Damascus: A Jewish synagogue in Damascus believed to be thousands of years old has been damaged and looted as clashes have consumed the surrounding neighbourhood, a Syrian official and an anti-government activist said on Monday.
Damage to the Jobar Synagogue, which tradition holds was built by the biblical prophet Elisha, is the latest example of Syria`s rich cultural heritage falling victim to the civil war between President Bashar Assad`s regime and rebels seeking his ouster.
Syria is home to thousands of years of civilisations at the crossroads of the Levant and boasts important cultural sites dating back to the Bible, the ancient Roman empire, the Crusaders and the arrival of Islam.
Before the Syrian conflict started two years ago, these sites attracted international tourists. Many have since been damaged as the conflict evolved into a civil war. Combatants have garrisoned in historic castles, turning them into targets. And street battles raged last month near Aleppo`s landmark 12th century Umayyad Mosque in the walled Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The mosque itself was heavily damaged last year, soon after a fire gutted the city`s famed medieval market.
The Jobar Synagogue, in the neighbourhood of the same name in northeastern Damascus, is a relic of the area`s once sizeable Jewish population. Tradition holds that the biblical prophet Elisha built the first structure on the site over a grotto in which his teacher, the prophet Elijah, had sought refuge.
"It was a very prestigious synagogue to hold a pulpit in and there were great rabbinic scholars who held court there over the centuries," said author Joseph Braude, who has written about Jewish history in the Arab world. "Long after Damascus ceased to be central to Jewish learning, the synagogue continued to be an important pilgrimage site and a place of worship for Jews living in Damascus."
The synagogue fell out of use after the foundation of Israel in 1948 and the departure of most of Syria`s Jews during the next few decades. Before Syria`s conflict began, it was opened only occasionally for tourists and pilgrims.
Today, people from both sides of the conflict said they were sad to see the site harmed. "It`s the heritage of the homeland regardless of religion, whether it`s Jewish, Muslim or Christian," Maamoun Abdul-Karim, head of the Antiquities and Museums Department of the Syrian Culture Ministry, told The Associated Press. "It`s the Syrian mosaic and the heritage of the people."