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Etz Hayim Synagogue in Izmir, Turkey




The Etz Hayim Synagogue is an ancient building – the oldest synagogue in Izmir (formerly Smyrna) - that dates back to the time of the Romaniot Jews who settled in Asia Minor during the Byzantine period. It was later rebuilt by Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Spain and were welcomed by the Ottoman Empire.


The Etz Hayim therefore is a mix of architectural styles including both Spanish and Ottoman elements and this mixing is also reflected in the impressive frescoes that are another special feature of the building added over the centuries. This confluence of influences that the building represents is unique to Izmir.


The Synagogue forms part of a group of nine historic synagogues; a unique complex in the old city of Izmir which is itself a designated conservation zone.


The Challenge


The problems faced by the Etz Hayim Synagogue are ones of decay over time, the impact of past city-wide disasters including fires and earthquakes, and a declining Jewish community that lacks the means to maintain the building.  At one point, the building’s very future was in doubt, but urgent works were carried out to repair the roof and stabilise the floor that was sinking. However, the building remained in a precarious situation.


The Plan


The project to restore the Etz Haim synagogue has been led by the Jewish community of Izmir and the Israeli-based Kiriaty Foundation, working in cooperation with the Izmir Municipality and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Turkey.

Funding was secured mainly from a local development agency to repair the Synagogue and these works have now been successfully carried out. Additional funds were obtained to carry out further investigative and preservation works specifically on the wall murals.

The Etz Haim project is part of a larger effort to save all the historic synagogues of Izmir’s old quarter. The vision is to turn the complex of synagogues into a Jewish cultural quarter which will make the buildings available to a wider public and convey the special story of the Jews of the region and their contribution, highlighting a story of cross-cultural influences and co-existence.

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