Why Moorish? Synagogues and the Moorish Revival

Moorish window and dome detail found in The Eldridge Street Synagogue sanctuary

Moorish details found in The Eldridge Street Synagogue’s main sanctuary

One of the first things people notice when visiting the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue is the use of the Moorish style. It is seen in the synagogue’s rooftop finials, horseshoe-shaped windows and arches, and hand-painted designs. Moorish architecture is associated with Islamic structures in Spain and the Middle East, including the famed Alhambra palace in Spain and the Taj Mahal in India. It may seem like a surprising choice for the first American synagogue built by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe.

And yet, the Museum at Eldridge Street’s Lost Synagogues of Europe exhibition makes clear that this style was widely used for Jewish sacred sites throughout Europe beginning as early as 1830. In fact, the vast majority of images featured in the exhibit depict Moorish-style synagogues. It’s no surprise, then, that the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s architects, Peter and Francis Herter, selected the Moorish style for their first and only synagogue. In their choice, they reflected design trends of the day. As German immigrants, they also had first-hand knowledge of Moorish Revival synagogues throughout Europe.

What is Moorish Style?

The Moorish Revival style was named for the North African Moors who conquered Spain and the majority of the Mediterranean beginning in the late 700’s. Moorish designs incorporated traditional Arabic and “Oriental” elements such as grand domes and archways, intricate floral patterns and colorful tiles – all found in countless mosques across the Iberian Peninsula. At the time of Al-Andalus, or the period of Muslim rule across Spain and the Mediterranean, the relationship between Christians, Muslims and Jews was peaceful. This period was seen as a Golden Age for Jewish culture. Jews were accepted within society and flourished economically and culturally. Because of this, many assume that the revival of Moorish architecture in Jewish synagogues was mainly in homage to this time period. However, according to anthropologist Ivan Davidson Kalmar, an expert on Western Christian views of Jews and Muslims, the Moorish phenomenon had more complex roots.

A Celebration of Jewish Heritage

Former Moorish Style synagogue in Kaiserslautern, Germany

Postcard of former Moorish-Style synagogue in Kaiserslautern, Germany

By the early 1800’s, echoes of the Muslim rule remained across Southwestern Europe. However, many of the medieval mosques had been converted to Catholic cathedrals, and the majority of Europe was under Christian control. During this period, there was a surge in the construction of churches and cathedrals all across Europe. At the same time, many Jewish communities in Central and Eastern Europe were slowly gaining social, political and economic freedom. Local governments began to allow Jewish communities to build large and conspicuous synagogues for the very first time. Beginning in the 1810’s, ornate temples were constructed in major cities such as Dresden, Berlin and Prague. Many incorporated Neo-Romanesque, Gothic and even Egyptian elements. However, the use of  design elements such as horseshoe windows and doors, slim pillars and onion domes, was unmistakably Moorish. Throughout the 19th century and up until World War I, a great majority of synagogues built in Europe and the U.S. possessed distinctly Moorish elements.

This was no coincidence. In fact, the decision to employ these elements carried great significance for the Jewish people. Although Jews had begun to receive relative respect and tolerance from their Christian neighbors, they were continually viewed as the unmistakable “other.” Jews were considered the “Orientals” of Europe. This term has long been used by Western imperialists to describe the cultures of the Middle and Far East. While in the eyes of Christian Europeans this term connoted a degree of inferiority and underdevelopment, many Jews embraced this label. The decision to employ Islamic or Moorish design elements was actually a proud assertion of Jewish heritage which defied Western imperial notions of the East.

Architect Wilhelm Stiassny

Jubilee Synagogue in Prague features Moorish architecture. From "Lost Synagogues of Europe: Postcards from the Collection of Frantisek Banyai"

Postcard of Wilhelm Stiassny’s 1906 Jubilee Synagogue in Prague

Wilhelm Stiassny was one of the most notable architects to use the Moorish style. He designed countless synagogues across Europe including those of Caslav (1899), Leopoldgasse, Vienna (the “Polish Synagogue,” 1892-93), and the famous Jerusalem or “Jubilee” synagogue in Prague (1906). His designs consistently and proudly featured Moorish elements. Stiassny maintained a passionate interest in the Orient. He studied the history and urban planning of Eastern cities throughout Mesopotamia, Persia, Afghanistan, Tibet and India. Both personally and professionally, Stiassny kept many impressive contacts including with Theodor Herzl, the father of modern political Zionism. Stiassny’s imaginative and enthusiastic celebration of Oriental culture was reflected in his many synagogue designs. These structures symbolized not only ancient Jewish origins, but his dream of a prosperous and idyllic future for the Jewish people.

It comes as no surprise, then, that the Moorish style was so popular among architects of Jewish structures across the globe. Jewish American immigrants also embraced this style as they proudly constructed their places of worship in a new land. Although many of the magnificent Moorish synagogues of Europe have since been destroyed, countless of their American counterparts stand today in nearly every major city in the United States, including our very own on Eldridge Street. These Moorish synagogues stand as testaments to the resilient history and culture of the Jewish people.

Want to learn more about synagogue architecture and the Moorish style?

Come visit the Museum at Eldridge Street, housed in the 1887 Eldridge Street Synagogue and view our “Lost Synagogues of Europe: Postcards from the Collection of Frantisek Banyai” on display through September 1, 2017.


By Gwendolyn Underwood, Museum at Eldridge Street Intern

Categories: Art & Architecture, Jewish HistoryTags: ,

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