Byzantine arch found at site of renovated Jerusalem synagogue

A high arch which had been part of the skyline of the Jewish Quarter in the Old City in Jerusalem since the Six Day War has recently disappeared. It belonged to the Hurva Synagogue, Israel’s grandest, most important synagogue until the War of Independence.

The arch, a remnant of the synagogue bombed by the Jordanians in 1948, was removed due to the renovation and reconstruction of the synagogue now in progress.

Excavations at the site, directed by archaeologists Hillel Geva and Oren Gutfeld, have exposed findings from various periods of the synagogue’s history. The most significant is an entire arch standing along remnants of a stone-paved street from the Byzantine period, which split from the Cardo (one of Jerusalem’s main streets during the Roman and Byzantine period) and ascended east to the center of the Jewish Quarter. The arch – 3.7 meters wide, 1.3 meters thick and five meters high – is built of one row of large hewn stones. Geva believes it formed the entrance gate to the Byzantine street.

“This arch is unique, because in excavations there so far only wide domes that walled the shops along the Byzantine Cardo were found,” says Geva. “It shows where the street split from the Cardo, and has been recovered intact.”

Yuval Baruch, the archaeologist of the Jerusalem District of the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), also believes “this is a rare and important finding.”

The excavations, which began in 2003, also unearthed structures and pottery from the First Temple period, remnants of rooms from the Herodian period (Second Temple), burnt wooden logs (evidence of fire that took place after the destruction of the Second Temple), and three plastered ritual baths carved in rock from the Second Temple period.

The diggers also found a small weapons arsenal, where defenders of the Jewish Quarter stashed mortar shells and grenades during the Independence War.

The Hurva’s renovation ended a prolonged architectural argument about how to reconstruct the synagogue, which was the center of cultural and spiritual life in Israel and the Jewish Quarter in the second half of the 19th Century and first half of the 20th. Ultimately, architect Nahum Meltzer’s plan to reconstruct the original synagogue was adopted.

The courtyard was purchased 306 years ago by Rabbi Yehuda he-Hasid (Segal), who arrived from Poland with 300 of his students. It sat adjacent to the Ramban Synagogue, built some 430 years earlier and was closed by the Ottomans in 1589. The Ashkenazi community in the Old City numbered a mere few hundred people in those days and Rabbi Yehuda he-Hasid and his students’ coming caused much commotion. He died five days later.

His followers began building a yeshiva and synagogue in the courtyard, but the construction was not completed. The Jews were late returning the loan to the Arabs for the project and in 1721 the Arabs burned the uncompleted synagogue and the 40 Torah books it housed. The site remained desolate for 140 years, thus acquiring the name “hurva” (the wreck). A new synagogue was built there by the disciples of the Vilna Gaon in 1864.

The Hurva then became the most splendid synagogue in Israel and hosted important Jewish events until the 1930s. Two days after conquering the quarter in 1948, the Jordanians bombed the synagogue and the Jordanian commander reported to headquarters: “For the first time in 1,000 years not a single Jew remains in the Jewish Quarter. Not a single building remains intact. This makes the Jews’ return here impossible.”

Keyword: Archaelogy

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