Jan 18, 2011

Spirits of the Schneider Tempel in Galata

“I apparently live in the most Judaic neighborhood in Istanbul”, so said my friend who apparently did not think much about the history of her new neighborhood Galata.  She simply rented a place in a building that had just a street number and not a name, quiet atypical for Turkey. Indeed, apartment buildings usually have names that come from families but also from words such as happiness, peace, victory, palace of life and the like. My friend’s moment of truth came when she received her first phone bill with the name of the apartment building called “Braunstayn”. This was after she realized that some buildings in the neighborhood had dual dates on them such as 1899 and 5660, the former being the date according to the Gregorian calendar while the latter according to the Hebrew calendar. Being Jewish herself she quickly realized the connection.

Building with Gregorian (1893) and Hebrew (5654) calendar on it in Galata, Istanbul.

Braunstayn resident Yael Morel who gave the inspiration for this post.

It all started when she saw this address on one of her bills.

As she told me about this one day, I asked her to show me these buildings. In disbelief, I realized that I must have walked by them so many times since I went to high school in the neighborhood for eight years. In fact, I consider myself a connoisseur of Galata and often take my guests to the Galata Tower which gives the neighborhood its name. Galata comes from the Greek word “gala” meaning milk. In Byzantine times, milk farms were located in the neighborhood, therefore earning the name Galata. In fact, it was also home to a Genovese colony as evident from the architecture of the tower that was built by them to watch the sea. Another explanation for Galata comes from the Italian word "Galadio" which means a hilly road that goes down to the sea (as is the case in Galata).

Typical narrow streets of Galata-Beyoğlu today in Istanbul.

The Jews were not the only residents of Galata as evident from this Greek sign in Istanbul.

The Asseo building in Galata, Istanbul in three different alphabets.

Was Gloria the daughter or a beloved wife?

When one looks at the architecture in the neighborhood of Galata, the buildings have a clear European mark. This is not surprising as Galata is very close to Beyoğlu (Pera) which itself is full of churches and synagogues as a reminder of non Muslim minorities who have once lived there. Despite knowing all this, I did not think of Galata as particularly Jewish. So when my friend took me around and showed apartment buildings that had names like Gloria, Asseo, Robert, Öjeni (Eugene), it was a new awakening for me.

Street going up to Beyoğlu, Istanbul.

A well in Beyoğlu, Istanbul, notice the little mirror on it.

Hilly road to Galata, Istanbul with apartment building Barbara in the middle .

Puppet maker in Galata, Istanbul.

You may wonder how I must have missed out on all that. Well, in the late 1980s when I was going to school, the neighborhood was decrepit and falling apart. This was because many non Muslims who were living in the neighborhood left the country after the establishment of the republic in 1923. This was accelerated by conscious policies of Turkish governments to create a homogenous nation state which made clear to minorities that they were considered “foreign”. Further, drives to create a business community of Muslims led to taxes being levied on minority businesses which then led to these buildings being sold for less. It sometimes meant that buildings were confiscated by the government for want of payment. Later the buildings were rented out or occupied by rural émigrés from Anatolia who were looking for work in Istanbul and had other priorities in life than caring for buildings. It remained so until very recently. Thus, all I wanted to do when the school was over was to disappear from there. We always heard that one day the neighborhood would be a star but through out the nineties as well as the first couple of years of this millennium, the prediction did not seem to materialize.

Schneider Tempel with ten commandments on it in Istanbul.

Residence of Camondo family in Galata is a hotel today.

Typical street view from Galata, Istanbul.
I realized that things were finally changing when I was invited for an event at Schneider Tempel in the neighborhood a couple of years ago. The synagogue of the past serves as a concert hall today and to my surprise it was literally ten meters away from my high school. In other words, I must have walked by it countless times without even realizing that it was a synagogue. Ever since, the pace of gentrification in Galata seems accelerated. The Schneider Tempel takes its name from Jewish tailors of the neighborhood and is right next to the Stairs of Camondo, built by another Jewish family hailing from the neighborhood. When I first started school, I had to climb these stairs to get to the school every day and at the time they were in such bad shape, each time there was heavy rain, they turned into a waterfall with rainwater running all over. 

Camondo Stairs in Istanbul going up to the Schneider Tempel.
Photo: Zeynep Esra Tez.
The Camondos were Jews from Portugal who have come to Istanbul and were engaged in banking. Indeed, the beautifully renovated stairs connect the synagogue and the Banks street (Turkish: Bankalar Caddesi). Given their wealth, the Camondos were engaged in philantrophy and built many buildings for their community as well as financially supporting the Sultan during the Crimean War. Although the family emigrated to Paris, upon his death Avraham Salomon de Comondo was buried by state ceremony to the Jewish cemetery in Hasköy. The rest of the family was not so lucky. During the Holocaust, the rest of the family died in Auschwitz.    
Camondo shrine in Jewish cemetery in Hasköy with other decrepit graves around.

Did he maybe own the Asseo building pictured above?
As the story interested me, I went to the grave of Camondo who willed to be buried in my home town only to find the whole cemetery in a terrible state. Thank god, it is now being renovated but I was not allowed to take any pictures inside the shrine although I was free to shoot outside. The state of the Ladino language enshrined on the graves is no different than the graveyard. It is slowly becoming an extinct language as the last generation to speak it dies out
The Hasköy Jewish cemetery in Istanbul is decrepit.

The graves in Hasköy Jewish cemetery use Hebrew as well as Ladino.

The view from the Hasköy Jewish cemetery towards Golden Horn.

While the Jewish population in Istanbul is not growing, Istanbul is still changing with new émigrés from Armenia, Moldova and CIS countries . In that sense no one knows what the new decade will bring but the whole region of Beyoğlu, Galata and Karaköy is increasingly popular with cafés and bars opening up, old stories coming to surface, buildings being renovated and the rich (local as well as foreign) buying  and renovating houses and driving the Anatolian émigrés out. In fact, recently, the gentrification of the neighborhood has a new twist with local designers opening up shops and turning it into a fashion district. Maybe it is the spirit of the tailors from the Schneider Tempel that is luring them?

Bahar Korçan moved to Galata Istanbul.

Arzu Kaprol also moved to Galata, Istanbul.

So did other fashion stores in Istanbul.