The opening of the Great Synagogue of Edirne (right), has been celebrated by foreign dignitaries, Turkish government officials and members of the Turkish Jewish community following five years of restoration. Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister and Government Spokesperson Bülent ARINÇ commemorated the event and welcomed nearly 100 guests from different countries, Turkish government officials, and approximately 500 members of the Turkish Jewish community on 26 March.
Construction of the Great Synagogue of Edirne began in January 1906 after gaining the permission of the Ottoman Government and following the edict of Abdul Hamid II. The site, in Edirne’s former Jewish quarter, previously hosted the Mayor and Pulya Synagogues in the county of Kaleiçi.
The Ottoman Sephardic Synagogue in Vienna served as the architectural model for the Great Synagogue of Edirne. It was constructed by the French architect France Depré at a cost of “1,200 gold coins”. The synagogue was opened for service on the eve of Pesach in April, 1909, when it was officially named a the Kal Kadoş Agadol, or Great Synagogue. The synagogue, which was in use until 1983, could accommodate 1,200 worshipers, 900 men and 300 women. It is the largest synagogue in the Balkans and the third largest in Europe.
“The Great Synagogue of Edirne is an architectural marvel,” said Bülent ARINÇ, Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister and Government Spokesperson. “This is a world heritage site and reflects Turkey’s historical role as a country where people of different backgrounds can come together.”
Edirne has a nearly two millennia of Jewish heritage. For centuries, Ottoman lands were a haven for Jews. Some of the earliest Jews came to the area from Spain. Once in modern day Turkey, the Jews who settled in the area adopted new rituals including the melody of the azan in their prayers, while maintaining their traditions. They retain the Judeo-Spanish dialect called Ladino.
The faithful restoration and re-opening of the Great Synagogue of Edirne is regarded as a monument to religious tolerance, a goal to be relentlessly pursued, especially in these difficult times in the Middle East region where sectarian divides seem to constantly widen. A five-year, $2.5 million government investment by Ankara restored the synagogue’s lead-clad domes and magnificent interior. The restoration of the synagogue was initiated in 2010 as part of an effort to support religious freedom and social life requirements of various religious groups in Turkey.
Turkey has recently restored and preserved churches and cathedrals on the Ani Archaeological Site, Seljuk artifacts, the Church of the Holy Cross on Akdamar Island and structures from the Byzantine era as part of a concerted effort to preserve historical sites. “Turkey considers it necessary for our historical heritage to preserve the surviving cultural heritage of vestigial communities who lived and continue to live on Anatolian territory regardless of their language, religion or nation,” said ARINÇ.