Model of the Aleppo Great Synagogue at the Museum of the Diaspora, Tel Aviv. The synagogue, damaged in the 1947 riots, is thought to have been largely destroyed.
Writing in the Jewish Chronicle, Emma Klein laments the destruction of the Christians in Aleppo. The city’s now extinct Jewish community had included her own family, the Douek Cohens.
Aleppo has always held great resonance for me, since my paternal
ancestors found refuge there in 1492, after the expulsion of the Jews
from Spain. The city was part of the Ottoman Empire, a centre of great
tolerance which became a refuge for many communities. My family remained
there for 300 years before leaving for India, which had just become
part of the British Empire and must have offered great potential for
Jews had been settled in Aleppo since Biblical times and the name
Douek was well known. Our family name was Douek Cohen and there are
still some relatives bearing that name today.
During the visit of one of my cousins to Aleppo in the early 1960s,
she met members of the Jewish community who were living in great fear.
Very recently I met a young man, Rob, whose family had fled Aleppo a few
years later. One of his ancestors was also called Douek.
The family had been well established in Syria, until things changed
with the founding of the state of Israel*. Rob’s grandfather used to go
round Aleppo before Shabbat, giving money to the poor. His mother was
educated by nuns. Their relatively grand house was partly taken over by
During the Six Day War, Rob’s mother recalled that they were given
refuge in the Italian Mission Hospital, run by nuns who were
subsequently beaten and raped for helping Jews. By then, too, Rob’s
grandfather was frequently tortured on his way home from synagogue and
Syrians would enter Jewish homes in the middle of the night to ensure no
Jew had escaped. The family’s eventual flight from Aleppo in 1971, via
Beirut, where they stayed for several months, was quite dramatic.
The Aleppo Jewish community believed that what had protected Aleppo’s
Jews for centuries was the Aleppo Codex. Written in the 10th century,
this bound manuscript of the Hebrew Bible is considered by many as the
most authoritative version. It was consulted by Maimonides himself, and
it is believed that it was brought to Aleppo in 1375 by one of his
descendants who thought that it would be the safest place for this
religious and scholarly gem. There it remained, until the synagogue
where it was kept was burned down by rioters, following the UN decision
in 1947 to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Eventually it was
smuggled, in a washing machine, into Israel in 1958 by a Syrian Jew, and
presented to the Israeli president. It was discovered that some pages
had been lost, and more disappeared in Israel.
Christians, too, made up part of the Aleppo mosaic of communities.
One distinguished clergyman, the 17th century scholar, Henry Maundrell,
served in Aleppo for six years until his untimely death in 1701. In 1697
he travelled from Aleppo to Jerusalem and his book, Journey from Aleppo
to Jerusalem at Easter AD 1697, is considered a minor travel classic.
Today, Aleppo’s Christians live in great fear and most who could
afford to, have fled. Antoine Audo, bishop of Aleppo for 25 years, wrote
recently of the “daily dose of death and destruction” and pointing out
while there are 45 churches in Aleppo, the Christian faith was “in
danger of being driven into extinction”.
In 2006, Aleppo won the title of Islamic Capital of Culture. Today,
thousands of years of history are in danger of being reduced to little
more than a huge pile of rubble. Had the Western powers intervened, as
they did in Libya, where, of course, there was oil, they might have
saved this outstanding location of refuge, scholarship and culture from
*In fact things began to change in the 1930s