As we meandered through the streets of the Karakoy neighborhood of Istanbul, Avraham (among others on separate occasions) told me something rather intriguing: Karakoy was one of the areas of Istanbul where the Karaites used to live – and in fact some people believe that Karakoy takes its name from the historical Karaite Jewish community.
I found this rather hard to believe. Could it really be that there were once so many Karaites in Istanbul, that an entire neighborhood was named after them?
Strange as it may seem, this now rapidly shrinking community was indeed a pillar of historic Istanbul (then known as Constantinople or Kushta/Konshtandina in Hebrew). And as much as I – in 2015 – could not fathom that Karaites were this numerous, it is quite possibly the case that Karakoy, which means “dark village” in Turkish, actually derives its name from the Karaites (Karay, in Turkish) and really means Karaite village. I don’t personally believe this – but is is possible.
That’s pretty crazy. But not nearly as crazy as some of the other stories I heard.
I should probably give you some background on Avraham before I continue. He is (in many ways) the Turkish equivalent of me: just some guy trying to document Karaite knowledge for posterity. He even hosts a Karaite blog in Turkish – which started off with a focus on the Karaite language spoken in Turkey, but has since evolved into a blog on all things Karaite. And I pray that he posts more regularly.
He is also full of wisdom. I asked him whether he thought the Karaite philosophy would survive another generation. He was adamant in his response: “Deep in the heart of every Jew, you will find some Karaite views.” I also lamented that he and I arrived about 15-20 years too late, and we may have already lost a lot of the current Karaites. To which he responded, “If we are too late, then why did God put us here in this generation.” We both chuckled at how Hassidic this sounded. But it is true. And beautiful.
Anyway, back to our tour. After visiting the Italian synagogue in Karakoy, we made our way over to the Karaite synagogue in the Hoskoy region.
The Karaite synagogue has frankly seen better days, but it is still magnificent. The community ceased holding regular Shabbat services a few years ago. Today, the synagogue is only opened on moadim and other special occasions. But the people who met me there were among the warmest and kindest people I have ever encountered.
The Hoskoy region also used to be the home to other Jewish communities. About a 45 second walk from the Karaite synagogue, Avraham tells me there is an abandoned Romaniote synagogue and mikveh. On the entrance to the building, you can see Hebrew letters Kof-Kof, which stands for Kahal Kadosh – Holy Congregation. Incidentally, the Karaite synagogue is named Kahal Kadosh b’Kushta – Holy Congregation in Constantinople.
While speaking with the elders of the community, I was informed that there are likely six or so former Karaite synagogues scattered throughout Istanbul. According to what Avraham has heard from others, he believes he knows of two of these former Karaite synagogues: one is now the “Underground Mosque” (Yeralti Cami) and the other is now part of the “New Mosque” (Yeni Cami).
On the last night of my trip, Avraham took me to see these two sites. We’ll discuss first the Underground Mosque. I am skeptical that this used to be a Karaite synagogue. Let’s review the evidence in favor of it being a Karaite synagogue. First, it is below street level, and it is known that Karaites had a tendency to build synagogues slightly below street level. Second, it is in the region of Karakoy, which people believe once had a sizeable Karaite population. Third, like historical Karaite synagogues it is covered in rugs and filled with people prostrating. (Okay, number three does not really count.)
But the reason I doubt it is formerly a Karaite synagogue is that I cannot find a single printed source that suggests this. In fact, all the printed sources I have found indicate that the underground facility likely was associated with the Castle of Galata. If anyone can find a source that suggests this was an old Karaite synagogue, or any old synagogue of any movement, please let me know. (I did not take any photos of the mosque, because people were praying at the time; and I did not want to be disrespectful; but you can see some photos here.)
Yeni Cami, the New Mosque, is a bit of a different story. Yeni Cami is located in the Eminonu region of Istanbul. It is well-documented that this region was home to the Karaite Jews, who were forced to settle there from Adrianople. It is also well-documented that when the Yeni Cami was built, the Karaites were evicted from the region in order to make room for the mosque. During their eviction, the Karaites were relocated to Hoskoy, where their synagogue currently stands.
