The Great Synagogue (Slat le-Kbiri) was the largest and oldest synagogue in Baghdad. Our resident historian, Sami Sourani, tells its amazing story going back 2,600 years, and how a mysterious explosion from its walls saved the Synagogue from being demolished in the 20th century. (With thanks: Lisette)
When the Jews were exiled to Babylon, the Prophet Ezekiel ‘s greatest achievement was building a synagogue. Ezekiel buried in the foundations half the soil he had taken from the bag that the defeated King Joachim carried on his back to Babylon for burial in his tomb when he died.
This was the first synagogue ever known in the world and Ezekiel described it as Kehila Kedousha. It served as a unifying centre for the exiled Jews. They prayed in this synagogue under Babylonian, Persian and Greek rule, after Alexander the Great captured Persia and its colonies.
When the Persians captured Babylon from the Greeks after the death of Alexander the Great, the Jews of Babylon lived peaceably, managing their own affairs under their own leader, the Resh Galuta, the Head of the Diaspora. The Greeks translated the title to “Exilarch”.
After capturing Babylon, the new Persian Dynasty accused the Jews of collaborating with the Greeks, their enemies. This was an excuse to deprive the Jews of self-rule and place them under their control. The new ruler abolished the position of Resh Galuta and appointed a Persian ruler to manage the Jewish community, including the collecting of taxes. The title and its function, abolished by the Persians, was restituted to the Jews, centuries later, by the Arab Invaders.
Resentful of their treatment by the Persians, the Jews revolted. This revolution was initiated by two brothers and a cousin of the Zutra family. The Persian arrested the three leaders and executed them. This is sound proof of the value of freedom among Jews. They were ready to sacrifice their lives for it.
The situation of the Jews became harsher under the Persian governors. The Jews had to find a way out. They moved secretly to a new area between the two rivers, the Tigris and the Euphrates. They established a new city called “Baghdad” , a combination of the two words ” Bagh” (gardens ) and “Dad” ( city). The Jews secretly dismantled the synagogue in the city of Babylon and moved it, along with King Joachim’s bag of soil, to Baghdad. It stayed in the same location until today. They called it Slat le-Kbiri, the Great Synagogue. The building consists of four walls but no roof, as they needed light to read the Torah during prayers, in the evenings and early in the morning. It is interesting to know that the walls of this synagogue were more than two feet thick. The question is, why?
When a Sefer Torah became so damaged that it could not be used for prayers, the Jews dug a big hole in the wall and buried the holy materials. Then they sealed the wall with whatever materials were available in those days. According to tradition, the Sefer Torah is so holy that it should be buried above our feet and not below.
Over the centuries, the synagogue was repaired a number of times when the city was flooded by the Tigris river. Despite all the problems, the synagogue became the place of prayer for most Baghdadi Jews.
After WWI, The League of Nations put Iraq under British Mandate. The British tried to improve public services when the need arose.
In the mid-920s, the flood water of the Tigris reached the Jewish quarter and the Great Synagogue. Many houses collapsed and became uninhabitable. The City Planner in the British mandate government inspected buildings affected by the flood, including the Great Synagogue. He found that a wall in the Synagogue has caved in and become dangerous. He issued an order to demolish the wall. The Jews protested this decision, but to no avail.
The City Planner decided to send in a demolition crew. They arrived as some Jews stood and prayed for miracles.
The demolition crew approached the wall and prepared to drive their axes into the bricks. As they did so, a mysterious fire broke out, accompanied by a huge explosion. Workers’ clothing caught fire. The crew ran away to save their lives, shouting,” This is the God of the Jews. Do not upset the God of the Jews.”
As a result, the City Planner agreed to prop up the wall and not demolish it.
What caused the explosion? There is a possible scientific explanation. The Jews dug big holes in the wall to bury the unusable holy books. These were written on calf skin, an organic material. When organic materials are buried and tightly sealed, they develop methane gas. This gas explodes when exposed to air and sunlight. The Jews then said that this explosion was nothing but the shehina (holy spirit) from Heaven. People believed this. This is how the Great Synagogue was saved from demolition. It was a miracle!
What has become of the Great Synagogue since the mass exodus of the Jews of Iraq in the early 1950s? Sami Sourani adds:
The Synagogue is now under the Custodian of Absentee Property of the Government of Iraq. This department manages all Jewish assets frozen by the Iraqi government in 1951. Many Jewish schools and synagogues are now used as government warehouses, but there is little information about this Synagogue.We do not know how the Iraqi government is managing Jewish property and whether it is being maintained.
Some Jews are rumoured to have asked for UNESCO to declare the Great Synagogue a World Heritage site. An architect, Kanan Makiya, published a book about ancient buildings in Baghdad but mentioned nothing about old Jewish buildings, except for a general footnote. However, he did mention the Chaldean church not far away.
In 1950, the Iraqi government issued laissez-passers to departing Jews from the Meir Tweg synagogue in the Bataween district, and not from Slat le-Kbiri. When it was their turn to leave Iraq, they gathered at the Massouda Shemtov synagogue. From there they were driven by bus to Baghdad International Airport.
After 1950, the Great Synagogue in downtown Baghdad in a district that was once populated by Jews, was never used again for prayers. Neither were the rest of the downtown synagogues.
Allan Daly adds: I was in Slat le-Kbiri in 1971 when I was 14 accompanying my Dad, Youssef Khdhoury Daly z”l, to complete some government paperwork required at the time. It was a sunny day, and all along the surrounding wall, covered by a little roof, scrolls of leather Sefarim lay open on the ground and scattered on the wooden tachtaat (benches). I went to investigate and my dad immediately called me back, fearing that it would be realised that we might know the Hebrew language. That was the first and last time I was in Slat le-Kbiri.
Sami Sourani comments: A hand-written Sefer Torah in Baghdad is usually kept in a Tik – a case made of silver or gold or both. It is very tempting for thieves to break in and steal them. Perhaps, the Iraqi Government decided to gather the Sefarim from all the synagogues in Baghdad and store them in one place – Slat le-Kbiri. This is the logical explanation.
I heard from the late Anwar Shahin that the Iraqi Jewish Community in the UK requested the Iraqi Government to release a few Sefarim to Iraqi -Jewish communities in Europe and North America. The Iraqi Government agreed to release some and send three to the Jewish Community in the UK, three to the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Montreal and three to a synagogue in New York. I have no more details.
It is not known whether the Sefarim that Allan Daly saw in that Slat Le Kbiri stayed there or were stored somewhere else by the Iraqi government.
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