Menu JTA Search

Excavation in German town bares ruin of medieval shul

MARBURG, Germany, Jan. 22 (JTA) — The remains of a medieval synagogue, including a keystone engraved with a Jewish star and a niche for the holy ark, have been unearthed in Marburg, a picturesque town of narrow streets and centuries-old buildings set on the slopes of the Lahn valley in the central German state of Hesse. The find, which was made during a routine dig to bury an underground transformer beneath a parking lot, has excited but not entirely surprised municipal officials. Old town records indicate that a synagogue had stood somewhere in the area, along the street that had been known until 1933 as the Judengasse, or “Jews Lane,” at the northern end of the Marburg marketplace. The rectangular building once featured a vaulted ceiling with a six-part vault, the corner pillars of which are still standing. A niche in the eastern wall was likely the former holy ark, and a smaller annex connected to the main hall by a window was likely a women’s area. The oldest part of the structure dates from the 12th century, but the distinctively ribbed ceiling vaults and the Star of David keystone were apparently added after 1250, according to Professor Ulrich Klein, an official with the Institute for Architectural Research and Documentation, a local private authority charged with studying the ruin. The building was partially destroyed in a town fire in 1319, Klein says, then rebuilt to a height of more than 40 feet, corresponding to the height of the current excavated walls. “Today we know of only about a dozen surviving medieval synagogues of that volume in Central Europe,” he says. “The newly excavated building in Marburg is one more important example.” Historical sources indicate that Marburg’s Jewish community was annihilated during the Black Death plagues of 1348 and 1349. Some Jews, however, returned to the town by 1364, and the community thrived for almost another 100 years. About 1452, the Jews were again expelled and the synagogue damaged. “We do not know whether the building was still in use at the time,” Klein says. “Many of its stones were taken away and used to repair walls elsewhere in town.” Over time, the shell of the medieval shul was blocked with earth and forgotten until its rediscovery three years ago. A Jewish community again took root in Marburg after 1532, but remained relatively small in population for several centuries, reaching a peak of 512 people in 1905. City officials have shelved plans to put an electrical transformer beneath the parking lot where the medieval synagogue was discovered. Instead, they intend to build a glass roof to protect the excavation. Other residents seem equally eager to commemorate the town’s Jewish past. Renata Luhrmann, a local English-speaking tour guide, likes to show groups the synagogue’s remains between visits to typical Marburg sites. Luhrmann points into the open pit, which is lined by the massive stone blocks of the 14th-century walls, and describes the former Jewish place of worship in detail, from its sandstone floor to its architectural similarities to other local buildings constructed by Christians in the same period. She makes no secret that she is fascinated by the discovery. “This,” she says with pride, “is one of our most interesting and exciting finds of recent years.”