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In the 15th century, an anonymous Jewish traveler noted that 60 Jewish families were living in the village of Jobar, a mile from Damascus (دمشق ,الشام, ash-Sham, דמשק). These families frequented what the traveler commented was a “very beautiful synagogue.” “I have never seen anything like it,” said the narrator, “it is supported by thirteen columns. Tradition says that it dates from the time of the prophet Elisha, and that he here anointed King Hazael [of Syria].” (1) The synagogue that he speaks of is the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, also known as the Jobar Synagogue. After walking through its small courtyard filled with plants, one is greeted by the rich colors of the interior space and numerous chandeliers and oil lamps that appear to be floating, lending a sacred and transcendent look to the space. The floor is almost entirely covered in ornate carpets that speak to the synagogue's Ottoman artistic influence, and the walls hide behind burgundy, velvety curtains and framed Hebrew writings.
Though caught in the crossfires of the Syrian Civil War in 2014 and subsequently bombed and looted, the ancient Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue served as the anchor of vibrant Syrian Jewish communities and was an important site of pilgrimage for many Jews over the centuries.
(This is a 2013 video of the synagogue taken before it was destroyed. Source: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QZte5qEArIQ)
Elijah: Elijah (Eliyahu) is one of the most venerated prophets in the Hebrew Bible. In the book of 1 Kings, Elijah emerged as a prophet in 9th century BCE when King Ahab and his wife Jezebel were ruling the northern kingdom of Israel. Elijah challenged Ahab and Jezebel's worship of the canaanite god Baal, bringing about drought and famine in the land when Ahab refused to turn from his form of worship, which Elijah considered idolatrous. According to the Hebrew Bible, Elijah performed several miracles, such as raising the dead son of a widow back to life and bringing fire from heaven to consume an offering. The Book of Malachi prophesies that Elijah's return is closely linked with the future redemption of Israel through the coming of the Messiah (2). Elijah is believed to be present at circumcisions and at Seders. (3)
History of the Synagogue: Situated in the village of Jobar, a suburb of Damascus that is now included in the metropolitan area of the city of Damascus, the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue was built in honor of the biblical prophet Elijah. He was believed to have sought refuge from Ahab in a cave that is above the synagogue. In addition, the hall center of the synagogue is claimed to be the place where Elijah anointed his successor Elisha. According to Josef Meri, Elijah's presence at this synagogue elevated it as the “holiest pilgrimage site outside of Jerusalem” for Syrian Jews. (4) People with illnesses were constantly brought to the synagogue and left there overnight in hopes that the residue of Elisha’s spirit would have a healing influence over them. (5) The Italian traveler Rabbi Moses Bassola d'Ancona wrote in 1522 that when he visited the synagogue, he was told that "no enemy have ever dominated [the synagogue], and many miracles have been performed there. In times of distress, Jews always gather[ed] in it, and nobody harm[ed] them." (6)
Though the inscription of the synagogue states that it was built in 720 BCE and various traditions hold that Elisha himself built the synagogue, the earliest sources that mention the synagogue indicate that it was built in the medieval ages. (7) These literary sources illustrate how the synagogue and the village of Jobar were homes to a large Jewish community during these medieval centuries. (8) Joseph Sambari in 1672 wrote that “the Jewish community lived chiefly in Jobar, and [that] he [knew] of the synagogue of Elisha and the cave of Elijah the Tishbite.” (9) Following the accusation of ritual murder against the Jewish community of Damascus in 1840, a rioting mob pillaged the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue and destroyed its Torah scrolls. (10) Seven years later, only one Jewish family remained in Jobar to take care of the synagogue.
In May 2014 during the Syrian Civil War, the synagogue was reported to have been completely destroyed, though it is unconfirmed whether the culprit was Assad’s government or rebel forces. The two sides are blaming each other for the destruction of this historic site. The shelling and bombing have not only wrecked the synagogue physically, but have also opened the door for theft opportunities of scrolls and other precious artifacts housed in the synagogue. Over two-thirds of the synagogue have been completely destroyed, including the bimah and the Torah Ark. (11)
Appearance: Local Ottoman influences were evident in the architecture and interior design of the synagogue. Inside, there were two rows of colonnades, 6 columns on one row and 7 on the other, creating a three-aisled space. Numerous chandeliers and oil lamps created from expensive material hung from the ceiling. A raised, blue teva stood at the center of the space, supported by thin, white poles at each corner of the teva that formed an "open, canopy-like covering." (12) Burgundy cushioned benches were set against the walls, and this rich burgundy theme was continued on the sofas, carpets, and curtains. An ornate gold menorah covered with Hebrew inscriptions stood erect, enclosed in a lacey, green metal fence. Finally, there were stairs to the right of the Torah Ark that led to the aforementioned Elijah's cave, where visitors were allowed to light candles and pray. (13)
Jews of Syria and Damascus: Jews were found living in Syria as early as 1000 BCE. Compared to other areas with Jews outside of Israel, Syria held a higher status because it was conquered by King David and considered an extension of Israel. (14) After the Arab conquest of Syria in the 630s, the condition of Syrian Jews did not alter dramatically; Muslim rulers were tolerant of Jews' separate customs and ways of living. During the tenth to twelve centuries CE, the Jewish community of Damascus held considerable importance, having wealthy men and scholars among them. Sephardic Jews began immigrating to Syria from Spain starting in the late 15th century to seek refuge, and the ruling Ottoman Turks at the time welcomed their arrivals. (15) These new exile Jews revitalized the commercial economy of Jewish communities in Syria, and Jews became heavily involved in international trading routes in Syria, working in commerce, banking, and textiles. By the 19th century, the Jews of Damascus were divided into a small elite, wealthy class and a large mass of the poor, and Jewish merchants forewent their work in trade for credit enterprises. (16) The growing hostility between Jews and Christians in Damascus culminated in a blood libel called the 1840 Damascus Affair, in which the disappearance of a Christian monk prompted a group of Christians to accuse the Jewish community of committing ritual murder. As a result, a group of Jews in Damascus were imprisoned and tortured. The French rule of Syria after WWI greatly improved conditions for Syrian Jews, but when Syria became independent in 1946 and anti-Jewish riots broke out in 1947, about two-thirds of the Syrian Jewish population left the country. After a bomb killed 11 Jews in a Damascus synagogue in 1949, most Jews left Damascus. (17) In the 1990s, the government reopened emigration for Jews, and all the remaining Jews in Syria except for about 10 left to the United States. (18)