Arts & Entertainment

Aleppo’s Great Synagogue returns to life in virtual reality tour

By Sara Gómez Armas

Jerusalem, Sep 28 (EFE).- Destroyed several times but rarely restored, the Great Synagogue of Aleppo has returned to life in a virtual reality tour at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Back to Aleppo offers visitors a journey through the oldest Jewish synagogue, built between the fifth and seventh centuries and completely destroyed in the Syrian war in 2016.

The virtual reality tour draws from photographs taken in 1947, a few days before the United Nations resolution to establish the State of Israel which sparked violent riots that damaged the synagogue.

The photographs were an initiative by Sarah Shammah, a member of the Jewish community in Syria who decided to return to Aleppo, after moving to Jerusalem in 1932, to document the synagogue before it was destroyed.

“Sarah returned to Aleppo and hired an Armenian photographer and when they arrived at the Synagogue she told him please photograph everything, (…) she mapped all the synagogue and had 50 pictures in her hand,” the exhibition’s curator, Revital Hovav, tells Efe.

On December 1, 1947, two days after the UN resolution and a few days after Sarah took the photographs, the Arab world revolted against the Jewish community in Aleppo, setting fire to the Great Synagogue.

“The Armenian photographer immediately realized the value of his images so he went to Sarah to bargain for them. Either she would pay him a large sum of money or return the negatives. If she didn’t, he would report her to the Syrian authorities for spying for Israel,” Hovav says.

Sarah lied to the photographer saying she did not have the negatives at that time and would return them the following day.

Instead, she fled by car to Beirut and from there, flew back to Jerusalem and smuggled the negatives back to Israel.

Decades later, Back to Aleppo was born, an exhibition envisioned by Israeli filmmaker Ava Dabach, who also had childhood links to the Great Synagogue.

The virtual reality tour not only recreates Sarah’s last visit to the synagogue with the Armenian photographer, but also her experiences as a child in the sacred place.

“Jews usually were not allowed to build new synagogues since the Islam conquered those countries,” chief curator of Jewish Art and Customs at the Israel Museum, Rachel Sarfati, says.

The Israel Museum has also recovered the valuable Aleppo Codex, considered the most accurate manuscript of the Hebrew Bible written in Tiberias in the 10th century.

The manuscript was hidden in a metal cabinet in the Great Synagogue for some 600 years, until the fire in 1947.

“When the Muslims entered and saw the cabinet, they expected to find gold and silver. When they saw that it only contained books and manuscripts, they left them there,” director of the museum’s Shrine of the Book, Adolfo Roitman, tells Efe.

When the Jews came to the synagogue some days later, they took the pages of the codex but decided to keep it a secret out of fear that the Muslims would come and take it if they knew it was of value.

The secret was kept for a decade, until in 1958 the codex was smuggled out of Syria to Israel via Turkey. EFE


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