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.
Egypt is congratulating itself on ‘reaping the benefits’ of having spent $4 million on restoring the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria: according to the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, the project has won the award for the best international project in the category of restoration and rehabilitation projects in the Engineering News-Record’s Global Best Projects Competition 2021, reports Al-Monitor. The award will help promote tourism, say officials. Excluded from the official inauguration, Egyptian Jews organised their own ceremony in February 2020. It was the first, and will probably the last, time that the synagogue will echo to the sound of Jewish prayer. (With thanks: Viviane)
Egypt is aware of the importance of restoring Jewish monuments in stimulating tourism, which prompted Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in 2018 to allocate $71 million to restore Jewish archaeological sites in Egypt in addition to Islamic and Christian monuments.
There are currently over 25 synagogues in Egypt, distributed between Cairo, Alexandria and Beheira, but only 11 temples registered with the Ministry of Antiquities and the Ministry of Culture.
The Israeli Embassy in Cairo issued a statement in December 2018 praising “the Egyptian government’s initiative to restore various monuments, including Jewish ones, in order to preserve the ancient Egyptian history, because Egypt is the center of civilization.”
On Oct. 7, Egyptian Minister of Antiquities Khaled al-Anani said during a press conference at the Egyptian Embassy in Paris, “The Egyptian state is keen to preserve the unique Egyptian civilizational and cultural heritage for future generations, as it implements projects for the restoration and maintenance of monuments and the development of museums throughout the country. A number of restoration projects have been a success, most notably the project to restore the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria.”
Gamal Abdel Rahim, professor of Islamic, Christian and Jewish Archaeology at the Faculty of Archaeology at Cairo University, told Al-Monitor, “The award won by the restoration project of the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue is an international testament to the Egyptians’ success in restoring monuments.”
He said, “The award will certainly contribute to reviving tourism, as the Ministry of Antiquities uses this award in its plan to promote and publicize it around the world to introduce Egypt’s most prominent antiquities.”
Is it better to see the synagogues that Jews have left behind rot, rather than become a corpse all made up for a wake? In his Unherd review of Dara Horn’s People Love Dead Jews Matti Friedman questions the motives of states without Jews who restore Jewish heritage :
I remember being in the alleys of downtown Cairo a decade ago and coming to the ruins of a synagogue, one of dozens that once housed the religious life of the thousands of Jews who gave this neighbourhood its name. It is still called The Jewish Quarter, even though by the time I arrived in 2009 the actual Jews who had crowded the alleys up to the 1940s had been hounded out by state persecution and mob violence. As far as I knew, the Jewish population of Cairo’s Jewish Quarter on the day I visited was one: me.
The synagogue was named for the philosopher and physician Maimonides, who led the Jewish community here in the 12th century, when Cairo was the most important Jewish centre in the Middle East. The building was nothing but a roofless shell, but I discovered a work crew laying planks in one of the rooms, up to their knees in fetid water. It turned out that the Egyptian government — the same regime that took possession of much of the property of the 80,000 Jews who’d been forced out of the country two generations earlier — was engaged in a restoration project.
A polite young engineer on the site showed me the location of the stand where the Torah scroll was once read. Another man, in civilian clothes but with some vaguely military authority, told me not to take pictures.
There couldn’t be anything bad about the restoration of a synagogue, could there? It was hard to explain why none of this felt right; why I preferred to see the building left to rot, rather than see it made up like a corpse at a wake. I had the same feeling when I saw other journalists refer seriously to the “Jewish community of Cairo”, quoting a woman who was its “President”.
There was no community, just a regime-approved simulacrum designed to allow everyone to pretend that an ethnic cleansing hadn’t taken place, and that something dead was alive. It was Weekend at Bernie’s. At the time of my visit, the Egyptian Government was trying to get one of its officials elected to a top cultural post at the UN, an effort hindered by this same official’s past support for burning Hebrew books. A synagogue renovation couldn’t hurt his cause! The real Jews were long out of Egypt, but their imaginary avatars were still hard at work serving the narrative needs of others.
The exit of the Last Jew from Afghanistan, Zevulon Simentov , masks the larger, dark issue of the rejection of the ‘other’. Thousands of years of Jewish history are completely erased, remembered only by the descendants of the dead. Dara Horn, author of People love dead Jews has written a heartfelt essay in The New York Times addressing the extinction of diversity, particularly in the Muslim world:
These stories are used as comic relief, like a Mel Brooks skit injected into the relentless thrum of bad news. But when I read about the Last Jew of Afghanistan, a country where Jewish communities thrived for well over a thousand years, it occurred to me that there have been many “Last Jews” stories like this, in many, many places — and that the way we tell these stories is itself part of the problem.
Dozens of countries around the world have had their Last Jews. The Libyan city of Tripoli was, astonishingly, one-quarter Jewish in 1941; today the entire country is Jew-free. After the fall of Muammar el-Qaddafi, who banished the country’s lingering Jews during his reign, a lone Libyan Jew came back to Tripoli and took down a concrete wall sealing the city’s one remaining synagogue. But he was soon forced to flee, having been warned that an antisemitic mob was coming for his head.
Chrystie Sherman, a photographer for Diarna, an online museum of Jewish sites in the Islamic world, once told me how she tracked down the last Jewish business owner in Syria, a millenniums-old Jewish community that once numbered in the tens of thousands. In 2009, he took her to a magnificent 500-year-old synagogue. The structure didn’t survive Syria’s civil war. At another synagogue, she had to lie to government agents about why she was there; admitting that she was documenting Jewish history was too dangerous.
