Saturday, March 18, 2006

Silenced Syrian synagogues

Until 24 March New Yorkers have the chance to catch a remarkable exhibition called 'Silent sacred spaces'. The exhibition is a unique collection of photographs by Robert Lyons of eight Syrian synagogues.

The photographs were taken by Lyons in April 1995 during a documentation project organized by the Jewish Heritage Program of the World Monuments Fund. Lyons' photographs, while designed to document Syrian synagogues threatened by closure and dismantling, also reflect his keen eye and sense of space. Great Synagogue in Aleppo

Unlike many other Jewish communities that have suffered willful destruction and abandonment in the 20th century, Syrian Jews remained in their native country, forbidden to emigrate since the mid-1940s. After emigration policies relaxed in 1990, thousands of Jews left Syria and reconstituted many of their traditional communal institutions in new settings -- notably the United States and Israel. However, they were obliged to leave behind much of the material legacy produced during the centuries of tolerant Ottoman rule when Jewish tradesmen had prospered and constructed many of the large synagogues.

Lyons encountered not only difficulties in arranging his visit, but also in the tight control of his work schedule by Syrian security officers. He was nevertheless able to document three-quarters of the known synagogues in the country. Some, such as the medieval synagogue at Tadeef, are in ruins; however, most others were still intact and fully furnished. Lyons captured the architecturally impressive and richly decorated synagogues in what is, for the most part, their complete state. Missing of course, are the congregants whose prayers made these synagogues truly sacred spaces. (The Great Synagogue, Aleppo, (pictured) dates back to 950BC)

Exhibition catalogue here

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