Born in the Turkish city of Izmir, Nesim Bencoya spent most of his life in Israel, but returned to his hometown more than a decade ago to direct a project to preserve and restore its Jewish sites. Since 2018, his organization has hosted an annual, dayslong cultural festival; he hopes the city’s Jewish heritage will someday soon attract domestic and foreign tourists. David I. Klein writes:
The city, once known in Greek as Smyrna, has had a Jewish presence since antiquity, with early church documents mentioning Jews as far back as the 2nd century CE. Like elsewhere in the Ottoman empire, though, its community grew exponentially with the influx of Sephardi Jews who came after their expulsion from Spain [in 1492].
At its peak, the city was home to around 30,000 Jews and was the hometown of Jewish artists, writers, and rabbis—from the esteemed Pallache and Algazii rabbinical families, to the musician Dario Marino, to the famously false messiah, Shabbetai Tzvi, whose childhood home still stands in Izmir today.
Today, fewer than 1,300 remain. The establishment of the state of Israel, coupled with a century of economic and political upheaval, led to the immigration of the majority of Turkish Jewry.
Izmir’s history as a home for minorities has not been all rosy. At the end of the Ottoman period, the city was around half Greek, a tenth Jewish, and a tenth Armenian, while the remainder were Turkish Muslims and an assortment of foreigners. In the Greco-Turkish war of 1919-1922—remembered in Turkey as the Turkish War of Independence—the Greek and Armenian quarters of Izmir were burned to the ground after the Turkish army retook the city from the Greek forces, killing tens of thousands. A mass exodus of the survivors followed, but the Jewish and Muslim portions of the city were largely unharmed.