Who Will Save the Remains of Syria’s Ancient Synagogue?

Surrounded by a propaganda war and rebel fighters, Damascus’ Jobar synagogue has now been largely destroyed, but its media fame has dangerously inflated the value of its remaining artefacts.

Adam Blitz
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Photo A: The remaining wing and front of synagogue
Photo A: The remaining wing and front of synagogueCredit: Christoph Knoch
Adam Blitz

On Tuesday 27 May 2014, The Daily Beast published an article entitled, “Exclusive Photos: Syria’s Oldest Synagogue Destroyed by Assad.” My immediate reaction was one of caution.

Jobar has been a perennial a “mover and shaker” in Syria’s rhetorical war. It was currency to both rebel and regime as they traded blows in battle and in print. Beyond the battlefield of Syria, Jobar had also been held captive by an army of journalists, never to be set free. It had been associated with a host of claims, some of which were nothing short of miraculous –claims that it had been destroyed, but then was seen standing again, 'resurrected'. The majority of other claims were at best unsupported and at worst simply untrue.

Sadly this particular story was true. Jobar had previously survived an assault on its street-front façade and its administrative first floor suite. It still stood after a missile attack on its roof and the resulting wound to the ceiling. This time was different. After four hours on the phone and several more perusing digital images, I had to concur that, with the exception of a side wing, the synagogue had been destroyed. Based on the photographic evidence at least two-thirds of the structure had been reduced to rubble.

Unfortunately Jobar has not been the study of scientific archaeological or architectural research. We are therefore dependent upon the Daily Beast’s visuals - which can of course be misleading.

As with the other Syrian synagogues such as Aleppo’s Bandara or Damascus’ Al Franji, the plan of Jobar conforms to that of a (Roman) basilica. It followed the classic tripartite plan with two arcades (arches and columns) flanking the central aisle or nave. This was the main area of activity. Halfway down the nave was the wooden teva (bimah). Immediately to the front was an ornate Aron Kodesh (hechal) or Ark built into the front wall in which the 43 scrolls had, until recently, been housed.

Again, in keeping with the design of other Damascene synagogues, three separate roofs covered the three distinct sections. All of the roofs had exposed (typically poplar) beams which ran horizontally upon two main vertical supports. Jobar’s nave was substantially taller than that of the flat-roof wings. Its walls were punctured with very high windows, well above the ceiling to the left and right adjoining sections.

From the Daily Beast’s photographic evidence we can conclude the following:

1. The rear of the synagogue: this is where the large stone of Elijah with its monumental menorah originally sat. On the left of the first Daily Beast photograph is the synagogue’s “right” side aisle or wing with its arcade, whose ceiling has withstood bombardment and appears, for the most part, intact; the columns and arches remain in situ. The parallel colonnade, which would have demarcated the Left Wing, is clearly missing, as is the beamed ceiling for the wing and for the nave. Several blocks of columns, capital and window units litter the ground. A large section of roof hangs precariously.

2. The second image was taken from the same locus but 180 degrees facing the synagogue front rather than the rear. It reveals the entrance to the small ante chamber leading to the Shrine of Elijah. This is discernible from the small hexagonal column in view and the alabaster capital in relief. The latter is in fact part of a pair of columns and capitals which adorned the entrance to the ante chamber immediate to the right of the Ark. The photograph also shows the front of the synagogue where the teva (bimah) and ark once stood. There is no evidence of the Left aisle, arcade, teva or Ark as would ordinarily be expected. The barrel vault structure in the centre I cannot identify at this time.

3. The third photograph is an extension of Photo 2. It details the supporting wall to the left of the synagogue structure. It reveals a buttress. The entire roof is missing and again there is no evidence for the teva, Ark or central features of the synagogue.

4. The fourth image is a close-up of Photo 1. It illustrates damage to the administrate suite, high above the courtyard, in the background. There is a glimpse of an arch – the start of the left side arcade.

Recent video evidence of tank activity would indicate that at a minimum Jobar suffered from such bombardment (but aerial bombardment should not be discounted). It took out all of the supporting columns and roof, with the exception of the right side arcade and wing. The town had been the target of extensive artillery fire for over two years. In the last few months this campaign had intensified.

The Daily Beast’s story was all too true. But were we to look at the source and the story’s dissemination we would have to conclude that these “exclusive photos” came at a price. They were taken by a “network of contacts inside Damascus” by the Coalition for a Democratic Syria. Notable individuals from the Diaspora Jewish community were in communication with the rebel faction at Jobar. Indeed Mr Bolts, the story’s source, had been associated at least some fashion with Moti Kahana, a Jewish New Yorker who has publicly stated his support for the Syrian rebels.

There were other ramifications of this connection between Diaspora Jews and the Syrian rebels. Notoriety perpetuated rebel occupation at Jobar; thanks to its news-worthiness far outside the borders of Syria, it was politically valuable for the rebels to be associated with it and its governance. Ironically this exposed the synagogue to further risk of attack by Assad's forces.

The same Daily Beast story gave voice to the claim that the rebel occupants were protecting items rather than pilfering them. However, the media resonance of the Jobar story may equally have inflated the market for Jobar’s artefacts. Sensationalist claims with emotive headlines have only added to auction house coffers. Just last December Sotheby’s, trading on Jobar’s plight, sold a wood carving with part of a verse from Psalm 19 for $50,000, flagged by the auction house as part of an 11th century Ark door from Jobar despite any proof of provenance. Back in 2011 the same object had sold for just over half that amount, $27,000, and was not marketed on the strength of any Jobar origin. This seems to suggest that a Jobar connection now has the market power to increase prices by nearly 100%, with obvious repercussions for other Jobar artefacts.

Yet this is not the time for a eulogy. There remains the possibility that the Shrine of Elijah is safely buried metres below the debris. Equally, at some point the future, there exists an unprecedented opportunity to survey the exposed synagogue remains. For now, attention should focus on the synagogue’s artefacts and ensure that they do not leak out onto the illegal antiquities market. If we cannot ensure their safe return from rebel hands we can at least document the objects from photographic and videographic evidence and to alert Interpol, the auction and Judaica markets worldwide that these items may start circulating. To this aim, we must call all upon the Manhattan-based Sephardic Heritage Museum to release its many thousands of detailed and comprehensive images of Syrian Judaica, (taken as recently as the last decade), which are not in the public domain, and share this heritage with the rest of the world – and with all those who seek to preserve what can yet be saved.

Adam Blitz is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute and former Fulbright scholar and writes on cultural heritage and its destruction for the Catholic Herald, Times of India, Aeon Magazine and other publications. His latest talk on 'What's left of Syria's Jewish Legacy' in London next week. Follow him on Twitter: @blitz_adam.

Photo B: The view from the rearCredit: Christoph Knoch
Photo C: Rear viewCredit: Cristoph Knoch

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