An international team of archaeologists from the USA, Canada, Lithuania and Israel have revealed the foundations of the Bimah that once anchored the destroyed Great Synagogue in Vilnius, locating it directly under the school building that was constructed atop the site in the 1950s.
“The remains of the Bimah exist to the height of a metre and show the great potential for future excavation,” the Vilna Great Synagogue and Shulhoyf Research Project announced.
“It is really a very exciting development,” Israeli archeologist Jon Seligman, who leads the archaeology team along with Lithuanian archaeologist Justinas Račas, told AFP. “When we talk about the presentation of the site to the public in the future, this will be one of the central features of the display that will be shown to the public.”
Following the discovery, according to AFP, Vilnius Mayor Remigijus Šimašius announced that the school, vacated last year, will be demolished in the coming years and a commemorative site about the synagogue will be developed and inaugurated by 2023, when Vilnius marks its 700th anniversary.
The Great Synagogue was built in the early 1600s in Renaissance-Baroque style. It became the center of Jewish life in Vilnius (Vilna), towering over the Shulhoyf, a teeming complex of alleyways and other Jewish community buildings and institutions including twelve synagogues, ritual baths, the community council, kosher meat stalls, the Strashun library, and other structures and institutions. It was ransacked and torched by the Nazis in World War II, and the postwar Soviet regime torn down the ruins and built the school on the site.
The Bimah was built in the 18th century following a destructive fire in 1748. Its construction was financed by a local benefactor, a writer and judge named Yehudah ben Eliezer, who was known by the acronym YESOD. The archaeologists describe the Bimah as having been “a two tier baroque structure built of four Corinthian and eight Tuscan columns, decorated with lions facing the Aron Kodesh.”
The archaeology project began in 2011 with a preliminary excavation, followed by a Ground Penetrating Radar Survey in 2015 and full excavation seasons in 2016 and 2017. The project is partnered and sponsored by a variety of Lithuanian, Israeli, and American institutions.
Last year, major finds were the discovery of two ritual baths (mikvehs).
The 2018 season commenced July 9 and ended July 27. Its main goals were to further explore the bathhouse and the associated features and also to identify the outer walls of the synagogue.