Tag Archives: architecture

Hurva Synagogue

In the winter of 1700, charismatic rabbi Judah he-Hasid Segal arrived in Jerusalem from Poland with about 500 followers (some say as many as 1000). You can imagine the reaction, at a time when the entire Jewish population of Jerusalem was about 500 people. They were mystics who were intent on bringing the Messiah and some say believers in the false messiah, Shabbetai Zvi. Within a few days of their arrival the rabbi died, some say he was poisoned. His followers struggled without a leader but managed to build forty dwellings and a small synagogue in the Ashkenazic Compound. Then they began to build a larger synagogue, but between bribes to Ottoman authorities, unexpected construction costs and other financial burdens they exhausted their funds. They took loans from local Arabs to complete the project. When the loans were still outstanding in late 1720, the Arab lenders lost patience and the synagogue was burned down, some say that 40 Torah scrolls were destroyed in the fire. The Ashkenazi Jews were banished from the city and the synagogue was left in ruins and became known as the Hurva, the “Ruin of Rabbi Judah he-Hasid”.

It took almost 100 years, in 1815, when Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov, leader of the Tzfat Perushim, moved to Jerusalem with a group of followers, disciples of the Vilna Gaon. They wanted to reclaim the Ashkenazic Compound and to rebuild the Hurva synagogue, which had symbolized the expulsion of Ashkenazi Jews from Jerusalem. They believed that the “repairing” of an earlier destruction would have kabbalistic significance and be a prerequisite for bringing the Messiah.

There were a lot of difficulties in getting a firman, permission from the Turkish authorities to rebuild the Hurva. In 1829 Shlomo Zalman Zoref, a Lithuanian-born silversmith tried unsuccessfully but in 1836 he finally got a firman. Some say that it did not include permission for a synagogue in the Ashkenazic Compound but only for dwellings in the area. They managed to build two small synagogues. Although there was an injunction which absolved the Ashkenazim from repaying the debt and the Turkish Statute of Limitations cancelled out the debts of Judah he-Hasid’s followers Arab creditors interfered with the work and Zoref had to appease them with annual bribes. In 1851, Zoref was struck on the head with a sword and three months later died of his wounds.

Only in the early 1850s were the Perushim ready to attempt the building of a larger synagogue on the Hurva’s original site. With the help of the British they finally received a firman from the Ottoman sultan Abdulmejid I in 1854 to rebuild the synagogue according to a plan by his official architect, Assad Effendi. Built in neo-Byzantine style, it was supported by four massive pilasters at each corner over which soared a large dome that stood 24 meters high. The inside of the dome was painted sky-blue and strewn with golden stars. Numerous crystal chandeliers hung from the dome. Frescoes with religious motifs, such as the Star of David, the menorah, Mount Sinai and the Ten Commandments, adorned every wall. In the four corners were drawings of four animals in accordance with the verse in Pirkei Avot:

Be strong as the leopard and swift as the eagle, fleet as the deer and brave as the lion to do the will of your Father in Heaven.

The Holy Ark had the capacity to house 50 Torah scrolls and was built on two levels. It was flanked by four Corinthian columns surrounded by Baroque woodcuts depicting flowers and birds. The Ark together with its ornamental gates were taken from the Nikolaijewsky Synagogue in Kherson, Russia, which had been used by Russian Jewish conscripts, forced to spend twenty-five years in the Czar’s army. The synagogue was dedicated in 1864 and called Beis Yaakov, in memory of Jacob Mayer de Rothschild but it continued to be referred to as the Hurva. It stood as a beacon above the walls of the Old City along with the dome of the Tiferet Israel synagogue.

On May 25, 1948, during the fighting in the Old City Major Abdullah el Tell, commander of the Jordanian Legion, wrote to Otto Lehner of the Red Cross that unless the Haganah abandoned its positions in the Hurva synagogue and its adjoining courtyard, he would be forced to attack it. Moshe Russnak, commander of the Haganah in the Old City, ignored his request, knowing that if the Hurva fell, the Jewish Quarter would be lost. On May 27, el Tell, after receiving no reply, told his men to “Get the Hurva Synagogue by noon.” Fawzi el-Kutub executed the mission by placing a 200-litre barrel filled with explosives against the synagogue’s northern wall. The explosion resulted in a gaping hole through which the Legionnaires burst through. A short while later, after the Arabs had captured the area, another huge explosion reduced the 84 year old synagogue together with the Etz Chaim Yeshiva to ruins. The Tiferet Israel synagogue was also destroyed.

Following the Six-Day War, plans were sought for a new synagogue to be built on the site, part of the overall rehabilitation of the Jewish Quarter. Leading the campaign to rebuild the Hurva was Zoref’s great-great-grandson, Ya’acov Salomon. He consulted Ram Karmi, one of Israel’s leading young architects, who magnanimously recommended Louis Kahn, a world-renowned architectֿ for the job. Kahn came to Israel to tour the site in the Jewish quarter and made a trip to the nearby Judean desert to visit two isolated Greek Orthodox monasteries, St George’s in Wadi Qelt and Mar Saba in the Kidron. Kahn was deeply moved by the experience and inspired to design a synagogue that he felt expressed the spirit of Jerusalem, its history and religion.

