|file: PRESERVATION OF
THE JEWISH HERITAGE OF GREECE
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Preserving Jewish Heritage in Greece by Elias V. Messinas, AssocAIA, RA Excerpts from article in Archaeology Magazine web site - 6.98
|Greek synagogues are modest buildings.
Like their counterparts in Turkey, they are often hidden behind walls,
accessed through small doors from the market or side streets. Their importance
is not so much their architecture: they are the remnants of an ancient
tradition, which in most parts of Greece has been lost. They are also the
remains of thriving communities that perished during World War II. Their
preservation and study is an obligation, and perhaps, a last opportunity
to preserve a tradition which is being lost to immigration, assimilation,
I returned to Greece in the summer of 1993, after spending ten years abroad studying and working in Israel and the United States. Coming from a world where Jewish heritage was considered worthy of preservation, I was shocked to find that the conservation of Greek synagogues was not on the agenda of Greek or Greek Jewish officials. The extent to which this was not an issue was revealed when I started to reveal in articles the endangered state of Greek Jewish heritage, only to be told that I was threatening the well being of the community! Despite this indifference, I began surveying and studying the remaining synagogues in Greece, supported partially by the World Monuments Fund and a seed grant from the Jewish Museum of Greece.
The Romaniots, the original Jewish population of the eastern Mediterranean, Constantinople, the Balkans, and Asia Minor, have been living in the area since antiquity. Both the Greek historian and geographer Strabo and the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria report that organized Jewish communities existed throughout the known world in the first centuries A.D. In Greece, substantial communities are known to have existed in Thessaly, Beotia, Macedonia, Aetolia, Attica, Argos, Corinth, most parts of Peloponnese, and the islands of Euboea and Crete. In the first century A.D., Greek Jewish communities were visited by St. Paul the Apostle during the course of his second journey, where he preached Christianity in the synagogues at Philippi, Thessaloniki (Salonika), Veroia, Athens, and Corinth.
During the Byzantine and early Ottoman times the Jewish presence in Greece was maintained, but little is known of their life, customs, and architecture. Our knowledge is mostly through laws issued either to persecute or defend them, and through travelers' diaries, such as Benjamin (Ben Jonah) of Tudela, a Jewish traveler of the second half of twelfth century. Benjamin visited the Greek Jewish communities in Corfu, Arta, Patras, Corinth, Thebes, Egripo (Halkida), Salonika (Thessaloniki), and Drama.
The year 1492 marked an important revival of Jewish life in Greece, as many of the expelled Sephardic Jews of Spain , and later Portugal, found refuge in the Greek territories and cities of the Ottoman Empire. The long fighting between the Ottomans and the Byzantines had caused most major Greek cities to lose their Jewish populations. In addition, the Ottomans invited or forced Jews to their new capital, Istanbul, to increase its population and revive its trade.
The territorial changes in the Balkans throughout the early twentieth century brought changes in the composition and character of the Jewish communities of Greece. Salonika, a Jewish city throughout Ottoman times, became part of Greece in 1913 after the Balkan Wars weakened the Ottoman Empire strategically and territorially.
During the 1930s, 31 Jewish communities were dispersed throughout Greece. The largest, Salonika, had more than 50,000 Jews, and no less than 60 synagogues and midrashim (oratories) to serve a diverse community with roots in antiquity, medieval Spain, Eastern Europe, the Balkans, and North Africa. The German occupation of Greece annihilated 87 percent of Greece's Jews and destroyed most of its synagogues. Fortunately, a great many artifacts, religious objects, and costumes of the Romaniot and Sepharadi communities have been preserved, many of which were bequeathed to the Jewish Museum of Greece. Important knowledge on Greek Jewish customs, cuisine, costumes, the history of the numerous communities was preserved.
Jewish architecture, on the other hand, has not been nearly as fortunate. By the end of World War II, the Jewish community lost a great deal of its community property. Synagogues were destroyed, cemeteries were bulldozed and built over, and property was taken from legal owners. Except for very few photographs and descriptions of survivors, little evidence of these buildings remains. In the post-war years, many more synagogues have been lost , mostly because there has been no Jewish community to use and maintain them.
Early Greek synagogues were built by traveling builders' guilds (called isnaf) of the Byzantine and later Ottoman times. These builders established a very distinct architectural style that can be found in northern Greece, the Balkans, Anatolia, and elsewhere in lands that lay within the Ottoman Empire. This tradition was maintained until the mid-nineteenth century, when social and economic reforms were introduced in the Ottoman Empire that exposed it more to European influence. These influences also brought more progressive styles in synagogue architecture, found, for example, in Salonika, as early as the 1890s.
The layout of Greek synagogues is also a product of influences from abroad, as these communities were at a crossroads of international trade. The bi-polar type of the Romaniot synagogues is a product, most probably, of Italian influences. In this type, the bimah, or reader's table, is located against the western wall of the synagogue, while the eihal on the eastern. The central bimah, in Sephardic synagogues derives from the Spanish tradition, and the Reform style, of the later Greek synagogues of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, where the bimah and the eihal are located adjacent to each other on at the east end of the synagogue, has its roots in the Reform movement of mid-nineteenth century Germany and Europe.
The most effective means of preserving Greece's Jewish architecture is to preserve the buildings themselves. Unfortunately, this effort began only too late, after the Sephardic synagogue of Didmoticho, in Thrace, northern Greece, an astonishing building greatly influenced by the Signora synagogue in Izmir, was demolished in 1985. Also shortly after two more synagogues were demolished in Thrace, northern Greece, in 1994 and 1995 respectively: the Beit El synagogue in Komotini, , a fine example of Balkan construction dating from the mid-nineteenth century, unique for its exposed roof lantern, and the synagogue in Xanthi, an impressive basilica dating from 1926, influenced by the Reform synagogues of Europe and Edirne (Andrianople) in Turkey. These two buildings were demolished shortly after I had the opportunity to survey them in their dilapidated state. Together with their survey and complete photographic documentation, I collected pieces of the buildings, such as floor and roof tiles (the latter made at the famous factory of the Jewish Allatini brothers in Salonika), pieces of the walls with painted floral decoration, a piece of a plaster capital of the columns, and other such "souvenirs." In a way, I was trying to keep their material memory alive, despite the fact that I knew that they were already dead as buildings.
Despite this destruction, though, efforts are now under way to preserve three of the most important remaining synagogues in Greece: the synagogue in Veroia, northern Greece, Etz Hayim synagogue in Hania, and Kahal Kadosh Shalom synagogue in Rhodes.
The small Jewish communities of Greece, such as Ioannina, Halkida, Trikala, and others, with populations of less than 60 people, are endangered as much as Veroia and Hania were 20 years ago. Soon the communities will disappear and their synagogues will be abandoned. The conservation projects of Veroia and Chania are important case studies and open the way for the preservation of Jewish heritage in smaller Greek communities.
Back in 1993, I felt alone in my efforts to preserve Greek Jewish synagogues. Today, only five years later, a new era is dawning for Greek Jewry: the international rediscovery of Greek Jewish heritage is the necessary ingredient to help us preserve it for the generations to come.
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