The conservation of the Synagogue of Veroia

By Dr. Elias V. Messinas, Assoc AIA, RA

Veroia, a small town in the Greek province of Macedonia, has a very long history dating from antiquity. Veroia, located only about one-hours's drive from Salonika, was one of the cities that St. Paul the Apostle visited during his second trip to Greece, in the 1st century AD. The Jewish community of Veroia, which received St. Paul at its synagogue, dates from antiquity. It was a Romaniot community, which grew further after the 15th century, and the arrival of the Sefardi Jews from the Iberian Peninsula.

The almost completely preserved Jewish quarter, called Barbouta, dates from the early and mid-19th century. It is of a defensive and introverted typology, where the houses are built around an open courtyard, with access only through two gates that used to be locked at night. The houses communicated among them with doors that opened from one to the other, without being exposed to the common courtyard. The Jewish quarter is located west of the Byzantine walls of Veroia and adjacent to the sloping banks of the Tripotamos River, both of which, form a second layer of defence to the protected quarter. This protective and introverted arrangement is common to the Jewish and Greek Orthodox quarters of the Ottoman Empire prior to the Tanzimat Reforms that led to the emancipation of the Ottoman Jews and other minorities (1839-1856). Prior to the Second World War, 460 Jews lived in this quarter.

In May1943, during the German occupation, 424 Jews were arrested by the Germans, and locked temporarily inside the synagogue, before being deported and killed in concentration camps in Poland. Today, there are only two families living in Veroia. The Jewish quarter, empty of any Jewish life, still stands but with new occupants, most of them children of refuges from the surrounding villages, who took over the houses after the deportation of the Jews. They later legally purchased these houses from the temporarily re-established Jewish community in the 1950s and 1960s. The Jewish houses, though, still keep their original identity, in the form of inscriptions and dates in Hebrew, drawn on the exterior walls of the houses. For example, on the exterior walls of the house of the Mordochai family, one of the few who escaped deportation, thanks to their Christian neighbours who hid them inside the attic of an old mosque, is adorned with the following inscriptions: "If I forger the, O Jerusalem, Let my right hand forget her cunning" (Psalms, 137, 5) and the date 5619 (1858).

The synagogue, built before 1850, is located at the northern point of the triangular open courtyard of the Jewish quarter. It blends modestly with the surrounding fabric of adjacent Jewish houses, in scale, materials, and detailing. It is a wooden frame building built behind a stone masonry wall and a portico, the only elements that give this building a more prominent character. According to Nicholas Stravroulakis, Emeritus Director of the Jewish Museum of Greece, "the structure is somewhat theatrically built insofar as the front is of stone and appears quite solid and only in examination is it apparent that the entire structure rests on wooden supports and these have rotted in place, making the entire structure tremble at times." The synagogue is constructed in the local vernacular style, and built by Balkan local builders, who formed the builders+AJI- guilds of the Ottoman Empire, called isnaf. Throughout the Ottoman Empire these men built houses, palaces, aqueducts, mosques, churches, and other commission for their Turkish, Armenian, Greek Orthodox and other patrons within the vast borders of the Ottoman Empire, preserving with their work the construction traditions that evolved during Byzantine times.

In terms of its historical importance, the synagogue of Veroia is unique. It is the last remaining standing synagogue in northern Greece, outside Salonika, a region where there used to stand over 100 synagogues before World War II (Salonika alone had over 60 synagogues and midrashim). These synagogues were destroyed during the war, and the years immediately after. The synagogue in Veroia is also the oldest standing synagogue in northern Greece (Monastirlis in Salonika dates from 1927). It is a very unique example of local vernacular architecture, the work of the Balkan builders+AJI- guilds, and it is the last remaining example in northern Greece within a fairly well preserved Jewish quarter. The synagogue itself is a unique combination of local builders+AJI- tradition used for a religious Jewish building: the synagogue in Veroia, together with the synagogue in Ioannina (Eprirus) are the last surviving such examples in Greece.

The synagogue is a rectangle, single-story structure, with interior women's gallery, and basement. It is approximately 192sq.m. (2,066sq.ft) of floor area. The interior is divided by six columns; four mark the central core of the main prayer hall, and two separate it from the entrance. The portico of the main entrance is an influence from outside Veroia, probably Kastoria or Pilio. The women's gallery is elevated and accessed from a door outside the south wall. It is also separated from the rest of the prayer hall with a wooden lattice, a common traditional separation prior to the Tanzimat Reforms. The basement consists of two spaces, an open one to the south and a closed one, reached from a door on the north wall. To the west of the synagogue, adjacent to the steep sloping riverbank of Tripotamos, are the remains of the mikveh. The decorated eihal of the synagogue is located on the east wall, towards Jerusalem, while the temporary readers' desk that serves as a bimah is located in the centre of the hall. The ceiling decoration, including an octagonal rosette and a shallow dome, in the centre and western part of the ceiling respectively, may suggest that the permanent bimah, probably destroyed in World War II, was located along the Western Wall, rather than at the centre of the hall. The floor of the synagogue is plain wood, except for the central area, among the four columns, that is adorned with decorative terrazzo tiles. The wooden areas of the floor were once adorned with colourful carpets, a local tradition of Veroia.

