2011
05.06

SYNOPSIS:

A visit to the Sephardic Synagogues, and a walk along the ramparts of the Old City.

Why the four synagogues in the Jewish quarter are a full story below street level has led to many legends and speculation. The most plausible explanation, perhaps, is that the sultan who allowed the restoration of these places in the 19th century demanded that none of them top the surrounding buildings or stand out as a place of worship.  Going below ground was a logical solution to get the space needed without violating any official restrictions.  Four synagogues were built at different times for different congregations.  Each of them entered at their own door, had a few customs unique from the others, and performed a few rituals their own specific way.

These synagogues were in use until 1948 when this part of Jerusalem among others was conquered by Jordan.  Until 1968 there was neglect and decay.  Cows were kept in the synagogues and debris collected.  After the capture of Jerusalem by Israeli forces, reconstruction began as elsewhere in the Jewish Quarter.  Today, these synagogues are both functional and museums, open to the public.  A photo history and a few precious objects that date from before 1948 are on display.  This is a quiet spot.  Few tourists get lost so far out in the quarter; most tourists flock to the Christian site or to the more flamboyant Hurva Synagogue.  But here, below the ground you can study the layout of a synagogue and find the defining features of this religious place:  the Bima in the center for reading the Torah, the Ark to house the Torah, the balcony for the women, the pews for the men.  Each synagogue has elements borrowed from other cultures and religions, for example: the pointed arch from Medieval Christianity, and the perforated dome reminiscent of the Arab Hammam.  Together with about four other synagogues in the Old City they now form a healthy group of religious Jewish structures, but still, if you would count churches, they by far outnumber their Jewish cousins.

The rest of the afternoon was spent on the ramparts surrounding the Old City.  Not much can be said about them, except that the famous stone walls which now surround Jerusalem’s Old City have been built and repaired in their current form by Suleiman the Magnificent, from Istanbul.  He never set foot into Jerusalem, but sent the funds along for this project nonetheless.  You get your exercise on this walk!  Up and down rugged stairs and along uneven stones you’d better watch out for your safety.  You can observe people from up there almost unnoticed and get views into the more intimate back yards of the houses in each quarter.  You see the water tanks and the satellite dishes side by side with the church steeples and the domes of the mosques.  Jack said this walk was the hardest he ever did since his days in the army — and that was during the Korean war…  I did not think it was that hard, but it wore us out.

The Armenian Quarter is the smallest of the four and the most exclusive one.  Seminaries and churches are closed to visitors except for a few select hours a day and tall walls prevent you from peeking in.  But the Armenian Tavern, a nicely decorated and conveniently located Armenian restaurant was open and we got our well-deserved dinner and libations there after the rampart adventure.

Good night.

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