On Eve of Israel's Establishment, One Jewish Woman Traveled to Aleppo to Save a Synagogue

In 1947, Sara Shammah traveled from Jerusalem to photograph the Central Synagogue of Aleppo, Syria, before it was burned down. The rare documentation has been turned into a virtual reality exhibition

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The ancient synagogue in Aleppo, 1947.
The ancient synagogue in Aleppo, 1947.Credit: High Road Stories/Micha's Films
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba
Naama Riba

In 1947, a few days before the UN General Assembly resolution on the establishment of the State of Israel, Sara Shammah realized that a major event was about to take place. A Jewish woman of Syrian descent and single mother of one who lived in Jerusalem, Shammah traveled to Aleppo, where she was born in 1908, to document its Great Synagogue, a place that was important to her family.

She hired a local Armenian photographer, who took 40 pictures of the synagogue. Her gut feeling was correct. After the UN vote, riots erupted in Aleppo and the synagogue was seriously damaged. Her photographs were the last to be taken of it.

The Great Synagogue in Aleppo, 1947.Credit: Sara Shammah/Courtesy of Ora and Avraham Haber/Israel Museum

Shammah, who continued visiting Syria after immigrating to Palestine, was a unique, colorful figure in the Aleppo community. Nicknamed “the chic lady” due to her love for fabrics and fashion, the divorcee was not dependent on any man for her livelihood, at a time when that was not the norm.

Shammah’s story is part of the one told at an innovative exhibit about the synagogue at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The exhibit, “Back to Aleppo: A Virtual-Reality Tour of the Great Synagogue,” includes a virtual reality recreation of the long-destroyed building. Visitors can wear VR glasses and immerse themselves in a 15-minute film offering a 3D journey through the synagogue. The project was initiated by documentary filmmakers Avi Dabach and Judith Manassen-Ramon, in cooperation with Harmke Heezen and Mike Robbins, owners of the Berlin studio High Road Stories. The museum curator is Revital Hovav.

The creative team came to the Israel Museum with an initial draft proposal and met with former director Ido Bruno. Fundraising was a complex matter. “It’s not clear to which field it belongs,” says Dabach. “Is it film? Visual art? A documentary? Animation? We approached the Rabinovich Foundation and a joint initiative of the Maimonides Foundation and the Gesher Foundation. They liked the project and found a way to support it. It’s a new field. I assume it will take time to understand how to grow it.”

Sara ShammahCredit: Courtesy of Ora and Avraham Haber/Israel Museum

Dabach and Manassen-Ramon learned of Shammah’s story via author Amnon Shamosh, also a native of Syria. “He knew Sara. Actually, who didn’t know her in Aleppo?” says Dabach with a smile. “In researching for my previous film, ‘The Lost Crown,’ Shamosh happened to mention the collection of photographs from the synagogue. Sara’s son had it. She died in the 1990s at a ripe, old age.”

Dabach’s interest in the subject is not by happenstance. His grandfather was that synagogue’s shammash (sexton) for most of his life. “I always heard stories form him about the marvelous place and about the treasure of the Aleppo Codex kept there,” he says. “My grandfather always hoped there would be peace with Syria, so that he could take me there.”

For centuries, the Aleppo Codex, a medieval Hebrew manuscript of the Bible, resided in the Great Synagogue, which was rebuilt in the 1990s but destroyed again during the Syrian Civil War. It is the oldest known Hebrew manuscript of the entire Bible. Today, it is considered the most authoritative and precise source of scripture, as well as of Hebrew’s system of diacritics (‘nikkud’ vowel sound denotations and cantillations).

The Great Synagogue in Aleppo, 1947.Credit: Sara Shammah/Courtesy of Ora and Avraham Haber/Israel Museum

The codex was written in Tiberias over 1,000 years ago by the scribe Shlomo Ben Boia’a, and edited by Aaron Ben Asher, the first systematic Hebrew grammarian and a Masorete (part of a group of scholars who reproduced the original version of the Bible). The codex reached the Jewish community in Aleppo in the 14th century. It was damaged in 1947, and at present the Shrine of the Book in the Israel Museum has 295 of its 487 pages on display. Those visiting the exhibition will be able to see the entire exhibit in its permanent place there.

“She was a wise and sociable woman,” says Shammah’s daughter-in-law, Ora Haber. “She would invite tourists to see her garden and her house. Over the years we heard many stories about the synagogue. She used to write a notebook in French. We never knew what was there but they translated for us and said that she had written history.”