The conservation effort

The synagogue although registered by the Ministry of Culture as a national historic monument, and characterised as "Maintainable at 1st degree" by the Ministry of Culture (presidential decree no. 450/20.4.1994, published in the official Gazette no. 383/D), has been in disrepair for many years, and further neglect would almost certainly have led to its collapse. Unfortunately, other synagogues, such as those of Didimoticho and Komotini, that indeed collapsed and were eventually demolished, support this frightening scenario. It was therefore urgent to do anything possible to preserve this structure. The present conservation effort began in 1994. In March 1994 the synagogue of Veroia was briefly revived for services during a seminar organised in Veroia by the Jewish Youth of Athens. At that seminar I delivered a lecture on the present state of the synagogues of Greece, where I emphasised the dangers that the abandoned synagogues were facing. I spoke about the synagogues in Komotini and Xanthi that were demolished shortly after, and about the abandoned dilapidated synagogue of Veroia, which we were planning to visit the same afternoon. At that ime I had already been working for over a year on the documentation of the synagogues of Greece, thanks to the seed support that I received from the World Monuments Fund, secured through Sam Gruber, director of the Jewish Heritage Research Centre, and the Jewish Museum of Greece, secured through M. Mordochai, treasurer of the Board of Directors of the Museum. It was only the same afternoon that my words of the same morning were understood in their true proportions. We were visiting the Jewish cemetery, only to realise that it was cleared of its Jewish tombstones, and in their place stood a recently build open basketball court. Some of the tombstones lay on one side of this court, under a pile of construction debris and garbage. Although I was familiar with this site from my previous visits to Veroia and other Jewish sites, such as the cemetery in Xanthi, in a similar state, it was a shocking sight for the visiting youth. Some cried, some lit candles, some read "askava". They were all silent witnessing the dath of their history, of their heritage. For them, this was the experiencing of the destruction of the Shoah. During that seminar, the former deputy mayor of Veroia, Costantinos Vafides, was present, and after my lecture he approached me for help: he was looking for sources of support in order to conserve the synagogue in his city. This is how the project began, or better, the mission to conserve the synagogue of Veroia was born. Nicholas Stravroulakis first brought international attention to the plight of the building at the New York "Future of Jewish Monuments" conference in 1990. At the time, in situ preservation of the building seemed impossibility, and arrangements were discussed to move surviving fittings and furnishing to the Museum in Athens, as had been done with synagogue of Patras shortly before that building was demolished in the early 1980s. Indeed, prior to 1995, when the Identification phase took place, there was no other organised conservation program in effect for the synagogue of Veroia, o no apparent intention of creating such a program. All previous attempts were local repairs (e.g. local repair and replacement of broken roof tiles), mostly to prevent water penetration in the building. Some of these repairs, although necessary, were not sensitive and responsive enough to the original fabric, and had altered its original character (E.g. the entrance portico, colour repairs in the interior, etc.). Following that seminar, I was able through my contacts in the United States and my experience in similar projects, to secure two grants from the Getty Grant Program - the first, in 1995, for the identification of the synagogue, and the second, in 1997, for the preparation of the construction documents of the conservation work.

The Identification phase work was conducted between 1995 and 1996, and following it, the Preparation phase, was completed in 1997. During these two phases the team of E. V. Messinas (architect, project co-ordinator), P. M. Koufopoulos (architect- conservators), P. Panagiotopoulos (structural engineer), G. Dogani and A. Galanos (conservators), Socratis Mavrommatis (photographer), A. Giourousis (quantities surveyor), FASMA (electromechanical engineers), and Geoerevna (material testing laboratories), prepared a complete and detailed documentation survey on the present condition of the building and the necessary documents for the conservation work. These documents included architectural, structural and photographic survey documents, preparation of architectural, structural, and electromechanical construction (conservation) documents, investigation sections in the fabric of the building, material testing, and specifications for the conservation work. Upon completion of the work, two reports were prepared which sumarised the work performed in these two phases. Copies of these reports, titled Identification Phase report and Preparation Phase report are located in the Getty Conservation Institute Library, available on a non-circulating basis to the staff of the J. Paul Getty Trust and to outside professionals in related fields. The Preparation phase also included limited Emergency Work, in order to maintain the building safely until the complete conservation work was implemented. This work included repair of the north wall of the synagogue, repair of the roof, repair of the pointing of the masonry wall to the east and the basement, and other external repairs to safely protect the building from the natural elements. As a result of this work, the buildings is no longer in a state of danger, in terms of withstanding natural decay, but it is in danger of remaining semi-completed, in terms of architectural and historical integrity. For this purpose, the efforts by the author continue, aimed at securing additional funds tocomplete the conservation work on the synagogue, both in its exterior and its interior. The conservation work proposed for the synagogue is based on the Identification Phase report recommendations (pp. 79-80), according to the designation of the synagogue as "Maintainable at 1st degree" no work is permitted that might change the typology and morphology of the building. Therefore, the following work will take place:

