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Jewish Quarter (Harat Al-Yahud) at Damascus, Syria

                                                            


“Old Damascus: Jews Quarter” (1873/4)        Jewish Quarter, Damascus (circa 2011)


 


As one of the oldest Jewish settlements, Damascus used to be the center of Jewish activity in the Middle East. The two images shown above contrast the previously flourishing Jewish Quarter of the nineteenth century to the desolate, abandoned Quarter today. Looking at the photo on the left, one catches a glimpse of an archway at the end of the street. The archway colored in red and white stripes is reminiscent of the vivid beauty of the architecture in the painting on the right by Lord Frederick Leighton. Passing through the streets one would hear prayers echoing off the walls from the eight synagogues in the quarter, now destroyed. The animation and playfulness of the old Jewish Quarter has disappeared and only hints of its previous life remains in the dark, narrow alleyways.


 


 

Description

Antiquity and Early Islamic Times:

In Antiquity Damascus is noted under the name דמֶּשֶׂק [Dammesek] in the New Testament and the Dead Sea Scrolls [1]. Stories tell that King David annexed Damascus, claiming it a part of his kingdom. In 613 A.D. Damascus was captured by the Persian Army, aided by the Jews, who were looking to escape the religiously intolerant regime of the Byzantine state [2]. The Persian regime did not last long and by 635, Damascus was conquered by the emerging Islamic empire. The Jews of Damascus were subsequently moved to the southeastern quarter of the city by their new Arab rulers, establishing the Jewish Quarter [3]. Under the Umayyad (661 - 750) and Abbasid caliphate (750 - 1258) the Jews had the status of dhimma (people of the book), and were granted religious tolerance [4]. As the Abbasid caliphate began to crumble toward the end of the tenth century, many Iraqi Jews emigrated to Damascus to escape ongoing wars in the empire’s capital [5]. In 969, the Fatimid’s took over Damascus, and Jews were able to ascend to powerful governmental positions. The famous Geniza documents along with traveler’s accounts mention a Souk, or Jewish Market running through the quater. Benjamin of Tudela, a Spanish traveler in the 12th century, notes about three thousand or so Jews living in the city [6].

In 1260, the Mamluks took over Damascus, imposing a regime of oppression and intolerance on the dhimmi minorities. Differentiating laws forced Jewish women to wear a black shoe on one foot and a red shoe on the other, and Jewish men to blow a whistle whenever they entered a public bath [7]. In 1392 in retaliation to an accusation that Jews had set fire to a mosque, a Jew was burned alive, the community leaders were tortured, and as compensation a synagogue was converted to a mosque. After two years, however, the synagogue was returned to the Jewish community [8].

Ottoman Period:

By the beginning of the 16th century, the Jewish population was flourishing. Jews from Sicily and Spain, exiled in 1492, made their way down to Syria to settle in Damascus. Immigration only increased after Syria joined the Ottoman Empire. By 1521, there were around 500 refugee families living in Damascus. Initially the new arrivals did not meld well with the old Jewish occupants of the city [9]. However, as new generations of immigrant Sephardic and Sicilian Jews were born, the different communities were able to live and function together comfortably [10]. Of all the Jewish communities in Damascus the largest was the native Jewish settlers, called the musta’rabim. The name comments on the perceived physical resemblance of the Jews and their Arab neighbors. The next largest community was the Sephardim from Spain, and the smallest was the Sicilian Jewish community. A small community of Karaite Jews, lived in Damascus as well, but they resided separately from the aforementioned groups [11].

By the eighteenth century, religious life had significantly decreased for the Jews of Damascus, while economic stability increased. In the nineteenth century, a disparity between social classes was evident. Only a small number of Jewish families, working in finance, were wealthy, while the rest, mainly craftsmen and peddlers, were among the poorest citizens in Syria [12]. Damascus Jews were well known as coppersmiths, developing a specific style and technique that was popular well into the twentieth century [13]. In 1875, in part due to the bankruptcy of the Ottoman Empire and the opening of the Suez Canal, many of the wealthy Jews lost their riches and craftsmen, losing business to cheaper imported goods, declined further into poverty [14].

The Alliance Israelite Universelle was also present in Damascus. The AIU established its first school in 1864, but was closed after only five years. It reopened in 1880. A girls school was established three years later [15].

In 1839, the Ottoman Empire brought about reforms that removed any signs of discrimination, and allowed more religious tolerance [16]. By the middle of the nineteenth century, tensions between the Christian and Jewish communities resulted in numerous Christian accusations of Jewish blood libel. The most famous case was the Damascus affair in 1840, which culminated in the torture and imprisonment of numerous Jews.[17]. The Ottoman census of 1882 reported around seven thousand Jews living in Damarcus [18].

The Twentieth Century:

The establishment of the British mandate for Palestine in the early twentieth century put the Jews of Damascus in the crossroads of the Arab nationalist movement and the Zionist movement. While the Jews of Damascus were protected during World War II, escalating hostility on the part of the Arab population led many Jews to immigrate to Palestine [19]. By 1948 there were five thousand Jews living in Damascus. Immigration ceased in 1949, when Jews were forbidden to leave the country. Jews lost their jobs, could not get a driver’s license, and were prohibited from buying property. Many, however, left secretly, and by 1968 there were only around one thousand Jews left in Damascus. [20]. Only in 1992 were Jews allowed to legally leave Syria, on the promise that they would not emigrate to Israel [21].

At the peak of Jewish life in Damascus the Jewish Quarter was home to nine synagogues: The Jobar Synagogue, also known as the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue, the Al-Frangi Synagogue, the Menesh Synagogue, the Raki Synagogue, the Del Pasha, Halab, Midrash, and Dashabar Synagogue [22].

Now:

There are only around fifty Jews left in Syria today. In 1975, Old Damascus became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and steps had been taken to restore the decrepit Jewish Quarter. Many of the old houses were being turned into hotels, like the House of Farhi. Unfortunately, in March 2013, the Jobar Synagogue was burned and looted with neither the Syrian government nor military rebels taking responsibility for destroying one of the oldest synagogues in the world [23]. The current civil war has undermined the restoration project, along with the dream that people will one day be able to travel down the dark, tight streets of the Jewish Quarter to experience what it was like to be a Jew in Damascus.

 

Footnotes:

[1] "Damascus, Syria." Jewish Virtual Library. Accessed January 20, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Yaron Harel. "Damascus." Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World. Executive Editor Norman A. Stillman. Brill Online, 2016. Reference. Wellesley College. 18 January 2016.

[4] Ibid.

[5] "Damascus, Syria." Jewish Virtual Library.

[6] Harel. "Damascus."

[7] Ibid.

[8] "Damascus, Syria." Jewish Virtual Library.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Harel. "Damascus."

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Damascus, Syria." Jewish Virtual Library.

[14] Harel. "Damascus."

[15] “Damascus, Syria." Jewish Virtual Library.

[16] Harel. "Damascus."

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Harel. "Damascus."

[20] Aimee Horwood. "Rosh Hashanah 2013 in Syria: Jews of Damascus Pray for Peaceful 5774." International Business Times, September 4, 2013.

[21] Andrew, England. "Damascus Gives Old Jewish Quarter New Life." Financial Times, May 19, 2010.

[22] “Damascus, Syria." Jewish Virtual Library.

[23] Ksenia, Svetlova. "Jewish Quarter of Damascus Blooms Again." Jerusalem Post, November 05, 2010.

Damascus, Syria

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