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Book review: Spiritual settings within hostile environments

The publication of Synagogues in the Islamic World is tantamount to an act of defiance.

Synagogues in the Islamic World: Architecture, Design and Identity, Mohammad Gharipour (Ed) Edinburgh University Press, £150 Reviewed by Sharman Kadish

    The discovery, in 1920, of the famous figurative murals of the third-century Dura Europos Synagogue in Syria transformed the study of Jewish art in the West.

    When Jewish and Israeli scholars are free to visit the Damascus Museum to view them in person, peace will have truly broken out in the Middle East.

    In this newspaper, we need hardly rehearse the back-story to the mass exodus of upwards of one million Jews from all over the Arab and Muslim world triggered both by the creation of the modern state of Israel and post-colonial upheavals some 70 years ago.

    The publication of Synagogues in the Islamic World is tantamount to an act of defiance. Not merely the vast geographical scope, but the fact that a large swathe of these territories is, at best, inhospitable to Jews or, at worst, comprises inaccessible war zones, did not deter Mohammad Gharipour from his ambitious enterprise. Persian-born, he graduated in Architecture from the University of Tehran and now teaches in the United States.

    Don’t expect the equivalent of Carol Krinsky’s seminal 1985, Synagogues of Europe (she is quoted on the dust-jacket). Synagogues in the Islamic World is not a monograph.

    As the founding editor of the International Journal of Islamic Architecture, Gharipour has brought together mostly American-based colleagues from a variety of faith backgrounds and academic disciplines to engage with the overlooked material legacy of Jewish communities that once inhabited diverse regions of the Islamic world. These range from the relatively familiar and well-researched Sephardim of Spain, through North Africa (Morocco and Tunisia), Turkey, Egypt and Israel, to remoter regions of the Middle East and beyond (Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan) and even India.

    It is surprising to learn that, since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, the Jewish community in Gharipour’s home-town of Tehran has revived. An estimated 15,000-20,000 Jews enjoy a choice of 34 synagogues, some of which would not look out of place in Hendon or the Hamptons.

    The essays on Iraq and Afghanistan (Herat) rely heavily on the Internet and it is questionable whether many of the synagogues mentioned are in fact still standing. Most telling, however, are the omissions: Libya and Algeria, Syria and Yemen, the antiquity of their Jewries notwithstanding.

    Susan Gilson Miller’s perceptive final chapter muses on the politics of historic synagogue preservation in a largely hostile environment; the challenges are, if anything, more complex than those faced in Europe since the Holocaust.

    Against all the odds, and despite some flaws in its production, this book is the first serious attempt to assess the built heritage of Jews across the Muslim world. Mohammad Gharipour, its editor, is to be commended on his remarkable achievement.

    Sharman Kadish is a historian and conservationist. She is author of ‘The Synagogues of Britain and Ireland’ (Yale University Press) and her best-selling Anglo-Jewish architectural heritage guide-book has been republished by Historic England.

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