Whenever we ride through Ulus with my father, he points to some unspecified point with his head at the back of the TRT Ankara Radio building and states that “And this is the Jewish Quarter of Ankara”. For a long time, however, Jewish people were only close to me as the movie Pianist and far away from me as a discussion about the Middle East. I learned that we were neighbors after a very long time.
Where Did They Come From?
Istanbul is okay, but the words “Jewish” and “Ankara” do not seem to fit in the mind. However, like any other Ottoman city; Muslims, Armenians, Greeks, and Jews lived together in Ankara. The existence of the Jewish population in the city dates back to the 1st century BC. They were there at the Late Roman and Byzantine periods and they joined to the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Sultan Murat, when Ankara was seized. Sephardic Jews who moved to the region had an important place in the trade relations of the city. In the 19th century, their number was decreased as a result of many disasters and epidemics. In the 20th century, they formed 32% of the population together with the other non-Muslim communities. Even in a faded glance, we can see that they are an important part of Ankara’s history. In this case, the answer to the question is: They were always here!
What Have They Done?
The maps of that period show that different places of worship existed side by side in the neighborhood. In 1861, the following was recorded about the Jewish people in Ankara: “When you look towards the neighborhood, the gloom collapses upon you. These Jewish people live in isolation, they would not trust foreigners”. Back in that day, Jewish people were engaged with many different types of craftsmanship, that no longer exists today. They were heavily affected by the fire that destroyed the most beautiful neighborhoods of the city in 1916.
In the early Republican years, the Jewish Quarter continued its existence. In Shalom Newspaper, an article about the modern times of the neighborhood says: “The music sounds rising from the houses offers an intimacy that cannot be found in Istanbul”.
Where Are They Now?
With the expansion of the city of Ankara, Jewish began to start living in different areas. With the establishment of the State of Israel after the Second World War, immigration began. The asset tax received from non-Muslims causes them many economic troubles. According to some, in the early years of the republic, the uniformity of practices that were done in order to create a sense of citizenship caused the disappearance of the Jewish Quarter. Today, there is no Jewish community in the quarter. Even the neighborhood is not known in this way.
The “Jewish Quarter”
We arrived in the Jewish Quarter after a half-hour walk from the main square Kizilay. The keyword we wrote on the smart map is synagogue – because the Jewish Quarter cannot be found on Google Maps. We guessed the synagogue would technically be closed, but surprised to see that it was also physically enclosed. On top of the original walls, another long white wall was built which had iron bars above and barbed wire at the top. As soon as we realized that we cannot get an image of the synagogue while standing next to it, we started to look for a higher place. There is a building full of small ateliers and business offices behind the synagogue. On the third floor, we reached the fire escape and climbed to the terrace. We were able to glance at the garden of the synagogue from there. Behind the entrance door, there was a wooden transition zone, with a wide courtyard connecting the door. There was a police point on the synagogue’s wall, which was also abandoned. The first thing to notice from above about the area is that the neighborhood is in ruins. Some structures have begun to collapse. It poses a serious security risk. Besides, there are people living in these ruined houses. Behind the synagogue, there is a small mosque with wooden minarets. The historical Şengül Bathhouse (Hamam) is right in the cross. The restored roof of the bathhouse is in a strange contrast to the rest of the neighborhood. It shows us how beautifully it could have been restored.
By following the same – and also not very legal – way, we walked close to the synagogue again. There are two beautiful houses right across the street. Both three-storey houses with bay windows. A mother and her daughter were stringing pepper on a balcony. The other one is deplorable. The iron railing on the door is covered with chains. It was possible to enter through the fences, but we didn’t want to disturb the mother-daughter duo who were us from the side of the house with prying eyes. Through the broken glass, the elegant ceiling of the ancestral house appeared to our eyes.
The name of the derelict house where I can’t get my eyes is Hayim Albukrek Residence. The curious mother and daughter’s house is mentioned as the Araf House. We started walking in the neighborhood. The keystone streets are narrow, probably very difficult to enter with a car. However, a red pickup truck passes us ahead while we are there. Doors of the houses were still open, and from the doorways, it was possible to see the courtyards. The influence of high school on the high street, though, adds a creativity to the street. It is expressed through humorous writings on the walls. The most active place of the neighborhood was the Şengül Bathhouse, which is accustomed to tourists.
The feeling that the neighborhood left me was sadness. To see the beautiful houses leaning to their sides as a result of neglect; not to be able to see the garden of the synagogue, let along to go inside… The Jewish Quarter is in the middle of the city, but it appeared as an abandoned space. This history falls to the ground brick by brick every day.
What Will Happen?
The Jewish Quarter is an important part of the history of Ankara. Even if wasn’t, it does not deserve to stay that way as a devastated place in the heart of the city. Experts and decision-makers with the support of the neighborhood’s current residents, property owners, and even the Jewish community in Turkey should come together to make this a place where Turkish and Jewish communities are living together and where people can walk inside the history where the history. Then perhaps another father may make a right, and go on a tour while following the path that runs down the street with his daughter in the neighborhood.
“Ankara İstiklal (Yahudi) Mahallesi: Tarihi, Dokusu Ve Konutları” – Deniz Avcı Hosanlı A. Güliz Bilgin Altınöz – TÜBA-KED 14/2016
“Ankara’daki Yahudi Mahallesi Hamamönü Gibi Olmamalı”
All rights of the photographs are reserved to Dogukan Cihanbeyoglu.
This article is available in Turkish. Click here to read.