On 17 December 2013 Sotheby’s (New York) commenced its Important Judaica sale. To be auctioned was “An Exceedingly Rare Hebrew Synagogue Carving” (Lot 93). Sotheby’s catalogue states that the object was made of Walnut and incised with seven words from Psalm 19 verse 9 framed by an ebony border and inlaid with bone.

The item (below) was perceived to be a door to a (Torah) Ark: the Aron ha Kodesh or Hechal , the ornamental cupboard within a synagogue in which the sacred scrolls were housed. Provenance was ascribed to Jobar, Syria’s much beleaguered synagogue of late, two kilometres North East of Damascus.

Lot 93 Sotheby's Wood Carving

Lot 93: the wood carving from Sotheby’s Important Judaica auction (courtesy of Sotheby’s)

The Catalogue Note was both explicit and ambiguous. It stated that the carving originated circa the 11th Century and was unequivocal in that the synagogue of Jobar was at least 2000 years old. The reader, or rather the bidder, was informed that Jobar was “once the most important Jewish pilgrimage site in Syria” and that the synagogue “ha[d] since been totally destroyed”. The object may in fact have been “all that remains of this ancient and venerable [Jewish] community”, we were similarly told [1 ][1a].

Yet the same entry was also vague. Sotheby’s associated the carving with another item: an Ark door from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo [2]. And to this extent the auctioneers directed the public to the Walters-Yeshiva University exhibition, “Threshold to the Sacred: the Ark of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue [3]”. However it was unclear from Sotheby’s Catalogue Note whether its object of comparison was a non-extant Ark door (which bore the same Hebrew text and discernible only from photographic evidence [4]) or an actual Ark door. One such door was on display in New York City at the time of publication.

The carving was listed by Sotheby’s with an estimated price between $30, 000 and $50, 000 US dollars. The Lot sold on the day for $40, 000 US dollars (or $50,000 US dollars including the Buyer’s Premium). The item was not purchased by a museum but by a private collector [5].

This was not the first time the carving had been sold on the open market. In July of 2011 the Israeli auction house Kedem listed the object as part of its Judaica Auction. No. 16. On that occasion the original estimate was $5,000 US dollars.

Kedem’s caption, unlike Sotheby’s, provided a tentative date of the 11th Century annotated with punctuation brackets and a question mark. The uncertainty was similarly re-iterated with “undated” in the body of the description. The catalogue entry made no reference to an Ark whatsoever. It did suggest that the plaque, as it was understood, was to be hung in a synagogue. That said there was no link to Jobar’s synagogue.

Both Kedem and Sotheby’s made mention of a paper label on the verso or the glued note. Kedem’s text was noticeably more detailed. It highlighted the fact that the owner “found the plaque in Damascus on March 28th 1913 and added parenthesis 11th Century [emphasis added].” Two photographs were provided. The first was that of the carved object itself with Hebrew text. The second image was that of the reverse with the appended label, “From Jober March 28th 1913, 11th Century.”

Sotheby’s was not alone in thinking that Jobar’s synagogue had been destroyed in the recent conflict in Syria. That the synagogue had been “razed and burnt to the ground” was widely circulated in both the Arab and Western media. Many Jewish and Israeli papers perpetuated the same story. The video evidence, which was available, indicated otherwise. Reuters and the Associated Press steered clear of uncorroborated claims. Other news bureaus did not. I have already addressed the above in a previous article, “The Case for Jobar: Syria, synagogues and subterfuge [6]”. I need not elaborate further.

Equally Sotheby’s was not alone in claiming that the synagogue was the most important Jewish pilgrimage site in Syria and that the synagogue was at least 2000 years. Jobar was indeed an important pilgrimage shrine, one where Elijah the Prophet was duly commemorated; but this was not the only one. The same prophet was revered at Baḥista (Aleppo), Ladhiqiya (Lattakia), Ḥama and Ḥoms [7]. Other prophets, such as Ezra, were likewise honoured at the mediaeval synagogue of Tadef, near Aleppo. Whether Jobar was any more important than other sites of Jewish worship is a matter of opinion.

