where has the arch gone Annals of the Hurva Synagogue

Arch. Ilan Kariv Prof. Henry Abramovitch

The reconstructed arch of the Hurva was until recently one of the prominent architectural symbols of the Jewish Quarter in Jerusalem. Although made of stone-clad concrete, its stature - seemingly defying the laws of nature - had come to symbolize the historical survival of Jewish settlement in the Old City of Jerusalem, against all the adversaries of time, wars and riots. 

The Hurva synagogue is undoubtedly one of the most significant buildings in the life of the Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem. Seemingly the first prayer hall built in Jerusalem since the destruction of the Temple, it has become a spiritual center over the years. However, its strength as a national symbol - for both religious and secular Israeli Jews - is at risk, following its recent reconstruction. 

Mamluk documents indicate that the Hurva Synagogue was first built in 1425. Ovadia of Bartenura, after arriving in Jerusalem in 1488, mentions the synagogue as the center of life for the seventy families of the 'lowly' (Ashkenazim), alongside the Ramban synagogue that served the lofty Sephardic community. 

In 1699 the Ashkenazi community decided to renovate the ancient synagogue with money borrowed from their Arab neighbors, with the hope that Rabbi Yehuda Hahassid, who was planning to come to the country with his disciples, would assist in raising money. Unfortunately, Rabbi Yehuda Hahassid died five days after arrival, and the impoverished community had to pawn all the buildings in the Ashkenazi Courtyard including the synagogue.

In 1720 the Arab money lenders destroyed all the buildings in the Ashkenazi Courtyard, and burned down the synagogue. For nearly a century the area stood in ruins (hence the name 'hurva' meaning ruins), until 1812 - when an envoy of the Gaon of Vilna started rebuilding the foundations of the Ashkenazi Courtyard, intending to reconstruct the synagogue. In 1856 Sir Moshe Montefiore received permission from the Ottoman Sultan to rebuild the Hurva. The Ashkenazi community hired the services of Assad Effendi - a Turkish architect who had been invited by the Sultan to renovate the buildings of al-Haram al-Sharif - the Temple Mount.

Effendi's building was planned in the Byzantine-Ottoman style, similar to the Mosque of Omar he had designed near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. With its high dome towering above the skyline, the Hurva created an architectural dialogue with the golden Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount. The rebuilt synagogue was inaugurated in 1864, and officially named Beit Ya'akov, for Yaakov James de Rothschild who had financed most of it.

However, the new synagogue was inevitably referred to as 'The Hurva of Rabbi Yehuda Hahassid', for the next 84 years - until the Jordanian army, upon conquering the Old City in the War of Independence, destroyed the Hurva along with all the Jewish buildings to prevent the continuation of Jewish life in the Old City. This is attested to in the speech made by the Jordanian commander, who was proud that 'for the first time in a thousand years there are no more Jews in the Old City'. The synagogue was once again desolate in ruins, with the foundations of the arch partly preserved at its south wall.

After the liberation of the Old City in the Six Day War, the rebuilding of the Hurva was central to that of the Jewish Quarter. The question was whether to reconstruct the ancient synagogue or, instead, to erect a monumental building in the spirit of the times. Some of the decision makers preferred to leave the ruins as an archeological garden. Preferring a monumental building, Mayor Teddy Kollek asked architect Ram Karmi to draw up the plans. Karmi declined, claiming that Louis Kahn - a Jewish architect of fine reputation - was the only one capable of planning a synagogue of the national stature of the Hurva.

Louis Kahn, then at the height of his fame, had been involved in the design of a number of important synagogues, such as Mikve Israel in Philadelphia and Temple Beit El in New York. The new project gave him the opportunity to plan a Jewish building on a world scale under the rubric of 'world synagogue'. For this purpose he visited Jerusalem in 1967 and presented his first plan in July 1968, and subsequent ones in 1969 and 1972. All of Kahn's alternatives were based on location of the new building adjacent to the Hurva, along the concept of 'ruins wrapped around buildings', in addition to the symbolic connection of the new building to the Western Wall plaza.

Kahn's Hurva was to be a 'Jewish cathedral' to echo the Dome of the Rock and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. However, his modernist plan raised heated debates, particularly in view of its massive size and dominating presence in the urban context of the Jewish Quarter. The plan was turned down by the regional committee - to Teddy Kollek's mind for political reasons.

Although his plan was not realized, Kahn's proposals are considered among his unbuilt masterpieces. As compensation, he received a formal commission to design the Hurva memorial plaza on the site of the ruins of the old Hurva. However, this plan too was not carried out, as Kahn passed away in 1974.

Following Kahn's demise, an invited international  competition was held for the planning of the Hurva, but Teddy Kollek ignored its results. In 1980, out of deference to his British donor Sir Charles Clore, Kollek commissioned British architect Sir Denys Lasdun, who in collaboration with Peter Softley had planned the Royal National Theatre in London - a gigantic Brutalist complex inaugurated three years earlier amidst public controversy.