They were very familiar with the synagogue photographs. “She had the photos all those years and people came to look, but she didn’t want to give them up. Not even to Amnon Shamosh, who was friendly with her,” Haber says. “In 1987 they came to her from the Israel Museum and said there was going to be an exhibition about the Aleppo Codex. We told her, ‘One day you’ll close your eyes and there won’t be anyone to tell the story.’ And then she underwent a change. She let the museum make copies from the negatives. In the following years, we didn’t take any interest in her photos, until one day Avi Dabach came to us, said he had heard about her from Shamosh. We gave him the pictures and stayed in touch with him.”

The Holy Ark inside the Great Synagogue in Aleppo, Syria, 1947.Credit: Sara Shammah/Courtesy of Ora and Avraham Haber/Israel Museum

Shammah spoke about her trip to Aleppo in a recorded conversation with archaeologist Magen Broshi, then-curator of the Shrine of the Book, when that exhibition opened in 1988.

“I told [the photographer], I want you to come with me and take pictures of the synagogue for me, but every corner! He agreed and I paid him as much as he asked for. I didn’t bargain,” she recalled. “We arrived at the synagogue and the sexton was there. I told him: ‘Show me all the most important places there are. I want to take pictures.” The sexton led them and the photographer took pictures. “I thought of making a large album, 51 pictures, and selling it. So people would read and it would be in my father’s memory.”

She also spoke about her return visit to the synagogue, after it was torched. “I saw a ruin,” she said. “I took a Torah scroll from the ruins and put it under my coat. The Arab policeman who was guarding the place told me: You’re not allowed to enter, it’s dangerous.” The Armenian photographer, who realized that his documentation during her previous visit was valuable, found Shammah and threatened her.

Taking a VR tour of Aleppo's Great Synagogue at the Israel Museum.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

“After a day or two the photographer came to me and said to me: ‘Mrs. Shammah, either you give me a sum of money or I’ll tell that you’re a Zionist spy and that you came here to photographer places,” she said. She fled to Lebanon with the Torah scroll and the pictures, and from there she returned to Israel with her British passport.

Rare and unique documentation

The new exhibition reflects the growing interest in recent years in synagogues that were destroyed in the Middle East – in Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey. Some have been renovated. “Comprehensive documentation like this is rare and unique, and stems from the initiative and vision of one woman who was in the right place at the right time,” says curator Hovav. “Without her, no trace would remain of the synagogue destroyed in 1947. We are definitely fortunate to have these photographs.”

The Jewish community in Aleppo – or Aram Tzova as it was called for centuries – is one of the most ancient Jewish communities, dating from the Second Temple period. Its economic and cultural importance stemmed from its geographical location between the communities in the Land of Israel and Babylon, and between the Middle East and the East.

Images of the Aleppo Great Synagogue on display at The Israel Museum.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Starting in the seventh century, the Jewish residents in Aleppo were dubbed Musta’arabi and their language was Arabic. After the expulsion of Spanish Jewry in 1492, some Iberian Jews joined the community, and there was tension between them and the native-born Jews.

In the 17th century, another change took place with the arrival of the Francos – Italian Jewish merchants who joined the community fabric. They donated money for the general welfare and didn’t refrain from inter-ethnic marriages. Barriers between the various subgroups fell in the 19th century. Their descendants became members of a single community whose lifestyles were similar, all of whom spoke Arabic.

Image of the virtual tour of the Great Synagogue in Aleppo, Syria, available at Jerusalem's Israel Museum.Credit: High Road Stories/Micha's Films.

Architect David Cassuto, a Holocaust survivor born in Florence who researches synagogues, wrote in an article about the synagogue: “The synagogue was built in a format similar to a Christian basilica and was quite magnificent. Its roof was composed of domes and it had covered interior corridors delineated by circular columns. In the west of the building is the prayer wing of the Musta’arabi. In the center there is a a prayer area open to the sky and in the east – the wing that was built when the Jews expelled from Spain arrived in the 15th century.”

In his article, Cassuto cites reports by synagogue visitors, like the journal of Pietro Della Valle, an Italian Christian traveler who passed through Aleppo in 1625. “The synagogue is known for its beauty and its ancient origins. You enter it through a nondescript door that is far lower than the street, and you descend to it via numerous stairs,” he wrote, adding that the Jews in the synagogue were “mixed,” women and men together, but they were divided according to origin. “The entire right side of the synagogue opposite the entrance was crowded with local people, while the left side was crowded with Europeans, who even if they live and marry here, their origin is in the West, and they are all Spaniards and speak Spanish as their natural tongue.”

