Relics of old Afghanistan reveal Jewish past

Tue Jun 23, 2009 11:32pm EDT
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By Golnar Motevalli

HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - Behind a parade of old mud brick shops, through narrow winding alleys, a tiny door opens onto a sundrenched courtyard, where school children giggle and play alongside the ghosts of Afghanistan's Jewish past.

The Yu Aw is one of four synagogues in the old quarter of Herat city in west Afghanistan, which after decades of abandonment and neglect, has been restored to provide desperately-needed space for an infant school.

When Israel was founded in 1948, the estimated 280 Jewish families that lived in Herat began leaving. Today, there are no Jews left in the city and only one left in the entire country, the last remnant of a community that dates back some 2,500 years.

"Before this was a community center and school it was a synagogue for the Jewish families who lived in the area," said Fatemeh Nezary, a teacher and supervisor of the school.

"The children don't know, they are too young to understand right now," she said, pointing toward her small class of doe-eyed five-year old girls and boys.

The Herat synagogue, over a century old, is comprised of a modest stone courtyard framed by a series of small rooms including a main prayer room which still has a raised platform where the torah would have been read.

Parts of the prayer room's high ceilings are decorated in painted Persian-style floral patterns and motifs.

The "mikvah," an echoey underground chamber underneath the courtyard, has also been restored. Decades of rubbish was gutted from its cavity to reveal a natural pool of water which is thought to have been used for bathing rituals.   Continued...

<p>Afghan children walk past a Jewish grave at a cemetry in Herat city June 8, 2009. REUTERS/ Mohammad Shoiab</p>