Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Turkey: ASF's Publication and On-line Photos Archive of Nearly 3,000 Photo of Turkish Synagogues

Turkey: ASF's Publication and On-line Photos Archive of Nearly 3,000 Photo of Turkish Synagogues
by Samuel D. Gruber

(ISJM) The American Sephardi Federation
has published a book about Turkish Synagogues and posted nearly 3,000 photos on-line.

Over a two month period in 1996, New York-based architect (and ISJM member) Joel Zack and photographer Devon Jarvis; along with Turkish architectural student Ceren Kahraman and Muharrem Zeybek, driver and guide, traveled 6,000 miles documenting fifty Turkish synagogues and former synagogues, producing a rich descriptive, graphic and photographic archive. The project was funded by the Maurice Amado Foundation and the Mitrani Family Foundation. The selection of photographs from the expedition was first exhibited at the 92nd Street Y in New York, and then in a traveling exhibition.

On the occasion of the exhibition of work at the Topkapı Palace Museum in Istanbul last fall the American Sephardi Federation (ASF) published an exhibition catalog by Joel A. Zack, The Historic Synagogues of Turkey / Türkiye’nin Tarihi Sinagoglari (ISBN 978-0-615-23948-4).
More importantly, ASF created as part of the digital archives of the Center for Jewish History, an on-line archive of 2,827 of Devon Jarvis’s Turkish synagogue photographs.

The work of Zack, Jarvis and Kahraman adds significantly to a growing body of documentation about Turkish Jewish monuments. Since 1992 a number of research and documentation projects have been carried out in the country, including the recording of cemetery epitaphs by a team lead by Mina Rozen of Hebrew University; photography and film making with an ethnographic slant by Ayse Gursan-Salzmann and Laurence Salzmann; documentation of Turkish synagogues and Judaica by the Center for Jewish Art; and the photography of Turkish synagogues by Erson Alik. There is also a new 2-volume book on Turkish synagogues by Izzet Keribar and Naim Guleryuz published last year, that I have not yet had a opportunity to see.

All these projects, together with other documentation efforts in Morocco, Egypt and Syria, are greatly altering the Eurocentric view of architectural achievements in synagogue building, and also putting to the test long-established theories of architectural influence. Clearly, now that so many more synagogue are known - or can be known - to scholars, it seems clearer that there has been at the very least, for many centuries, a formal, functional and stylistic give-and-take between Judaism's east and west, and south and north.

Other scholars have been working on other aspects of synagogues of the former Ottoman Empire, and we can expect soon publication on the synagogue Greece by Elias Messinas and of Syria by David Cassuto. ASF has also put on-line digital versions of much photographs taken by Isaiah Wyner as part of a survey of Moroccan synagogues directed by Zack for the World Monuments Fund in 1989 (I will write more about these at another time).

Zack’s book is a useful guide to Turkish synagogues, but is only introductory in nature. He briefly describes the various types of synagogues he found throughout the country, and some of their distinguishing features. Much of the text is in the form of picture captions; some are detailed, but others offer little information...presumably because there is little yet known. Because of the geographic expanse of Turkey, and because of cultural connections of the Ottoman Age, there are many different types of synagogues that served diverse Jewish communities. Turkey was fertile ground for synagogue design. Besides local ancient, Byzantine and Ottoman sources, there was a near-constant Ottoman cultural exchange with Russia, Central Europe, Italy, Egypt, Syria and Iraq. Future research will need to further examine these associations in the context of Jewish art and architecture. Perhaps the most clearly indigenous Ottoman synagogue type is that of the rectangular plan with a central four column feature, usually surrounding a tevah and sometimes surmounted by a dome. This type was common around Izmir and is also known in Northern Greece, and Bulgaria. But it is also known in Morocco, and even earlier in a simpler form from Tomar, Portugal; so the actual origins of the type remain unknown.

Zack’s book, as an exhibition catalog, lacks a strong historical framework, but he leaves the door open for any researcher to provide more information about the history, architecture and context of any individual building.

By making the entire photo archive accessible to all, Zack and Jarvis provide an opportunity heretofore lacking for an in-depth study of Turkish synagogues. They would be the first to admit that their project poses as many questions as it answers. Indeed, one of the most telling parts of the short text is the section "Issues and Lessons." Zack poses the difficult questions about what is to be done – if anything – to preserve this architectural legacy, since most of the synagogue are either not in use, or serve very small congregations. He asks what legacy this is – a Jewish one, a Turkish one, or something else, the reminder of a still-recent past where Jews, Muslims and others all (reasonably) peacefully co-existed in the Middle East.

Zacks writes: “The answers are complex. Through the lens of today’s world and the immediacy of today’s headlines, Jewish communities like those of the Ottoman Empire and Turkey seem perhaps like an anomaly or an anachronism. I would argue that we look through that same lens, but with a more expansive view – a view that encompasses the breadth of the history of these buildings and the significance that they might hold for us and for the future.”

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