A synagogue in Turkey's largest Kurdish city was where Elijah became a prophet — but now it is rubble

Local activist in Diyarbakır appeals for Jewish community funds to rebuild long lost synagogue


An author in southeastern Turkey has urged Jews around the world to help rebuild a synagogue that was destroyed in the conflict-ridden city of Diyarbakır three years ago.

Abdülaziz Yatkın, 52, a writer of religious books, said local records showed there had been a synagogue in the district of Sur for centuries and that a wall of the old building was still standing as recently as 2015.

But it was demolished after street battles erupted that year between the Turkish government and Kurdish insurgents in a conflict that left eight neighbourhoods of Diyarbakır’s historic districts isolated for more than a hundred days.

Up to 24,000 people were displaced by the fighting and many former residents are struggling to return to the area because their homes have been bulldozed for redevelopment.

Mr Yatkın said the site of the former Sur synagogue was also flattened and is now full of debris. If the Jewish community put pressure on the Turkish government, he said, it could be rebuilt according to its original form.

“Every Jewish person should understand the importance of the site and explain to the authorities in Ankara,” he said.

“At a local level in Diyarbakir the councils are run by the appointed administrators who change often and don’t know the importance of the synagogue.”

Diyarbakir is the biggest town in Turkey’s southeast and instantly recognisable for its tall, black, basalt city walls, which date back to the Roman era and are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It was this district — with its rabbit warren of narrow winding streets — that saw the worst of the fighting and destruction in 2015.

Up to 6,000 buildings were destroyed and it will cost 1 billion lira (£164 million) to rebuild, according to Turkish government estimates.

The country’s Ministry of Environment and Urban Planning has no plans to regenerate the plot of the land where the synagogue once stood, behind the Arab Sheikh mosque on Küçük Bahçecik Street. However, new villas are being built for sale immediately around it.

According to local historian Rıfat N. Bali, Jews first migrated to this region from Samaria in biblical times.

A Jewish trader named Benjamin Hasheni visited in 1848, when the city was part of the Ottoman Empire, and made notes of “a synagogue with an ark containing an Aramaic Torah scroll made of thick parchment”.

Mr Yatkın said the area was widely known as a Jewish neighbourhood until the 1950s, when most of the community relocated to the recently-established State of Israel.

Although there are no physical traces of the community left today, they have left a mark. The 19th century trader Hasheni noted that Jews in the area claimed their synagogue occupied the very site where Elijah became a prophet.

That belief is kept alive by local Muslims, who call him the Prophet Ilyas — and was repeated by Mr Yatkın during our visit.

Turkey still has a small Jewish community of around 20,000, with the vast majority of the population living in Istanbul and the southern city of Hatay.

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