International Survey of Jewish Monuments
ISJM Jewish Heritage Report
Volume II, nos 3-4
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ISJM Sponsors Research on Afghan Synagogues: A Preliminary Report

ISJM was able to assist financially and administratively in the collection of information concerning the status of former synagogues in Herat. The information given below is part of a larger study of the historic architecture and urban fabric of Herat prepared by an art historian who visited the city in 1998. While the writer prefers to remain anonymous, legitimate questions and comments related to this project will be forwarded on by ISJM.

The city of Herat, in West Afghanistan, was once an important stop along the Silk Route and the capital of Central Asia's Timurid civilization (1393-1507). It is also the site of some of the world's 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 few years, as the local situation has stabilized, Heratis have started to rebuild their city. The construction boom, however, has created a new challenge to Herat's heritage buildings, as materials from many sites, both Islamic and non-Islamic, are recycled for new structures.

I traveled to Herat in January 1998 as part of a non-governmental organization ("NGO") delegation conducting a survey of women's programs. As a art historian, however, the mission also provided a rare opportunity to get an update of the condition of the city's historic and vernacular buildings and to determine what future preservation action, if any, might be possible. During the course of surveying the city's 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 Herat's Jewish monuments.

The two objects with Hebrew characters were a large foundation stone and a smaller stone tablet. 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.

Herat, Afghanistan. The former Yu-Aw Synagogue, main prayer hall, west wall, detail of painted decoration and Torah Ark. Photo: ISJM

Later, I noted that in Samizay's 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 "neighborhood 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.

The adaptive use of these buildings mirrors the cultural transition that 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 it would be preferable to document Yu Aw, as its current state 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 neighborhood. I therefore requested and received permission for a plan and section as well as details of its painted stucco interior to be drawn.

The Yu Aw synagogue, located in the Momanda neighborhood of the old city, is entered through a low passageway, through a wooden door, and courtyard. Like the other three synagogues I viewed in this area, this building, built of mud brick with a baked brick foundation, is two stories in height, with an interior courtyard. The 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 appears intact, two rooms are completely ruined. Parts of the mud brick roof have collapsed and there is water damage to the remaining ceiling and walls. The east facade is partially open, and the main prayer hall on the second story 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 photo-documentation shows that these were used for the storage of prayer shawls, books and other ritualistic objects.

On the south side of prayer hall is a partitioned arcade with small decorative openings that served as the women's gallery. The low open tevah is placed below the central dome and is intact. There is a smaller low platform between the tevah and the south wall. There are three Hebrew inscriptions on the north wall above the stairway. Two are scratched into the wall; the third is in pencil. A fourth inscription, also in pencil, is written 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 are recent, and that there may still be Jews living in the area - or that there have been Jewish visitors.

Conclusion and Recommendations

Herat's Jewish monuments offer a study in microcosm of the state of the city's historic and vernacular architecture, not only in their destruction and neglect but also in their current recycling and re-adaptation. 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 Herat's 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 re-adaptation. 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.

Workshop for Heritage Planning Needed 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 this survey 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 Herat's remaining historic monuments. The city's 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 any plan, a local languages professional development workshop is needed. Local awareness of these issues would increase the success rate for the re-adaptation of Yu Aw and other abandoned or under-utilized buildings in any plan devised for Herat. Now that expatriates are returning to the field, it is hoped that such a workshop may be realized. Additional details are available from this writer, through ISJM.

Further Research & Dissemination

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 city's Jewish monuments. For example, the decoration and layout of Herat's synagogues is related to those in Iran, whence most of the city's Jewish community originated. A detailed survey of Iran's 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.

In addition to publication, another form of dissemination could involve a "virtual" exhibition of the buildings examined, with illustrations from 1998 and pre-1978 that would offer greater public access to this data. Furthermore, as Herat's 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.

ISJM thanks the following members: Jack Lutz for photographs of the restored synagogue in Lancut, Poland; Sally and Abe Magid for their slides of Jewish sites in Romania, Hungary and Ukraine; Bentley and Barbara Kassal for their photos and publications from Australia and New Zealand; Mark Gordon for photos pf the synagogue in Cumberland, Maryland; Michele Vishny for photos of synagogues in Lithuania and Illinois; SaraBeth Canaday for regular reports and photos from her many travels, and Abe and Helen Sirkin for their photographs and preliminary report of Jewish sites in Kerala and for the additional funds they have contributed to begin preservation planning.

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last update: 1/25/99