A project scoping hundreds of Jewish heritage sites across Iraq and Syria has highlighted the urgent need to repair Iraq’s last functioning synagogue, which supports an elderly Jewish community of eight.
Meir Tweig Synagogue in Baghdad is one of four priority sites for stabilisation work and researchers say it now “tops the list”, in part because of its local and international significance.
The warning appears in a landmark report, jointly published by the London-based Foundation for Jewish Heritage this week, highlighting an “urgency of action due to the precariousness of those in the local Jewish community who have the authority to conduct work on the site”.
Meir Tweig Synagogue, the exact location of which is being kept secret for security reasons, is now the last functioning synagogue in Iraq, although the local Jewish community is so small that a minyan is no longer achievable.
The shul also houses material from inactive synagogues and communal buildings. There is creeping damp in the ground-floor walls, causing paint and plaster to peel, plus water damage on the second floor. The brick facade of the building has also deteriorated.
Together with an American partner and after funding from Jewish philanthropists, the Foundtion for Jewish Heritage project identified the location and condition of 368 settlements and heritage sites from antiquity to the present day in this once-vibrant centre of Jewish life.
After 2,600 years of continuous Jewish settlement dating to Babylonian times, the Jewish community in Iraq and Syria largely came to an abrupt end in the second half of the 20th century, but a significant physical heritage remains.
Working remotely and with in-country partners, the project co-ordinators gathered the history and significance of Jewish sites in both countries, assessed their condition, and made recommendations for priority emergency relief and preservation projects.
The research identified 27 sites that are extant but in danger, being in poor or very bad condition. Of these, four significant sites – including Meir Tweig – were selected as priorities for emergency relief because it was determined that “urgent intervention could substantially improve their condition”.
Through in-country sources, researchers made contact with the few remaining members of the Iraqi Jewish community in Baghdad, who said the shul was among their highest priorities.
“Work on Meir Tweig Synagogue is highly viable,” concludes the report. “The site is under the control of the Jewish community, which already has a list of preferred contractors that it has worked with on other projects.
“The main concern for the Jewish community is visibility. They do not want to draw attention to the synagogue’s location. Work on the synagogue is also urgent owing to the small size of the Iraqi Jewish community, which numbers less than 10 people, most of them elderly.
“The community’s limited size and advanced age means that the longer work is delayed, the more difficult it may be to conduct, due to a loss of in-country partners with the legal right to authorise it.”
Of the 368 Jewish heritage sites identified, 297 are in Iraq and 71 in Syria. The sites date from the second half of the first millennium BCE up to the present day.
The project scoped each site’s significance, condition and project feasibility due to the local political and security environment, with researchers using Diarna, a publicly accessible geospatial database of Jewish heritage in the Middle East.
In Syria, in-country sources visited sites in the Jewish Quarter of the capital, Damascus. In Iraq, sources worked with members of the local Jewish community to document sites under the community’s control.
Sites identified include synagogues, schools, slaughterhouses, cemeteries, hospitals, administrative buildings, residences, settlements, shrines, study halls, tombs and yeshivas.
Researchers noted a distinct difference in the patterns of preservation in the two countries. In Iraq, almost nine out of every ten sites is unsalvageable, whereas just over half the Syrian sites are beyond repair.
A total of 27 sites are considered endangered, meaning that they are in a poor or very bad condition, and at risk of significant deterioration in the near future. Of these, three are internationally significant.
These are Bandara Synagogue in Aleppo, Syria; the Synagogue of the Prophet Elijiah in Damascus; and the Shrine of the Prophet Ezekiel in Al-Kifl, Iraq. All are described as being in a “very bad” condition.
The political and military situation in Syria makes work on heritage sites unviable for now, so all four sites for priority work are in Iraq. These are Meir Tweig Synagogue, Al-Habibiyah Cemetery in Baghdad, Sassoon Synagogue in Mosul and the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum in Alqosh.
The al-Habibiyah Jewish Cemetery has been the main Jewish burial site in the city since its foundation and contains many local Jewish notables, including the bodies of Jews publicly hanged in Baghdad in January 1969 on charges of spying for Israel. However, the interior of the walled property is overgrown with vegetation, the space is used as a dumping ground for rubbish and many of the graves are in poor condition.
“The cement casing on whole blocks of them has deteriorated, threatening to expose the remains within,” said the report’s authors.
“The local Jewish community seeks to clear the inside of the cemetery of debris, stabilise the deteriorating graves, and improve the security of the site through the erection of additional fencing on top of the existing wall as well as a new gate.”
Foundation for Jewish Heritage chief executive Michael Mail said: “At a time when there is so much attention on saving heritage in danger across the Middle East, this unique research has shone a light on a forgotten aspect: the remarkable ancient Jewish heritage of the region.
The Jewish community made a profound contribution and we need to ensure its heritage, and this story, is not erased.”