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, 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 have been carried out to repair the roof and stabilise the floor that was sinking. However, the building remains in a precarious situation.


The Plan


The project to restore the Etz Haim synagogue is part of a larger effort to save all the historic synagogues of the old quarter being led by the Israeli-based Kiriaty Foundation, working in cooperation with the Izmir Municipality, the Jewish community of Izmir, and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism of Turkey.


The vision is to turn the whole complex of synagogues into a unique Jewish museum that will make the buildings available to a wider public and tell the story of the Jews of the region, its history, values and traditions and the distinct Sephardi heritage that was introduced in the 15th century. A further key aspect will be to present - and celebrate - the story of co-existence that has been a feature of Jewish-Muslim relations in the region, the intercultural influences and shared values, and the contribution that the Jewish community has made.