And according to what Avraham has heard, the olive oil shop right next to the mosque (and structurally attached to the mosque) was a Karaite synagogue. This is an interesting claim.
Here is picture I took of the exterior of the olive oil shop during my trip.
According to Avraham, until shortly after the Flotilla Incident, there was a Star of David above the door which is now covered up by the shop’s sign. I initially expressed skepticism about this; but Avraham told me he has seen the Star of David with his own eyes. So I did some digging and I tracked down an older picture of the shop. It does appear that the sign was lowered to cover up some image that appears like it could be a Star of David in some sort of circle. Check it out.
Here is another photo I took of the olive oil shop at night. It appears to me (an untrained eye) that the top of the building was added at a later date.
Here too, if anyone can find a printed source that discusses whether this olive oil shop was once a synagogue (or a religious building) of any Jewish movement, drop me a note.
I also plan to reach out to an expert on the Jews of Istanbul to see if we can shed any light on whether these two structures were once Jewish buildings (Karaite or otherwise).
I leave you with a few more pictures from my trip. Enjoy:
- I met the last Jewish merchant on Istanbul’s major Istiklal street. His landlord, Saint Mary Draperis Roman Catholic Church, is seeking to evict him. He is a Karaite and he is also a Cohen. He has been interviewed by numerous media outlets. In an interview by Almonitor, he once said, “I don’t care what a person’s religion is, whether he is Jewish, Christian or Muslim. I am Karaite Jewish. We believe in tolerance. We believe that all prayers go to the same place. I only care if a person has a good heart or not. But those new priests don’t understand our history. If I lose my shop, I don’t know how I’ll cope. I’m not a rich man.”
- The interior of the Ark/Aron at the Karaite synagogue in Turkey. The Hebrew has the words “Shrine of YHWH,” followed by “Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will go into them, I will thank Yah.” (Ps. 118:19.) A very fitting verse for doors that open to the Torah.
- This sign and many others can be found outside the synagogue.
- Hakham Magdi Shemuel visited the community in Istanbul in 1981 and slaughtered a lamb at this spot just before Passover. The community in Turkey remembers him fondly, and via his son Hazan Eli Shemuel, he sent his regards back to the community.
- Finally, I owe an incredible debt of gratitude to Avraham for showing me around and making sure I was taken care of in Istanbul. He provided me with the oral history of the Karaites in Turkey, and has graciously supported my continued desire to learn about Turkish Karaites.
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 For scholarly thoughts on this theory, see Zvi Ankori’s Karaites in Byzantium, p. 144, n.219 (“Needless to say, the above etymology is not cited here as proof of Karaite settlement in that particular section of Galata [in which Karakoy lies]. Rather, it is important as an echo of popular reminiscences regarding the spread of Karaites beyond the limited area described by Benjamin [of Tudela] (and situated in a different part of Galata).”)
 In Turkish there is no sound equivalent to the English “h”; so the word Kahal is often spelled and pronounced “Kal” (with both ‘a’s of Kahal blending into one sound).
 See Minna Rozen, A History of the Jewish Community in Istanbul: The Formative Years, 1453-1566, p. 56.
 See John Freely, The Companion Guide to Istanbul and Around the Marmara, p. 19 (“The area where Yeni Cami now stands was for centuries a Jewish quarter . . . . The Jews who resided there were members of the schismatic Karaite sect, who broke off from the main body of Orthodox Jewry in the eighth century. The Karaites seem to have established themselves on this site as early as the eleventh century . . . . The Karaites continued living there until 1660, when they were evicted to make room for the final construction of Yeni Cami. They were then resettled some three kilometres up the northern shore of the Golden Horn in the village of Haskoy, where a few of their descendants remain to this day.”). It appears that the Jewish land at Yeni Cami was confiscated after a fire destroyed much of the local infrastructure, allowing for an easier transfer of Jews away from the region. See Minna Rozen, A History of the Jewish Community in Istanbul: The Formative Years, 1453-1566, p. 57.
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No post on Karaites in Turkey is ever complete without a picture of Zvi Ankori’s groundbreaking work, Karaites in Byzantium. I gave a copy of this work to Avraham so that he can share the information with his community.
And while I was in Turkey, one of the local Karaites gave me this book, which I hope to explore and blog about in the future.