Syrians Working to Preserve Jewish Cultural Heritage
Syrians Working to Preserve Jewish Cultural Heritage
Jewish Quarter, the Old City, Damascus
It’s always encouraging when one comes upon some inspiring human enterprise, here in Syria or elsewhere, that refutes the worn shibboleths and clichés about how this or that group, or this or that religion, hates others and won’t cease targeting them until they are destroyed and burning in Hell.
In Syria today there is much evidence to refute the claims, often politically motivated, that Jewish cultural heritage sites are being singled out for destruction by rabid anti-Semites. One example of this is the Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue in the neighborhood of Jobar, on the outskirts of Damascus. For centuries, Jobar has been inhabited by a peaceful, mixed community of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, many of whom often attended events together at the synagogue.
Reports this week in Zionist media about the destruction of the 400-year-old (not 2000-year-old, as claimed, erroneously, by one report in Israeli media) synagogue, along with the loss of all its contents, are similar to reports over the past three years which turned out to be patently false. This observer has been waiting for clearance to visit the site, to learn exactly what happened there this week, to assess its current condition and inventory its religious artifacts, which comprise part of Syria’s, and humanity’s, collective heritage.
One of the more virulent charges to come forth this week, particularly from the colonial Zionist regime occupying Palestine, is the mantra of ‘see what the hatred of those Arabs for the Jewish people has done.’ Admittedly it’s an effective fund-raising mechanism—as well as a handy intimidation tool—for the Zionist lobby, as it scrabbles to retain control of the US government and American public sentiment, a public which seems to be growing increasingly vexed by the lobby’s actions and which are finally pulling back from rubber-stamping the crimes of the apartheid regime.
Jobar is a suburb of Damascus, and location-wise the Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue (measuring approximately 17 meters long by 15.7 meters wide) sits undeniably at a crossroads, in an area that has been occupied by rebel forces since the beginning of the Syrian conflict—which means it was sure to get damaged. With each shelling of the district over the past three years, claims were made that the synagogue had been destroyed by government forces. One such report, published on April fool’s day in 2013 by the Times of Israel and widely circulated by Zionist media outlets, claimed that, “The 2,000-year-old Jobar Synagogue in the Syrian capital of Damascus—the country’s holiest Jewish site—was looted and burned to the ground by government forces.” The report was patently false but got spread far and wide, despite the fact that there have been no government forces in Jobar since the conflict began. Two copy-cat reports followed later in 2013, but they were equally false. Nearly a year later, however, in March of 2014, media reports conceded that the synagogue was still standing, with only minor damage, and that its contents appeared to be in good condition.
This observer has received credible reports about certain stolen artifacts, including gold chandeliers, from the Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue being offered for sale. It is well known in Syria that certain militia and other opportunists have been financing themselves by selling this country’s cultural heritage whenever and wherever they get the opportunity. There is in fact a multi-million-dollar black market in this type of illicit trade. Security agencies in Syria, in coordination with INTERPOL, have been alerted to the thefts of Jewish property, just as with thefts of other antiquities, and they periodically issue what are referred to as “watch for and confiscate” lists of stolen artifacts.
It is not true…based upon this observer’s many personal experiences in Syria…that Arabs hate Jews, although they would have plenty of reasons to, or that animosities between the two peoples are irreversible and irretrievable, and the reason I say this is that increasingly, in the Middle East as well as globally, people are beginning to distinguish between Jews as individuals (as “people of the book” and basically more or less like the rest of us) and fascist Zionism—an ideology being exposed as the greatest enemy and threat to Jews everywhere.
The latest, but so far unverified, information received by this observer from rebel sources claiming to have “contacts” in the Jobar Synagogue indicate that some early 20th century artifacts, including gold chandeliers and icons, were stolen early on in the conflict, and also that the area surrounding the synagogue has been shelled sporadically over the past nearly two years, resulting in modest damage to the exterior walls. This information was obtained as of last month. Conditions may well have changed this week. Other Syrian sources indicate that there has been interior damage with some scattered rubble in the nave and prayer rooms of the temple. But there has been no confirmation to claims of thousands of manuscripts, including Bibles, being looted from Jobar. On the contrary, many documents, including Bibles and other artifacts, were transferred by the local Jobar Council, with the full cooperation of the Syrian government, to an Ottoman-era synagogue in the Old City of Damascus for safe keeping. The location, which this observer has visited and where many Jobar Synagogue artifacts are today in storage, is one of six areas in Syria currently listed on the World Heritage List of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). The site currently has round-the-clock government security that continues to guard the Old City of Damascus. It is also one of the 11 synagogues that President Assad had promised in 2011 to repair and restore, but alas that’s a project that the rebellion has put on hold.
In light of all the unverified claims about the synagogue in Jobar, one is reminded again of the decade-long US/UK War against Iraq and the false reporting about what happened at certain archaeological sites in that country. Specifically we might recall the Iraqi Jewish artifacts that Ahmad Chalabi claimed he was able to ‘rescue’ for the Coalition Provisional Authority. Chalabi, of the ill-fated Iraqi National Congress, along with the Bush administration’s Coalition Provisional Authority, sought to gain some much needed good press for himself and pals Richard Perle, Nathan Sharansky, Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, this after April 2003 reports of thousands of priceless ancient artifacts being looted from Iraqi museums. The war planners were being castigated for their failure to protect Iraq’s cultural treasures, and it soon became clear that some of Chalabi’s pronouncements regarding the fate of Jewish artifacts were false and politically self-serving. Discredited, Chalabi’s party did not win any seats in the December 2005 election.