Lasdun’s proposal, developed with Israeli architect Yosef Shoenberger, sought to be integral to the Jewish Quarter, relating to the surrounding buildings. While Kahn had built his monumental edifice next to the ruins, Lasdun, following new guidelines, positioned his synagogue over the ruins and created a new massive square at the heart of the Jewish Quarter. In addition to a large prayer hall, the new complex would contain lecture halls, classrooms and a library, and like Kahn - a connection to the Western Wall plaza. Lasdun’s design also remained unbuilt - vetoed by Prime Minister Begin - but is considered by leading architectural historian William JR Curtis as one of the most successful modernist monuments ever designed.

The ongoing conflict around the sensitive issue was temporarily resolved in 1976, when the arch was symbolically reconstructed by then Jewish Quarter architects Shalom Gardi and Yoel Bar Dor, with engineer Yossi Gordon. The arch that was built over the ruins of the old synagogue granted it significant architectural presence, which disappeared once the synagogue was rebuilt and inaugurated in March 2010.

The new building was designed by Jerusalem architect Nahum Meltzer of N. Meltzer - G. Igra - A.Cohen Architects. Meltzer's challenge was to build an active synagogue that would comply with present day requirements of comfort, safety, security, and accessibility - while preserving the mythical aspect of the Hurva.

In 2001, prior to the planning process, the Antiquities Authorities conducted comprehensive research headed by preservation architect Faina Milshtein. Archeological diggings reaching down to the bedrock - about four meters beneath the synagogue level - revealed findings from the First Temple period up to the Mamluk time. Part of the relics are preserved in an archeology museum in the basement floor, and they include two Second Temple mikvehs, a rare Byzantine arch, and a portion of the Byzantine pavement linking to the Cardo some 300 meters away.

Complementary research carried out by Faina Milshtein in 2002-2008 helped redefine the principles that had guided the original interior design of the building. It turned out that over the years the main interior components had undergone changes, such as the Bima (platform), paintings, and other decorative elements. 

Meltzer considered the various wall paintings as lacking artistic value except for four medallions of Jewish sacred sites, for which he gave visual guidelines. Rather, he focused on reconstructing the ornate 19th century wooden and metal work - the Torah Ark and Bima, originally hand-built in Kharson, Ukraine. Free interpretation of the glass-stained windows following a recently found painting has contributed to the incorporation of natural light upon the bright white walls, resembling the special light of the destroyed building.

The collected findings, including etchings, documentation and photos, and a scale model of the Hurva (including measurements) built by Meir Rosin in 1912, served as the basis for planning, which according to Meltzer was 'merely a reconstruction of the original design of the Turkish architect Assad Effendi'.

It is noteworthy that while the Antiquities Authority demanded that all remnants of the 19th century building be preserved entirely, according to Article 9 of the Venice Charter (International Charter for the Conservation and Restoration of Monuments and Sites), the architect supported a somewhat flexible approach, claiming that the original building (which had stood for nearly 200 years) was made of inferior materials, and their incorporation in the new building may be problematic. 

After intense discussions a compromise was reached. It was agreed that three of the original walls would be conserved, while four pendentives were to be partially destroyed and replaced by new concrete ones clad with stone.

Since part of the ruins' stones were diverse in appearance and quality, it was decided not to use them, but to clad the building in uniform white-cream colored stone, giving the massive structure certain lightness.
The building is an interesting combination of reconstruction and renovation, with the sole conservation focusing on the eastern wall - the focus of praying and site of the Torah scrolls - the only wall to survive, together with its two pendentives. Some façades were concealed by neighboring buildings, thus not documented historically - allowing Meltzer greater freedom. 

The height of the Hurva is 24 meters, the same as the original building - yet 6 meters higher than Louis Kahn's proposal, and 4.5 meters above that of Denys Lasdun. Since it is placed above the Sephardic synagogues - the most important of which is the Ramban Synagogue - its bearing walls 'float'. 

Access to the building is via a pedestrian way, perpendicular to the Cardo - the main road of Byzantine Jerusalem. A narrowing staircase passes underneath an ancient yeshiva hall, and opens onto a narrow courtyard with the façade of the synagogue towering above. An observation balcony surrounding the dome enables (those allowed to climb up!) a spectacular view of the Old City and beyond.

The Company for the Preservation and Development of the Jewish Quarter, behind the project, has hoped to retrieve the Hurva's days of glory. However, beyond interest in the new building, its success is still uncertain. Its inauguration was accompanied by days of rioting by the Muslim population who feared a threatening change in the status quo in the Old City, while Jewish groups - religious and secular - were afraid that the national symbol embodied in the Hurva had been compromised. 

The regulations formulated to achieve a balance between religious and secular interests - by permitting both daily prayers as well as guided tours - failed to achieve their purpose. As expected, the Hurva was quickly taken over by the ultra-orthodox, and protest demonstrations between secular and religious ended in fistfights inside the synagogue. 

From the public point of view - it is noteworthy that despite the national importance of the Hurva, the only competition for its planning was never realized. In view of the enormous efforts invested in the restoration - one of the largest of its kind in Israel - its symbolic status as a unifying national- spiritual heritage center remains doubtful.

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