CK_Jobar Synagogue_Damascus_050

Jobar Synagogue circa 1996 (photo courtesy of Christoph Knoch).

 

What is less subjective is the evidential question of Jobar’s origins. Here the archaeological data and the literary sources, the tools of historical inquiry, are not supportive for those who maintain a 1st Century foundation. Whereas the current synagogue was built directly over the enclosure (ḥevyah) referred to as the Shrine of Elijah or Ḥeder Eliayhu, (below) there has been no scientific study to ascertain a date for this structure. Stylistically it is not materially different from other Late Antique catacombs in the region, be they Jewish, pagan or Christian. Yet this still does not establish a date of 2000 years or even Jewish heritage. In any event, the very issue as to whether the institution of the synagogue existed before the destruction of Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem (in 70 CE)is itself highly problematic, if not doubtful. Sadly, as far as Jobar is concerned, archaeology is of meagre assistance.

The Cave (Shrine) of Elijah or Ḥeder Eliayhu, Jobar Synagogue circa 1996 (photo courtesy of Christoph Knoch).

 

Unfortunately, the literary sources neither favour a 1st Century date. The classical sources make no reference to Jobar although there certainly was a Jewish community in (St.) Paul’s Damascus. The Talmud, on the other hand, is decidedly silent with regard to any contemporaneous Jewish community in Damascus. This is not to state that there were no Jews in the city, or its fertile suburbs, in the early centuries of the Christian era; it is simply to challenge the much cited textual reference in the Talmud (Bavli Berachot 50a) which, in the author’s opinion, does not refer to Syria’s Jobar.

Again, and it is by generosity if not by conjecture (for Sotheby’s does not qualify its claims of Jobar’s antiquity), were Sotheby’s to be led by the Talmudic reference cited in the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia and thereafter [8], they might be forgiven for assuming Jobar to be more ancient than it actually is.

Let’s re-trace the steps. The (Babylonian) Talmud does mention a town of similar name called “Abi Gobar”. The Talmud also testifies to the activity of Rafram bar Papa, a fourth generation Amora or learned spokesman (350-371 CE) who is said to have prayed at Abi Gobar. We know that the sage was part of the Talmudic academy at Pumbedita [Fallujah , Iraq]. But the text situates Abi Gobar in “the vicinity of Mahuzah” (Soncino version [9]) and this town is deemed to be far away from Damascus. In Obermeyer’s definitive study of the geography of Jewish Babylonia Mahuzah is located in Babylonian Iraq – not southern Syria. Mahuzah is known as great trading city dependent upon the two rivers, the Tigris and Euphrates [10].  Jobar, a short distance from Damascus, and Iraqi Abi Gobar are evidently not the same town. On this basis, we cannot assume that Damascene Jobar was an operational synagogue in Late Antiquity. We must await further evidence. For now, we are dependent upon the earliest uncontested references for Jobar from the itinerants, Samuel b. Samson (1210) and Rabbi Jechiel of Paris (1258-76) and these post-date the 11th Century.

The following observations are offered:

1)      Neither Sotheby’s nor Kedem’s catalogue mentioned how the object from 1913 was first obtained. On inquiry it transpired that a well-known Jewish collector of Judaica had acquired the piece in 1913 [11].

2)      Sotheby’s postulates an 11th Century date not on the basis of literary evidence but on the literal reading of the annotated label and the association with the Ben Ezra Ark door. Both are contentious sources.

3)      Close reading of the label revealed that the annotation in parenthesis was a post-script. Three different colours of ink appear on the label in Kedem’s photograph. There is also a superscript: the number “11” was very obviously inscribed over the original and (now) illegible date. Here the ink is black, thick and very heavy (possibly akin to a felt marker) [12].

