A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Greek synagogues are modest buildings. Like their counterparts in Turkey, they are often hidden behind walls, accessed through small doors from the market or side streets. Their importance rests not so much in their architecture. Rather, they are remnants of an ancient tradition that has been lost in most parts of Greece, vestiges of thriving communities that perished during World War II. Their preservation and study is an obligation, and perhaps a last opportunity to save a tradition that is being lost to emigration, assimilation, and ignorance.
I returned to Greece in the summer of 1993 after spending ten years abroad studying and working in Israel and the United States. Coming from a world where Jewish heritage was considered worthy of preservation, I was shocked to find that the conservation of synagogues was not on the agenda of Greek or Greek-Jewish officials. The extent to which this was not an issue became clear when I started writing articles about the endangered state of Greek Jewish heritage, only to be told that I was threatening the well-being of the community! Despite this indifference, I began surveying and studying Greece's remaining synagogues, supported in part by the World Monuments Fund and a seed grant from the Jewish Museum of Greece.
The Romaniots, the original Jewish population of the eastern Mediterranean and the Balkans, have lived in the area since antiquity. Both the Greek historian and geographer Strabo and the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria reported that organized Jewish communities existed throughout the known world in the first centuries A.D. In Greece, substantial communities existed in Thessaly, Beoetia, Macedonia, Aetolia, Attica, Argos, Corinth, throughout much of the Peloponnese, and on the islands of Euboea and Crete. In the first century A.D., Greek Jewish communities were visited by St. Paul the Apostle on his second journey, when he preached Christianity in synagogues at Philippi, Thessaloniki, Veroia, Athens, and Corinth. During the Byzantine and early Ottoman periods the Jewish presence in Greece continued, but little is known of the community's life, customs, and architecture. What knowledge we have comes from laws issued either to persecute or defend them, and through diaries of travelers such as Benjamin (Ben Jonah) of Tudela, a Jewish traveler of the second half of the twelfth century who visited Jewish communities in Corfu, Arta, Patras, Corinth, Thebes, Egripo (Halkida), Salonika, and Drama.
The year 1492 marked an important revival of Jewish life in Greece, as many of Spain's expelled Sephardic Jews, and later Portuguese Jews, found refuge in the Greek territories and cities of the Ottoman Empire. Fighting between the Ottomans and the Byzantines had caused most major Greek cities to lose their Jewish populations. The Ottomans invited Jews to their new capital, Istanbul, to increase its population and revive trade. Territorial shifts in the Balkans throughout the early twentieth century brought changes in the composition and character of the Jewish communities of Greece. Salonika, a Jewish city throughout Ottoman times, became part of Greece in 1913 after the Balkan Wars weakened the Ottoman Empire strategically and territorially.
Serbia, Austria, and Bulgaria, all fighting against the Turks, were eager to annex this majority Jewish city and prosperous international port after it was seized from the Ottomans. The city was finally "granted" to Greece, rather than declared an international neutral city, only after political and economic speculation by Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia, and Austria, and fighting between the Greek and Bulgarian armies in the streets of the city in June 1913. During the 1930s, there were 31 Jewish communities in Greece. The largest, in Salonika, had more than 50,000 people, and no fewer than 60 synagogues and midrashim (oratories) to serve a diverse population with roots all across the Mediterranean and Eastern Europe. The German occupation of Greece during the Second World War resulted in the annihilation of 87 percent of the country's Jews and the destruction of most of its synagogues. Fortunately, a great many artifacts, religious objects, and costumes of the Romaniot and Sephardic communities have been preserved, many of which were bequeathed to the Jewish Museum of Greece in Athens, which opened in the late 1970s. Important knowledge on Greek Jewish customs, cuisine, costumes, and the history of numerous communities was preserved.
Jewish architecture was not nearly as fortunate. By the end of World War II, Jews had lost a great deal of their community property. Synagogues were destroyed, cemeteries were bulldozed and built over, and property was confiscated. Except for very few photographs and descriptions of survivors, little evidence of these buildings remains. In the postwar years, many more synagogues have been lost, mostly because there has been no Jewish community to maintain them.
Early Greek synagogues were built by traveling builders' guilds (called isnaf) of the Byzantine and later Ottoman times. These builders established a very distinct architectural style that can be found in northern Greece, Bulgaria, Skopje, Izmir, and elsewhere in lands that lay within the Ottoman Empire. The scale and detailing of isnaf-built synagogues are similar to those of local houses and mansions by the same or different isnafs. Unlike churches or mosques in the region, which borrowed their architectural vocabulary from the Byzantine and Turkish traditions, synagogues had no distinct architectural tradition, and thus used design from residential construction. The isnafs used local materials, mostly wood, to build synagogues which they placed atop shallow stone foundations. Most interiors were decorated with wood, while the walls were coated with three layers of plaster reinforced with goat hair. Many isnaf buildings, both secular and religious, are characterized by a sahnisi, a projection of the first floor over the ground floor that allowed more light and wind to enter the structure. The isnafs' building tradition was maintained until the mid-nineteenth century, when social and economic reforms were introduced in the Ottoman Empire that exposed it more to European influences. These influences also brought more progressive styles in synagogue architecture, found, for example, in Salonika, as early as the 1890s.
