The location and condition of over 350 Jewish heritage sites in Iraq and Syria have been identified by a major new research project. But most of them are said to be ruined or nearly so, often because of neglect or redevelopment work.
The 18-month study conducted by the Jewish Cultural Heritage Initiative (JCHI) catalogues and assesses sites from antiquity to the present day in once-vibrant centers of Jewish life in the Middle East.
But an accompanying report published this month warns that nearly 90 percent of the sites in Iraq – and more than half of those in Syria – are beyond repair or in a very bad condition.
It also identifies four Iraqi sites where it believes “emergency relief” could be critical to preserving them. They include the last functioning synagogue in the country and a Baghdad cemetery where the remains of Jews who were publicly hanged in the 1960s on charges of spying for Israel are buried.
The JCHI is a collaboration between the London-based Foundation for Jewish Heritage and the American Schools of Oriental Research. The study was led by Dr. Darren Ashby and Dr. Susan Penacho of the US institution’s Cultural Heritage Initiatives. The research team used desk-based, satellite and on-the-ground assessments.
Jewish community life in Iraq and Syria – which stretched back 2,600 years to the time of Babylon – was decimated by harsh repression and emigration in the second half of the 20th century, following the establishment of the State of Israel.
However, the JCHI study argues that “a significant physical heritage remains.”
The condition of the sites varies sharply between Iraq and Syria. In Iraq, researchers gave 89% of sites its lowest preservation rating of “no return” or determined that nothing definite could be found on its present state. The researchers believe the overwhelming majority of heritage sites classified as “no information” are likely to be in a very bad condition or beyond repair.
In Syria, 53% of sites are tagged as “no return” or “no information.”
Of the 11% confirmed as still standing in Iraq, nine sites are categorized as “poor” and 12% as “very bad”, the researchers say. Ten sites are listed as in a “fair” or “good” condition.”
In Syria, 27 sites are tagged as being in a “fair” of “good” condition, while six are categorized as “poor” or “very bad.”
In all, 68 Iraqi sites are deemed as “no return” and no information was available for 198 sites. In Syria, the respective figures were 32 sites and six sites.
“A distinct difference in preservation exists between Iraq and Syria,” argues the report. It notes that the 10 Iraq sites rated as “good” or “fair” represent “roughly a third the number of Syrian sites, despite the overall size of the Iraqi corpus being over three times the size of the Syrian one.”
But, across both countries, says the report, “most of the heritage from the 19th and 20th centuries is in very bad condition or beyond repair, primarily due to neglect and urban redevelopment.”
Researchers say that the project was “undertaken in a challenging environment” and admit that it does not represent “a fully comprehensive picture.” However, the 368 sites in the JCHI database, suggests the report, “represent a cross-section of Jewish built heritage in Iraq and Syria from the diaspora until the present day.”
“The database includes the major buildings and settlements in both countries alongside a number of additional sites of regional and local significance,” it says.
“At a time when there is so much attention on saving heritage in danger across the Middle East, this unique research has shone a light on a forgotten aspect – the remarkable ancient Jewish heritage of the region,” Michael Mail, chief executive of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, suggested in a press statement.
The Jewish community made a profound contribution and we need to ensure its heritage, and this story, is not erased
“The Jewish community made a profound contribution and we need to ensure its heritage, and this story, is not erased,” Mail added.
The research lists 27 sites in both Iraq and Syria which are endangered because they are in a “poor” or “very bad” condition.
Among the sites are two in Syria – the Bandara Synagogue in Aleppo and the Synagogue of the Prophet Elijah in Damascus – and one in Iraq – The Shrine of the Prophet Ezekiel in Al-Kifl – which researchers assess to be internationally significant. A further seven are listed as nationally significant and four regionally significant.
The project identifies four sites as priority candidates for “emergency relief.” All are in Iraq due to the continuing Syrian civil war. In the case of each, the JCHI says, “urgent intervention could substantially improve their condition.”
The four sites are led by the last surviving functioning synagogue in Iraq, the Meir Tweig Synagogue in Baghdad. The synagogue, says the report, is also home to material from other synagogues and communal buildings that are now closed.
