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The Synagogues of Ioannina by Dr. Elias V. Messinas, AssocAIA - 12.99

Interior of Kahal Kadsh Yashan synagogue, Ioannina in 1994
Copyright: Elias V. Messinas

Prior to the Second World War Ioannina had two functioning synagogues. The older one, called Kahal Kadosh Yashan, was located within the old city walls. The more recent one, called Kahal Kadosh Hadash, was located on Max Nordau street (now called Yossef Elyia street), at the new Jewish quarter, near the Kourmanio area. 
Next to each of the two synagogues stood a smaller hall, for daily prayers, called minyan (minyan, in Hebrew means the ten male adults necessary for prayer at the synagogue). Both minyan were destroyed during the Second World War, but traces of the one next to the synagogue Kahal Kadosh Yashan can still be seen today. 
The synagogue Kahal Kadosh Yashan
According to a marble inscription on the exterior wall of the synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Yashan was built in 5586 (1826), or  four years after the destruction of the city by the Turkish army fighting against  Ali Pasha, the ruler of Ioannina. 
The synagogue of the city was initially established in Byzantine times, but it is uncertain whether this was the first synagogue built within the city walls, or whether there was an older synagogue at the same location. For example, an earlier synagogue is known to have been standing outside the walls, which was included within the walled area, after the walls were enlarged by Michael Komninos Doukas in 1204. 
It is uncertain whether Kahal Kadosh Yashan is located on the same spot as the thirteenth century synagogue, but it is possible that it was built on the foundations of the synagogue established in 1622, after the unsuccessful revolt in Ioannina led by Dionysios, Bishop of Trikalla: as a result of this revolt, the Christians were expelled from the Ioannina castle, and more Jews were allowed to settle. 
Two recent renovations of the synagogue are known: the first in 1881 by Don John Efendi, Moshe Zacharia, Iosef Sides, and Moses David Dosti, and the second in 1987, through funds that were offered by the Jewish Ioannina community of New York. 
The minyan adjacent to the synagogue was built by the Abraham family, and was called Beit Avraham ve Ohel Sara. It was destroyed by the Nazis, who left only part of the exterior walls, which stand today. The entrance to the minyan still stands along the backyard wall of the synagogue. 
The gate on the front yard of the synagogue was built later, in (5657) 1897, according to the marble inscription on the gate. 
The synagogue is in a simple basilica broad house type, divided in six aisles by four sets of columds and a set of rectangular piers. The entrance today is a door on the western wall, replacing the original entrance on the east. 
The eihal (the Torah scrolls depository), and bimah (readerís platform) are located on the two extreme points of the short primary axis, oriented roughly east-west. The center of this axis is marked with a shallow dome. The eihal at the east is built of white marble decorated with double columns, with leaf-design capitals. On the outside it projects in a three sided structure. The bimah, against the western wall, is on an elevated wooden platform, approached by two symmetrical flights of stairs. On the outside it projects in a semi-circular apse. 
The ezrat nashim (womenís gallery) is located over the northern aisle, behind openings covered in wooden lattice. Access to the womenís gallery was from a masonry staircase outside the synagogue, which is not in use anymore. Today, during prayer, women sit at the southern aisles of the main hall of the synagogue. 
Wooden benches, in the Turkish fashion, run parallel to the east-west axis. Built-in benches are located along the perimeter walls. 
The courtyard that surrounds the building has an elevated platform, where the succah is built in the holiday of Succoth. 
This synagogue was used by the families Lavi, Negrin (the authorís family), and Kofina, called mesinoi (the ones of the "inside", meaning the synagogue within the walls). Despite living near the new synagogue outside the walls, some of these families used this one for their services, following their family tradition. 
During the German occupation of Ioannina (1943), and after the deportation of the Jewish community the same year, the synagogue was occupied by the Zosimaia library. All the valuables of the synagogue (mainly the Torah scrolls, and prayer books with historic value) were hidden during the war, in the secret crypt in a basement reached from under one of the wooden benches. The treasures were later taken by the Municipality to be safely kept at the cityís historical museum. They were returned to the Jewish community after liberation. 
Although the building was saved, the interiors were destroyed (wooden furniture burnt) and stolen (chandeliers, gold-leaf decoration). 
The synagogue serves the diminishing community of Ioannina, which for holiday services now occupies only a small portion of the hall. 
The synagogue Kahal Kadosh Hadash
This Italian-style synagogue dates from 1840.Located outside the city walls at the north end of Max Nordau (since ca. 1945 Yossef Elyia) street, it was built across the Alliance Israelite Universelle school building. 
The synagogue was built when the wealthiest merchants of the growing community of 5,000, moved in the nineteenth century outside the city walls to a new neighborhood, at a time when most Greek cities outgrew their original boundaries within their historic city walls. 
The layout of the building was similar to that of the earlier synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Yashan. Although older people remember the newer building as being larger, a city map of the 1930s shows nearly identical footprints. The interior layout also resembled that of the older synagogue, with the shorter primary axis, oriented east-west, connecting the eihal and the elevated bimah. 
Columns divided the interior into aisles. Every four columns supported a dome on the ceiling. The older synagogue had only a single dome a the crossing of the two main axes. We have no indication of the location of the ezrat nashim (womenís gallery), but it is possible that it was also elevated on a balcony, as in the older synagogue. 
According to photographs of the interior of the building, taken prior to its demolition in the 1950s, its interiors resembled that of the older synagogue, with built-in wooden benches, round columns, arches, and other fittings. 
At the front court of the synagogue, at the end of Max Nordau street, a permanent chuppah (wedding canopy) became the place where all the community weddings were held. 
The families that used this synagogue were Koen, Matsa, Markados, Kantos, and Battinou. They were called oksinoi (the ones of the "outside", meaning outside the city walls). 
This synagogue became the main synagogue of the community, not only for weddings, but for important festivities as well. For example, it is in this synagogue that the community received the honorary visit of Prince Constantinos in 1913. According to contemporary descriptions, the community spread a red carpet from the market at Kourmanio square to the entrance to the synagogue, along which Greek flags decorated the main street. 
Next to the synagogue stood a minyan, which, together with the synagogue, was severely damaged by the Nazis. Before their destruction, the synagogue and the near-by Alliance school were used as prisons during the German occupation. The interiors were burned. 
After the war, the almost totally annihilated community had no need for two synagogues. Repair of the new synagogue was too costly, and the new city plan required an extension of Max Nordau street, which meant partial demolition of the synagogue and the Alliance building. The community preferred to allow the implementation of the city plan and to construct a new apartment building on the remaining synagogue site. This serves today as the home of almost the entire Jewish community, and is known locally as "the Jewish quarter".

Elias Messinas is the editor of Kol haKEHILA.


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