The layout of Greek synagogues is also a product of influences from abroad, as these communities were at a crossroads of international trade. The bipolar type of Romaniot synagogue is probably a product of Italian, mostly Venetian, influences. In this type, the bimah, or reader's table, is located against the western wall of the synagogue, while the eihal (scroll repository) is against the eastern. The central bimah in Sephardic synagogues derives from the Spanish tradition, and the Reform style of Greek synagogues of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, where the bimah and the eihal are next to each other at the east end of the synagogue, has its roots in the Reform movement of mid-nineteenth-century Germany.
The most effective way to preserve Greece's Jewish architecture is to preserve the buildings themselves. Unfortunately, this effort began too late, after the Sephardic synagogue of Didmoticho, in Thrace, an astonishing building greatly influenced by the Signora synagogue in Izmir, was demolished in 1985. The Didmoticho and Signora synagogues shared a distinct architectural and decorative style; their interiors were organized in a central plan, where four columns define the center of the hall, a scheme known as Ottoman style. Capitals of these columns are neither classical nor of any defined style. They are most like the work of builder refugees from Izmir (Greeks or Jews who left Izmir after 1922), or of Balkan isnaf architects who were exposed to or involved in the building tradition of Izmir.
Two more synagogues were demolished in 1994 and 1995: the Beit El synagogue in Komotini, Thrace, a fine example of Balkan construction dating from the mid-nineteenth century, unique for its exposed roof lantern, and the synagogue in Xanthi, in Thrace, an impressive basilica dating from 1926, influenced by the Reform synagogues of Europe and Edirne (Adrianople) in Turkey. These two buildings were demolished in 1993 and 1995, respectively, months after I had surveyed them in their dilapidated state. Together with their survey and complete photographic documentation, I collected pieces of the buildings, such as floor and roof tiles (the latter made at the famous factory of the Jewish Allatini brothers in Salonika), pieces of the walls with painted floral decoration, a piece of a plaster capital of the columns, and other such "souvenirs." In a way, I was trying to keep their material memory alive, despite the fact that I knew that they were already dead as buildings.
Despite this destruction, though, efforts are now under way to preserve two of the most important remaining synagogues in Greece. Etz Haim synagogue in Chania, Crete, is a converted Catholic church of the seventeenth century that has been listed on the World Monuments Watch list of endangered sites thanks to the efforts of Nikos Stavroulakis, former director of the Jewish Museum of Greece, and Lilian Kapon, of a Chaniot family. Support from international foundations such as Samuel Kress Foundation in New York and the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece will enable the restoration of the building and its conversion into an active synagogue and museum of Crete's Jewish history.
A similar effort is in progress in Veroia, a small city with ancient history important not only to Greek Christians, but to Greek Jews as well: Veroia was one of the cities that St. Paul the Apostle visited in A.D. 49-52. The synagogue of Veroia, a jewel of Balkan vernacular architecture built by isnaf craftsmen, remains in a state of neglect, within the fairly well-preserved Jewish quarter of the city. This quarter, one of the last remaining in Greece, is unique for its Hebrew inscriptions and verses painted on the exterior walls of houses.
The conservation effort in Veroia, coordinated by the author on behalf of the municipality of Veroia, has relied for support on two grants from the Getty Grant Program in Santa Monica, California, and matching funds from the local municipality. The goal of this effort is not only to preserve the last (outside Salonika) and oldest remaining synagogue in northern Greece, an area once scattered with thriving Jewish communities; it is also to create a permanent photographic museum in the building's basement presenting the history of the town's Jewish community, the synagogue, and the conservation program. As a matter of fact, Connecticut's Paideia Hellenic Society has already pledged to provide seed money for the conservation work and the creation of a permanent exhibition.
The final phase of the work on the building is scheduled to begin this fall. The small Jewish communities of Greece, such as Ioannina, Halkida, Rhodes, and others, with populations of fewer than 60 people, are as endangered as Chania and Veroia were 20 years ago. Soon the communities will disappear and their synagogues will be abandoned. The conservation projects of Chania and Veroia are important case studies and open the way for the preservation of Jewish heritage.
Back in 1993, I felt alone in my efforts to preserve Greek Jewish synagogues. Today, a new era is dawning for Greek Jewry; the international rediscovery of Greek Jewish heritage is the necessary ingredient to help us preserve it for the generations to come.
Elias V. Messinas is a graduate of Yale School of Architecture and Bezalel Academy in Jerusalem and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in architecture and town planning at the National Technical University of Athens. He is the author of The Synagogues of Salonika and Veroia (Athens, 1997).