Joining reconstructed synagogues

The exhibition staff recreated the synagogue mainly based on the photographs, and supplemented them with information from articles and testimonies.

“The choice to recreate based only on Sara’s photos came from the idea that a 1,000-year-old synagogue, which underwent so many changes, can be represented properly only by choosing one point in time and one point of view,” explains Dabach. “That’s also why we decided to tell the story in the present tense, on the day when Sara arrives at the synagogue. It’s an ordinary weekday, the synagogue is empty of worshippers, only a few figures like the shammash and his daughter and the rabbi are present. But we know that this quiet will be violated in a few days, and everything we see will no longer exist.”

The exhibition is located near the museum’s Synagogue Route, which includes four reconstructed synagogues – from Germany, Italy, Suriname and Cochin. “The fifth will be virtual – suitable for the 21st century and offering a different experience,” says Manassen-Ramon. “It’s not a film and not a 360-degree experience found in many places all over the world. It’s a space that was reconstructed. There’s an encounter here of photography with history and architecture. We deliberately left the recreation in black and white, because that’s how it was originally photographed.”

The team involved in the exhibition, from left: Avi Dabach, Harmke Heezen, Revital Hovav, Dr. Rachel Sarfati, Judith Manassen-Ramon and Mike Robbins.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

It’s hard to put into words the experience of spending time inside a virtual creation, and it will be new to most visitors. The viewer walks around a 3-D space while sitting on a chair and moving their head only, in effect feeling movement. You see in the installation Shammah walking around the building with a photographer. “I’m so happy that I managed to get here again,” she says to a photographer installing his equipment. “Come, we have lots of work to do. I want to take pictures, pictures and more pictures! I want to photograph all the halls, the ancient part, and the new wing, the courtyard and the bimah.”

The voice of the young Shammah is played in the project by actress Eden Oliel. She tells how she was familiar with the synagogue from the time she was a child, looks at the space via the camera and says: “I came her often with my father … let me see … yes, okay, it looks very good .. a little higher, voila…!” Occasionally, she meets someone, such as 8-year-old Carmela, the sexton’s daughter. The girl is polishing one of the benches. Sara passes by her and smiles at her.

The Aleppo CodexCredit: Iris Pshedezki

Besides the historical story, the exhibition offers new solutions related to the future of the Israel Museum and museums in general. Dr. Rachel Sarfati, the chief curator of the Jewish Art and Life wing, explains: “Usually, when you display something technological it’s a methodological means that is designed to explain something. Here, there’s a statement that the VR is the main exhibit and the original photographs are displayed only as a reference." She says there is no closing date for the exhibition. "Maybe we’ll decide that it will remain,” she adds.

Denis Weil, the museum’s new director, did not initiate the exhibition, but it fits in well with the vision he presented upon his arrival. “The exhibition that simulates the reality of the Aleppo synagogue is the Israel Museum’s first step on its path to connecting to Israeli high-tech,” he told Haaretz. He hopes that from now on they will lead innovation in the “museum-tech" field. “It’s a field that’s smaller than the fields of education and health tech, but it’s equally promising, and there are already the first signs in museums worldwide," he says, adding the museum's desire to take advantage of this field quickly.

The Aleppo Torah scrolls on display at the Israel Museum.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Mike Robbins from the German studio, who has created VR works in the past, believes that these works have a natural place in museums.”We bring the work to the decision makers at an early stage and almost all of them are exposed to the same VR and listen to the sound with earphones. Here their fears about the equipment's cost, how the visitors will react and the fear of something new disappear.”

He says his studio's past collaborations "were inspired by the knowledge of the partners with whom we worked, as well as from their trust in our creative interpretations." However, he says, "the experience can be much more powerful if it has an artistic vision of its own, if it’s the ‘thing’ that people come to see and not only a tool for explaining other objects. Thus, he notes, the new exhibition is far more than a faithful recreation of a lost building. "It arouses emotions and memories not only of the Great Synagogue of Aleppo but of any other precious place that exists or is gone,” he says.

Torah scrolls inside the Great Synagogue in Aleppo, 1947.Credit: Sara Shammah/Courtesy of Ora and Avraham Haber/Israel Museum

One might think that since we can watch the film at home we don't actually need the museum. Robbins disagrees.

“In the museum there’s a kind of ceremony. We buy tickets, roam the galleries," he says. "The most important moments of the VR experience are at the beginning, when you put on the earphones and are transferred to another world, and when you end the experience and return to the real world. It’s hard to experience that in the familiar and comfortable boundaries of home.”

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