The Jewish community in Iraq is now believed to number as few as 10, mostly elderly, people. Through intermediaries in Iraq, the JCHI was able to make contact with members of the Jewish community in Baghdad.
Work on the synagogue, which is deemed to be in a “fair” condition, is “highly viable,” researchers believe.
“The site is under the control of the Jewish community, which already has a list of preferred contractors that it has worked with on other projects,” the report says. But, it adds, “the main concern for the Jewish community is visibility. They do not want to draw attention to the synagogue’s location.”
The three other priority sites selected by the JCHI include the Al-Habibiyah Jewish Cemetery in Baghdad. Established during the early 20th century, it has been the main location for Jewish burial in the city. Many local Jewish notables are interred there, including Jews who were publicly hanged in Baghdad in January 1969 for allegedly spying for Israel.
The report says the cemetery is in a worse condition than the Meir Tweig synagogue. “The interior of the walled property is overgrown with vegetation in multiple places and the space is used as a dumping ground for trash by people on the adjacent properties. Many of the graves are in poor condition,” it notes.
In northern Iraq, the research highlights two candidates for urgent work in an area of the country where significant post-conflict reconstruction work is underway.
Built in 1902, the Sasson Synagogue in Mosul was the main synagogue in the city during the 20th century thanks to its central location in the Jewish Quarter. Researchers believe that, though it is in a “very bad” condition, it is nonetheless the best-preserved Jewish heritage in Mosul.
“The roof of the synagogue has collapsed in multiple places, exposing the interior decoration, including wall paintings, to weathering and increasing the risk that the rest of the standing architecture will fall,” write the researchers. “The property has also filled with trash and debris deposited in the building over the past decades. Further, looters have targeted the site, removing some Jewish cultural property.”
Forty-five kilometers (28 miles) north of Mosul lies the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum in the town of in al-Qosh in Iraq. It dates back to at least the 12th century CE and was an important pilgrimage site for the Jewish community of both Mosul and the surrounding region, especially during Shavuot.
The site consists of a central synagogue with the prophet’s tomb and a series of subsidiary buildings arranged around a courtyard.
Local Christians attempted to maintain the shrine after the departure of the Jewish community and it has also been the focus of international preservation efforts over the past decade. It is now deemed to be in a “poor” condition. However, after stabilization work was conducted in late 2017, a restoration project led by the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage is commencing. It is supported financially by the US government, the Kurdish regional government and private donors.
The researchers believe that, while many factors account for the higher levels of preservation in Syria than Iraq, “two interconnected factors stand out: government policy towards the Jewish population and the timing of Jewish emigration from the two countries.”
In both Syria and Iraq, anti-Semitic violence and state repression provoked large-scale Jewish emigration following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
For those Jews who remained in Syria “the level of repression fluctuated over time” and, by the mid-1970s, they were “largely left to manage their own religious, social and economic affairs.” However, tight restrictions on Jewish emigration were in place until the early 1990s.
In Iraq, emigration was similarly restricted and banned altogether in 1952. But further emigration was allowed some 20 years earlier than in Syria, with much of the remaining Jewish community leaving the country in the early 1970s.
“The different levels of repression and timelines of community departure impacted the preservation of Jewish built heritage,” says the report. “In Syria, a portion of the community was forcibly kept in the country but maintained a degree of control over communal property, particularly synagogues.”
Even with the departure of much of the remaining Jewish community after 1992, however, the Syrian government continued to preserve sites for its own political purposes. This, the report argues, led to “the protection of Jewish heritage in the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo despite the absence of a Jewish community dedicated to their preservation.”
The picture in Iraq, the researchers continue, was somewhat different. “Nearly all Iraqi Jews left Iraq by the mid-1970s and most communal Iraqi Jewish built heritage passed into the control of the Iraqi state, which neglected it, repurposed it, or passed it on to private individuals for their own use or redevelopment.
“As a result, most Iraqi heritage has deteriorated significantly, been substantially modified, or been torn down completely,” state the authors.
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