Jewish Heritage Report
Issue No. 1 / March 1997
Medieval Synagogues

Medieval Synagogues Discovered in Europe
In the past two years, archeological excavation or building restoration in England, Germany, Austria and Slovenia have revealed parts of structures known or believed to have been synagogues prior to the 15th  century.

Guildford, England: In January 1996, the Guildford Museum Excavation unit in Guildford, England, announced the uncovering of a building beneath a High Street property which may be the remains of a medieval synagogue.  The structure consists of a small room, about ten feet square, built of chalk.  A stone bench ran around the room and the east and west walls have blind arcades.  The north and south walls have plainer recesses, and doorways.  There is a recess on the east side which may have housed an Ark.  Scorch marks on the pilaster to one side of this recess may be from a lamp (Ner Tamid).  No other items or elements that might be specifically Jewish have been found.  The building has been dated to c. 1180.

The structure was deliberately demolished from about four feet above floor level and filled in with rubble from the upper part, though there is no evidence of any structural flaw to warrant its demolition.  Worked stone from the upper portion was probably salvaged to reuse in the later 13th century. Pottery in the rubble fill dates the destruction to c. 1270.  Jews appear to have been expelled from Guildford in 1275, when Eleanor of Provence, widow of Henry III, entered a convent and expelled Jews from her towns, of which Guildford was one.  All Jews were expelled from England in 1290 by Eleanor’s son Edward.  The names of some of Guildford’s medieval Jews are known, including Isaac of Southwark, whose house was attacked in 1272.  It is tempting to believe that the discovered room was a synagogue attached to Isaac’s house.
For more information contact the Mary Alexander, Guildford Musuem Excavation Unit, Guildford Musuem, Castle Arch, Guildford, Surrey, GU1 3SX, England.

Publication of related interest: Raphael M. J. Isserlin. "Building Jerusalem in the ‘Islands of the Sea’: The Archaeology of Medival Anglo-Jewry’ in S. Kadish, ed. Building Jersualem: Jewish Architecture in Britain. (Vallentine Mitchell, London, 1996).

Regensburg, Germany: Remains of the double-nave synagogue were excavated in 1996.  Dating from at least 1227, the building is best known from a pair of engravings published by Albrecht Altdorfer. Upon the occasion of the building’s demolition by local authorities, Altdorfer added to the plates the inscription "In the year of our Lord 1519 the Jewish synagogue of Ratisbon was erased from the ground up by the righteous judgment of God."  It had long been believed that the site of the synagogue was built over by a church, but it now appears that the church was erected on an adjacent parcel of land.

Vienna , Austria:  In 1995, archaeologists uncovered remains of the medieval synagogue on Vienna’s Judenplatz, the intended site of the city’s Holocaust memorial.  The synagogue is known to have been demolished in a pogrom of 1420, during which the Jews of Vienna were murdered, expelled or forcibly baptized.  The pogrom culminated with the burning at the stake of 200 Jews on March 12, 1421, an event still celebrated with a plaque at Judenplatz #2.  The synagogue is thought to have been built in the 13th century (it is first mentioned in 1294),  about a century after the Babenberg margraves allowed Jews to settle.  It appears to have had a double-nave plan with a hexagonal bimah.  Under the floor of the synagogue the excavators found traces of an earlier wooden building, and below that, strata from the Roman period.  A thick layer of ash, found near the synagogue windows, suggests that the building was burnt down.  Stones from the synagogue were subsequently used in the construction of Vienna’s university.  City archaeologists believe that remains of other Jewish community structures, including a mikveh, hospital and slaughterhouse may lie under the square or nearby.  Plans for how the archaeological remains will be preserved have not been made, and the future of the excavation is tied up in the contentious debate over the Holocaust memorial.

Maribor, Slovenia: The ancient city of Maribor, situated on the Drava River, was the stronghold of Slovenia's medieval Jewish population.  Mention of a Jew as early as 1103 -- David son of Moses -- was found in Ptuj, 25 km. south of Maribor.  A Jewish community is first mentioned in Maribor proper in 1277.  Noted Rabbi Israel Isserlein held the title "Chief Rabbi of Styria, Carinthia and Carniola" between 1427 and 1435.  The success of the Jewish community of Maribor in the 15th century is attested to by the fact that several Catholic families requested conversion to Judaism, something unheard of in most parts of Europe. After expulsion, most Jews from Maribor made their way to Venice, though some, like the Morpurgo family, went to Split, and more importantly, to Trieste, where they prospered.

Remains of a synagogue have been excavated in the old center of Maribor, near the south-west corner of the town walls.  This building, thought by the excavators to have measured 16.50 x 12.80 meters, may have resembled the Altneushul of Prague in overall appearance.  It post-dates 1190, since it abuts a wall of that date.  Its earliest appearance and date are unknown, but it was remodeled on several occasions, and something of its late Gothic appearance can be surmised.  The building was rectangular in plan; two square piers divided the basement level into two aisles.  Whether this arrangement was originally repeated above is unclear.  An upper story was entered from the west and against the east wall, set between two tall lancet windows with Gothic tracery, was built the ark.  Above the ark a small round window let in further illumination.  When later used as a church, this room was an open hall, apparently covered with multi-rib vaults which sprang from the side walls.  The entire building was probably surmounted by a steep wooden roof.  An annex was built against the north side of the building, possibly for women.  The date of the original construction and all additions and alterations prior to the transformation of the building into a church are unknown.  Jews were expelled from Maribor and its surrounding territory in a decree issued by emperor Maximillian in 1496.  The synagogue was transformed into a church in 1501.  Nearby is a structure known as the "Jewish Tower," a fortified structure thought to have been built by Jewish residents in 1465. Numerous documents evidencing Jewish life and presence in Maribor are in the town archives.

For more information contact Mark A. Cohen., 3393 Stephenson Pl., NW, Washington, DC 20015.
 
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Updated: 1-7-99