We have visited sites in the Jewish Quarter before, as part of our tours of Jerusalem in the First Temple Period, the Second Temple Period, even the Crusader Period. Today, however, was focused on the more recent history of the quarter, from when Jews returned to live in the area in around 1400 after being expelled from the area surrounding Mt Zion.
Historically, Jewish communities have been centred around synagogues, and these formed a large part of our morning tour. We began at the Ramban Synagogue where we learned about the great Torah scholar and thinker, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman after whom it is named. Arriving in Jerusalem in the 13th century, shortly after it had been devastated by Mongol marauders, he helped re-establish the Jewish community here and we heard from letters he wrote on the subject. It is probably the oldest synagogue in continuous use in Jerusalem.
The other contender for that crown is the Synagogue of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, located in the complex known as the ‘Four Sephardi Synagogues’. Originally all separate structures, they were united into one in the mid 19th century, when an Egyptian invasion relaxed many of the restrictions imposed by the Ottomans on Jewish building. Also in the complex are the Central, Istanbul and Elijah the Prophet synagogues. From 1948-67, when the Jewish Quarter was under Jordanian control, these buildings were used as storehouses, warehouses, and fell into disrepair. They have now been restored and are impressive structures; they remain in regular use by the local and visiting Sephardi communities as their main hub in Jerusalem.
We continued to the ruins of the Tiferet Yisrael synagogue, which is currently being restored. As one of the tallest buildings in the Jewish Quarter, it is quickly blown up by the Jordanian army as they advanced in 1948, to prevent any potential height advantage for Israeli fighters. It should be open in a few years for visitors to marvel at its renewed glory.
Opposite Tiferet Yisrael was the small Karaite Centre of Jerusalem. We descended underground to visit their synagogue which they believe has been at that site since the 9th century. The Karaites are an interesting group of Jews who follow only the Bible and not the following commentaries or exegesis in the Oral Law. They are now few in number and the Jerusalem synagogue only functions as a place for prayer on special request; the majority of the community is currently based in Ramla (avid blog followers will recall that we paid them a visit a few months ago).
Our final synagogue visit was also to the most magnificent of those in the Jewish Quarter, the ‘Hurva’. Originally built by Ashkenazi Jews arriving from Europe in the 1700s, it was destroyed when they could not pay the large loans taken to fund the construction; in fact this led to the formal expulsion of all Ashkenazi Jews from Jerusalem (although several found ingenious ways of sticking around). Rebuilt around 100 years later, it was again destroyed in 1948, this time by the Jordanians who as with Tiferet Yisrael decided to destroy the large buildings in the area. It was eventually rebuilt and restored at great expense, reopening just a few years ago in 2007. Its interior is quite stunning as are the views possible from the dome’s exterior balcony.
After some respite for refreshments we paid a quick visit to the site of Jerusalem’s first hospital (you can’t enter it anymore but we saw the building) and then popped into the very interesting Old Yishuv Courtyard museum. This small but carefully maintained museum tells the story of the life of the inhabitants of the Jewish Quarter under Ottoman and British rule with artefacts from their lives and rooms mocked up in traditional styles.
After a brief stop at a stunning viewpoint over the Temple Mount and the Western Wall, we concluded the day at the memorial for those who fell in the battle for the Jewish Quarter in the 1948 War of Independence. As the area was at the time under siege, it was impossible to bury the dead in the tradition location of the Mount of Olives cemetery; therefore special dispensation was given to bury them in a mass grave, which is now the memorial. After Israel took back the area in 1967, they moved the bones to the Mount of Olives. We heard here about the heroic struggle to survive and hold the Jewish Quarter in the war, which ultimately failed in the face of superior numbers and experience on the part of the Jordanian army. Although a huge dent in morale, the loss of this area made the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967 that much more euphoric.