a.- The openings of the earlier ezrat nashim (women's gallery) will be unblocked for the purpose of exposing the original wooden lattice (which has been found intact under the interior plaster layer of the blocked opening). This is meant to record the original location of the openings of the women+AJI-s gallery, prior to the later construction of the women+AJI-s gallery at the south wall of the synagogue. This earlier women+AJI-s gallery, which will be further explained and elaborated at the exhibition in the basement, has a similar typology and location to the 19th century synagogues found in Izmir, Turkey. This alteration to the present fabric of the synagogue will allow the visitor to understand the construction phases of the building and the different traditions that were alive in this part of Greece in the 19th century, such as the location of the women's gallery, the use of wooden lattice on the women+AJI-s gallery windows towards the main hall, etc.

b.- The entrance portico posed a serious question as to whether it was an addition that enhanced or an addition that destroyed the original fabric of the synagogue. As has been already mentioned, porticos are not very common in the traditional architecture of this part of Greece and the Balkans. However, porticos have been found in rare occasions in Kastoria and Pilio, northern Greece, and in several instances in the Balkans outside Greece, such as in Berati and Permeti, Albania. The existing portico, which is considered a later (pre-World War II) addition to the original fabric of the building, while it was repaired recently. The proposed portico, like the synagogue itself, is based on the traditional work of the isnaf (builders' guilds).

c.- Missing benches will be rebuilt to complete the existing, on areas where benches are evident but destroyed. The new benches will be identical in construction, materials, details and colours to the existing ones. Decorative details of the existing benches will be repaired and completed, based on the available information.

d.- Interior decoration will be repaired, based on the conservation study of the Preparation Phase. For example, dampness in the building has destroyed many painted (mostly false-marble) surfaces that will be repaired and re-painted to match the original. In addition, hidden decoration has been uncovered, on the octagon and shallow dome of the ceiling, and on the surfaces of the eihal. These delicately painted surfaces will have recent paint layers removed, cleaned, and repaired to reveal the full expression of their original character. These surfaces have revealed, during the conservator's investigations, delicate paint work, in gold and other bright colours, depicting floral decoration and other naturalistic themes, similar to painted work found in the Veroia houses of the 19th century.

e.- New electrical wiring and light fixtures are proposed, of the same style as the existing ones, and those traditionally used in this area of Greece. Fixtures will be placed on the same locations as the existing ones, but with the wiring hidden from view (today all wiring is surface mount). The electrical panel will be located near the women's gallery stairs, hidden inside a new - traditionally - built shallow closet. All wiring and other electrical work is specified to be fire-resistant and code complying. The exhibition space in the basement will be lit with track lighting, hidden between the ceiling rafters. Both the main synagogue floor and the exhibition basement floor will receive electrical outlets (with cover) conspicuously located on the baseboard of the wooden benches and walls.

f.- Electrical points (outlets) will be provided for movable electrical heaters for the heating of the synagogue space and exhibition. Cooling or other ventilation has not deemed necessary.

g.- A security system is specified both for the synagogue floor and the exhibition floor. The reason for this system is not only for the protection from burglary and stealing, as there are plans to exhibit, inside glass cases, old Torah scrolls, belonging to this synagogue, currently at the Jewish Museum of Greece. The protection is also destined to prevent the building from broken into and vandalised.

h.- A new service area will be established at the open basement of the building, complete with two toilets, and a storage area. This new addition has been located to least affect the exterior look of the building, but still be easily used by the visitors. The doors to this area will be securely locked when the building is not in use.

i.- A permanent exhibition will be accommodated within the building, for the presentation of the history of the synagogue and the Jewish community. For this purpose the ground floor (basement) of the synagogue has been chosen as the best location, as proposed in the Preparation Phase. The exhibition presentation panels will be attached to wooden panels, designed to project from the wall, and provide maximum flexibility. These preparations for the exhibition will have a minimal effect on the original fabric of the synagogue. Recently, the Hellenic Society "Paideia" of Connecticut, has pledged to provide the funds for the creation for the permanent exhibition in the synagogue. I take this opportunity to thank Mr. Elias Tomazos, president of "Paideia" and the fundraising board that was formed for this purpose, for this initiative, and for their commitment to help in the preservation of the Jewish monuments of Greece.

Finally, we are in the process of nominating the synagogue of Veroia in the World Monuments Watch List of 100 Most Endangered Sites for 2000-2001. We hope that this nomination will bring to the building more international attention, and will enable us to secure the necessary funds for the completion of its conservation.

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- Copyright © 1999: Moïse Rahmani -