Recreating Online the Lost Jewish Sites of the Muslim World

June 2, 2020 | Dara Horn
About the author: Dara Horn is the author of five novels, most recently Eternal Life.

Describing a virtual visit to a no-longer-extant Damascus synagogue, Dara Horn writes:

I’m standing inside a jewel box. The small room is illuminated by dozens of elaborate beaded chandeliers; its walls are covered with thick red velvet draperies, its stone floor with richly patterned carpets. In front of me is a large flat stone topped with a golden menorah: here, an inscription informs me, the Hebrew prophet Elijah anointed his successor Elisha, as described in the biblical book of Kings.

For a place that drew Jewish pilgrims for centuries, it is remarkably well preserved—and startlingly intimate. There are no “pews” here; instead, there are low cushioned couches facing each other, as though this were a sacred living room. A raised marble platform in the center has a draped table for public Torah readings; at the room’s far end is an ornate wooden cabinet filled with ancient Torah scrolls, their parchments concealed inside magnificent silver cases. On the walls are framed Hebrew inscriptions, featuring the same prayers my son is currently mastering for his bar mitzvah in New Jersey.

Horn’s online tour of the synagogue is made possible by Diarna, an organization dedicated to creating painstaking digital reconstructions of Jewish locales, and details of Jewish life, in the Middle East and North Africa.

In some places, abandoned synagogues have been transformed into mosques; in others, tombs of Jewish religious figures or other sacred spaces are still being maintained, or even revered, by non-Jewish locals. More often, especially in poor rural areas where land is worth little and demolition costs money, abandoned Jewish sites are simply left to decay.

Mapping sites in this environment can require enormous courage—the hatred that prompted the Jews’ flight has long outlived their departure. Libya is one of many societies where Jews were violently rejected. Tripoli was more than 25-percent Jewish before World War II, but in 1945 more than a 100 Jews in the city were murdered and hundreds more wounded in massive pogroms, prompting the Jewish community’s flight. Later, the dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi expelled all remaining Jews and confiscated their assets. In 2011, after Qaddafi’s ouster, a single Libyan Jew who returned and attempted to remove trash from the wreckage of the city’s Dar Bishi Synagogue was hounded out of the country by angry mobs waving signs reading “No Jews in Libya”; apparently one was too many.

Read more on Smithsonian: