At Jerusalem’s Israel Museum, it is now possible to experience a virtual-reality tour of various historic synagogues. Matti Friedman describes his “visit” to the Great Synagogue of Aleppo, which was destroyed during the brutal assault on the city by Bashar al-Assad’s forces in 2016:
Prayers began at the site, scholars believe, around the 5th century CE, maybe earlier, and continued until the 1990s, when the last Jews left the city. There were breaks only for events like the Mongol invasion that leveled much of Aleppo in the 13th century, for the occasional devastating earthquake, and for the Arab riots and arson that accompanied the United Nations vote on Israel’s creation in 1947. No other synagogue on earth embodied fifteen continuous centuries of Jewish life and memory.
Since the community’s final departure, the building had been empty but intact, guarded by the regime, upkeep covered discreetly by members of the Aleppo Jewish diaspora. But photos after the 2016 fighting showed pulverized stonework, a courtyard full of rubble, twisted iron railings, and Hebrew engravings blasted off the walls. The Great Synagogue was gone.
The virtual exhibit was made possible by a Syrian Jewish woman from Aleppo named Sarah Shammah, at whose behest an Armenian photographer took 51 pictures of the building:
One day . . . in 1947, just weeks before the outbreak of Israel’s War of Independence, Shammah had the ancient building recorded in its entirety by the photographer, whose name has been lost. She seems to have had a premonition. Only days later, on November 29, the United Nations voted to partition the British Mandate territory of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, upon which a mob in Aleppo rioted and torched Jewish homes, shops, and synagogues, including much of the Great Synagogue. . . . After the 1947 riot, Shammah made it to Jerusalem via Beirut with the negatives. The borders were cut a few months later, and she never saw her city again.