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The Great or Grand Synagogue, also known as the Great Temple1, in Algiers was built by Napoleon III and inaugurated in 1865 as a monumental house of worship for the Jews of Algeria’s capital, Algiers. The Great Synagogue is an icon that has been called the “greatest symbol of Algerian Judaism.” Located in the heart of the city’s Casbah, the synagogue is also known as “Synagogue de Rue Randon” (its location) or “Synagogue Bloch” (in memory of Algiers’ one-time chief rabbi). To this day local Muslims refer to it as the “mosque of the Jews” (“Djamaa Lihoud”), and it has in fact been converted into a mosque. On December 11, 1960, the synagogue was attacked by Algerian independence fighters and desecrated– an incident that signaled the beginning of the end for Algerian Jews.
ORIGINS: Synagogues in North Africa were typically small structures rather than grand buildings2. With the arrival of French rule in Algeria, however, large synagogues began to appear in cities like Algiers, Oran, and Setif, often supported by French government funding. These structures established a public Jewish presence in parallel to cathedrals and grand mosques. Still, to build a new large synagogue in the middle of the Algiers Casbah was not simple. In 1839 the French government tore down several buildings and synagogues in the Jewish quarter as part of urban renewal and promised in return to provide 120,000 francs toward the construction of a grand synagogue. 25 years later, after much bureaucratic hassle, the site was finally inaugurated on September 19, 1865, on the site of an ancient mosque on Place Randon3.
STRUCTURE: Designed by the architect Pierre Guiauchain, the building was built following a Moorish style. The square interior with a large dome and horse-shoe arches could accommodate 900 people in the men’s area, plus space for women in the second-floor balconies which could hold up to 200 people4. An ornate chandelier hung from the central dome, with light streaming in from stained-glass windows. Plaques on the walls saluted community benefactors, and in 1922 the synagogue added two large plaques on either side of the ark memorializing community members who died in World War I. The ark housed many scrolls, including a Sefer Torah brought from Spain centuries before the synagogue was built5. At some point, an organ was added. The front of the building faces the market plaza with a large door flanked by two columns and two side doors, with a wide granite staircase descending to the street.
RABBI BLOCH: Rabbi Bloch became chief Rabbi of Algiers in 1882 before departing for Nancy, France, in 1890. During his time in Algiers, he published a book on “Tombstone Inscriptions of Algiers’ Ancient Jewish Cemeteries.” A military chaplain, Bloch was killed during World War I while assisting a Catholic soldier in the middle of a battle. The synagogue was renamed in his memory.
ATTACK: On December 11, 1960, Muslim FLN rebels battling French rule suddenly took over the synagogue. The rebels had their headquarters in the Casbah directly across the street from the synagogue, in Cafe Zerrouk on Randon Plaza. Ostensibly protesting a visit by General de Gaulle, rebels falsely claimed that Jews had fired on them from nearby balconies as an excuse to attack the synagogue. They went on a rampage inside, ripping Torah scrolls and leaving the torn parchments strewn on the front steps. Memorial plaques – including the two large monuments to Jews of Algiers killed during World War I – were ripped off the walls. Rebels raised their green and white flag atop the synagogue. “Death to the Jews” and swastikas were daubed on the walls. After two days of wild rioting, which included attacks on nearby Jewish shops and homes, French forces restored order. But the synagogue - and its community - would never be restored.
TODAY: After its abandonment in 1994 the synagogue was converted and is now known as the Ben Farès Mosque. The general exterior of the synagogue remains remarkably well preserved, with the only major change a minaret added on top. On the interior, all of the Jewish symbols that marked the site are gone. The ark housing the Torahs has been replaced by a mihrab (wall-niche indicating the direction toward Mecca). The building is still referred to as the Mosque of the Jews “Djamaa Lihoud,” which is still the name of the market in front of it6.