Tuesday, November 11, 2008
Tripoli synagogue, monument to a dead community
Intrepid travellers Laurence Ben-Nathan and his wife Marianne took these pictures of the Great Synagogue in the Old Town of Tripoli. Once a quarter of Tripoli's inhabitants were Jews, but no Jews live in Libya now. Laurence describes how he came to find the synagogue:
"After our guided tour of the Old Town of Tripoli, we (with our four friends) decided to do our own tour which followed a route set out in the Lonely Planet guide book. We noticed that this route made mention of a synagogue. We eventually found this magnificent building which is now somewhat derelict. To be fair, this may be a reason why tour groups are not shown the building. We should probably have wore hard hats to enter it, if European Health and Safety rules applied there. Clearly it was a centre of the thriving Jewish community there before 1967 but was abandoned with the rest of the area in 1967 and has been left to decay. You must remember that the present Libyan regime does not undertake restoration of sites that we would consider historic; most of the present restoration work of the Roman and Greek sites has been carried out by the Italians.
"My name is, I would have thought, obviously Jewish and I never disguise my roots in this respect. This also applies to our other recent group travels to places such Syria and Iran. I also make a point of asking the local guides about the history of Jews in the areas we visit and I have generally received positive answers to my questions. Invariably any mention of Jews by the guides is peripheral but that may be because we are principally visiting ancient Roman and Greek sites and the Jews are not renowned for building grand cities and monuments.
"Nevertheless Jews have played prominent roles at times dating back before the great Roman and Greek empires and they do seem to be somewhat airbrushed out of the history. The Jews put up great resistance to the Roman invasion of Libya during the time of Trajan and helped destroy the Roman city now known as Cyrene. This was rebuilt after the Jewish uprising in 116 AD by Hadrian who wanted to restore it to the magnificent city it was originally. I think he succeeded.
"In Tripoli we had a Berber guide who took us around the Old City. As little mention was made of the Jews there, I asked him to tell us about their presence, which he willing did. He stopped at the old Jewish quarter, which he may have done anyway, as it was on our route. He told us that over a quarter of the Old Town was Jewish and in his view the Jews would almost certainly have eventually taken over the entire Old Town. However they abandoned the city completely at the time of the Six-Day war (1967) never to return. This area of the Old Town is now derelict with many of the building partly or completely destroyed. He pointed out buildings with typical dark blue doors.
"I pressed the guide a bit further about Judaism in Libya and he told me that many of the Berbers had followed the Jewish religion. Indeed there is a synagogue in the Berber regions in the Western Mountains but it was not on our route. When we got to the Berber town of Ghadames I asked the guide there about the previous religions followed by the Berbers but he said that nothing is specifically known about that!
"I also must say that we were welcomed very openly wherever we went by the ordinary people and, surprisingly, by the policemen and felt extremely comfortable and safe there. We also found that to be the case in Syria and Iran. Perhaps it is the politicians that cause all the hatred and difficulties, not unlike most countries of the world."
For pictures of the interior of the synagogue taken by Sadok click here.