Some suspect similar political grandstanding motives in the current reports about Jobar, and it may be a while before credible eyewitness accounts from the scene are gathered. At that point we will we know the truth about the fate of the Eliyahu Hanabi Synagogue and the whole of Jobar. A delegation, including a Jewish representative from Damascus as well as this observer, has been trying to visit the area, but armed conflict and the continued occupation of the synagogue by rebels has prevented us so far from gaining entry.
What’s important to note, though, is that the people of Syria and their government have made herculean efforts to avoid what happened in Iraq, and to assure the preservation of their global cultural heritage, of which Jewish antiquities is an important pillar. One example of these efforts is the fascinating case of the Dura-Europos Synagogue, discovered in 1932.
The synagogue in Dura Europos had survived in such good condition because of its location, near a small Roman garrison on the Euphrates River. Parts of the building, which abutted the main city wall, were requisitioned by the Roman army and filled with sand as a defensive measure against northern and eastern marauders. The city was abandoned after Rome’s fall, never to be resettled, and the lower walls of the rooms remained buried and largely intact until excavated. The archaeological dig discovered many Jewish wall-paintings and also Christian texts written in Hebrew. Especially interesting perhaps was the discovery of paintings in the synagogue depicting limited aspects of Mithraism, a religion practiced in the Roman Empire between the first and 4th centuries and that was especially popular within the ranks of the Roman legions. Named for the Persian god Mithra, many Syrians followed the cult, as did some Roman senators who resisted the ‘new’ Christianity.
Itemized in the list below are specific Jewish-Syrian antiquities, including Old-Testament-themed paintings, this observer has verified as being under protection. Keep in mind, these are only a few examples, among many thousands, that I have been advised appear to be in excellent condition as of late May 2014:
• The Torah niche from the ancient Synagogue of Dura Europos on which are drawings of the Prophet Abraham, including the scene of his offering his son. Also beside them a drawing of the candle stick and the temple façade.
• A drawing featuring the Prophet Ezra reading a papyrus, Prophet Moses in the flames of boxthorn, the Ark of the Covenant in the hands of Philistines, and David anointed as a king by Samuel.
• A number of paintings with themes from the Old Testament
• A drawing of the pharaoh and Moses as a child, and a beautiful painting of Abraham between the two symbols of the sun and the moon.
• A drawing representing the story of Mordechai and Esther and Elijah bringing life back to a baby.
Despite the current and legitimate focus on Jobar, the record of the Syrian people on preserving their cultural heritage, especially during the current crisis, is admirable. Two weeks ago this observer visited the old city of Homs, and spent a fair bit of time at the Um Al-Zenar Church of Saint Mary, Church of the Holy Belt, which dates from 52 AD. Tradition has it that this seat of the Syriac Orthodox archbishopric contains a venerated relic, and indeed the Bishop spoke to me about it one day as he shoveled rubble from around the altar. The relic is claimed to be a section of the belt of St. Mary, the mother of Jesus, and is said to be hidden near a below-ground spring. One arrives at the spring by walking down a long, very narrow, pitch black set of stone steps. The Holy Water that can be found there, a small pond in essence, is filled with fragments of stone and wood chunks from the fighting, yet supposedly this water has curative powers. I scooped up a couple of handfuls, and it was indeed very refreshing, but did nothing, so far, to cure my leg problem.
Be that as it may, this observer was struck by the number of parishioners, along with volunteers from the neighborhood, mostly Muslims, covered in dust and soot as they worked at cleaning out the rubble. In the courtyard in front of the church this observer stoked a still smoldering heap of burned bibles and other church documents and icons which I was told rebels had torched as they prepared to vacate the compound earlier this month. Two days after I departed Homs, the Um Al-Zenar Church, though a partially burned out shell devoid of pews and religious artifacts, held its first Holy Communion since the conflict began.
From my experience, Syrians, without exception, are deeply connected with their cultural heritage and do not distinguish all that much among its origins. Many Syrians are proud to help others protect and rebuild their damaged religious and cultural sites, and in fact it seems to be a unifying factor among this besieged population. People this observer speaks with as he travels around Syria to visit archeological sites seem to blame both sides for the damage, but they tend to focus more on the task of restoring their heritage sites. Space does not allow me to enumerate the countless examples of this, but I will mention one.
This observer was served tea one day by some members of the Jewish community in the old City of Damascus, including my friend Saul, who claims to be the last Jewish tailor in Syria, as well as the lovely elderly ladies known as ‘the Jewish sisters’ and whose apartment is near where St. Paul, according to tradition, converted to Christianity. The view expressed by my hosts that day—and I believe them—is that Jewish cultural heritage in Syria is being respected, protected and preserved with the same care as Muslim, Christian, and pagan antiquities.
A volunteer with the Sabra-Shatila Scholarship Program (sssp-lb.com), Franklin Lamb is in Syria doing research. He is author of the book, Syrian’s Endangered Heritage, scheduled for publication later this year.