28 February 2015

From Aleppo to Jerusalem: saving synagogue art and architecture

The main synagogue in Aleppo Syria was built in the Byzantine period. Damaged in the Mongol sack of Aleppo in 1400, it was later expanded and modernised. With the arrival of the Sephardi Jews in Aleppo in the C16th, a wing on the eastern side of the main courtyard was built, facing Jerusalem. In a central spacious courtyard, surrounded by porticoes, was a raised and covered reader's platform around which the congregation sat.

The Aleppo Jewish community (10,200) was not huge in 1900....but it was scholarly, successful in trading and well integrated into city life. When they needed more space to pray collectively, an adjacent courtyard was used as an open-air synagogue in the summertime. Only the Holy Ark had to remain covered by a roof at all times.This lovely Aleppo synagogue remained essentially unchanged until it was looted and burned in the riots of 1947.

In 1901, far away in Ottoman Jerusalem, members of the Ades family funded the construction of a synagogue for Jews who had emigrated from Aleppo. It was built off an alleyway near the open-air market of Mahaneh Yehuda, a neighbourhood where synagogues were typically tiny. The Ades Synagogue was no bigger.

Yaakov Stark’s wall paintings
Ades Synagogue in Jerusalem

The woodwork inside the Ades Synagogue was intricate Damascene carpentry inlaid with mother-of-pearl, a reminder of the community’s Aleppo home. The benches were not arranged facing the front, as in European synagogues; Aleppo worshipers faced the small central platform where the cantor stood and where the Torah was read. Very social; very Middle Eastern.

After a few years the synagogue’s leaders made the decision to decorate the walls. So they invited an artist to do the work, but he was not from Syria and was not affiliated with any of the city’s religious communities. Matti Friedman wrote at length about young Yaakov Stark; he had moved from Galicia to Jerusalem in 1905, along with the many Jewish idealists making their way into Turkish Palestine back then. Stark was an early member of the Bezalel Art School, which was just down the street from the synagogue. He earned a meagre living drawing postcards and providing magazine illustrations. He was penniless most of the time; even the Ades project was never properly funded.

The Aleppo Jews were open-minded about their art work. Which was just as well. Stark believed aesthetics to be indivisible from the ideas of Zionism; there was no point in returning to the Land of Israel to create something ugly. Stark covered the interior with a combination of traditional Biblical motifs and the new icons of the Zionist movement, woven together like a mosaic in shades of blue and green. He included biblical passages, using a Hebrew font that mixed Arabic calligraphy with Art Nouveau.

Ades Synagogue in Jerusalem

Stark spent years on the synagogue murals, completing them in 1912. Two years later, in 1914, world war broke out. Tourism to the Holy Land dried up, and with it orders for art work. Stark found employment painting houses, or lived on charity. He often could not pay rent for the room he shared with his family. In 1915, three years after completing the murals, he contracted pneumonia and died; he was 34 and largely unknown.

Almost 100 years later, in 2009, art historian Nirit Shalev-Khalifa was walking through the synagogue’s iron gate and found a workman was covering the murals with a modern version of Stark’s original in shiny acrylic. The glue used by the workman posed an immediate danger to the murals. Experts from the Israel Museum and the Ben-Zvi Institute, created to preserve the heritage of Middle Eastern Jewry, became involved... but with­out success. Ades Synagogue was private property!

Later an official in charge of historic buildings at the Jerusalem municip­ality happened upon a forgotten by-law passed in the 1980s, preserv­ing 42 buildings inside and out. One of them was the Ades synagogue. The art experts went to court, and this time they succeeded.

Ades is not like a synagogue on the Western model, opening at set prayer times. Rather it is like a mosque in an Islamic city — a place that is always open, where citizens can find a conversation, a drink, some quiet time. The Rabbi is one of the old Aleppo Jewish families. And other things haven’t changed either. The synagogue still chants the Sabbath pray­ers according to the maqam melodies of Arab music. Ades is considered the most important centre for the Jewish liturgy of Aleppo.

The prime minister’s office in charge of heritage sites ended up paying for a professional restoration of the murals, which lasted two years. The ceiling remains to be restored.

