The Israel Museum displays the Aleppo Synagogue before it was destroyed

Screenshot “PLACE” VR Trailer / Vimeo

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The original has been damaged, possibly beyond repair. If the Israel Museum in Jerusalem nevertheless announces a visit to the Aleppo Synagogue, it is thanks to 50 historical photographs and the latest technology.

by Andrea Krugman

Aleppo’s Central Synagogue was one of the oldest used synagogues in the world – until it fell victim to a massacre on December 1, 1947, 1,500 years later. And now, Israeli documentary filmmakers from “Micha’s Film” and the “High Road Stories” studio in Berlin have almost made it into the church again. The reconstruction is based on 50 pictures ordered by Syrian Jew Sarah Shamma in 1947. These were to be the last pictures of the famous Aleppo Codex house before it caught fire. Return to Aleppo can be viewed at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem until December 31, 2023.

Jerusalem – Aleppo – Jerusalem. Sarah Shama crossed the distance several times. An album containing pictures of a synagogue in Aleppo in memory of her father, who loved this place so much – with this anxiety she set out again in November 1947 to her original city, which she left in 1932 for Jerusalem. “I don’t know what extraordinary intuition prompted me to go to Aleppo and photograph the synagogue,” she wrote in her notebook. It’s one of the few physical items on display, along with her passport.

Judaism trusted her intuition. I hired an Armenian photographer and had him photograph the synagogue from all angles. “We have a lot to do,” Shamma warns the virtual Armenian on one of two virtual reality tours of the action. “While the general tour allows the visitor to tour the building, Sarah’s story wants not only to bring the synagogue, but also its residents closer,” says Judith Manasen Ramon, one of the four architects of the reconstruction. And, of course, the title heroine was: Sarah is divorced, has a son, and an extraordinary and independent woman. Going out on your own at such a difficult time, especially when you’re a woman, takes on an optimistic and task-oriented spirit.

The photos were not developed when the United Nations published the partition plan for Palestine. Riots and pogroms against Jews and Jewish institutions erupted in many Middle Eastern countries. When the Jews of Aleppo were expelled, the photographer realized the surprising value of the photographs. “He demanded the return of the negatives and threatened to accuse Shamma of being a Zionist spy,” explains the exhibition’s curator, Revital Hovav. Shamma kept his calm, arrested the photographer until the next day and, with the help of a Muslim friend, fled to Palestine via Beirut, and took pictures with him. Hovav: “In 1988, at the age of eighty, she was the only one who allowed the Israel Museum to make prints of negatives and display them together with the Aleppo manuscript for the first time.”

Shamma used pictures as a modern medium for the art of her era. “We wanted to stay true to that with our work,” says Judith Manasen Ramon, describing the project’s biggest challenge. “Our virtual reality must remain true to images, architecture, and time,” she explains, why digital reconstruction passes without significant color and effects. Four chairs and four speakers: the rest happens in virtual glasses.

It was important to the curators that it was not a fantasy. “Our task as a museum is to display the originals. In the case of Aleppo, this is no longer possible, but virtual reality is based on artefacts,” says Revital Hovav, explaining the approach. This is confirmed by the physical place allocated by the museum “Back to Aleppo”: respectively with the four synagogues from Italy, Cochin, Germany and Suriname in the permanent exhibition in the Jewish part of the museum.

Meanwhile, Adolfo Reutmann emphasized the importance of the Aleppo Synagogue. It was considered a “holy place” because the Aleppo Codex was kept there, which for the Jewish people was “a metaphor for the presence of God in their community,” says the curator of the “Shrine of the Book,” part of the museum in which, among other things, the Aleppo Codex Edition is located. Many scholars consider the manuscript to be the most accurate and sacred source for both the biblical text and its pronunciation and transmission.

The synagogue in Aleppo was restored in the 1990s. In 2016, she fell again, this time as a victim of the war in Syria. “We will never see Aleppo again,” the virtual hero says at the end of the tour. The real Sarah Shammah noted in her notebook, “The photos I took will remain an unforgettable keepsake reminding us of the glorious past.”

KNA / akr / iki

A visit to the exhibition can be booked at https://www.imj.org.il/en/exhibitions/back-aleppo.

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