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Jewish Cemetery at Sohar, Oman

One of the few Jewish sites remaining in Oman today is the Jewish Cemetery of Sohar, called the 'Qumbaz Al-Yahud' Cemetery by locals (1). Though many of the other structures used by the Jewish community of Sohar—such as their homes and synagogues—no longer exist, this cemetery still stands (2). Like the Jewish cemetery in Lashkhara, the tombs of the cemetery of Sohar are built of brick and mortar (3). The graves at Sohar; however, are engraved with Hebrew characters and the five to seven rows of brick and mortar form the shape of an ellipse. At the entrance to the cemetery, a memorial wall is also decorated in Hebrew characters—spelling out many Hebrew names (4).


Due to Sohar’s size and popularity as a port-city, many travelers visited the Jewish Cemetery at Sohar. The English explorer James Welsted first visited the site in 1835, and took many measurements and made several observations about the cemetery. Specifically, Wellsted noted that the graves were coverd on the surface by a stepped structure of bricks that measured about 2 m long and .65 m wide. Wellsted also recorded that the graves had rounded ends and that some of the tombs had triangular niches on some of their short ends. Further, Wellsted's team opened two of the graves and recored that both bodies were placed diagonally and not directly under the surface monument, as one would have expected” and that the second body “had his face turned to the East.” Aside from the graves, Wellsted also observed the brick wall along the edge of the cemetery, measuring it at 3.5 m in height, 6.8 m in length, and 2.6 m in breadth (5).


In 1958, Wendell Phillips's archaeological team, led by Alexander Honeyman from the American Foundation for the Study of Man took measurements of the cemetery and noted that it was located about 2 km from the shore (6). The team also counted about two hundred graves. Paolo Costa visited the cemetery years later in 1980 and recorded about 95 tombs at the time. Today; however, the number of graves at the Jewish Cemetery in Sohar number significantly less: approximately 12 intact tombs and 5 demolished ones (7).

Description

Sohar

The city of Sohar appears to have been the largest Omani port city in ancient history, as well as a large center for the country's Jewish community. Indeed, in 1973, Andrew Williamson published a paper in the Omani capital of Muscat about Sohar's history as a major port. Perhaps because of this history of commerce and cosmopolitanism, Sohar was also home to one of the largest Jewish communities in Oman. In fact, in November of 1835, the English explorer James Wellsted recorded the existence of 20 Jewish families in Sohar as well as the presence of a small synagogue. Unfortunately, however, the homes and synagogue of this Jewish community were destroyed in the 1900s due to decreased use and new modernist trends. As such, the only building existing today which can be traced back to the Jewish community in Sohar is a farmsted known as Burj al-Muwaylah or Bayt Yahudi--a stone courtyard house located about 7 km inland from the coast (8).

Oman

Records of the Jewish community in Oman stretch back to as early as 950 C.E. when Buzurq ibn Shahriyar wrote about the Sohari Jewish merchant Ishaq bin Yahuda in his book “Book of the Wonders of India.” According to this text, Ishaq bin Yahuda was an Omani Jew who traveled to China were he amassed a great fortune before attempting to return to Oman when his ship was robbed and he himself was murdered (9).

Alongside this record of Omani Jews, the British Lieutenant J.R. Wellsted also wrote about the Jewish communities of Oman in his book “Travels in Arabia,” published in the 1800s. In his memoirs, Wellsted described the treatment of Omani Jews as well-integrated into society—and particularly notes that they are not required to wear any identifying clothing, live in a specific Jewish quarter, or cross the street for Muslim citizens. Wellsted also reported that the Jewish community was most involved in professions relating to silver, banking, and liquor sales, but were allowed to work in various other trades as well (10). Although Wellsted noted a community of about 20 Jewish families and a small synagogue in the city of Sohar, he only recorded a handful of Jews living in Muscat who had fled to Oman from Iraq (11).

By about 1900, J.G. Lorimer recorded in the Gazetteer of the Persian Gulf that the Jewish community in Oman had disappeared. Similarly, during the 1930s, Betram Thomas mentioned the Omani Jewish community, but only referred to them as the manufacturers of the fired bricks typical of Jewish sites across Oman (12). A final recording of the Jewish community in Oman, the book “Sohar: Culture and Society in an Omani Town” by Frederik Barth, relates that the Jews of Oman had largely left the country by the 20th century (13).

Sohar, Oman

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