In my travels, I’ve also seen what happens in such places decades after the Last Jews have vanished. Often, thousands of years of history are completely erased, remembered only by the descendants of the dead. Sometimes, something even creepier happens: People tell stories about Jews that make them feel better about themselves, patting themselves on the back for their current love for Jews long gone. The self-righteous memory-keeping is so much easier without insufferable living Jews getting in the way.
Places around the world now largely devoid of Jews have come to think fondly of the dead Jews who once shared their streets, and an entire industry has emerged to encourage tourism to these now historical sites.The locals in such places rarely minded when living Jews were either massacred or driven out.
But now they pine for the dead Jews, lovingly restoring their synagogues and cemeteries — sometimes while also pining for live Jewish tourists and their magic Jewish money. Egypt’s huge Jewish community predated Islam by at least six centuries; now that only a handful of Jews remain, the government has poured funding into restoring synagogues for tourists.
I have visited, and written about, many such “heritage sites” over the years, in countries ranging from Spain to China. Some are maintained by sincere and learned people, with deep research and profound courage. I wish that were the norm. More often, they are like Epcot pavilions, selling bagels and bobbleheads, sometimes hardly even mentioning why this synagogue is now a museum or a concert hall. Many Jewish travelers to such sites feel a discomfort they can barely name.
I’ve felt it too, every time. I’ve walked through places where Jews lived for hundreds or even thousands of years, people who share so many of the foundations of my own life— the language and books I cherish, the ideas that nourish me, the rhythms of my weeks and years — and I have felt the silence close in.
I don’t mean the dead Jews’ silence, but my own. I know how I am supposed to feel: solemn, calmly contemplative, and perhaps also grateful to whoever so kindly restored this synagogue or renamed this street. I stifle my disquiet, telling myself it is merely sorrow, burying it so deep that I no longer recognize what it really is: rage.
That rage is real, and we ignore it at our peril. It’s apparently in poor taste to point out why people like Mr. Simentov wind up as “Last Jews” to begin with: People decided they no longer wanted to live with those who weren’t exactly like themselves. Nostalgic stories about Last Jews mask a much larger and darker reality about societies that were once ethnic and religious mosaics, but are now home to almost no one but Arab Muslims, Lithuanian Catholics or Han Chinese. It costs little to wax nostalgic about departed Jews when one lives in a place where diversity, rather than being a living human challenge, is a fairy tale from the past. There is only one way to be.
What does it mean for a society to rid itself of other points of view? To reject those with different perspectives, different histories, different ways of being in the world? The example of Jewish history, of the many Last Jews in places around the globe, holds up a dark mirror to those of us living in much freer societies. The cynical use of bygone Jews to “inspire” us can verge on the absurd, but that absurdity isn’t so far-off from our own lip service to diversity, where those who differ from us are wonderful, so long as they see things our way.
On paper, American diversity is impressive. But in reality, we often live siloed lives. How do we really treat those who aren’t just like us? The disgust is palpable, as anyone knows who has tried being Jewish on TikTok. Are we up to the challenge of maintaining a society that actually respects others?
I hope so, but I’m not holding my breath. The Last Jew of Afghanistan is gone, and everyone is glad to be rid of him.
Good news from Iraq : a project to restore the Jewish character of the tomb of Nahum at al-Kosh, funded at a cost of $2 million by the US, Kurdish and Czech governments, has been completed by the ARCH NGO. The shrine miraculously escaped obliteration by Islamic State in 2014.This long Times of Israel feature by Tal Schneider focuses on the involvement of a US Jewish army vet and two Israeli engineers, specialising in synagogue restoration, who were given special permission to visit the site. Point of No Return has documented the failure of UNESCO to save the derelict site and earlier proposals for its reconstruction. We have also posted the accounts of foreign visitors (here,here and here ) to the shrine. (with thanks: David, Lily)
On a spring day in April 2017, two jeeps, their windows blacked out, sped down a sandy highway in Iraqi Kurdistan toward the small Christian village of Alqosh.
In the cars sat two Israeli engineers, one in each, for security reasons. They had entered the country holding the only passports they had — Israeli — to take part in an extraordinary reconstruction mission.
The two, Yaakov Schaffer and Meir Ronen, watched through sealed windows as they drove past scenes of ruinous destruction left by nearly two decades of war. Some 15 miles away, fighters from the Islamic State terror group were battling the Iraqi army.
As they approached the village, the jeeps pulled over and Schaffer and Ronen got out, accompanied by their Kurdish security guards. On foot, they climbed into the town and made straight for the antiquities site at the northern part of the ancient city: the Tomb of Nahum, the Old Testament prophet.
For decades, the people of Alqosh, members of the Chaldean Catholic Church, guarded a shrine once revered by local Jews as the final resting place of Nahum of Elkosh. But on that day, the structure that lay before them was crumbling around a caved-in roof.
“The walls and pillars were cracked and crumbling. It looked like the rest of the building would collapse at any minute,” recalled Adam Tiffen, an American entrepreneur and project manager who had visited the site a year earlier and was there that day with the Israelis.
The three of them entered. As they began to examine the structure, they unfurl the options that lay before them to save the ancient shrine.
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