International Survey of Jewish Monuments

Silenced Sacred Spaces: Selected Photographs of Syrian Synagogues
by Robert Lyons

Ilfrange SynagogueSilenced Sacred Spaces: is an exhibition drawn from the remarkable photographic survey conducted by Lyons for the World Monuments Fund ten years ago -- in the spring of 1995.  The Jewish Heritage Research Center and the Lowe Art Gallery in Syracuse, NY first organized the exhibit, with financial assistance from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation.  It was on view at Yeshiva University Museum in New York from September 1997 through January 1998 and at the B'nai Brith Klutznick National Jewish Museum in Washington, D.C. through the end of 1998.  The exhibition is now housed at the American Sephardi Federation, Center for Jewish History, New York.

The exhibition catalogue in pdf format can be found here.

The exhibit presented a selection of images from the eighteen synagogues photographed by Lyons in April 1995 during a documentation project organized by the Jewish Heritage Program of the World Monuments Fund. Lyons' photographs while ostensible designed to document Syrian synagogues threatened by closure and dismantling, also reflect his keen eye and sense of space.

Great Synagogue in AleppoUnlike many other Jewish communities that have suffered willful destruction and abandonment in the twentieth century, Syrian Jews remained in their native country, forbidden to emigrate since the mid-1940s.  After emigration policies relaxed in 1990, thousands of Jews left Syria and reconstituted many of their traditional communal institutions in new settings -- notably the United States and Israel.  However, they were obliged to leave behind much of the material legacy produced during the centuries of tolerant Ottoman rule when Jewish tradesmen had prospered and constructed many of the large synagogues.

Lyons encountered not only difficulties in arranging his visit, but also in the tight control of his work schedule by Syrian security officers.  He was nevertheless able to document three-quarters of the known synagogues in the country. Some, such as the medieval synagogue at Tadeef, are in ruin; however, most others were still intact and fully furnished. Lyons captured the architecturally impressive and richly decorated synagogues in what is, for the most part, their complete state.  Missing of course, are the congregants whose prayers made these synagogues truly sacred spaces.  Lyons' visit did, however, coincide with the celebration of Passover, and many of his photographs of the remaining community of Damascus Jews celebrating the holiday were included in the sweeping exhibition Jews in Arab Lands organized in 1996 by Beth Hatefusoth (catalogue available from Kehayof Verlag, Herzog st. 60, 80803 Munchen, Germany, fax. 89-33-80-53, DM 88).

Lyons' photographs comprise the only documentation of Syrian synagogues, and one of the finest photographic documentation projects of synagogues from any land.  While WMF provided documentation guidelines, Lyons' photographic skill under difficult circumstances (only existing illumination was used) and his sensitive eye have made art of this documentation process. Synagogue closure and deaccessioning of synagogue holdings -- through legal or illegal means -- was only just beginning in Syria.  Almost certainly, the state of these synagogues and their furnishing and religious fittings is now substantially changed. When Lyons visited Syria, there was hope that a coming peace would allow his documentation to be the first step in a more fully developed process of education and preservation.  That hope is now suspended and the value of his work stands out even more clearly.

We are sorry to inform you that this photo archive is no longer available online at For further information please contact Robert Lyons via his site.

Samuel Gruber (December 2005)

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: December 22, 2006
Photo galleries:

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