The Jewish Cultural Heritage Initiative (JCHI) — a joint project of the London-based Foundation for Jewish Heritage (FJH) and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR)— has completed an initial assessment of present and past Jewish heritage sites in Iraq and Syria.
It identified the location and condition of 368 built heritage sites from antiquity to the present day, 297 in Iraq and 71 in Syria; most don’t exist anymore, or there is no current information about them. Project research rated 27 of the still extant sites “in danger” due to their poor or very bad condition, according to a final report and a summary statement by the FJH.
It is hoped that the research will draw attention to this neglected dimension of Iraqi and Syrian heritage and ensure its protection. Intervention now will save these sites for the appreciation of future generations of Iraqis, Syrians, and international visitors, and preserve a profound legacy of a millennium of Jewish life.
Of the 27 endangered sites, JCHI chose four significant sites as priority candidates for emergency relief — two currently in use by the Jewish community and two abandoned. The four were chosen because of their “significance, condition, and project viability” and “because it was determined that urgent intervention could substantially improve their condition.” All four are in Iraq, due to the continuing conflict in Syria — JCHI says it hopes to revisit candidates in Syria “when conditions are more stable”.
These sites are:
- the Meir Tweig Synagogue in Baghdad – the last surviving ‘functioning’ synagogue in Iraq;
- the Al-Habibiyah Jewish Cemetery in Baghdad – created during the early 20th century and the main location for Jewish burial in the city, with many local Jewish notables interred there;
the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum in al-Qosh. The Shrine dates back to at least the 12th century CE and was an important pilgrimage site for the Jewish community. It consists of a central synagogue with the Prophet’s tomb as well as a series of subsidiary buildings situated around a courtyard. (The shrine is currently the focus of a restoration project led by ARCH, which received $500,000 from the US government for the work in November 2018; the U.S. pledged another $500,000 in April 2019. Funding has also come from private donors and Kurdish Regional Government.)
- the Sasson Synagogue in Mosul – built in 1902 and the main synagogue in the city during the 20th century due to its central location in the Jewish Quarter; it is severely ruined but represents the best-preserved Jewish heritage in Mosul;
Watch an April 2019 video on France 24 about the Mosul synagogue:
JCHI is currently exploring ways to help protect these sites, either through new initiatives or in collaboration with ongoing projects active at some of the sites.
It is hoped that the research will draw attention to this neglected dimension of Iraqi and Syrian heritage and ensure its protection. Intervention now will save these sites for the appreciation of future generations of Iraqis, Syrians, and international visitors, and preserve a profound legacy of a millennia of Jewish life.
At present, the data on Jewish heritage sites in Iraq and Syria is not publicly accessible — in part for security reasons, but JHE has been informed that sections of the database will be published by the Center for Jewish Art at Hebrew University in its Narkiss Index of Jewish Art. (The CJA already collaborated with the FJH to create an online datebase of more than 3,000 historic synagogues in Europe.)
The public report on project states:
After an existence of approximately 2600 years, the Jewish communities in Iraq and Syria have virtually disappeared. However, significant built heritage remains that bears witness to the vibrant history of these communities. While operating conditions in both countries are very challenging, opportunities should be explored for local and international groups to collaborate in the stabilization and restoration of these sites at this critical point in their use history. Intervention now will save these sites for the appreciation of future generations of Iraqis, Syrians, and international visitors, and preserve the legacy of millennia of Jewish life in the two countries.
The project was carried out with funding provided by the Thomas S. Kaplan and Daphne Recanati Family to the Foundation for Jewish Heritage.
ASOR staff worked remotely and with in-country partners on the project from December 2017 until June 2019, the publicly available report on the project states. Dr. Darren P. Ashby, Project Manager for Syrian and Iraqi Cultural Heritage Projects, was the project lead and produced all of the content in the database except for satellite assessments. Dr. Susan Penacho, Project Manager for Geospatial Initiatives, conducted the satellite assessments with assistance from Gwendolyn Kristy, developed the database, and was responsible for data management.