Damascus’s “Jewish Quarter” devoid of its residents
Enab Baladi – Zeinab Masri
“I love Damascus; nothing tops the beautiful days and memories of Damascus.” With poor Arabic writing, Naseem, a Jewish American of Syrian nationality, who lives in Brooklyn, New York city in the United States of America, has expressed in a text conversation with Enab Baladi his love for Damascus city and attachment to it despite leaving it 28 years ago.
Naseem Zlayta lived in the “Jewish Quarter” (Haret al-Yahud) in Arabic, in the Syrian capital, Damascus, before leaving it at the age of twenty to the United States. Naseem left Damascus after the ban on Jews leaving Syria was lifted in 1992, following the “Madrid Peace Conference.”
Zlayta visited his neighborhood in Damascus ten years ago and intends to revisit it soon, especially that his family’s house still exists in the neighborhood along with two shops.
The largest Syrian Jewish community is in Brooklyn, New York City, besides other communities in different areas of the United States of America and the occupied Palestinian territories. After the successive migrations of Jews from Syria, the number of Jews had shrunk to only 60 to 70 Jews in Damascus, while six other Jews remained in Aleppo until 2014, according to The Wall Street Journal newspaper.
The number of Jews currently residing in the “Jewish Quarter” in the old city of Damascus is 12 Jews, distributed in half between men and women. All of these people are elders, unmarried and over 70 years old, according to Bikhor Shamentop, a Jew living in Damascus and a resident of the Jewish Quarter.
Shamentop told Enab Baladi that he did not leave Syria and preferred to stay in Damascus, although he traveled several times to the United States to meet his family there only because he is not married and due to his love of his country.
Shamentop added, “I am used to the life in Damascus, and life in Syria is simple and not complicated despite the circumstances.” He confirmed that the synagogues in the Jewish Quarter are closed as a result of the very few numbers of worshipers who visit them.
No original inhabitants
The “Jewish Quarter” in Damascus lost its original inhabitants after their migration in the early 1990s. Today, the quarter is inhabited by a number of Jewish Damascus-based minority, some Palestinian families, some Damascus residents, and Iranians who came to Damascus.
The recognition of the Jewish community in Syrian society began in 1932. The community is distributed between three cities, namely Damascus, Aleppo, and Qamishli.
Like all other Syrian Jews, Damascus Jews are of eastern origin who lived in an old Damascus neighborhood called “the Jewish Quarter” or “the Jewish lane.”
The Jewish Quarter is not different from the rest of Damascus neighborhoods that have the Damascus architectural style features with the houses of the Jews marked by Hebrew phrases written on their doors.
The center of the Jewish Quarter has a number of synagogues distinguished by their ancient Hebrew building style, where the Jews practice their religious rituals, according to a research carried out by the “Social Consultancy and Research Center (SCR) London’s Second International Conference on Social Sciences and Humanities in the Islamic World.”
The Jews in Damascus were divided into two different antagonistic groups, the Karaite and Rabbinic Judaism, and each had its own private synagogue and cemetery.
The Karaite cemetery is located in the Bab Sharqi area on Damascus’s eastern side, but it disappeared nowadays. Meanwhile, the Rabbinic cemetery is located on the airport road, according to what the “Syrian Modern History” website reported on the researcher Imad al-Armashi.
Business activity of Damascus Jews
The Jews in Syria have engaged in different works, especially in trade, finance, money exchange, and usury. They had financial power because of the closeness, cooperation, and dependence of Europeans living in Damascus on them in many commercial and banking operations, according to al-Armashi.
In 2004, the number of Jews was around 5,000 persons living between Syria and the diaspora. Despite living in the “Jewish Quarter,” the Jews were not isolated from the Damascus society. They integrated with Damascus residents and lived in harmony with all society segments, as Akram Hassan al-Olabi wrote in his book “The Jews of Damascus in the Ottoman Era.”
According to Abdul Aziz Mohammed Awad’s book entitled “The Ottoman Administration in the Province of Syria 1864-1914”, the number of Jews in Syria reached 100,000 Jews in 1909. The “Jewish Quarter” in Damascus included 12 schools teaching 350 students about their religion in Hebrew. The Jews of Damascus had ten synagogues, the most prominent of which is the “Friday Market” synagogue.
Despite their few numbers, the Jews played an influential role in financial business through wealthy Jewish families, whose members worked for many years as bankers for many Damascus Pashas (men of high ranks in the Ottoman political and military system).
These people worked in the money exchange business on the broadest scale, as the wealthy Jews were buying securities from their holders at a low price to dispose of them later at proper times.
The Jews’ activity was limited to clerical jobs, accounting, money exchange, and pledges in the Levant’s financial circles, and none of them reached a senior official position. Besides, the relatively large amounts of cash, at a time when cash was scarce, were a source of strength to the Jews, in addition to their closeness and reliance on their group.
The Jews of Damascus dominated certain industries, the most important of which were making bags and the matchsticks industry. They mastered the brass pots engraving craft and made lots of profits from it.
They were famous as being “greedy” usurers lending money to the needy and taking it back many times its real value.
The “Central Bureau of Statistics” in Syria estimated the population on Syrian territory at 24 million and 422,000 people until mid-2017. It estimated the population according to the natural track of the general growth rate of 2.45 percent.
Enab Baladi analyzed data provided by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) for the number of Syrians in the last ten years. The analysis showed a population decline of 1,362,938 individuals from 2007 until January 2019.
Syria has a mixture of sects and ethnicities, including the seven different ethnicities of Arab tribes and clans, Kurds, Circassians, Turkman, Dagestan, Chechen, and Armenians, along with a mixture of religions and religious sects, the most prominent of which is Islam, the most widely spread religion among Syrians.
The Islamic denominations are spread in different Syrian governorates, the biggest of which is the Sunni sect, along with the Druze community, whose followers are mostly based in As-Suwayda province, south of Syria, and the Alawite community, which represents a majority in the Lattakia mountains, Tartus, and the western countryside of Hama and Homs governorates.
Other communities or sects spread in different provinces including al-Murshidyah, al-Ismailiyah, the Ithna’ashari (Twelver) Shi’a, and the Yazidis.
As for Syria’s Christian communities, there are 19 different communities besides Judaism, whose majority of its followers have migrated outside Syria.
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