Thursday, March 21, 2013

New Publication: The Synagogues of Greece: A Study of Synagogues in Macedonia and Thrace

New Publication: The Synagogues of Greece: A Study of Synagogues in Macedonia and Thrace

The American Sephardi Federation (ASF) has published and English edition of Elias V. Messinas' study The Synagogues of Greece: A Study of Synagogues in Macedonia and Thrace (ISBN 978-0-8197-0789-5) based on his 1999 doctoral dissertation and subsequent work on documentation and protection of Jewish heritage sites in Greece.

The book provides two main themes.  First, it is detailed history of the the synagogues of northern Greece (Macedonia and Thrace), mostly a legacy of the Ottoman period.  Messinas has dug deep to collect information on all identifiable synagogues, some known only by name.  He traces the history of these institutions and structures and places them in their urban context from the 15th through the 20th centuries - so there is much of value here for student's of Jewish settlement and Jewish quarters.  Almost all of these buildings are gone.  Many were destroyed in the great fire that swept Salonika in 1917.  Those that were rebuilt were destroyed in the Holocaust or in the years following, when the once large Jewish communities of Northern Greece were reduced to tiny numbers.  In the 1990s, Messinas was able to document several extant synagogues - albeit surviving in ruined condition - and document them with measured drawings and photos before they were demolished. 

Messinas was an almost lone voice protesting the demolition of the synagogues of Komitini and Didmoticho, by the Athens- based Greek Jewish community.  He also spear-headed the first phase of restoration of the historic synagogue of Verioia about which he wrote in his first book The Synagogues of Salonika and Veroia , Gavrielides Editions, Athens, Greece (ISBN 960-336-010-4) 158 pages  (1997, reprint 2000).  Some of the earlier material about Veroia and Salonika also appears in this new volume. 

The second theme of the book justifies the title The Synagogues of Greece, since it consists of a valuable portfolio of measured drawings - plans, elevations and section - of synagogues from all of the country, including the Peloponnese and the Islands.  This section is a valuable comparative tool for understanding a modern country's Jewish architectural heritage.  Still, this heritage has to be seen in larger context - some of which Messinas described in his text.   Depending on where they are/were located, Greek synagogues are tied to either Italian or Ottoman traditions, on in some cases to a more ancient Byzantine-Romaniote art and liturgy. Unfortunately, it is still a struggle in Greece to have Greek-Jewish heritage seen as Greek heritage.  The recent designation of the Jewish cemetery of Ioannina as a protected landmark is a good sign. 

Recent published books about synagogues in Turkey and Bulgaria, mostly carried out since Messinas finished much of his research, now allow us to create a well-documented visual (if not an historical) compendium of synagogue architecture of the Ottoman Balkans and Anatolia (related, but somewhat different traditions can be seen in Syria, Egypt and across North Africa).  Many of these photos can be seen in the online archive of the ASF.  I also look forward to future scholars using the new Messinas book in comparative studies of Moroccan and other Sephardi diaspora cultures to trace the legacy of Spanish Jewish culture in later architecture.

This book does not replace the still essential guide and reference by Nikos Stavroulakis and  Timothy J. DeVinney, Jewish Sites & Synagogues of Greece (Talos Press, 1992). The two books are very different and complement each other.  The Stavroulakis book especially can be used with Messinas's drawings.  

The American Sephardi Federation and Sephardi House have done a service in making this text - previously only online in Greek - available to a wider English speaking audience.  It is published as part of a series on the Holocaust in Greece edited by Prof. Steven Bowman.  Indeed, the documentation of this lost culture does bear witness to the destruction of the Holocaust.  But the study is much more than that - as it testifies to the long and deep Jewish roots in modern Greece and to the architectural heritage of Jewish communities which were part of an international culture.

I first met Elias twenty years ago when he was a graduate student just starting this quest.  I was glad to encoruage him at the time and I was happy to provide some modest effort to make this book possible. Elias is now a successful practicing architect, specializing in "Green" design.  He has left his studies of Greek synagogues behind, but this book (and his previous book) allow that is research will remain available and useful to all in the future.

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