A joint British-American project has catalogued surviving Jewish sites in Syria and Iraq in a new report that has identified sites in urgent need of intervention to ensure their preservation.
The Jewish Cultural Heritage Initiative (JCHI), a partnership between the British-based Foundation for Jewish Heritage and the American Schools of Oriental Research, has catalogued and assessed the condition of Jewish sites in Iraq and Syria.
The JCHI, working remotely and with partners in Iraq and Syria, assessed 368 Jewish sites and found that of those that remained, 27 were in urgent need of work.
The report, released on June 1, identified four sites as “priority candidates” where “urgent intervention could substantially improve their condition”.
The selection of the sites – which due to the Syrian Civil War, are all in Iraq – was based on their significance, condition and the potential viability of any preservation project.
The four sites identified were the Meir Tweig Synagogue and the Al-Habibiyah Jewish Cemetery, both of which are in Baghdad; the Sasson Synagogue in Mosul; and the 12th century Shrine of the Prophet Nahum in the northern Iraqi town of Al-Qosh.
The JCHI describes its two Baghdad sites as among the last “active” sites that are managed by the tiny remaining Jewish community in the city, which had an estimated Jewish population of 90,000 as recently as 1947.
Around 75 per cent of Iraq’s 120,000 Jews emigrated to Israel between 1950 and 1952, while much of the remaining community had left by the mid-1970s.
By 2018, it was estimated that the Jewish population of Baghdad had shrunk to only ten individuals. After nine years of conflict in Syria, there are no known Jews remaining in the country.
The JCHI said that it was “currently exploring ways to help protect these sites, either through new initiatives or in collaboration with ongoing projects active at some of the sites”.
The organisation also said that it hoped to revisit Jewish sites in Syria once “conditions are more stable”.
Michael Mail, the Foundation for Jewish Heritage Chief Executive, said: “At a time when there is so much attention on saving heritage in danger across the Middle East, this unique research has shone a light on a forgotten aspect – the remarkable ancient Jewish heritage of the region.”
“The Jewish community,” he continued, “made a profound contribution and we need to ensure its heritage, and this story, is not erased.”
Andrew Vaughn, the Executive Director of American Schools of Oriental Research, noted: “During a time when cultural heritage that reflects the ethnic and religious diversity of the Middle East is under attack, the documentation and preservation of Jewish sites as one strand in the region’s rich cultural tapestry has never been more important.”
Mr Vaughn continued: “These sites bear witness to a past of greater co-existence and cooperation, and calls from across the region for their preservation provide hope for the future."