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New archaeological discoveries in the territory of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius

 

The ongoing archaeological excavations of the Great Synagogue in the back yard of Vokiečių Street, situated in the centre of the capital, are continuously discovering significant artefacts.  Archaeologists have found the bases of two columns belonging to the bimah, the most important platform for Torah readings. So far, the bases of the two out of four columns around the platform have been found. The latest discoveries will be accessible for general public next week, on July 17.

“The bases of the columns that have been unearthed are a huge discovery. We found one of the two holiest places in the building. In the past, these columns were 9 meters high. The unearthed space is special – on this platform the rabbi would stand and lead the service. Taking into account that archaeological investigations are continuously carried out, the residents are kindly welcome to come and see the discoveries by themselves, after more important places in the Great Synagogue of Vilnius are to be unveiled the forthcoming week. One of them is the basement found underneath the excavation site,” said Dr. Jon Seligman, head of the team of scientists.

The archeological excavations have led to the discovery of wall inscriptions, previously present on the walls near the bimah, with references to the Old Testament. One of the wall inscriptions involves a mention of people and quotes of the Book of Genesis, the other one contains verses from the psalms. The archaeological investigation of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius complex (13A Vokiečių st.) will continue until July 19. Later, the archaeological research outcomes will be introduced to the residents of Vilnius and city guests, and excursions will be offered. The first one is due on July 17.

The bases of the columns unearthed are easily recognisable from the Synagogue photos available. According to Dr. J. Seligman, even though the discovery was envisioned, the scientists were overwhelmed with joy after detecting the bases of the columns.

The archaeological exploration of the Great Synagogue began in 2011. Last year, two sites of mikvahs (the ritual baths) were discovered. Last July, a large exterior back wall of the Great Synagogue, part of the Synagogue floor, and part of the bimah were discovered by an international team of archaeologists from Israel, America and Lithuania. This year, the archaeologists focus on further research into the remains of the Great Synagogue that reveal the Aron Kodesh (storage space for the Torah collections). The archaeological research is being carried out for scientific purposes and conducted by Dr. J. Seligman (Head of the Archeology Division of the Israel Antiques Authority) and archaeologist Justinas Račas (“VšĮ Kultūros paveldo išsaugojimo pajėgos“ ( P.I. The Cultural Heritage Conservation Force)). More information on the research is available at: https://www.facebook.com/Vilna.Synagogue.Project/

Vilnius City Municipality is planning to create an efficient environment surrounding the Great Synagogue. The technical project for the restauration and development of the historic Žydų Street is already underway. The municipality also contributes to the dissemination of information on the ongoing archaeological research outcomes. There is an information stand that reflects the latest research results, regular presentations for the residents of Vilnius are being held.

The remains of the Great Synagogue of Vilnius on 13A Vokiečių street is an important value of the cultural heritage of Vilnius. The Great Synagogue of Vilnius was one of the largest religious Jewish institutions in Eastern Europe. It was known as an important Jewish spiritual and educational centre that gave Vilnius the name of Northern Jerusalem.

The Great Synagogue of Vilnius was built of bricks in the renaissance-baroque style on the foundations of the former wooden synagogue in the 17th century. In the long run, a centre of public Jewish life encompassing 12 kloyzn (a kloyz (pl. kloyzn) is a small synagogue), a community centre, and a bathhouse with mikvahs (ritual baths) was established near the Great Synagogue. The buildings consisted of a two-yard complex called Shulhoyf. In 1903, Strašuno rabbi library was built between the Great Synagogue and Žydų Street. During the Second World War, the Great Synagogue and other buildings of the complex were severely damaged. The remains of the buildings erected from 1955 through 1957 were demolished to the ground. In 1964, a nursery-kindergarten was built of bricks at the site of the Great Synagogue

The architectural research of the Great Synagogue is being carried out by a joint team of cultural heritage professionals from Lithuania, Israel, the U.S. and funded by the Good Will Foundation and the members of the archaeological research group.

The project partners include the Lithuanian Jewish Community, Israel Antiques Authority, the project is also supported by Vilnius City Municipality.