 

Kahn model Hurva Synagogue, from Kent Larson

Kahn model Hurva Synagogue, from Kent Larson

Between 1968 and 1973, Kahn presented three plans for the reconstruction. Each left the ruins of the Hurva in place as a memorial garden, with a new structure on an adjacent lot and a promenade, the “Route of the Prophets”, leading to the Western Wall. Kahn proposed a structure within a structure, the outer one composed of 16 piers covered in Jerusalem stone cut in blocks of the same proportions as the Herodian stones of the Western Wall. In the bases of the four corners of the two-story, 12 meter high structure would be small alcoves for meditation or individual prayer. The inner chamber, made of four inverted concrete pyramids supporting the building’s roof, would be used for larger communal prayer services.

Model of Kahn's Hurva synagogue, from Kent Larson

Model of Kahn’s Hurva synagogue, from Kent Larson

Unfortunately, Kahn died of a heart attack in the men’s washroom at Penn train station in New York City in 1974, a few weeks before he was to return to Jerusalem for consultations on what many regard as his greatest unrealized plan, the reconstruction of the Hurva synagogue. With Kahn’s passing his plans, through a combination of bureaucratic inaction and aesthetic timidity, died with him. Instead, in 2000 it was decided to rebuild the Hurva in its original 19th century Ottoman style.

But Kahn’s plans haven’t been totally forgotten. In the mid-1990s, MIT architecture professor Kent Larson used Kahn’s plans and new modeling software to create dramatic color images of what the Hurva might have looked like, both from inside and out, complete with lighting and shadow. If such tools had existed when Kahn was living, it would have been clearer what a masterpiece we were being offered.

Model of Kahn's Hurva synagogue, from Kent Larson

Model of Kahn’s Hurva synagogue, from Kent Larson

Like the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site it raises broader questions about how to rebuild on a site defined in large part by a history of destruction. For most of its history the site housed a ruin and encapsulates not only the long conflict between Arabs and Jews in the Holy Land but also how we, Jews living in Israel, commemorate our past and envision our future.


Contact me about a guided tour like Kahn’s starting with a visit to St George and Mar Saba monasteries in the Judean desert and then an overview of the Old City and the story of the fall of the Jewish quarter, its destruction in 1948 and rebirth after the Six Day War.

Tour of Herodium Palace Complex

In Ehud Netzer’s book on the Palaces of the Hasmoneans and Herod the Great he writes:

In its day, Herodium was one of the largest palaces in the Greco-Roman world. It is actually the most spacious one of that time that is known to us from archaeological studies.

When I guide Herodium, I include a comprehensive tour of Lower Herodium, outside the archaeological park and the area that Prof. Ehud Netzer excavated in 1972 looking for Herod’s tomb. I point out

  • the overall planning of the site – the relationship between the palace/fortress on a man-made mountain south of the site and the palace complex at its foot
  • the concentration of structures around the pool, more characteristic of present day complexes such as a university campus or large hospital
  • the addition of formal gardens against the background of the barren Judean desert
  • where and how Herod overcame the topography and lack of water to build Herodium
  • Netzer’s discovery of the Monumental building where he thought Herod was buried

In its current state it can be difficult to imagine what Herodium must have looked like. Then I was introduced to the Hungarian-born artist and illustrator, Balage Balogh. Balogh has done paintings where he has recreated (Biblical) settings with a startling degree of accuracy based on a combination of intensive archaeological investigation, scriptural and ancient text research and a measured dose of interpretive insight. He has kindly given me permission to include his illustration of Herodium here. To better picture the ancient world check out his website at
http://www.archaeologyillustrated.com/


(Click on the image to view it in more detail)

Aqueduct at Caesarea

The first aqueduct was built by Herod at the time the city of Caesarea-Maritima was founded and brought water from the Shuni spring, south of Mount Carmel, about 10KM to the northeast of the city. The water flowed on a single raised channel.

When this was not sufficient, a second “lower” aqueduct was built by the Legions of the Emperor Hadrian (2nd C CE). It brought water from Tanninim (Crocodiles) river. This section, with a tunnel of about 6KM long, was tapped into the older aqueduct, and doubled its capacity and its width. The builders used the same building materials and style, so it may be difficult to see that the pair of channels were built at different times. The aqueduct continued to supply water to Caesarea for 1200 years.

Just past the entrance to Beit Hanania you can find the northern section of the aqueduct and the second aqueduct (Hadrian) connecting to the older one (Herod). In this section there are two stone tablets that were placed into the wall by its builders, the legion of the Emperor Hadrian. The right tablet clearly shows: “IMP CAES(ar) TRIAN HADR(ianus)”. The other tablet is of the Tenth Legion (the Imperial eagle without its head standing on a wreath).

