International Survey of Jewish Monuments

Documentation of Afghanistan Synagogues

Annette Ittig

ISJM has given grants of $950 to Prof. Anette Ittig to document several sites of Jewish interest in Herat, Afghanistan, including four former synagogues and a bath house.  She commissioned photographs, measured drawings, and described the buildings.  The Yu Aw Synagogue figures most prominently in her documentation, as it remains closest in form and function to its original use.  This work is part of a larger project to document and protect the historic Old City of Herat. Visit our photogallery to see more pictures of the synagogue.


Prepared for the International Survey of Jewish Monuments

The city of Herat, in West Afghanistan, was once an important stop along the Silk Route and the capital of Central Asiaís Timurid civilization (1393-1507).  It is also the site of some of the worldís most spectacular medieval Islamic architecture as well as of a distinctive vernacular building tradition.  Tragically, after the ravages of some twenty years of civil unrest, natural disasters and neglect, much of this unique heritage has been lost.  Yet, over the past two years, as the local situation has stabilized, Heratis have started to rebuild their city.  The consequent construction "boom", however, has created a new challenge to Heratís heritage buildings, as materials from many sites, both Islamic and non-Islamic, are recycled for new structures.  Some of the effects of this on the cityís Jewish monuments are noted below.

I travelled to Herat in January 1998 to conduct a survey of womenís programs for an international non-governmental organization ("NGO").  Furthermore, as I am the nominator of Herat to the World Monument Watchís 1997-9 "List of 100 Most Endangered Sites" list, this mission also provided a rare opportunity to get an update of the condition of the cityís historic and vernacular buildings and to determine what future preservation action, if any, might be possible.  During the course of surveying the cityís Islamic buildings,   I came upon two artifacts with Hebrew inscriptions in the storage room of a tile manufactory, and this discovery was the catalyst for the following preliminary survey of Heratís Jewish monuments.

 The two objects with Hebrew characters were a large foundation stone and a smaller stone tablet (possibly a tablet of law?).  When I asked about the origin of these objects, I was told that they came from the "mosque of the Jews", masjid-i musahi.  Apparently, both artifacts had been brought to the workshop for safekeeping, after the Jews left Herat (at some time after 1978) and after their synagogue collapsed due to lack of maintenance.   I was assured that both objects would be given back to the Jews when they returned to Herat.  We were then informed that although there were previously "several" synagogues and other buildings used exclusively by the Jewish community, none remained.

Later, I noted that in Samizayís 1978 survey of Herat, four synagogues were listed--as well as a Jewish bath, or hammam-e yahudiha.  The buildings were located in the Bar Durrani and Momanda sections of the old city which is an area previously known as the mahalla-yi musahiya, the "neighbourhood of the Jews" and which is located in its northwest and southwest quarters.  The names of the synagogues were given as Mulla Ashur,  Yu Aw and Gul; the fourth was unnamed.  The bath was labeled as the Hajji Muhammad Akbar Bath,  or Hammam-e Yahudiha.  During the course of my field trip, each of these structures, all of which are of mud brick,  was located and its condition noted.

The adaptive use of these buildings mirrors the cultural transition which the former mahalla-yi musahiya has undergone over the past twenty years.  The Hamman-e Yahudiha now serves the Muslim males of the quarter.  The Mulla Samuel synagogue is currently used as a maktab, or primary school, for boys.  The building formerly known as the Gul synagogue has been converted to the Belal Mosque.  The once magnificent Mulla Ashur/Mulla Garji building which, when intact, featured elaborate painted stucco decoration, lies in ruins, the result of disuse and neglect.  Its front courtyard is now used for housing, and bricks from the synagogue are being recycled for this accommodation.  The ground floor of the Yu Aw synagogue is also being used for housing.

Of these buildings, I decided that, if it were possible, it would be preferable to document Yu Aw, as its present appearance is closer to its original function than any of the other three former synagogues.  Furthermore, other than the four rooms now used for housing, it does not presently serve any other purpose; and its documentation would not interfere with the routine of the neighbourhood.   I therefore requested and received permission for a plan and section of it to be drawn.  In the event that the photos which were taken of the building and its decoration were unclear, I also arranged for details of its painted stucco interior to be drawn.   Further details of this building are given below.

The Yu Aw synagogue is located in the Momanda neighbourhood of the old city .  From the street, we entered a low passageway through a wooden door which was unbolted for us, and went into the courtyard.  Like the other 3 synagogues I viewed in this area, this building, which is of mud brick with a baked brick foundation, is two storeys in height, with an interior courtyard; and the Torah ark is built into its Western wall.  The remains of this building are in precarious condition.

The central courtyard, which was once paved, has been reduced to the ground, as its brick pavement has been recycled for other construction.  The remains of the building on the east, north and south sides of the courtyard are now used as family housing.  Moreover, a room in the basement of the structure on the west side of the courtyard is now used for housing by one of the employees of the Herat Department of Historic Monuments Preservation.

Although the foundation of the building west of the courtyard seems intact, two of its rooms are completely ruined.  Parts of the roof, which is of mud brick, have collapsed, and there is water damage to the remaining ceiling and walls from the rain.  The east facade of this structure  is partially open, and the main prayer hall on the second storey is exposed from this side and on the north side, where the roof over the stairway has collapsed.

