Hurva means destruction or ruin. The Hurva synagogue has been built and destroyed several times on the same site in the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.
The first synagogue on the site was built in the 1700s, but the congregation that built it fell on hard times. When members could not pay the debts, it was destroyed by the Arabs.
In the 1864, a new synagogue was built. Its full name was the “Beit Ya’akov Synagogue in the Courtyard of the Ruin of Rabbi Yehuda Hassid,” but everyone simply called it the Hurva. It was the highlight of the old city, as it served as the center of Jewish life in Jerusalem
from then until 1948. When the Arab Legion conquered the old city, they exploded the Hurva. An iconic photo was taken by John Roy Carlson just after the Hurva was destroyed.
After the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, the rubble of the Hurva was left as it was found for many years. It testified to the destruction wrought by the Jordanians in Jewish Quarter of the Old City. After years of long debates about what should be done with it, the Hurva was rebuilt, starting in 2005, according to the 19th century plans. It took more than five years to build.
Our tour of the recently rebuilt Hurva started in the basement. In Jerusalem, before you build anything, the archaeologists get first crack at the site. And wherever you dig you find our past, our ancestors who lived in Jerusalem thousands of years ago. And how can we be sure the ruins under the Hurva are of Jewish homes? There is a mikve, a ritual bath used for purification purposes. It is built just as specified in the Talmud, just as mikvaot are built today. This mikve, which archaeologists think dates from first Temple times, was partially filled in and paved over by Roman paving stones from the time of Herod (Herodian stones were cut a certain recognizable way). On the side it was cut off by a Byzantine structure, as if the Romans and Byzantines wanted to insure that the Jews would never return to Jerusalem.
Batya, our tour guide looked at us and asked, “Except where are the Romans and Byzantines today? And where are the Jews?”
The Aron Kodesh, where the Torah scrolls are kept, is magnificent. Batya told us that the Aron is as deep as the stone walls. She was there one time when it was open and the Rabbi actually walked inside the Aron to take out a Torah.
The walls that had been left standing by the Jordanians were incorporated into the building structure. They remain as their natural limestone color, unpainted. The tallest original wall is the one behind the aron kodesh, clearly visible in the photo, above.
The paintings on the walls are similar to the ones that were there
originally. In the former building, there were paintings on all the walls, everywhere one looked. In her book about growing up in the Jewish Quarter, Forever My Jerusalem, Puah Shteiner writes about going to the Hurva with her Friday on Shabbat eve. The ceiling attracted her, its “high domed ceiling, painted sky blue and strewn with golden stars.” Modern sensibilities appreciate a more spare style, and the rebuilt Hurva features just a few paintings.
We also went out onto the balconies that surround the dome, and
could see large parts of the old city. I had a serious case of garden envy standing on this balcony, looking at the roofs of the old city. Imagine growing trees on your roof!
When those of us who dared to climb the tightly twisted iron stairs to the upper balcony arrived there, we could look down on the Temple Mount. You can see the top of the golden Dome of the Rock. Even the top of the original Hurva dome was higher than the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque, which in those days was forbidden by the Ottoman rulers.
But the Pasha’s own favorite architect had designed the synagogue, and no one was going to tell him he couldn’t do that. So today’s Hurva is also higher than the local mosques.
Part of the fun of living in Jerusalem is seeing history of the city everywhere you go. And when you visit places like the Hurva you see layers of history, what came before what is here now. You can actually see how one civilization built right on top of a previous one: Roman ruins cover First Temple ruins and the Wall of Hezekiah, described in the second book of Kings, runs in what is now a trench through the center of the Jewish Quarter. It illuminates how each new culture tried to supplant the existing one, and which ones were more successful at it than others. More importantly, we see which groups tried to build the land and the country and which ones let it stagnate.
And we see how today’s modern industrial Israel tries to preserve and renew it all.