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Diarna: documenting the places of a vanishing Jewish history

Diarna is racing against time to digitally document the disappearing physical remains of Jewish life in the Middle East. The project focuses on synagogues, cemeteries, schools, and shrines. The Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Syria, a significant site, was sadly destroyed in 2014. A conversation with Jason Guberman-Pfeffer, Executive Director, Digital Heritage Mapping, Inc. and Coordinator, Diarna Geo-Museum and Beth Harris. An ARCHES video.

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Video transcript

(gentle piano music) - [Beth] We're here in New York City at the Center for Jewish History, in the offices of Diarna, speaking with Jason Guberman. We want to talk today about the important work that Diarna does to document the quickly disappearing physical remains of Jewish life in the Middle East. Diarna means our homes. - [Jason] Diarna does mean our homes in Judeo-Arabic, and while people don't think about it, Jews did have a 2,500 year history in the Middle East outside of the land of Israel. Ranging from synagogues on the edge of the Sahara to fortresses in Saudi Arabia, and shrines in northern Iran. The idea of the project is to digitally document the synagogues, cemeteries, schools, shrines, any structure of significance to the Jewish community. - [Beth] And this is a race against time, since so many of these structures are endangered. - [Jason] The structures are actively endangered as ISIS has shown in the past couple of years by targeting Jewish sites for destruction. - [Beth] And there are sites that are also just caught in the crossfire. - [Jason] The premise of the project is to assert the physical importance of structures to understanding Jewish history and to create gateways to communities that have disbanded in the last 50, 60, 70 years. And as communities have disbanded for a number of reasons, they've left these sites behind. - [Beth] So we're gonna talk about the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, which in Syria, actually in a suburb of Damascus. - [Jason] The Jewish community in Syria is a storied and ancient one. And this synagogue is one of the most significant synagogues in Syria. There's a scholar, Joesph Merie, who has said that this was the holiest site outside of Jerusalem. - [Beth] Eliyahu Havani Synagogue was destroyed only a few years ago in 2014. - [Jason] It was caught between the Assad regime forces and rebel forces. Both sides claimed that the other had destroyed the synagogue, it seems clear it was caught in the crossfire from experts that we've consulted. - [Beth] This is a synagogue dedicated to Elijah and also Elisha, both prophets who are revered in the Judeo-Christian tradition, but also for Muslims, also in the Islamic tradition. - [Jason] There was a plaque attesting to the prophet Elijah, or Eliyahu, anointing Elisha to be his successor. What we find is that many of these sites that were sacred to Jews are also sacred to Christians and to Muslims. And thanks to this, many of them have been preserved. - [Beth] This was a very important and beautiful synagogue for centuries, and Jews made pilgrimages there, they worshiped there. Miracles were said to have been performed there. I mean this was a very special place to the Syrian Jewish population. And like so much synagogue architecture that we see around the world, this very much reflected the time and place that it was built. So, the architecture is reminiscent of Ottoman architecture in the lamps and the tapestries, and the kinds of decorative features that we see there. - [Jason] And it's centerpiece was a blue wood carved teva. The teva is in the Sephardic tradition in the center or in the back of the synagogue. In this case it's in the center, facing the ark in which the Torah scrolls are located. Our perspective on synagogue architecture is shaped by the influences of Christian design, so rows of pews and Rabbi speaking from the pulpit towards the audience, where as the traditional Sephardic design is the opposite. The Rabbi's in the center and with the congregation is facing the ark. The seating was also communal. It's not benches, it's couches, and there was lush carpets and chandeliers. - [Beth] So we have this beautifully decorated space with these carpets in lovely burgundy and gold colors. We have this beautiful gold Menorah, this lush welcoming space, the courtyard. All of this largely abandoned in the last 150 years. The pivotal event in modern Jewish history in Damascus is this blood libel from 1840. This is an event where Jews were accused of killing a monk who went missing. - [Jason] In medieval times there was an accusation that Jews would kill Christians, usually children, and use their blood for ritual purposes. The 1840 blood libel, several Jews had been arrested and tortured for the accusation. There were riots against the Jewish community. Particularly in the Jobar neighborhood of Damascus, which resulted in the flight of the community from Jobar. - [Beth] So there's so many strands of Jewish history that bring us to this synagogue in the suburbs of Damascus. It seems like a critical time to be documenting these places. We have a population that's aging, that can tell us still about these places. We have the turmoil in the Middle East that's endangering the physical traces of Jewish life. And so the work that Diarna is doing is incredibly important. - [Jason] This synagogue is a poignant and troubling example of the urgency of this work. When we had our researchers there before the uprising, it was beautiful, it was preserved, and it's been looted, it's been destroyed, now it's even been hit by bombs since the official destruction of it. It's very sad, very troubling for what will remain of cultural heritage in the future. (gentle piano music)