Balkan Honeymoon Stop 1: Roman History in Ephesus and Jewish life in Izmir


Finding time to write has been difficult, but after a week and a half in Turkey and Georgia, it is time for a second travel-related post. On Thursday, Dec. 20, I arrived at the Sabiha Gokcen Airport (from Tel Aviv) on the Asian side of Istanbul, took a bus west and northward to Taksim square, in the center of Istanbul and switched there to a second bus heading farther west toward Ataturk Airport, where Eliana was due to arrive (from NY). It was snowing when we arrived, the streets already covered in flurries that soon turned to a slushy mess. Istanbul is a large city with some serious traffic, so by the time I’d made it from one airport to the next, more than three hours had passed, and Eliana was almost due to arrive. I slept through most of the first bus ride, but on the second bus ride I befriended two Iranian tourists who had come to Turkey to visit some Suffi sights on a religious pilgrimage of sorts. We talked about Jewish life in Iran and Persians in the US.

After picking up Eliana and rearranging our baggage, we took the Metro into Istanbul.  Getting off at the Topkapi stop, we expected to find Topkapi Palace greeting us. Instead, we found ourselves at the Panorama 1453 museum, a good place as it turns out to be begin a tour of Istanbul, as it is a museum which tells the story of the early Ottoman conquest of Constantinople and the restructuring of the city. The highlight of the museum is an impressive panoramic view form the top floor of various battle scenes.

Having been told that the Topkapi Metro stop was not actually that close to the Sultanahmet area and significantly deterred from additional adventuring by the weather outside and the bags on our backs and arms, we headed for Taksim Square, where the bus back to Sabiha Gokcen Airport would depart from. A Turkish man helped us to hail the right minibus, then we were on our way, soon arriving at the Taksim square area. Trudging through more snow, we boarded the bus and were once again off to the airport.

Our Pegasus flight to Izmir was due to leave at 11:45 and arrive at 1am. But by 8pm, we could see that our flight had been canceled. Walking to the Pegasus office, we could see that a sizeable crowd of worried passengers had already gathered. Getting on the line, we were issued new tickets for 6:30 am and told that agents from the airline would come talk to us. The 6:30 departure was not ideal, but it would still get us there in plenty of time to see the Jewish community sites in Izmir that a mutual friend had arranged. After asking other passengers and looking around, we discovered that the airline was taking everyone who lived outside of Istanbul and whose flight had been canceled (several flights had been canceled, probably due to stormy weather) to a hotel. After a 20 minute wait, a bus arrived, was loaded and then headed to a hotel which turned out to be quite nicer than what we had expected. It seemed odd that a budget airline would spring for a group reservation at a 5 star hotel, when the price of the room exceeded the cost of the plane ticket, but we weren’t about to complain. After a less than organized reception, where people jostled their way to the front of the line to hand in passports and receive keys, we made it up to our room.

Despite paying for round trip bus transportation, hotel stay and meals, I don’t Pegasus Airlines made too many friends that day. The next morning we awoke with a start at 7:30—an hour after we were supposed to have left the ground. Rushing down to the reception, the hotel staff insisted that they had waited for instructions by the airline on who to wake up and when, but the airline never called. In all two busloads of people had been brought to the hotel and effectively left there without further instruction. Eventually a smaller bus came close to 8, and Eliana and I were one of the first ones who made it to the airport. There we exchanged our tickets once again for the next available flight, this time a 1:30 flight that would have us arriving only 2 hours before Shabbat. That also left us about 5 hours to sit in the airport watching a steady stream of passengers arriving from the hotel, with a similarly steady repetition of yelling in Turkish as passengers presumably complained about having been left at the airport, not getting to their destination in time, etc. We finally boarded the plane to Izmir not even knowing whether our second designated flight had been canceled as well, or simply left without us.


When we finally arrived in Izmir, we made a beeline for our hotel, spent about 15 minutes changing and dropping things at the hotel and then left by foot to find Ester, who had made all of the Shabbat arrangements for us. Luckily Izmir is a fairly small, easy to get around city and our hotel well-situated, so we found our way to the meeting spot with no problems. After showing us where we would go for dinner, where the synagogue was located and how to find our way to her house Saturday afternoon, Ester wished us a Shabbat shalom and we went to the Alsancak (Alsanjak in standard English phonology) synagogue to attend Friday night services. About 20 people, mainly men, were there, and we were greeted warmly in English and Hebrew. Tefila was very similar to Edot Hamizrah style, although the Izmir Turkish tradition is Sepharadi (Spanish). After praying, we walked around the corner to our hosts for Shabbat dinner, Rivy, Izak and their son Morris, where we met their friends and had a wonderful Shabbat meal. Eliana was especially excited when she found out that Izak could speak Spanish fairly well as a result of growing up with a Judeo-Spanish speaking family. It was also interesting (and tasty) to have stuffed grape leaves, which I knew as yebra (the Jewish Arabic name), but which has a very similar name in Turkish and which we were told actually originated in Greece. Morris entertained us by reading various passages from a Hebrew-Turkish siddur; he has begun studying for his bar mitsva, which will be in a year.

We walked back to the hotel via KulturPark, aka the Fuare (or Fair). One of the most noticeable things about Turkey has been a considerable presence of stray dogs, who generally ignore people, but who people are commonly seen petting and befriending. After walking through the park, we passed the train station and turned in to our hotel.

The next morning after praying at the synagogue again, we were guests of Ester, where we were served an incredible assortment of homemade Izmiri Jewish delicacies. We also got to meet Moti and Suzette, friends who are Izmiri natives but only returned to Turkey a few years ago after several decades in Israel. Moti is a hazzan, and after the previous rabbi of Izmir left for Istanbul to enroll his children in a Jewish school (Izmir has not had a Jewish school in years), Moti was asked to come serve the community as a hazzan and teacher. Although they have their large extended family in Israel, they have been living in Izmir for the last half-decade, serving the community.

