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The History of the Izmir “Cortejos”

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“Ladino” or “Judeo-Espangol,” the language spoken by Sepharadi Jews (those who were expelled from Spain in 1492), refers to the habitation of low-income Jews as "cortejos." These were referred to as “aile evleri” in Turkish, which can be translated as “family houses” in English.

The basic concept of these buildings was to bring different members of a family or families to live together in a building complex. This way of living was considered to have certain advantages for its occupants, primarily that certain economies can be provided through communal living in cooking and sharing food, washing facilities and having common activities like praying together. It is clear that sharing a similar style of daily life was a common denominator in the cortejos.

The life of the Ottoman Jewish Community was different from that of their kinsmen in the Christian world, who lived in ghettos. In Ottoman towns, there was never an imposed separation of communities. Rather, the separate groups gathered together consciously in geographically distinct parts of the town, according to their religious beliefs (and eating habits). This situation was the same for Izmir. The city was divided into five different quarters (‘mahalle’s) in terms of their social and economic features, with the Jews dominating one of them (the others were inhabited by Turks, Levantines, Armenians, and Greeks).

The layout reflected the social and economic characteristics of the city. The Jews and Turks traditionally lived side by side; the ethnic groups dealing (mainly) with commerce and exports wanted to be as close to the harbor as possible. Another reason which may explain the closeness of the Jewish and Turkish communities are the similar features shared by their religion (fasting, eating habits, circumcision, etc.). Many publications refer to the Turkish quarter as having wooden houses, with narrow and winding streets. Due to this characteristic, as well as the difficulties of access, there were frequent fires in their living quarters. It is clear that nearby cortejos must have suffered from the same disasters (as well as from earthquakes.)

In the second half of the 18th century, Izmir's interior harbor (Kemeralti) was completely filled, and the commercial zone started moving northwards. This eventually meant that the Jewish quarter moved towards the south (İkiçeşmelik area).

In the 19th century, the situation changed somewhat, and the Jewish population started moving westwards to the Karataş area, which eventually became their second settlement area. This was due to the fact that the communication network had spread towards Goztepe and Guzelyal, and the Jews with better incomes preferred a seaside location. By the beginning of the 20th century, the Jewish community in İzmir was concentrated in two topographic areas: Karataş, Karantina, Guztepe and the environs, and in the Juderia (around Havra Street and İkiçeşmelik). As will be seen later, the first area emptied out in the 1960's and ‘70's, when many people moved to the Alsanjak area where the whole community is gathered today.

The so called cortejos existed first in the İkiçeşmelik area, and later in Karatash, though the number of cortejos in Karatash was only about five, whereas in Ikicheshmelik there were many. During the same period, a small number of Jews preferred to live in other places as well, around Karşıyaka and İzmir pier. The fact that there were only a few synagogues in Karatash (including the important 'Beit Israel') shows that Karatas did not cater to the entire Jewish population.

Many of the Jewish quarters in the city had Jewish names until 1923, when the names were changed as follows:

  • Hahambaşı Quarter became “Güzelyurt”
  • Sonsino became “Oruחisa”
  • Çaves was named İsareism, which included “Irgatpazarı Street” (Workers Market)
  • Bene İsrail became İstiklal, which included Lazaretto
  • The Efrati quarter was re-named Güneş, including Havra Street
  • Hurşidiye and Yenimahalle were also Jewish quarters; the latter included the School 'Alliance Israelite Universalle'

Cortejos can serve as a good mirror of the social and economic life of the Jewish community during the 18th and 19th centuries, as well as the earlier years going back to the 16th century. Despite the fact that the Jewish community lived in total freedom given by the Ottomans, their incomes were rather low and they were occupied in petty jobs in the market. However, the situation improved in the 19th century when the Jews, who could speak several foreign languages and were shrewd merchants, acted as a liaison between the Turks and other foreign nationalities which dominated the city’s economic life. Slowly, they became active in commercial and financial activities, and achieved higher incomes and better living standards. The cortejos housed the people with the lowest income within the Jewish community.

According to witnesses, three cortejos which existed in Karataş can be depicted. One of these was called by the local Jews “Han de les Cavras” meaning Khan of the Cows. Its location was where a social facility for the police exists today, in front of the 'İzmir Girls Lycee.' This building complex was a series of rooms on two floors, forming two wings that faced a street running between two building blocks. This inner pedestrian street was defined by a bridge at its entrance. The street, at the time, ended up at the sea.

The second cortejo was called “Urgancıoğlu Aile Evi” and was located opposite the street of the 'ESHOT' building (the center for water meters), which is being restored at the present time for another public use. This building had its main access directly from Mithatpaşa Street. The main facade of the building had two stories, like the rest of the building complex, but had the look of a traditional 'Sakız' style İzmir building with a “cumba” on the first floor and an entrance gate of ornamental iron. It had a central courtyard and a gallery on the first floor running in front of a series of rooms, all of which were facing the central area. In the southwest corner of the courtyard were the central facilities like the toilets, washing facilities, baths, etc. It is said that the rooms had small cooking facilities.

The third cortejo was located to the north of the Urgancıoğlu cortejo and was separated from it by a small street. This building complex was a row of houses with narrow facades, with a narrow street separating the two wings. This street, as in the first example, also ended at the sea. It was said that Jews living in this cortejo worked in candle-making. (see rare picture and drawing).

Yet a fourth building, today opposite the 'Karatas Lycee,' resembles a “family house,' perhaps later altered with new building activity around it. Today only one of the original two wings remains standing. Due to the widening of the street, one side was demolished totally. It has two stories, each with a long row of apartments. All the second-floor apartments were entered from a common long balcony. Today the street level is used for commerce. (see picture 1 and drawings)

The four examples shown above, as well as those that will be explained later, indicate that there were essentially three types of cortejo plans. The court-yard type; those having a street in between; and a building complex containing individual living rooms on different floors, with communal facilities located on various floors.

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