The Jewish Cultural Heritage Initiative Completes Initial Assessment of Jewish Heritage in Iraq and Syria

The Jewish Cultural Heritage Initiative is a joint project of ASOR and the Foundation for Jewish Heritage.

By Darren P. Ashby ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiative. For the original publication Here

Jewish communities have lived in Iraq and Syria for 2,600 years. During a time when cultural heritage reflecting the ethnic and religious diversity of the Middle East is under attack, the documentation and preservation of Jewish sites as one strand in the region’s rich cultural tapestry has never been more important. These sites bear witness to a past of greater coexistence and cooperation, and calls from across the region for their preservation provide hope for the future.

However, in the aftermath of the departure of the majority of the Jewish communities during the second half of the 20th century, the physical remains of Jewish heritage in both Iraq and Syria have deteriorated rapidly. Without urgent intervention, this once-rich heritage stands to be almost entirely lost in the near future. But where to begin?

In order to establish the current status of Jewish heritage in both countries, ASOR and the Foundation for Jewish Heritage launched the Jewish Cultural Heritage Initiative (JCHI)—a joint project made possible through the generous support given by the Thomas S. Kaplan and Daphne Recanati family to the Foundation for Jewish Heritage. JCHI utilized satellite imagery, desk-based assessment, and collaboration with in-country sources to assemble a list of the most significant Jewish heritage sites in Iraq and Syria from antiquity to the present day, assess their history and condition, and identify priority emergency relief and stabilization projects.

Recently, JCHI completed its initial assessment of Jewish heritage in the two countries. The project documented 368 heritage sites ranging from settlements to individual graves. The majority of these (81%) are located in Iraq—a disparity that primarily originates from the more systematic publication of Jewish heritage in Iraq rather than from any major differences in the size or significance of the two communities.

The geographic distribution of sites in the JCHI database at settlement level.

Iraq and Syria show distinct differences in the patterns of preservation of Jewish heritage. In Iraq, only 30 of the 297 documented sites are confirmed to still exist. Of these 30 sites, 21 are in Poor or Very Bad condition, the two ranks immediately above No Return. Although the ratio of extant to destroyed sites in Iraq is exaggerated by the inclusion of many ancient settlements, this number of badly deteriorated sites still stands in stark contrast to Syria where, despite the ongoing civil war, 27 of the 33 sites identified as extant are listed as in Fair or Good condition, the highest two ranks in the assessment hierarchy. JCHI did not explore in detail the potential causes for this disparity; however, possible reasons include the later emigration of the Syrian Jewish community and different policies of state repression in the two countries.

The distribution of documented heritage types in Iraq and Syria.

After assembling our list of sites, JCHI identified four candidates for priority emergency relief projects on the basis of their significance, condition, and project viability. Due to the current conditions in Syria, all four are located in Iraq. These sites are:


  • Meir Tweig Synagogue in Baghdad
  • Al-Habibiyah Jewish Cemetery in Baghdad
  • Sasson Synagogue in Mosul
  • Shrine of the Prophet Nahum in al-Qosh


Two of these sites—Meir Tweig Synagogue and the Al-Habibiyah Jewish Cemetery—are the last “living” Jewish heritage in Iraq. Built in the early 1940s, Meir Tweig Synagogue is one of the last synagogues constructed in Iraq before the majority of the Iraqi Jewish community emigrated in the early 1950s. As the community continued to dwindle in the following decades, Meir Tweig became the sole synagogue for the entire Iraqi Jewish community. Similarly, the Al-Habibiyah Jewish Cemetery was founded in the early 20th century and subsequently became the main burial ground for the Jewish community. The cemetery contains many Iraqi Jewish notables and remains active to the present day.


Al-Habibiyah Jewish Cemetery in Baghdad. (Source: In-country sources)

Although very small, the Jewish community in Baghdad continues to actively preserve its cultural property to the best of its ability. However, additional work is necessary. The community has expressed interest in help to fix damage at these two sites and conduct preventative maintenance so that the two locations can be kept in good condition for future generations.

The other two sites—Sasson Synagogue and the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum—represent important historical locations that have now fallen into ruin. Both are the legacy of the large Jewish community that lived in Mosul, the Nineveh Plains, and Iraqi Kurdistan. Located in Mosul, the Sasson Synagogue became the city’s main synagogue during the 20th century due to its central location in the Jewish Quarter in the Old City. In the decades since the Jewish community’s departure, the building has deteriorated significantly. The roof of the synagogue has collapsed in several places, exposing the interior decoration—including wall paintings—to weathering and increasing the risk that the rest of the standing architecture will fall. The property has also become a dumping ground for trash from the surrounding community.

Video still of the interior courtyard of the Sasson Synagogue in Mosul. (Source: France 24; April 24, 2019)
Video still of an aisle inside the synagogue. (Source: France 24; April 24, 2019)

Until recently, the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum in al-Qosh was in a similar condition. Located ca. 40 km north of Mosul, the shrine—which consists of a synagogue with the prophet’s tomb and a series of subsidiary buildings, all arrayed around a courtyard—dates back to at least the 12th century CE. The shrine was an important pilgrimage location for the Jewish community in Mosul and the surrounding region during Shavuot. Despite attempts by the local Christian community to maintain the site, the building had badly deteriorated by the early 2000s, resulting in the collapse of the southeastern corner of the synagogue as well as parts of the subsidiary buildings. In 2008, the US Army conducted a thorough condition assessment, which led to the construction of a large metal roof over the synagogue. More recently, the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage, in collaboration with GEMA ART International, conducted stabilization work at the site and is now in the midst of a larger restoration project funded by the U.S. Department of State.

The central aisle and collapsed southeastern corner of the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum in 2008. (Source: Suzanne E. Bott)
Stabilization activities performed in the Shrine of the Prophet Nahum by the Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage in December 2017–January 2018. (Source: Alliance for the Restoration of Cultural Heritage)

JCHI’s assessment work represents a substantial contribution to ongoing attempts to preserve the rich multicultural history of Iraq and Syria. Although far from comprehensive, this project’s results provide valuable baseline data on the location and condition of some of the most significant built Jewish heritage in Iraq and Syria, and recommendations for where stabilization projects can have the most immediate impact. In order to help with future project planning, JCHI is in the process of making its data set publicly available. Additional information on its location will be posted on this page soon. For more on the project, its methods, and results, JCHI’s final report can be found here on the Foundation for Jewish Heritage’s website.

By Darren P. Ashby ASOR Cultural Heritage Initiative. For the original publication Here