The courtyard of the Great Synagogue of Aleppo.
An exact model at the Beit Hatfutsot museum in Tel Aviv


The Aleppo Codex was an important manuscript of the Bible, written in Hebrew and bound in the C10th. During the First Crusade (1096-99), its home in a Jerusalem synagogue was looted but thankfully the codex was safely taken to Egypt and protected. I am not sure exactly how the codex was transferred from Egypt to Syria in 1375, but Aleppo did become its permanent home. Aleppo's Jews believed that if their precious Bible was destroyed, it would coincide with the destruction of their long and historic community. [Noone knew back then that the entire city of Aleppo would be bombed and destroyed in the Syrian Civil War during 2013 and 2014].

Then the unthinkable happened.. in 1947. Almost 600 years after the codex was secured in the underground safe in the Central Synagogue of Aleppo, anti-Semitic riots burned the city's houses and synagogues. Many of the codex's pages were burned beyond saving, but the rest of the pages were taken out of Syria and sent to Jerusalem for preservation.

Today visitors can see the surviving parts of the Aleppo Codex in the Shrine of the Book, next to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The underground building evokes the caves in which the Dead Sea scrolls were found. And the white dome, a sanctuary whose shape was inspired by the lids of the jars in which the scrolls were found, is the only visible part above ground. The Aleppo Codex will never be destroyed by looting, burning mobs again.

Shrine of the Book, Jerusalem

24 February 2015

Elegant Shopping IV: London's Royal Exchange

I visited the Royal Exchange building in the City of London and it reminded me of the Queen Victoria Building in Sydney: a large number of classy shops under one roof. But the dates of the two buildings were different and the shapes of the two buildings were very different.

London’s Royal Exchange was first founded in 1565 by the merchant-financier Sir Thomas Gresham (d1579), to act as a centre of commerce for the city. The site was provided by the City of London Corporation and the Worshipful Company of Mercers, a livery company in London that had received its royal charter some 170 years earlier. The Exchange's aim was to act as a trade association for general merchants; they exported the material that was the pride and joy of Britain (wool) and they imported the luxurious fabrics that were not available in Britain (like silk).

The first building was triangular in shape, formed by the convergence of Cornhill and Threadneedle Streets. According to Thomas Gresham, the design was inspired by a bourse that he had seen on a visit to Antwerp. The Royal Exchange was officially opened by Queen Elizabeth I who awarded the building its royal title, in Jan 1571. Sadly Gresham's original building was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Second building's interior courtyard, 1788,
by Francesco Bartolozzi
Published & sold by Mr Chapman

Second building's interior courtyard, 1822, 
by Richard Holmes Laurie
photo credit: George Glazer Gallery

A second Royal Exchange was built on the site, designed by Edward Jerman, which opened in 1669. An engraving from 1788, by Francesco Bartolozzi, shows how the newer, larger, second building was laid out. Mr Chapman noted that the Royal Exchange in its heyday was at the heart of what the City of London did best: commerce. I would add that the engraving also shows business men having a very pleasant public life.

And  we can see a 1822 view of the interior courtyard by Richard Holmes Laurie, a well known map and print maker. Groups of men in top hats and long coats, and other people, were standing around the centre, presumably doing business. This view was published in the year after the new tower in the centre had been erected. Sadly the second version of the Royal Exchange was also destroyed by fire, this time in January 1838.

In the era of the second Royal Exchange, stockbrokers were apparently considered vulgar creatures and so were not allowed inside. If they wanted to do business, they had to operate from other local establishments, like coffee-houses that specialised in the world of finance.

Third building
Glass covered courtyard inside the Royal Exchange

The third Royal Exchange building still stands on the site and is faithful to the original layout as best as the architects understood. From the aerial photo, you can still see the four-sided structure surrounding a glass covered central courtyard where merchants and tradesmen could do business. The interior Corinthian columns and the bright inner courtyard look similar to the 18th century engraving.

Aerial photo

There were various shops with entrances along the side streets: book shops, opticians, tobacco shops etc. Above were the business offices of merchants, insurance companies and of The Society of Lloyd's, which had two suites of flats. In the square inner courtyard, there was a statue of King Charles II – is it still there? This third building was opened by Queen Victoria in Oct 1844 and trading started straight after the Christmas break.

