcomed them. In the Second World War various Turkish Schindlers saved Turkish Jews in the Nazi occupied areas. But then came Israel, and nearly all the Turkish Jews flocked to the new state, which was, in geographical terms, just down the road. But, unlike the Greeks, the Jews bore Turkey no bitterness, perhaps explaining the close relationship between Israel and Turkey today.
My Turkish teacher in Brazil, Hadi, tells me he learnt Greek from his Greek neighbours in Beyoglu in the 1940s and 1950s, but now Istanbul has been linguistically cleansed, apart that is, from the ever-increasing number of tourists, whose lingua franca is English.