Steven Aiello

Final Destinations: Macedonia, Bulgaria and Istanbul


After 2.5 hours of traveling (a short trip by our standards!), we arrived in Skopje (Macedonia) and stowed our bags at the bus/train station. We then walked to the city center, passing the market area, picking up a map and finding our way up to the fortress, then down past the hammam and into the giant, beautiful new Holocaust Museum complex. After several hours reading the history of the migration of Jewry from Spain across the Balkans, then the destruction of Jewish life in Macedonia during the Holocaust (almost all perished after being deported by occupying Bulgaria) and most recent restoration (a small, approximately 100 member community exists, but without a rabbi, the last regular rabbi there being Rabbi Asiel, who commuted from Belgrade), we walked to the synagogue building, but found the synagogue part to be closed (they share the building with an office of some kind).

We then retraced our steps, stopping at the Mother Theresa museum (built on the site of the church where she was baptized), past Macedonia Square, over the old stone bridge, stopping at the Mustafa Pasha mosque to pray ‘arbit. From there we took a taxi to the Roma village in the suburbs of Skopje. After walking along the main street for a bit, we sat down in a small bar. Without a language to communicate in, we picked tea by pointing at the boxes. At the end, when we went to pay, the man running the bar refused to accept payment, indicating (again via sign language) that the tea had been “on the house.” We took a bus back to the city, then walked from there back to the bus station, purchased tickets for the next bus to Bulgaria and once again found ourselves on an all-night trip. At 3:30 am we arrived in Sofia, where we checked into the Hostel Mostel, which turned out to be every bit as good as advertised.

Wednesday morning, after breakfast, we went into the city. We started our day with a 2 hour free walking tour of the city, run by a local non-profit. Together with 2 Belgian guests and a Texan Jew who’d made aliya, we walked around the city center for over two hours, hearing about Sofia and Bulgaria’s history and origins, the various countries and empires who had conquered, ruled, influenced and assimilated into, the city, learning about the most famous buildings and structures and hearing local myths and legends.

After passing by most of the city’s most historic churches, the mosque, synagogue and other buildings of note, Eliana and I followed up on our tour by heading to the synagogue. There we toured the inside of the magnificent building, structurally one of the largest in Europe and incredibly beautiful, got a snack from some men in the synagogue and talked to them about the status of the community.

From there we went the Ethnographic Museum, small but interesting, with several small screens playing Bulgarian music augmenting the visual displays of folk costumes. The music shop was more impressive, 4 modestly sized rooms of handmade Bulgarian crafts, including instruments, costumes and other specialties. We purchased a number of gifts there, then headed for the Archeology museum, housed in an old mosque, which turned out to be blocked off.


Instead we visited the only currently active mosque, then an old church built below street level where the market had once been (on our walking tour we had also entered below ground where the Roman era eastern entrance to the city is remarkably well-preserved and open to the public). After that we walked back to the hostel, where we had one of our TV dinners and some instant before heading for the bus station to purchase our tickets and board the 11pm Metrobus, one last overnight ride, en route back to Istanbul, where our journey had first started.

We arrived back in Istanbul early Thursday afternoon. The bus from Bulgaria included a free shuttle into the center of the city; from there we took a taxi to the hotel where we had arranged to stay. Most of the preparations for our final weekend in Istanbul had been done courtesy of our good friend Eli and his extended Turkish family. That included advice on where to stay, pray and eat for shabbat, and equally importantly to us, assistance in arranging a guided tour of some of the numerous Jewish highlights of the city, said to be the last bastion of the Ladino community.

We used the rest of Thursday to rest up and revisit some of our favorite Istanbuli sights. We did make the wise decision to head back to Sultanahmet on Thursday night, where we stopped by the Mashala Café for a live Suffi music and dance performance.

Friday morning we arose early and met the woman who would be taking us on a tour of the Jewish sights of the city. We were surprised to learn that she was in fact Muslim by faith, although an adopted member of the Jewish community for her involvement as a researcher and tour guide, even having written the English booklet on Turkey’s Jewish life sold in the Jewish museum’s bookshop.

The next few hours were a whirlwind of Jewish sights and stories, as we visited a wide variety of synagogues: Ashkenazi, Italian, Sepharadi, as well as school buildings, community centers and of course the Jewish museum (on the site of a former synagogue and many of whose descriptions had in fact been written by our tour guide.

After returning from the historical aspect of our tour of Jewish Istanbul we prepared for Shabbat in the city—the final Shabbat experience of our trip, and the perfect conclusion to a journey that had as its underlying theme the Sepharadi sojourn from Spain, Portugal and Christian Europe to the Muslim Ottoman Empire. Istanbul boasts the largest of the former Ladino-speaking communities and even with a rise in Islamist terrorism in recent decades still presents the greatest chances for the future of Sepharadi music and culture.

After enjoying the unique experience of Friday night tefilot, dinner with more borrowed family and Saturday morning and afternoon prayers, we soon felt the hours of Shabbat slipping away, and with it the realization that our honeymoon was coming to an end. As Shabbat ended we packed up, picked up our bags and headed to the Metro to spend our last night in Istanbul with new friends whom we had met on the first week of our trip, on our first time in Turkey (albeit on the other side of the country).

After one last night in Istanbul with friends, we awoke to the realization that the honeymoon was over—literally. Apparently Eliana’s flight back to the US, already scheduled half a day before my return ticket to Tel Aviv, had been bumped up an hour, which led to us scrambling to grab our bags and make it to Ataturk International Airport. However we made it with plenty of time, and soon Eliana was heading for her flight, while I was heading back, from Ataturk Airport to Sabiha Gokcen Airport, from Europe to Asia, to catch my own flight. By Sunday night we were both airborne; the trip of a lifetime had ended, but the memories and experiences will last us forever.

About the Author
Steven Aiello is the Director of Debate for Peace (, and a board member of the NGO Committee on Sustainable Development NY. He has a BA in Economics, MA in Diplomacy and Conflict Studies, and MA in Islamic Studies. He teaches Model UN for schools throughout Israel. Among his other hats he serves as Regional Coordinator for Creating Friendships for Peace, and Dialogue Officer at Asfar. Steven has also served as Chief of the Middle East Desk Head for Wikistrat, interned for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the American Islamic Congress. His writing has been published in the NY Daily News, Jerusalem Post, Iran Human Rights Review; Berkley Center at Georgetown;, and the Center for Islamic Pluralism. He can be reached via email at