It is now over a decade since I met Mouffak in the Aleppo souk. This young Syrian was a trader in objets d’art and he had a unique sales pitch: “If you come and see my shop, I’ll show you my synagogue”.
These were optimistic times, just after Bashar al-Assad took over from his brutal father, and there were hopes that the young president would turn out to be a reformer. I was there to write a travel piece, but Mouffak’s offer was not part of the official itinerary.
He took me through the sweltering passageways of the ancient market to an old wooden door, drew out a giant iron key and let me into a shaded courtyard. A squat tower housed a small wooden gallery and the deserted synagogue looked for all the world like a miniature mosque. But a Hebrew prayer carved into one of the walls showed the building’s Jewish origins.
At the time of my visit, there were a few hundred Jews left in Syria, with maybe 30 living in Aleppo, the synagogue a tragic reminder of a once-thriving community. By last year the population had dwindled still further, to just a handful families around the Jafar Synagogue in Damascus.
Then, in March of this year, rebels released footage suggesting that the synagogue had been destroyed by Assad forces.
The fate of the synagogue of Aleppo, which is thought to date back King David, remains uncertain. But it is probably safe to say that three millennia of common history between the Arabs and Jews of Syria is at an end.
Across the Middle East, the horrible endgame of ethnic cleansing, which began with the exodus of Jews from Arab countries after 1948, is playing itself out. The closure of the last synagogue in Egypt was announced last year and an article in the Jerusalem Post this week suggested that just 14 Jews remain in Cairo. The death of Carmen Weinstein, the veteran leader of Egypt’s Jews, was a further blow.
One of the consequences of the Arab uprisings is that large parts of the Middle East are now effectively Judenrein.
In Syria, where Muslims pray at the shrine of the Christian saint, John the Baptist, in the great mosque of Damascus, the great monotheistic religions have traditionally merged.
One of the greatest symbols of this “syncretism” is the second-century synagogue of Dura Europos, discovered nearly intact in the 1930s and installed in the National Museum in Damascus.
But it is now impossible even to view this relic of Syria’s Jewish past. The museum has closed its doors to the public and its treasures have been locked away in the vaults.