The Life of the Synagogue

Ahrida Synagogue, Constantinople

Jews in Constantinople offering prayers at Ahrida Synagogue in Istanbul
Jews in Constantinople offering prayers for the success of the Turkish arms
Wood engraving
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper
July 7, 1877

This scene at the Ahrida Synagogue in Istanbul took place shortly after Russia declared war on the Ottoman Empire on April 24, 1877, touching off the Russo-Turkish War of 1877–1878. In a public display of patriotism, Ottoman Jews are shown participating in a service dedicated to prayer and sermons for the victory of the Ottoman Army; it is attended by the most prominent Jews of the city, notable state representatives, and more members of the Jewish community than were able to fit inside of the building. The allegiance of the Jewish community to the land in which they lived is unmistakable, vividly proclaimed in the two large Ottoman flags flanking either side of the Torah ark.

In his sermon for the occasion, Hakham Moshe Halevi took the opportunity to remind the Jewish community of the biblical injunction to “seek the peace of the city whither I have caused you to be carried away captive, and pray unto the Lord for it; for in the peace thereof shall ye have peace.” Halevi implored the Jews to do more than simply pray for the Ottomans’ victory in the war; he argued for all able-bodied Jews to volunteer to fight. In the months following Halevi’s sermon and similar appeals by other Jewish leaders, Jewish men from across the Ottoman Empire did enlist.

Jewish loyalty to the Ottoman Empire was sincere, not perfunctory. When expelled from Spain in 1492, Iberian Jews were welcomed with few conditions into the Ottoman lands and founded large and prosperous communities throughout the Balkans and Anatolia. Under Ottoman rule, much more so than in Europe, Jews found peace and prosperity and easy access to the Holy Land.