Saving Jewish antiquities in Syria

Whatever the turbulent history of Syria’s Jews had been, the regime was more concerned with Islamists than a handful of Jews

FREE SYRIAN Army fighters pose on a tank 370 (R) (photo credit: Reuters)
FREE SYRIAN Army fighters pose on a tank 370 (R)
(photo credit: Reuters)
‘Memories,” wrote British humorist P.G.Wodehouse, “are like mulligatawny soup in a cheap restaurant. It is best not to stir them.” For several years I honored this dictum. My Damascene Passover from nine years ago existed only in a “moleskin.”
As a former student of Near Eastern archaeology I had dreamt of traveling to Syria. Eighteen years later the opportunity arose. As part of my arrangements I contacted the US Consulate in Damascus and expressed an interest in celebrating Passover in the city. I was informed that, whatever the turbulent history of Syria’s Jews had been, the regime was more concerned with Islamists than a handful of Jews. Apparently I could celebrate at will. Once the consulate provided the details of the then-head of the Jewish community, I was on my way.
Prior to the civil war, Damascus saw a tourist boom and haphazard attempt to regenerate the Old City, amid much noise from UNESCO. During my travels in 2004 I didn’t witness this; gentrification was largely invisible. At that time the Syrian economy was only beginning to creep out from state control.
There were some tourists, primarily French and Italian. And there was fine dining in converted palatial homes. But by and large, the Old City’s residential quarters suffered from neglect and worse.
What the city did offer was authenticity: monumental Islamic architecture, seven city gates once dedicated to planets, an original Greek street grid upon which Roman Damascus was subsequently built. The Madhat Pasha thoroughfare, above the ancient Via Recta, or “Straight Street” of the New Testament, was as vibrant as could be.
And immediately south, in the Harat al-Yahud, the Jewish Quarter, history crumbled away.
In former times many Jews lived here in Ottoman splendor. The majority has since emigrated in waves, the most recent being 1994. Their ancestral homes, a mix of timber and stone construction, were now occupied by Palestinians, in and among whom are the remnants of the Jewish community.
Half a dozen or more synagogues, many of which have purportedly now been restored by the Assad government, and are maintained by the Jewish community itself, lay hidden behind alleyways and courtyards.
It was here, in a simple home, that I celebrated Passover.
We huddled into a dining room with benches along all three walls and a substantial table in the middle. Handmade (shmura) matzah and a copper Seder plate lay before us. The plate had been made in the Old City by a local coppersmith and the Hagaddah, the liturgical narrative of the Exodus from Egypt, had been printed in Damascus.
Other than when the Hagaddah was read (in Hebrew), we conversed in French. There were nine of us – but the phone did ring three times, and was answered during the meal each time, so perhaps I should write “10”; we were under the watchful eye of the Muhabbarat, the Syrian secret police, whose surveillance discouraged local interaction while also serving to protect the Jewish community.
“What was that I just ate?” I asked my hosts.
“Kameh. Kaaaa-meh. Mushroom. It needs thunder.”
I was lost. The kameh was delicious, but had the texture of a potato, not a mushroom. I did not understand the reference to thunder at all. Days later I discovered that I had been served desert truffle, a delicacy much admired by ancient Assyrian kings and found only after the winter rains. Lightning, necessary for the nitrogen cycle, was the catalyst, not thunder.
We didn’t conclude the meal with the traditional “Leshanah Habah B’Yerushalyim” – Next Year in Jerusalem – but with a re-enactment of the Exodus.
Each of us in turn held matzah wrapped up in a cloth napkin, as if it were a sack with all of our worldly belongings, slung over the left shoulder, as we responded to the question, “Where are you coming from?” “Mizr!” (Egypt!), was the reply. We then responded to the second question, “Where are you going?” with “Yerushaylim!” (Jerusalem!), now with the “sack” over our right shoulder, before passing to the next in attendance.
That was in 2004 when flour was abundant, when Istanbul could send kosher meat and before the Jewish Quarter became an artist colony. Today things are very different. Less than two dozen Jews remain. The synagogues endure with their many Torah scrolls and rich artifacts. I question how these can still be maintained by so few Jews rather than under the diligent hands of Messers. Abdulkarim and Khalayli of the Syrian Directorate of Antiquities.
It is worrying. This month’s shelling by Assad’s forces of the Jobar Synagogue, a site of prayer from early medieval times if not before, is a case in point. Jobar, located a few kilometers northeast of the Old City, was the scene of recent fighting. The second Internet video uploaded by members of the Free Syrian Army illustrates the extent of the damage to exterior courtyard and surrounding rooms. Thankfully this footage does not reveal damage to the prayer hall itself, buried deep inside.
What the video does demonstrate is that, as with Assad’s public stance in favor of preserving Syria’s Jewish heritage, the FSA, too, understand the sensitivity of the city’s Jewish past – and what response its eradication will garner.
That rebel forces reportedly positioned themselves in the abandoned complex, or the immediate vicinity, should ring alarm bells.
Call it propaganda by either party, but it may be a common ground to negotiate out of the quagmire and to try and ensure that, even if other reminders of the past have faced wanton destruction, Syria’s unique Jewish heritage need not. Certainly the rescue of Sarajevo’s Hagaddah, maintained by the Bosnian government during another bloody conflict, is a fine example of what can be achieved.
And as for Passover? Damascus may be a distant memory but this year there will be kameh, or “Brunette Truffles,” the Moroccan equivalent, on the Seder plate.
The writer is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, British Museum, Fitzroy St. London, England.