June 07

The House of the Messiah in Ruins
by Photographs by Barry Kapandji
p. 2 of 2

The main reason the house's future is so uncertain is that nobody wants it. For the tiny Izmir Jewish community, it's the home of a heretic -- and in a country where antisemitism is still a real threat (Istanbul, recall, was the site of horrific synagogue bombings only a few years ago), unearthing the history of a group of false Muslims who are actually secret Jews is not exactly a positive message to send about the Jewish people. For the doenmeh -- or rather, their descendents, most of whom are now secular and no longer "faithful" -- the site is part of a dark family secret. Many of Turkey's leading citizens are from doenmeh families, and their status is a kind of open secret, but hardly anyone is willing to openly admit it. Even Kapandji told me that using his real name was "totally out of the question." He feared for the safety of his family. (Incidentally, I do not know who the man in these photographs is.) Conceivably, the Izmir municipality might capitalize on the house's value to tourists and pilgrims -- but really, how many of those are there? Probably not as many as would enjoy the agora park.

So, for now, the house sits in legal limbo and physical dereliction. Looking at these images, I was reminded of the ironic lines from Shelley's "Ozymandias": Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair! In the sonnet, the words are about the vanity of power and pretension. Here, they might be rephrased: Look on my house, ye freethinkers -- because the Jews have grown expert at blotting out the names of their enemies. This is what happens to those who break away.

And yet, at the same time, there is a poetic beauty to these ruins. I wonder who lit candles in these niches, what they thought, and what they dreamt. I wonder what it must have been like -- all these years, to have believed.