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Over 2,000 years ago, residents of Apamea, Syria would have walked down the cordo maximus, a bustling avenue lined by grand colonnades, perhaps to the market where they would buy goods from around Asia Minor. Apamea was once home to one of the largest Jewish populations, besides Antioch and Damascus, in Syria. Apamea was founded by the Seleucids around 300 BCE and was abandoned for good in the 13th century. Apamea was a rich trading city known most famously for the Great Colonnade, which still stands today.1
According to the Jewish historian Josephus, Apamea had the largest Jewish population outside of Judea (modern-day Egypt and Israel) and that the Jewish residents were protected during the First Jewish-Roman War of 66-73 CE.2
The Jews of Apamea and Syria: The history of Jews goes back a few thousand years: the Jewish presence in Syria can be traced back to the Roman times, even before a Muslim presence. The oldest Jewish colony of the Mediterranean is believed to be Cyprus, which is an island due west of Syria. The Seleucid kings, the same that founded Apamea of the Roman era, supposedly encouraged Jewish settlement throughout Asia Minor.4
The first major conflict between Jews and the rest of the inhabitants of Syria in modern history is in 1944, when Syria gained independence from France. Syria’s independence set off a wave of anti-Jewish violence, that while was not the first instance of anti-Semitism, marked a steep incline. The violence continued and only worsened in 1947, when the partition plan in Palestine was established. The pogroms that followed drove out or killed nearly all of Syria’s Jewish communities.5
Anti-Semitism has continued in Syria and it is believed that there are only a handful of Jews left in the country. In 2015, a major rescue mission was coordinated by a Syrian businessman living in America, who was helping a man trying to get his grandmother and her daughters out of Aleppo. These women, believed to be the last Jews in the city, had to be smuggled out in the middle of the night, without any knowledge of the plan whatsoever. Their “handlers” brought them to Turkey, where they were then given visas to Israel on the basis of aliyah. However, one of the daughters had converted to Islam when she married her husband, and she and her family were unable to attain visas. With no other choice, she, her husband, and their three children returned to Aleppo, and could be the last five Jews living in Syria today.6
Apamea, Today: Apamea joins the ever-growing list of ancient cultural sites destroyed during sectarian violence and civil war in Syria and throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Satellite photos reveal that the ground Apamea once stood on has been looted repeatedly by Syrian regime forces and by ISIS. The majority of the looting occurred from 2011 to 2012, but still continues today.7