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The Beirut Synagogue

Among the interesting monuments worth knowing in our city of Beirut, there is one which merits special attention, namely the Jewish synagogue in the Wadi abou Jamil quarter, below and to the north of the Grand Serail (Seraglio), just west of Bab Eddriss. In this district there used to live most of the Jewish community, which before the Israeli-Palestinian conflict of 1948 was some 6000 strong.

It is well known that there has always been a Jewish diaspora which was once scattered over all the towns of the empires, Egyptian Pharaonic (the community of Alexandria was famous for the thinker Philo and for the Seventy who translated the Old Testament into Greek), Mesopotamian (see the Book of Tobit), Greco-Seleucid (the Acts of the Apostles show Jews in Tyre, Sidon, Antioch and all Phoenicia) and Roman (the same book shows the Jews in Asia Minor, Thessalonica, Corinth, Puzzoles and Rome). During the Middle Ages Jews were to be found in Rome, Florence, Toledo and Andalusia, where there was the famous thinker Maimonides. There was always a Jewish community in Beirut, visited by the celebrated Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela during the twelfth century.

During the nineteenth century, the community had several hundred members, including both local Sephardites and immigrant Ashkenazis. They lived by minor crafts such as carding or by retail commerce. They enjoyed a period of prosperity under a certain Doctor Albert from Germany, who organized the social leadership of the community on the lines of the Jewish communities in Europe and America, with community services, synagogue, club and community council.

It was towards 1920 that a wealthy Jew came from India, the famous Mr. Sasson, who decided to endow the community with a synagogue befitting the importance that it had acquired. It was to be one of the most beautiful synagogues in the Middle East. It stands as a monument to the Arab world's tolerant attitude towards Judaism practiced by religious people without political aims. One may still see it, but in a sad state of decay due to the vandalism that took place during the war in Lebanon between 1975 and 1990, during which little by little the local Jews went abroad, mostly to the New World.

But this very attractive synagogue is still to be seen, though neglected and looted. It has been pillaged, the ceiling has fallen down and the woodwork lies about the floor. Wanting a building worthy to be a "House of Prayers" (syn-agoga in Greek means an assembly place for the faithful), Mr. Sasson, his son, and then Joseph David Farhi created a little jewel. There is a spacious nave, with two side aisles separated by elegant colonnades joined to each other by arches. Facing as one stands in the nave is the raised floor of the choir or béma or sanctuary, reached by marble steps, and here there used to be the pulpit of the lector or the commentator on the Bible, which a liturgical server used to put away in a piece of sacred furniture hidden by a veil or sliding curtain (Luke 4/20). Along the walls on a level with the arches joining the columns one sees the Seal of Solomon in colour surrounded by gold and the six-pointed Star of David (two equilateral triangles together). The walls on the side are sadly dilapidated. The whole rectangular layout (30m by 20m in the nave) is orientated north-south towards Jerusalem, as is only appropriate. The lamps, trumpets, carpets, benches and seats have all been looted, except those removed in time, as also the sacred rolls.

In the quite understandable absence of nearly all the Jewish community, on wonders if the Ministry responsible for Cults or for the National Heritage and Tourism could not undertake to restore this little religious architectural jewel, representing a great socio-cultural and religious venture in our city. We know that there are very many ways of finding the necessary funding for this artistic undertaking and as many more for making this holy place and the historic quarter a historic site worth visiting.

- The Beirut Synagogue: >> View Movie << (2005-02-01)



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