Kedem Label

Lot 19: Ancient Wooden Plaque (verso) – “Mitzvat HaShem Bara Me’irat Einayim” – Syria, [11th Century?]”. From Kedem’s Judaica Auction No. 16

 

4)      As for the association with the Ark door from the Cairean synagogue of Ben Ezra, it is worth considering its history, bearing in mind that when this object first reached the market its provenance was unknown. The Ark door was first purchased for $37.50 by the Florida dentist Barry Ragone in 1993. In 1998 the then owner arranged for radiocarbon testing of the object at Southern Illinois University. The Carbon 14 testing indicated a date of the 11th Century [13]. 

5)      In 2000 the Walters Art Museum (Baltimore) and Yeshiva University (New York) acquired the object. The Ark door stood at 76 cm by 38 cm. There was also indication of the hinge site on the left hand side. Sotheby’s object, in comparison, was 39 cm by 7.5 cm and devoid of any intricate geometric design (as below). The width is comparable.

Ben Ezra Torah Ark Door

Torah Ark Door; Egypt, 11th century with later carving and paint; Wood (walnut) with traces of paint and brass; The Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (64.181) and Yeshiva University Museum (2000.231)

 

6)      Independent testing at the request of the Walters Museum but carried out in the Rafter Radiocarbon Laboratory (NZ) supported Sothern Illinois University’s date. The results revealed a 95% correlation of dates circa 1043-1215. The object was also subjected to dendrochronology (the scientific analysis of tree growth rings) but the sample proved inadequate. 

7)      Despite the above, the design and workmanship did not correlate to the Fatimids of the 11th Century but that of the 13th and 15th Centuries; the Ayyubid and Mameluk dynasties respectively. The design was not found beforehand. The wooden object underwent further analysis which focused on its paint work. X-Ray Fluorescence Spectroscopy identified three different paint periods and established that the door had been entirely repainted after 1800.

8)      The Walters Museum concluded that whereas the wood may have been felled in the 11th Century, the door was embellished after the 13th Century, possibly in the 15th Century when the motif was prevalent. Walter’s Associate Curator of Islamic Art and Manuscripts, Dr. Amy Landau, also reserved the position that the door might have been carved substantially later when there was a revival of Mameluk designs in the 20th Century: (a date more proximate to the findings from the pigment analysis [14]). 

To conclude, my findings follow below:

1)      If Sotheby’s submitted its wood carving to the same rigorous scientific analysis as the Walters-Yeshiva University door, the results were not made public and were not published in their catalogue.

2)      Had the item derived from the Sassoon family, as is alleged and is fully plausible, it is not unreasonable to expect supporting documentation. It is curious as to why this information was withheld.

3)      There is no evidence to support a date of the 11th Century, be it textual, archaeological or stylistic other than the inking “11” on the label. Jobar’s synagogue may not even have existed in the 11th Century.

4)      The reference to photographic evidence from a non-extant Ark door from Ben Ezra Synagogue bearing the same Hebrew verse does not prove an 11th Century date. It only indicates that Psalm 19 verse 9 was found in two different loci. As it happens, this photograph of the text was not released.

5)      Further, the Ben Ezra Synagogue underwent multiple restorations and was also destroyed in the early part of the 11th Century (circa 1012). Any claims that the synagogue contained installations from the 11th Century should be met with caution.

6)      The association with the Ben Ezra’s Synagogue door was not established by Kedem. It first enters the discussion at the time of Sotheby’s auction when the contemporaneous Walters -Yeshiva University exhibition was available to view.

7)      Jobar featured prominently in Sotheby’s Catalogue Note. There is reason to believe the object derived from Jobar; but it cannot be established with certainty whether the price paid was inflated on account of the sensationalist news coverage pertaining to the site. It should be noted that the original estimate by Kedem was a fifth of the market value the item would eventually yield under Sotheby’s hammer. Equally, Kedem did not allude to a potential Torah Ark door before its sale reached $26,000 US dollars in total.

8)      As of December 2013 there is evidence to indicate that Jobar’s synagogue has indeed been plundered. It is now incumbent upon dealer and buyer to scrutinise any and all objects from Syria which may find their way onto the Antiquities Market. However difficult or challenging the questions need to be, Sotheby’s must be well aware of why individuals (such as myself) seek answers and read closely. Olly, Olly, Oxen Free.

