Sister Shuls: Ashkenazi Synagogue in Istanbul, Turkey

In “Sister Shuls,” we travel virtually to other synagogues whose exuberant architecture has a kinship with our landmark home, the Eldridge Street Synagogue.

As we cyber-travel around the world finding “Sister Shuls” for Eldridge Street, sometimes the kinship is subtle. Other times, it screams out. Today we land in Istanbul at the Ashkenazi Synagogue. From the outside, this shul doesn’t look like a sister or even a distant cousin. But inside we find features that almost make our shuls twins. Let’s have a look.

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Left: the facade of the Ashkenazi Synagogue in Istanbul. Right: Eldridge Street.

The Ashkenazi Synagogue is located near the Galata Tower, in the Karaköy quarter of Istanbul. It was built by Jews from Austria, just after the turn-of-the-twentieth century. Today, the Ashkenazi Synagogue is the only remaining Eastern European shul in the entire city. (There were once two others, but neither have survived to today.)

The streets in Karaköy are very hilly and narrow, which makes it difficult to photograph the full façade. The photo above shows the upper section of the building’s front. You’ll see that it bears little similarity to Eldridge Street. Although we could cite the Star of David rootop finial and perhaps a central stained-glass window, the overall effect of the two shuls when viewed from the street is quite different.

But once we go inside, there are two prominent features that make these two shuls sisters. Looking up to the ceiling of the Istanbul synagogue, we find a huge similarity! The Ashkenazi Synagogue’s ceiling features a large, star-filled dome at the heart of the building. Our central dome at Eldridge Street is also painted sky-blue and filled with golden, 5-pointed stars. The ornamentation gives an ethereal feeling to both spaces. Although painted blue expanses decorated with stars are found in houses of worship of all sorts, the kinship between Eldridge and Istanbul here is striking.

Left: central dome at the Ashkenazi Synagogue.  Right: Central dome at Eldridge Street.  The Istanbul stars are arranged in concentric rows, while those at Eldridge Street are scattered.

The side domes in the women’s balcony at Eldridge Street are also star-filled. Like the Istanbul window and the central oculus at Eldridge, they also have Stars of David at the center.

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Left: stars on a blue ground line the smaller side-aisle domes in the Eldridge Women’s Balcony.  Right: detail view of the ceiling stars.

The arks, the cabinets in which the sacred Torah scrolls are kept, reveal another similarity. Each ark actually looks quite different. But both echo the design of the building’s facade.

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Ashkenazi Synagogue, Istanbul. Left: the carved wooden ark inside the sanctuary. Right: the façade and exterior domes.

We can see the similarities looking at the Ashkenazi Synagogue exterior and its ark. The overall format in both cases is a tall center arch with shorter arches on both sides. Crowning the building and its ark is a tall dome, flanked by smaller domes. 

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Eldridge Street Synagogue, New York. Left: the ark. Right: the façade.

At Eldridge Street, the form of the carved walnut ark also refers to the central features of the building itself. Finals topped with Stars of David crown both, and the circle surrounding the Ten Commandment tablets at the top of the ark echo the rose window on the façade.

In these two synagogues, half-way around the world from each other, we find a similarity of purpose and design among their own idiosyncrasies.  Both are synagogues built by displaced immigrants from Eastern Europe.  Both reflect the desires of their founders to have a distinctive place to worship that encompassed both their traditions and their aspirations. And although they were built so far away from each other, the decorative similarities in the sanctuaries tell us that both congregations of Eastern European Jews were influenced by the same culture.

Nancy Johnson is Museum at Eldridge Street’s Curator and Archivist.

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