By Michael-Leonard Creditor
Ramadan is an entire month of abstinence and prayer celebrating the initial revelation to Muhammad of what would become the Quran. One of the Five Pillars of the Muslim faith, all Muslims are required to perform these religious duties unless elderly, ill, or “unclean”. Ramadan in San Diego began May 17 and ends on June 15.
This year, the Muslim holy month coincides with the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, which began May 19 and ended May 21. Seven weeks after the Jews achieved freedom from their slavery in Egypt, celebrated as Pasach (Passover), God gave the Torah (Old Testament) to the Israelites assembled at the foot of Mount Sinai. That is celebrated as Shavuot, which is roughly analogous to Christian Pentecost. Also, Shavuot celebrates an even older tradition, the Feast of Weeks harvest festival, so there’s a double meaning to the holiday for Jews.
Both holidays commemorate the delivery of their religion’s holy book to them. While Shavuot is tied to Pasach, and always happens at about this time of year, Ramadan moves around the year according to the Islamic lunar calendar, so this pairing happens once in about 25 years. This pairing makes a good-as-any reason to look at the architecture of the respective houses of worship.
In terms of the design and architecture of the buildings, synagogues fall basically into two categories. They follow the migration routes that the two main branches of Judaism took after being expelled from Israel. The Sephardic/Moorish and Ashkenazi/Northern European.
Mosques also divide into two general types: Ottoman/Middle-Eastern and Moorish/European. This style is often called “Islamic” architecture, but I maintain that is a misnomer. Just as there is no one Jewish, or Christian, architectural style, so there is no single architecture of the Muslim religion. Also, we saw in the Santa Maria Synagogue how Moorish design is also used in a Jewish setting, so it isn’t only Islamic.
Mosques also use many of the same elements as synagogues:
- The bimah, where the rabbi stands when reading from the Torah, is roughly equivalent to the pulpit in a church. In mosques the platform for the Imam is called minbar.
- The Torah ark, where the biblical scrolls are kept, is always placed so the congregation will be facing in the direction of Jerusalem. The Islamic mihrab is an alcove which points the direction of Mecca. This is also similar to a bema in Christian churches. The mihrab doesn’t hold copies of the Quran, however.
- A main hall or prayer hall: obviously, every house of worship has it. Cultural and architectural differences include shape, number of sections (naves), and placement of elements.
There are also some design differences: mosques have wudu (ablution area) and often incorporate a courtyard within the walls of the mosque property.
Grand Synagogue, Paris, France
A grand synagogue in the European/Ashkenazi style.
Old Synagogue and Wall, Prague, Czech Republic
Many synagogues are just ordinary buildings or houses, often taking the look of the country they are in. From the outside you might never know you were passing a synagogue. This is partly because Jewish law allows a synagogue to be built anywhere, so they can often be found in residential areas.
The Rabbi, Venice, Italy
I stumbled upon what I thought was just a small neighborhood synagogue many years ago while exploring Venice; it looked so unassuming that I didn’t even photograph the exterior. The rabbi, on the other hand, I thought was worth a picture. I learned later that it was the second-oldest synagogue in Europe! That’s the other reason synagogues are often unobtrusive: because Jews have had to hide their faith in much of the world for much of the last 2,000 years.
Synagogue Museum, Dubrovnik, Croatia
Perhaps it’s just because the two ancient cities are similar architecturally, but this synagogue is situated so similarly to the one in Venice that, when I found it many years later, I literally had to shake my head at the déjà vu.
Santa Maria Synagogue, Toledo, Spain
As noted before, synagogues generally take the architectural style of the land they’re in, but this is the only synagogue I know of named after a saint.
Santa Maria Museum interior
And with Moorish architecture.
Mikve Israel-Emanuel, Willemstad, Curaçao
A grand synagogue, but with Sephardic/Moorish design elements. Built in 1674, this is the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere still in use.
Mikve Israel-Emanuel interior
Main prayer hall facing the Torah ark.
Many Caribbean synagogues from the Sephardic tradition have sand spread on their floors. The tradition behind this is two-fold: first, a reminder of the biblical 40 years wandering in the desert; more recently, of years when Jews had to keep their religion secret.
St. Thomas Synagogue, Charlotte Amalie, USVI
Congregation founded in 1796, this structure was built in 1933.
St. Thomas Synagogue interior
Again, note the sand on the floor.
Congregation Beth Israel, Portland, Oregon.
As we circle around closer to home, here’s an American-Jewish variety of the European/Ashkenazi architecture we began with.
Temple Beth Israel, San Diego
The main hall is octagonal, continuing a tradition of synagogues from the Byzantine times of ancient Israel. Note the Torah ark is on a raised stage.
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Nusretiye Camii, Istanbul, Turkey
Although it is on a main street, Nusretiye is a neighborhood mosque – only two minarets.
Nusretiye Camii, courtyard
But it still has a courtyard, with a wudu (ablution area) and a small market and outdoor café.
Hagia Sophia, Main Hall, Istanbul, Turkey
The famously beautiful Hagia Sophia in Istanbul began as a Byzantine cathedral, was “converted” for use as a church, then, most famously, as a mosque, and is now a museum.
The shroud at right hides some restoration work being done when I was there. I didn’t feel shortchanged at all!
Hagia Sophia, Minbar
Hagia Sophia, archway
Sultanahmet Camii, Istanbul, Turkey
The so-called Blue Mosque is actually named Sultanahmet. It’s the one with six minarets.
Sultanahmet Camii, Courtyard
The qubbat (vaulting domes) symbolize the ascent to Heaven.
The lowest set of domes is actually an arcade that goes around the entire courtyard – endless domes.
Sultanahmet Camii, Minbar
While Hagia Sophia is now a museum, Sultanahmet is a working mosque (note the carpet in the prayer hall versus the bare stone in Hagia Sophia) and cultural center in the ancient sense.
Sultanahmet Camii, rear
There’s even a bustling market just beneath the wall, lower right.
Court of the Lions, Alhambra, Granada, Spain
Alhambra NOT a mosque, it’s a Moorish palace. It also has some of the best examples of Moorish design to be found anywhere. One of two alcoves at the Court/Fountain of Lions shows the proportional and visual perfection of the surrounding arched gallery.
Hall of the Two Sisters, Alhambra, Granada, Spain
Muqarnas, the honeycomb pattern, is used liberally throughout the Alhambra. The Hall of the Two Sisters has a wonderful muqarnas-pattern dome.
Court of the Myrtles Fountain, Alhambra, Granada, Spain
More visual perfection. I love my wide-angle lens.
All photos © michael-leonard creditor / Flickr website @ flexible fotography