Starting on June 15 and continuing for 10 days, the 38th Session of UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee will convene in Doha. On the table is Item 7A of the Provisional Agenda: State of conservation of the properties inscribed on the List of World Heritage in Danger. Syria’s six World Heritage sites, which sit on the Danger List as of a year ago, will be given due consideration. This cannot be said for Jobar, a synagogue two kilometers northeast of Damascus’s Old City in the beleaguered town of the same name. It has not been afforded the right of inscription.
The photographs from May 27’s Daily Beast illustrate that Jobar’s fate has already been sealed. So much so that Irina Bokova, UNESCO’s director-general, lamented the tragedy on the same day. Jobar’s synagogue, associated with the Prophet Elijah and his Islamic counterpart al-Khodor, became central to the Syrian conflict. Here was a narrative that sought to elicit support for both rebels and regime. Peithos, goddess of rhetoric and persuasion, would be duly proud.
For well over a year I had worked to save Jobar, if not from artillery fire but from the stories which had ensued. It had recently survived mortar fire to its façade. It stood firm despite aerial bombardment. It had steered a course through tales of destruction and resurrection and lived long enough to denounce those journalists who were determined to inter it. But last month was very different.
Over two-thirds of the synagogue has been destroyed. Based on the four photographs provided by the Daily Beast, and a floor plan reminiscent of basilica, both the synagogue’s left wing and central aisle (or nave) are consigned to rubble. The bimah, the raised platform where the Torah was once read, and the Ark which housed the sacred scrolls, are no longer. All that exists is part of a wing to the right of center and the antechamber to the Cave of Elijah, ostensibly an Early Christian catacomb in form, way below.
Many sites in the town of the Jobar have been directly affected. The synagogue has not suffered alone. The Great Mosque, 250 meters west of the synagogue, has also come under regime fire. What is different is the news-worthiness and the mechanism by which the Daily Beast’s photographs reached their intended audience. The photographs were provided to the Daily Beast by the US-based Coalition for a Democratic Syria, a conduit. It was this organization that, with its network of rebel activists, declared a eulogy for the synagogue at Jobar.
Initial video reports from early 2013 to indicate that the rebels had occupied the synagogue should have rung alarm bells right from the start. Admittedly, with its courtyard, balcony and first-story offices- cum-lodgings it was arguably a desirable vantage point for opposition forces. Yet the Law of War prevails.
The 1954 Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict applies to all warring factions in this conflict.
Last December The Times of Israel ran a story entitled, “Syria’s ‘destroyed’ ancient synagogue is still intact” (The Times of Israel, December 22, 2013). On this occasion it was the first photographic evidence that the synagogue had been plundered. The reader was similarly informed that the rebels were holding the Judaica ransom. It is now alleged that many artifacts remained in the building before it was targeted by Assad’s forces, while there are also contradictory claims that the artifacts are safe. There is nonetheless photographic evidence that, for example, the inscribed lintel above the main entrance to the synagogue was removed before the onslaught of a few weeks ago.
Whether the artifacts have been destroyed, maintained securely or are yet to find their way onto the antiquities market remains to be seen. No evidence has been provided that the artifacts are indeed “safe.”
There is however evidence that there is capital in the Jobar name. We need look no further than the recent sale (December 17, 2014) by Sotheby’s of an object associated with Jobar and the rhetoric of its troubled history. This object nearly doubled in value from 2011 until its re-sale in 2013.
The regime is in the ascendant and there is good reason for the opposition to draw both US and Jewish interests into a distant war. Yet if this rebel faction thought that they would generate further sympathy with their photographs of a ravaged synagogue, they are ignoring their own culpability. The fact is that the site and its artefacts belong to the miniscule, though existent, local Jewish community beyond the Syrian front line.
What can best be hoped for is that there are renewed calls to stop the bloodshed and shelling in Jobar.
Beyond this is the possibility to work toward a process of reconciliation, that did occur for instance in the Christian village of Qara of last year. Here the church’s antiquities, which had similarly been removed, were rightfully returned.
The author is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London, and a former Fulbright scholar. He writes on cultural heritage and its demise and maintains a blog at http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/adamblitz.
The views expressed in the article are those of the author alone. Any errors or omissions are similarly those of the author. Adam.firstname.lastname@example.org @blitz_adam on Twitter