THE GOLDEN AGE: Synagogues of Spain in History and Architecture (Softcover)
THE GOLDEN AGE: Synagogues of Spain in History and Architecture (Softcover)
By Meir Ben-Dov
Softcover, 256 pages, Includes several hundred photos, illustrations, maps and architectural plans
Urim Publications, 2009
At the beginning of the 1990s, the Prime Minister of the Castilian provincial government paid an official visit to Israel. His host was Yitzhak Navon, who was the Minister of Education and Culture at the time. Navon later became the fifth president of the State of Israel.
At a party for the Prime Minister of Castile, Yitzhak Navon gave a speech in his guest's honor during which he mentioned Meir Ben-Dov's research on Spanish synagogues. Mr. Navon noted that this research was invaluable to him when he went to Spain in order to do research for a film being produced by the Israel Broadcasting Authority to mark the five hundredth anniversary of the Expulsion.
About the Author:
Meir Ben-Dov, an archaeologist and historian, is one of the highest-ranking members of the second generation of Israeli archaeologists. His work has been published in many fields, with the study of ancient architecture, planning and construction among the most important of his studies. Although he discovered the architecture of Spanish synagogues by chance, in time he came to regard his work in that field as a sacred mission.
To date, Meir Ben-Dov has published seven books about archaeology in Israel and particularly in Jerusalem, together with dozens of scientific essays on topics in archaeology and history. He has also written hundreds of popular essays in the field of Israeli archaeology and history.
Praise for The Golden Age: Synagogues of Spain:
"Meir Ben-Dov's research accompanied me to towns and villages in Spain as I searched for the roots of the Jewish community in those places. The Spanish synagogues and their heritage served as a guide for the construction of hundreds of synagogues throughout the Jewish Diaspora. Congratulations to Meir Ben-Dov for this comprehensive work, which is of the greatest significance in the study of Jewish communities in Spain."
- Yitzchak Navon, President of Israel
"The Golden Age is as impressive as the synagogues it describes. Ben-Dov's coffee-table-size book discusses the synagogues in Toledo, Seville, Cordoba, and in provincial towns and villages of Spain. In addition, the book describes synagogues that were converted into churches and mosques that were converted into synagogues. Three synagogues outside of Spain that were built in the Spanish tradition are also featured. Each synagogue description is accompanied by drawn floor plans, black-and-white or color photographs. The first chapter and the epilogue focus on the history of Spanish Jewry, but all the chapters are rich in Spanish Jewish history. Extensive notes and a bibliography are also included.
This well-researched and esthetically beautiful book is highly recommended for academic libraries and other libraries whose patrons are interested in learning about a glorious then painful era in Jewish history.
- Ilka Gordon, Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) Newsletter
"It might seem strange that the author is not in fact a professional architectural historian specialising in Spanish buildings of the Middle Ages, but is one of Israel's leading archaeologists, known for his many published works on the archaeology of ancient Israel and especially ground breaking excavations in the Jerusalem area. Dr Ben-Dov's career has been wide ranging, with an impressive oeuvre, ranging widely in archaeology and history, including many popular articles. His research into ancient architecture, planning and construction is especially noteworthy.
This area of study made him familiar with all aspects of the ancient synagogues, which are particularly abundant and relatively well preserved in the Galil, dating from the time of the Mishnah to the Arab conquest.
As the author describes in the Introduction; he came to the subject of the book by chance when in 1970, on a study trip to look at preservation and reconstruction techniques of archaeological sites in Spain, he was able to visit the local sites of Jewish interest.
The few noteworthy buildings that survive include the outstanding remnant of Spain's rich synagogue tradition in Cordova and Toledo.
He was duly impressed by these extraordinary works of art; evocative of a time when the Jewish community was able to make its own superb contribution to one of the glories of world architectural heritage: the AraboHispanic Mudejar style, which even flourished in areas under Christian occupation, and whose crown jewel is the Alhambra palace complex in Granada, the last foothold of Arab culture in Spain.
Surviving shuls might be few in number, a mere handful remaining of the many hundreds known to have existed and subsequently destroyed or changed out of recognition, but they present a wealth of artistic design and workmanship of the highest order, adapting such quintessential Arab features as the decorative use of Arabic script in plaster wall decorations (friezes) to Hebrew characters while brilliantly accommodating such essential features of Jewish public prayer and communal spaces as ladies' galleries (as elaborately and meticulously decorated as the men's area) and what architectural historians call: "the illumination level" a range of windows at the top of the building to give plenty of light for reading and learning.
His enthusiasm ignited, on his return to Israel Dr Ben-Dov searched out the scholarly literature on his new interest, to find that there was very little, specifically dealing with the architecture and decoration of the buildings themselves. Over the course of many subsequent trips to Spain, followed by intensive work on the material gathered on these field studies back home, he has pieced together the fascinating history of the Spanish synagogue of the Golden Age.
The results are presented in a work which is an essential guide for any one visiting the shuls themselves. Those fortunate enough to go to Toledo and Cordova in particular would gain immensely by reading this book first, allowing plenty of time to visit those which are publicly accessible and using it to maximise their enjoyment in situ,
Despite being scholarly and comprehensive, the style is approachable to the ordinary reader with fascinating historical detail and a wealth of drawings and photographs.
The author doesn't just give a description plus historical and cultural background, but he shows how the lay-out and decoration of the buildings fitted traditional communal life and he draws on his knowledge of ancient Israeli shuls to back his belief that the Spanish synagogue was a continuation of the shuls that migrants to Spain from Eretz Yisroel in the early Arab period remembered from back home.
So while it can be said that even though the Jews of early Mediaeval Spain enjoyed (allowing for periods of persecution and political turmoil) a level of prosperity and participation in general society, while preserving their commitment to Yiddishkeit unique in Diaspora history before the modern age, they were still connected to their land in the heart of their communal life, their shuls.
One cannot bring to mind the Golden Age, tarnished as it might have been, without recalling the cataclysm of the final expulsion and indeed, the few remaining synagogue buildings are in the words of the author: A brand plucked from the fire but as the remnant re-established themselves in new dispersions and the Jewish world, their architectural legacy went with them including back to Eretz Yisroel itself and the book includes descriptions of several "neo-Spanish" synagogues in Fostat (Old Cairo), Yerusholayim and most poignantly, the small ruined shul in Aley, southern Lebanon.
It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge and personally thank Edgar Astaire, a keen amateur scholar and supporter of Jewish causes in London and elsewhere who not only encouraged and supported the author in carrying the project to completion, but financially made its publication in English possible. He graciously and generously hosted the recent launch party at the British Library; may it be the first of many kosher scholarly events there!"
-Yerachmiel Rubin, Jewish Tribune