The Israel Trail winds its way beside the aquaduct, through the Arab town of Jizr a-Zarka and then south along the coast to Caesarea. On the beach closer to the Caesarea archaeological park there is another section of the aqueduct. In fact it makes a great hike with the whole family from here along the beach north to Dor or a little further to Habonim.

 

Nymphaeum at Herodium?

I’m a tour guide who often does tours at Herodium, the palace complex built by King Herod about 15 km south of Jerusalem and where, according to Josephus, Herod was buried. Ehud Netzer, in excavating Lower Herodium, described a building that he called the Monumental building at the end of of an elongated course. He suggested that the building could have been Herod’s burial place. Since then Netzer has discovered the base of a mausoleum with finely carved decorations and 2 sarcophagi on the north-western side of the hill.

On p. 38 of his booklet entitled Herodium (published 1999) Netzer writes

“Present-day visitors are always puzzled by a series of grooves cut into all of the half-columns. These grooves were apparently carved to accommodate a piping system which was probably added later during the period of the Roman pro curators, who may have converted the hall into a nymphaeum.”

Interesting. The nymphaeum that comes to mind in Israel is the one in Bet Shean. So I looked up nymphaeum and came across a very interesting article about Hadrian’s Villa near Tivoli:

http://www.dartmouth.edu/~classics/rome2005/updates/week9_10/nov14.html

There’s a diagram of the Canopus/Serapeum complex, an open air triclinium/nymphaeum and water course. This is very reminiscent of the Monumental building and course that Netzer describes (course at Lower Herodium is ~300m in length and ~25m wide).

A plan of the Canopus/Serapeum complex (original image from Sear, p. 180.)

There is another nymphaeum in the plan, in the area called the Piazza d’Oro (based on Figure 103 on p. 177 of Sear’s Roman Architecture; the central dark grey area comes from Figure 114 on p. 96 of Macdonald and Pinto’s Hadrian’s Villa and its Legacy).

(A) A large colonaded pool with garden.  (B) The octagonal entrance vestibule.  (C) The eight-sided space on the southeastern side of the courtyard.  (D) The nymphaeum with five niches for fountains of flowing water.

The article includes a photo of the remains of this nymphaeum, made up of 6 niches (which would have held the fountains) separated by pilasters. There is a channel that would have allowed water to run from the nymphaeum to the pool in the courtyard.

I was struck by how similar this is to the Monumental building, so I have included a photo of it here.

In guiding, I’ve had a number of tourists ask me what the curved cuts in the stone in the lower part of the pilasters (between the niches along the walls, 2 in the end, 3 on each side) were used for. If this was designed as a nymphaeum (either in the time of Herod or by later Roman governors) perhaps the channels were used for water. The course and building are just south of the large pool.

Roman Theater Box at Herodium

First discovered in 2008, the Royal loggia (theater box) above the regular rows of seats at Herod’s private theater has now been fully excavated.

Herod’s theater box, loggia; photo courtesy of Hebrew University

While ruling over Judea Herod wanted “to put Herodium on the map. In order to attract people, there were gardens and waterworks, and the place became famous.” said archaeologist Ehud Netzer, professor emeritus of archaeology at Hebrew University. “The theater indicates that the experiment worked: there was lots of life there. Hundreds, if not thousands, of guests would visit the place and there was justification to provide them with entertainment.”

On your next visit to Israel make sure that Herodium is on your itinerary. I can take you there and give you a comprehensive and fascinating guided tour.

“There is nothing like this in any other location” in Israel, Netzer said of the paintings and intricate moldings in Herod’s theater box. But the style was fairly common across the Mediterranean and reflects the Roman origins of Herod’s power.

Herod’s theater box, loggia, Herodium; photo courtesy of Hebrew University

“Our art history expert said, ‘Hang on, this is something very familiar from Italy,'” in terms of both style and method, Netzer said. “The technique used here was not particularly accepted in this region; it was secco rather than fresco“—painted on dry, rather than moist, plaster.

Depicting natural landscapes, nautical scenes, animals, and the Nile River, the paintings most closely resemble others in the roughly contemporary Villa Imperiale at Pompeii.

According to Netzer, the pictures are not only Roman style but Roman made, perhaps executed in advance of the visit of Marcus Agrippa to Judea in 15BCE. Agrippa was Augustus’ deputy and the man responsible for many of the building projects in his empire.  “It was a one-time mission. The artists came, they painted, and they returned to Italy.” says Netzer. There are other examples from the same period where Roman techniques and presumably builders and architects were sent to Judea for a specified period of time to assist in building projects. Archaeological excavation have uncovered walls at three sites built using the Roman opus reticulatum and opus quadratum techniques. These sites are Herod’s winter palace at Jericho, a temple at Banias and a round structure north of Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, apparently the mausoleum to members of Herod’s family, all mentioned in Josephus’ writings.