***

Any item suspected of being illegally exported and/or traded illegally should be brought to the attention of Interpol and Dorothy Loebel-King at Lootbusters dorothy@lootbusters.com

The author would like to thank, Dr. Emma Cunliffe, Christoph Knoch, Dr. Josef Meri, Dr. Karen Stern, Professor Emma Loosley, Dorothy Loebel-King, Rabbi Sybil Sheridan and Messrs. Jonathan Mansfield and Anthony Julius for their assistance and photographs.

Adam Blitz is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London and a former Fulbright scholar. The views expressed in the article are those of the author alone. Any errors or omissions are similarly those of the author. Adam.blitz@columnist.com @blitz_adam on Twitter

NOTES

[1]www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/lot.pdf…/N09060-93.pdf

[1a]http://www.sothebys.com/en/auctions/ecatalogue/lot.93.html/2013/judaica-n09060

[2] The Ben Ezra synagogue is justly famous. It was believed to have been built in the 9th to the 10th Century and was originally consigned as a Coptic Church in Furstat, Old Cairo. In Jewish hands it became perhaps the most prominent synagogue in the city. It was also the location for the Genizah, a repository of several thousand ancient documents. (See:

[3] “Threshold to the Sacred: the Ark of Cairo’s Ben Ezra Synagogue” http://thewalters.org/events/eventdetails.aspx?e=2568 and http://yumuseum.tumblr.com/ArkDoor

[4] Sotheby’s Catalogue Note, “Photographic evidence from the last century reveals that the verse carved on this frieze was also carved on an ark door (no longer extant) in the famous Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo.”

[5] Email communication, Sotheby’s [18 December 2013]

[6] “The case for Jobar: Syria, synagogues and subterfuge” in The Times of Israel (17 January 2014) http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/the-case-for-jobar-syria-synagogues-and-subterfuge/

[7] For an extensive discussion on Jewish and Muslim sites associated with prophets see: Josef W. Meri, “The Cult of Saints Among Muslims and Jews in Medieval Syria (Oxford Oriental Monographs)” (2002)

[8] The unedited full-text of the 1906 Jewish Encyclopedia in http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4861-damascus

[9] Soncino Babylonian Talmud:

[9]רבי ישמעאל אומר. רפרם בר פפא איקלע לבי כנישתא דאבי גיבר, קם קרא בספרא ואמר: ברכו את ה’, ואשתיק ולא אמר המבורך. אוושו כולי עלמא: ברכו את ה’ המבורךִ אמר רבא: פתיא אוכמא, בהדי פלוגתא למה לךִ ועוד: הא נהוג עלמא כרבי ישמעאל.

“R. ISHMAEL SAYS. Rafram b. Papa once attended the synagogue of Abi Gobar.21 He was called up to read in the Scroll and he said, ‘Bless ye the Lord’ and stopped, without adding ‘who is to be blessed’. The whole congregation cried out, ‘Bless ye the Lord who is to be blessed’. Raba said to him: You black pot!22 Why do you want to enter into controversy?23 And besides, the general custom is to use the formula of R. Ishmael”.

(21) Be Gobar, in the vicinity of Mahuzah

[10] See: Obermeyer, Die Landschaft Babylonien im Zeitalter des Talmuds und des Gaonats, p 173.

[11] Email communication, Sotheby’s (12 December 2013)

[12] http://www.kedem-auctions.com/en/Items/ancient-wooden-plaque-%E2%80%93-%E2%80%9Cmitzvat-hashem-bara-me%E2%80%99irat-einayim%E2%80%9D-%E2%80%93-syria-11th-century

[13] “Revealing the history of the Ark Door from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo, Egypt”,Brianna Feston et al Conservation and the Applied Arts: Contributions to the 2012 IIC Congress (2012) https://www.iiconservation.org/node/3163

[14] http://forward.com/articles/173384/what-lay-behind-maimonides-door-in-cairos-ben-ezra/?p=all