The main prayer hall still has much of its painted stucco decoration, which is primarily floral, with a strong Persianate influence, e.g. the flowering "trees of life" and the butas, or paisley motifs, set to either side of the Torah ark on the western wall.  Painted stucco decoration with multiple floral medallions on a sky blue ground is also featured on the underside of arches on the east facade.

The ark is elevated and is reached by stairs.  The room itself is octagonal in shape.  To either side of the ark are air vents with lattice screens. There are also recessed niches with shelves to either side of the ark.  Pre-1978 photodocumentation shows that these were used for the storage of prayer shawls, books and other ritualistic objects.

On the south side of prayer hall is an arcade with a partition with small decorative openings which served as the womenís gallery.  The low open tevah, or raised platform for reading the Torah, which is placed below the central dome, remains intact; and there is a second, smaller low platform between the tevah and the south wall.

There are three Hebrew inscriptions on the north wall above the stairway.  Two of these are scratched into the wall, and the third is in pencil.  There is a fourth inscription, also in pencil, in one of the recessed niches on the south wall of the hall.  The fact that the penciled inscriptions are clearly legible suggests that they have been recently executed, and that there may still be Jews living in the area.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Heratís Jewish monuments offer a study in microcosm of the state of the cityís historic and vernacular architecture, not only in their destruction and neglect but also in their current recycling and readaptation.  As noted above, for example, the adaptive use of the Jewish Bath and the Mulla Samuel and Gul synagogues mirror the cultural transition of the former Mahallat-i Musahiya. They also demonstrate the present realities of rebuilding Herat, where the expense of importing concrete and the (until recently) absence of a local brick manufactory necessitated either mud brick construction or the recycling of historic building materials.

The Mulla Ashur/Mulla Garji building, on the other hand, exemplifies the new, post-war threat faced by Heratís remaining architectural heritage, as materials from historic buildings are either recycled - or demolished - for new construction in the present "boom".  Moreover, while there are heritage protection laws on the books, they are not enforced.  As a result, sadly, Mulla Ashur/Mulla Garji seems fated to disappear through cannibalization of its structure for new buildings.

In contrast, Yu Aw presents an opportunity for rehabilitation and communal readaptation.  The successful implementation of its rebirth would depend on a number of factors, e.g. the extent to which its foundation is sound; stated community wants and needs (a school, clinic, etc.); the issue of access, as the building adjoins private housing, present ownership of the building and of the land; and so forth.

These issues and various other sequelae to this survey are considered below.

Recommendation - Workshop for Heritage Planning in Herat

There are a variety of players involved in construction and architectural rehabilitation in Herat - local and international NGOs, UN agencies, municipal authorities, individual citizens.  At the time of my field trip there was, however, little coordination between these groups, which often resulted in replication of efforts and funding as well as in misinformed restorations.  As pressure to repatriate Afghan refugees from Iran and elsewhere increases, and as the demand for housing and other services by Heratis and others returning to the area grows, the urgency of this situation makes heritage planning a timely issue.  The formulation of a "Master Plan" for the city, coordinating community wants, needs, capabilities and resource with the international and local actors involved in building and construction in Herat, and which would incorporate heritage into the urban plan, is key to the survival of Heratís remaining historic monuments.  The cityís non-Islamic buildings are in particular need of this type of planning, as there are no local advocates for their protection.

It is recommended that prior to the formulation of a Master Plan, a local languages professional development workshop Local awareness of these issues would significantly increase the success rate for the readaptation of Yu Aw and other abandoned or under-utilized buildings in any "Master Plan" devised for Herat.  I prepared, in collaboration with a local architect and heritage consultant, a  proposal for a two day local languages workshop in Herat on these issues in January, 1998 .  However, due local circumstances leading to the withdrawal of UN and international NGO expatriate staff last year, it was not possible to implement this plan.  Now that expatriate are returning to the field, it is hoped that the proposal for this workshop may be realized.  Additional details are available from this writer, through IJMS.

Recommendation - Further Research

Given that the community that built and used the monuments described in this survey no longer survives in situ, it is necessary to look outside of Herat for additional contextual information about the cityís Jewish monuments.  For example, the decoration and layout of Heratís synagogues is related to those in Iran, whence most of the cityís Jewish community originated.  A detailed survey of Iranís Jewish monuments, including their history and present use, could provide additional insights and information about the material culture of the Jewish community in Herat and in Afghanistan generally.

Recommendation - Dissemination

In addition to publication, another form of dissemination could involve a "virtual" exhibition of the buildings examined, with illustrations from 1998 and pre-1978 which would offer greater public access to this data.  Furthermore as Heratís Jewish community is now dispersed, placing this material on the Internet would allow for a wider range of feedback on its customs and material culture before such information is lost forever.

International Survey of Jewish Monuments
c/o Jewish Heritage Research Center
Box 210, 118 Julian Pl.
Syracuse, New York 13210-3419, USA

tel: (315) 474-2350
fax: (309) 403-1858

Last updated: April 8, 2005