November 01, 2015

Bhamdoun Synagogue

  I am spending quite a bit of time outside Beirut these days, doing lots of walking. The other day, I walked all around Bhamdoun.

Bhamdoun used to be a popular summer resort in the mountains, some 1,000 meters above Beirut. Lebanese escaped the oppressive heat of the city in the summer and spent up to three months a year in the mountains.


While walking, I stumbled upon an unusual looking structure; a synagogue.  I know there is a big synagogue in downtown, which was restored not that long ago, and there’s a small one in Saida. I never knew Bhamdoun was popular with the Lebanese jews.

 But apparently it was. During its hey days (according to the Internet. How’d we figure out things before the Internet is a mystery to me) it served as the summer residence of some 4,000 jews (source). They lived in apartment buildings around the synagogue, which is in the middle of Bhamdoun. It must have been a vibrant community, because the synagogue is the biggest one in Lebanon.

Synagogues seems to follow a basic architecture; this one looks very similar to the one in Beirut.


'The Bhamdoun Synagogue is one of the largest to ever exist in Lebanon, and is the most intact today.  The stone slabs in front of the building bear the words of the ten commandments written in Hebrew, and inside the building the remenants of a bima and a "Holy Ark" for the Torah can be found.  The Bhamdoun Synagogue was built in 1922 and is known as the "New Temple" because it was one of the last synagogues to be built in Lebanon'

 But the community in Bhamdoun dwindled and disappeared. The jews left in waves; Some left after the state of Israel was founded in 1948, other in the late sixties when the growing presence of the PLO left them feeling vulnerable, and what remained gave up altogether in 1976, at the beginning of the Lebanese civil war. The jews of Lebanon eventually abandoned Bhamdoun. The synagogue closed its doors when the Syrian army moved into town. Whatever jews stuck around did not leave Beirut anymore.


These days there are virtually none left. I know of two, who I know through my work as a journalist. And I know one who fervently claims to be a maronite christian, because his dad is a maronite, and in Lebanon you are registered under the religion of your father. But his mom is jewish, and that would make him jewish according to jewish law. But that’s pretty scant, I must say.

When you live in a civilization, you think it is forever; you cannot imagine change. But everything is relative. And just as Anjar (see last week’s post) once was inhabited by a great civilization that disappeared, and was never heard of again until the ruins were discovered in the 1940’s, there’s nothing left of the presence of the jews, except for a couple of synagogues.  Our civilization is changing.


Last night, as I was typing a story, my family was watching The Fellowship of the Rings.
 I didn’t watch, but I heard the beginning;
The world is changed: I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, I smell it in the air... Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it. (. . . )
And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend, legend became myth.’

And how true that is.


Anonymous said...

Did you have a permit to visit it or simply ignored the sign outside?

Sietske said...

If you're not planning on vandalizing the place, I'd say, ignore the sign. If you want to go by the book (very recommendable), I hope you find someone in the Bhamdoun municipality willing to take the time to write you a permit, or to take you on a tour.
There is a janitor on that street who is surveying the entire street, and will ask you questions. He's very pleasant and helpful once you've chatted with him a little bit. He's curious, and wants to know why you come to visit. Speaking Arabic helps.

Anonymous said...

Would be nice if Lebanon still had a thriving Jewish community, it was add such nice diversity

Anonymous said...

SIetske, so glad you're posting again and continuing to inform us of life outside Beirut. The country has much to offer for those willing to explore and get off the beaten path. It only takes curiosity and an open mind. Thanks for sharing both!

Anonymous said...

This synagogue has so many memories.thousand jewish or more used to spend there months in Bhamdun every summer .my family too.i spend every morning during summer at this synagogue on torrah lessons .it was more reunion of friends than strict lessons.The synagogue comes to life on saturday when all the men atayef in Bhamdun and the jewish gathered like a wonderful tribe.
I have wonderful memories from this synagogue.
I used to live in Beyruth but i was born during summer .it was in Bhamdun.
My family left lebanon on 1969 .I was 13 years old.I remember till now how wonderful was this country and the jewish life and community that lost for ever.
Eli H.