Louis Grimshaw's 1903 depiction of the Royal Exchange illustrated the enthusiastic coronation celebrations for Edward VII, just at the end of Queen Victoria’s reign. Alfred Drury was the sculptor of a large war memorial in front of the Exchange, created at the end of WW1.

The Royal Exchange ceased to act as a centre of commerce in 1939, although for a few years it did house the London International Financial Futures Exchange. It is now a luxurious shopping centre, selling particularly high end goods like Tiffany’s, Chanel jewellery and Louis Vuitton.

Luxury shopping today

21 February 2015

Why execute a middle aged nurse, a Christian woman of healing? Edith Cavell.

Edith Cavell (1865-1915) was the daughter of a parson in Norfolk. After inheriting some money in 1895, she spent several weeks touring Austria and Bavaria and accidentally discovered a free hospital run by Dr Wolfenberg in Bavaria. Cavell was very impressed.

Edith returned to her childhood home in 1895 to nurse her sick father. This experience, and her experience in the Bavarian hospital, convinced Edith that a career in nursing was for her. After a few months spent at the Fountains Fever Hospital in Tooting, Edith started nursing training at the Royal London Hospital. A typhoid epidemic broke out in Maidstone in Kent, so Edith went with five other nurses to help. Successfully. Three years later, after completing her training, Edith went into private nursing, gaining experience in pleurisy, pneumonia and typhoid.

Fluent in French, Edith Cavell returned to Brussels in 1907 where Dr Antoine Depage opened the pioneering Belgian Medical Institute. Edith ran the organisation and created a training programme to produce well qualified nurses for three hospitals, 24 communal schools and 13 kindergartens.

Cavell in Brussels pre-war, 1914
Imperial War Museum Archives

When the war broke out, she was at home in the safety of Norfolk but insisted on returning to Europe. Many dedicated Christians refused to wield guns in WW1, but Edith Cavell was willing to fight in another way. She worked as a nurse in German-occupied Belgium where she helped save the lives of soldiers from both sides!!

After the city of Brussels was captured by the Germans in the first month of war and brought under German military legislation, Cavell chose to remain at her post, tending to both German and Belgian soldiers. Many refugees from all over the country went to the Netherlands, which was neutral, or to France, which was Britain’s closest ally.

By late 1914, many soldiers from the British and French armies were cut off from their units. They hid themselves as best they could, and hoped to escape with the aid of the Belgian farmers, sympathetic towns people or Edith Cavell. Despite understanding clearly that, if she was caught assisting Allied soldiers, she too could be executed, Cavell worked with an underground network. They smuggled Allied patients of the hospital into the neutral Netherlands, and to safety. This informal group smuggled from 200-1000 allied soldiers out.

She was betrayed and arrested in August 1915, only 9 months after the underground network had been established. Except for her detailed confessions, the prosecution would have had no hard evidence that Cavell had personally enabled military escapees to reach the UK. So the Germans were pleased to try her for treason and to find her guilty. Despite appeals for clemency from abroad, she was shot in Brussels in October 1915, aged 49.

Here are some of the questions that still disturb me. Why did Cavell give detailed and accurate evidence against herself? Why was the British Foreign Office powerless to intervene on her behalf? Nurse Cavell was never a spy so why did the Germans gun her to death? Surely they should have allowed her to continue treating seriously wounded German soldiers, as she had before. 

Cavell memorial, 1920
Charing Cross, London

by Sir George Frampton

Cavell memorial, 1919
close to Norwich Cathedral

After the war her body was repatriated to the UK (in May 1919) and re-buried in Norwich Cathedral. Beautiful and imposing memorials were erected in Norwich, Brussels, London and other places around the world. 100 years later Edith Cavell was featured on a new commemorative £5 coin, marking the centenary of WW1.

There is a touch of the Florence Nightingale story in the themes of Christianity and nursing, and there are also reminders of Joan of Arc in Cavell's service to nation "at any cost". Readers might like to locate the Dictionary of National Biography Archive - its biography was published in 1927.