Friday, February 7, 2014

1,700 years of Jewish history come alive in downtown Cologne

Excavations in a city where Jews have lived as long as Christians yield some remarkable findings, to be displayed in a major new museum

BY RAPHAEL AHREN for The Times of Israel

Cologne SynagogueCOLOGNE, Germany — Sometime between 1267 and 1349, Samuel Bar Zelig scratched his name onto the bimah (the platform from which the cantor leads the prayer and reads the Torah) of the local synagogue.

“Apparently the children learned and played there, and evidently also fooled around,” said Michael Wiehen, a senior archaeologist with the Cologne municipality.

In the Middle Ages, synagogues were often used as classrooms. In this particular house of worship, in the heart of Europe, the children apparently climbed on chairs and table to sign their names wherever they could, Wiehen explained. “They essentially wrote something like ‘I was here.’”

Samuel’s ancient “graffiti,” as archaeologists call this kind of scrawling, is only one of a myriad of relics that were — and are currently still being — excavated in a central Cologne square, the site of the city’s ancient synagogue. In a few years, the remaining ruins of that 700-year-old synagogue and the adjacent ancient mikveh, or ritual bath, will be visible to visitors in what promises to become one of Europe’s most fascinating museums of ancient and medieval Jewish history. Visitors will get see the base of the shul’s original bimah, and a modern reconstruction of it, in addition to many other relics found in Cologne’s medieval Jewish quarter.

More than 700 fragments of the ancient synagogue have been found, allowing the archaeologists to reconstruct the bimah. “It was probably created around 1280 by French workmen of the Cologne Cathedral lodge, which makes this Bimah a unique testimony to the cohabitation of Jews and Christians at that time,” the museum website states.

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