It is very bittersweet to see how aliya to Israel has affected once great Jewish communities, but it is always interesting to meet individuals like Moti, who have moved back from Israel to be with, to serve and to strengthen their original communities. Ester, Moti and Suzette told us over lunch about the Jewish community in Izmir, its history, the Spanish roots (Judeo-Spanish was spoken in the community until a few generations ago and was still understood until the last generation) and the long-standing history of positive relations between the Turks and the Jews. We were told that is in fact cultural assimilation due to the breaking down of cultural barriers under the Ottoman and the Turkish nationalization movement which combined with emigration to Israel change the Jewish demographics in Izmir so significantly.

After walking around Izmir on Shabbat afternoon and visiting the Ethnographic museum, (with free admission, a perfect Shabbat spot,) we took a Saturday night train to Selcuk, where we would spend the night. Selcuk is a small town, and walking around the center at night did not take much time. In the morning we walked first to the nearby St. John’s Basilica, a 1500 year old complex where one of Jesus’s disciples is allegedly buried, then to the adjacent Isa Bey mosque.

We then walked to the bus station and found a bus headed for Ephesus, an impressive archeological site with remnants from Byzantine, Roman and other eras. We spent about two hours walking around the site, with its especially notable library, coliseum and temples. From there we went to the Temple of Artemis, once one of the 7 Wonders of the World, but today only a solitary pillar standing erect in front of Selcuk. From there we retrieved our bags and headed back via bus to Izmir.

Reaching Izmir mid-afternoon, we spent the next few hours wandering the Kordon (the promenade lining the sea), Konak square and Kemeralti, the oldest actively used market in the world. Izmir seems to be characterized by Ks, with Konak, Kemeralti, Kordon and Kadifekale which we would visit later all being highlights of the city. On our widely ranging walk we made it to Asansor, a neighborhood with a formerly significant Jewish population which is in fact named for an elevator (Asansor in Turkish) which was funded by an Izmiri Jew as a public services project to help residents get up and down a mountain. Asansor is home to a large synagogue, Beth Israel, which we saw, but the more shocking sight came when we walked up the street toward the synagogue and elevator. On the left-hand side of the street, toward the top of a stone wall lining the street, we saw a Hebrew inscription: “The grave marker of a modest woman…” Later we would find out from Ester that there had been a Jewish cemetery in the area which was moved by the city; during the process of transferring the contents, many gravestones (and possibly even bodies) where damaged, destroyed, or as we saw, displaced to inappropriate locations. Who knows how many people have walked by that wall never suspecting that part of an unnamed woman’s tombstone sits atop staring down at them?

On Monday morning we paid a quick visit to the Roman Agora, a commercial and political center in the heart of the city dating to Roman times. After walking around the site (impressive, but relatively small), we met Ester just outside the Havra Sokagi—synagogue street, named for the Jewish presence in the area, which was once filled with Jewish merchants. While the Jewish population has long since migrated to other parts of Izmir (and from there to Istanbul, Israel and other places), many synagogues remain, and we were given an amazing whirlwind tour by Ester, who is one of two volunteer tour guides from the Izmir Jewish community. Each synagogue has its own history, its own stories. But there are also common threads binding them all together: descendants of Spanish Jews, fleeing persecution by Church authorities, who found refuge and were welcomed by the Ottomans, centuries of communal life before more recent changes. The house of Shabbetai Zvi is still standing (barely) in front of the Roman Agora, while the house and synagogue of Rav Hayyim Palagi is only a hollow shell, its roof having collapsed inwards years ago.

Our final stop on the tour was the Shalom synagogue, where we joined ten others in praying minha. From there we said goodbye to Ester, who singlehandedly made our visit to Izmir extraordinary. We then took a bus from Konak Square up to Kadifekale, another Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman ruin, with fortress remains from ancient Smyrna (Izmir’s ancestral city) atop the hill overlooking the city. After walking around the fortress remains, we descended once again, arriving at Konak square and boarding the ferry for a quick ride and view of the city from the sea.

After returning to the hotel and a quick dinner, we walked to the Fuare for a quick walk in the park before packing and getting ready for sleep. At 5:00 am we would head out via taxi to catch our 7:30 am flight from the Izmir airport, so we went to sleep relatively early. The next part of our trip would involve traveling from Izmir to Ankara, to Trabzon, to Batumi (in Georgia), but that will have to be the next post.

In addition to Ester, who really made our trip to Izmir special, we also were very appreciative to the staff at the (very) budget hotels we stayed at. Although not fancy places, the staff at both the Olympiat in Izmir and the Efes Antik Hotel in Selcuk, were very warm and did their best to help us out in every way possible, with very useful advice on transportation and sights. The first hotel we stayed at, on Pegasus Airlines’ dime, was much more expensive, but the staff was much less interested in helping us, and I’d choose either of the other places we stayed in a heartbeat. I think that there is a logic to that relationship—in a more expensive hotel, the staff are likely there solely for the wages, while in the no-frills places that we have stayed, often run by the owner or owners, an interest in hospitality is as much a factor in the choice to run the hotel, and this is seen in the treatment of their guests. Certainly not a die-hard rule, but thus far in our trip, this has held true.

Next up- Trabzon, Sumela, Batumi and Tbilisi.


About the Author
Steven Aiello has a BA in Economics from NYU and an MA in Diplomacy and Conflict Studies from the IDC Herzliya. He has also studied Jewish, Islamic, Israeli and British law. Steven has served as Chief of the Middle East Desk Head for Wikistrat, interned for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the American Islamic Congress.He edits and teaches part-time. He can be reached via email at