Jodensavanne synagogue Suriname by Ariadne Van ZandbergenJodensavanne's ruined synagogue © Ariadne Van Zandbergen

The oldest synagogue in the Americas stands out from the jungle-bound ruins of this once-prosperous Sephardic trade port founded in the 17th century.

Arguably the most important and intriguing historical site in Suriname, the ruins of Jodensavanne (‘Jewish Savannah’) stand on the elevated east bank of the Suriname River some 50km upstream of Paramaribo. Now largely engulfed by jungle, this ruined town was Suriname’s second-most important settlement from the late 17th century until its demise in the early 19th, and it is also a remote and poignant reminder of the South American exodus undertaken by some of the 800,000 Sephardic Jews expelled from the Iberian Peninsula by the Spanish Inquisition in the 1490s. The neglected and largely unexcavated site was placed on the World Monument Fund Watch List in 1996, and the Stichting Jodensavanne, Jodensavanne Foundation (JSF) has since helped to publicise its existence and to enhance visits with the provision of good onsite interpretative material. and the 2016 opening of a small hexagonal museum with displays relating to Jewish settlement in Suriname and the Caribbean. Designated as a national monument in 2009, Jodensavanne is the only place in Suriname currently included on UNESCO’s tentative list of World Heritage Sites.

The centrepiece of the ruined sites here is the Synagogue Beraha ve Shalom (‘Blessing and Peace’), which has a ground plan of around 4,100m2 and stood two stories high. Constructed with red bricks imported from Europe, it was designed by an unknown architect, probably of Dutch rather than Iberian origin since the layout of the interior strongly resembles its counterpart in Amsterdam. In keeping with Talmudic law, it was supposedly built at the highest point of the village and was the tallest building at around 10m high, with pointed gabled walls on its two narrower sides. In common with the synagogues in Paramaribo, and for the same reason, it had a sandy floor. The Hechal, where the Torah was stored, was located on the east side, while the Tebah platform (where the prayers were read from) was on the west, and the interior was designed so the male congregation could see both. Women were seated in a gallery above the Tebah. The last time a service was held at the synagogue was in 1865, a full 1,800 years aft er its consecration. It is not known when the upper storey crumbled, reducing the building to little more than a ground plan, but it almost certainly occurred sometime before the first attempt at restoration work was undertaken in 1906.

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