BUYUKADA - Taking the hour-long ferry from Istanbul to Buyukada, the largest of the Princes Islands in the Bosphorus, is something of a trip back in time. No cars allowed on the island, only horse-drawn buggies and bicycles. It is also conjures memories of the Hamptons, Catskills, Muisenberg Beach in Cape Town, places where Jews took off from the cities for the summer, clustering together in a tribal ritual.
I first took the ferry from Istanbul to Buyukada about 25 years ago. It was a boat packed with Turkish Jews, in fact, they had their own ferry to the island. An experience that conjured up the Exodus, only the passengers were fleeing the heat of Istanbul, not Holocaust or war-torn Europe.
Hesed L'Avraham Synagogue on Buyukada Island. Photo by Richard Nowitz.
With its graceful Ottoman mansions (kosks) and villas (konaks) behind walls of bougainvillea and ivy, it’s easy to understand what attracted affluent Jews and others to Buyukada. In fact, it’s most famous Jewish resident, though neither Turkish nor wealthy, was Leon Trotsky. He lived on the island from 1929-1933, where he wrote his History of the Russian Revolution. Trotsky’s house is a popular draw for some of the island’s visitors.
To get around the 2-kilometer square island, and ascend to its peak with a beautiful view of the Sea of Marmara, the most popular transport is to hire a horse-drawn carriage near the iconic Clock Tower Square. There, dozens of buggies wait passengers, there horses whinnying and chomping on buckets of feed, a public transport terminal like no other.
Horses and bikes only are allowed on Bukuyada Island. Photo by Richard Nowitz.
There were three active synagogues on the island. Now, it is Hessed L’Avraham, the domed shul with an enormous chandelier that is the venue for Shabbat services. There is also a Jewish beach club, a kosher butcher and restaurant for the community. Today, much fewer Jews vacation in Buyukada than when I was last there. With an influx of summer residents from Saudia Arabia and the Gulf states, and Turkish Jews leaving the country over its uncertain economy and the strident anti-Israeli pronouncements by President Erdogan, Buyukada has much less of a Jewish character than it once did.
Still, the island is a nostalgia trip, a remnant of a time of motor-less transport and iconic summer retreats for city Jews on their summer getaways.