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Old Synagogue and Mikveh in Erfurt – Testimonies of everyday life, religion and town history between change and continuity

Date of Submission: 15/02/2015
Criteria: (iii)(iv)(vi)
Category: Cultural
Submitted by:
Permanent Delegation of Germany to UNESCO
State, Province or Region:
Thuringia
Coordinates: N44 31 94 E56 49 70
Ref.: 5982
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Description

The Old Synagogue

The Old Synagogue is situated in the immediate city centre, at the core of the Erfurt historic centre. Today, it is located on the site of Waagegasse No. 8, between Benediktsplatz, Michaelisstraße, Fischmarkt and City Hall. The synagogue's location without direct visibility from the street is typical of medieval synagogues in quarters inhabited by Jews and Christians alike. The synagogue was the centre of community life and hence of the Jewish settlement.

The Old Synagogue's architectural history reflects the history of the Jewish community in Erfurt in the Middle Ages. Yet it also bears testimony to subsequent conversions and changes to the building. The oldest parts of the western wall date back to as far as the end of the 11th century and are thus generally the earliest evidence of a Jewish community in Erfurt: a timber from this first construction phase has been dendro-dated to 1094. Nowadays, it cannot be reconstructed exactly what the building looked like in this early period. The same applies to the second construction phase of the 12th century. Here again, only a short stretch of the western wall with a sandstone double-arched window (biforium) has been preserved.

Around 1270, the Jewish community erected a large and prestigious synagogue, incorporating parts of the previous building. Even today, the representative western façade with five lancet windows and a large tracery rosette effectively shapes the synagogue's outer appearance. The high interior was spanned by a timber barrel vault. Shortly after 1300, the synagogue was expanded by a few metres to the north and another storey was added. The extension, largely preserved to date, had a magnificent symmetrical façade with the synagogue entrance in the middle and five formerly tall lancet windows laid out in a row above the doorway. It possibly housed the women's synagogue, traditionally separated from the main prayer room, or else served as a school for the boys' Hebrew lessons.

After the devastating pogrom of 1349, which also caused severe damage to the synagogue, the city of Erfurt acquired the building and subsequently sold it to a local merchant. He converted the synagogue into a warehouse by fitting in a vaulted cellar, splitting up the main prayer room into several storeys with two solid timber ceilings and erecting a new roof truss. Nearly the entire synagogal interior fell victim to this conversion: the bimah (lectern) was destroyed, as was the torah shrine on the eastern wall, where a major gateway is located since the mid-14th century. Only the cornice once running around the main prayer room has been partly preserved. It was used to place lamps or candles for lighting the synagogue during services.

Since the late 19th century, the former synagogue was used for gastronomical purposes and had been transformed to that effect: a ballroom, kitchen and dining areas and even two bowling alleys were created. It was due to these changes as well as to adjacent buildings on all sides that the original synagogal edifice was hardly recognizable for a long time. For that reason, the building remained virtually unknown to general perception, fortunately also during the Third Reich.

Only since the late 1980s has the synagogue returned to public awareness and in 1992, the building historian Elmar Altwasser began to examine it. The researches were completed in 2007 and published in 2009 (see literature). In 1998, the city of Erfurt purchased the building and had it extensively researched and renovated over the course of the following years. During renovation, great emphasis was put on the preservation of all traces of use: those dating from synagogal use as well as those from later alterations. Owing to this careful conservation and restoration, medieval as well as younger building phases are still easy to perceive from the building. At the same time, modern conversions and alterations are clearly distinguishable from historic ones.

Now housing a museum on the history of Erfurt's Jewish community in the Middle Ages, the synagogue has found an appropriate use anew.

The Mikveh

In spring 2007, the remains of the medieval mikveh were discovered during renovation works on the open space northwest of Merchants' Bridge. The Mainz "Heberolle" of 1248/49 is the first to mention the mikveh in Erfurt; in the interest rate registers of St. Severus Church it can be traced back as far as around 1250. The Jewish community is named there as the owner of the plot of land on Krautgasse (immediately north of Merchants' Bridge), on which the Cold Bath ("Frigido balneo") was located. The community had to pay annual dues of 2 gulden for it, initially to the bishop, later to the city. Until 1618, the term "cold bath" remained the plot's specification, even though it had long lost its original function. The cold bath is clearly recognizable as a ritual bath – written sources generally refer to regular baths as a "stupa".

The mikveh's walls are of extraordinary quality. Vault and upper mural parts are walled up in even layers of limestone. The building, about 9 metres long and just under 3 metres wide on the inside, features an alcove in its northern wall, presumably used for depositing clothes. The basin, located on the eastern wall, takes up its complete width. In the basin area, a change in the masonry catches the eye: here, approximately on medieval groundwater level, several layers of large sandstone ashlars are fitted into the wall in a way which is found in no other Erfurt cellar. The basin itself was reached by a staircase whose course can still be retraced by the former stairs' imprints on the northern wall. According to instructions, the bath was supplied with groundwater, which was constantly available due to the river Gera close by. The stairs permitted complete immersion at all times, seasonal fluctuations were thus easily counterbalanced.

The mikveh structure, according to first assessment erected in the 13th century, reclined on the southern wall of at least one preceding building in the same spot. While this wall could merely be dated very roughly into Romanesque times at first, its age determination received a new hint when, only in 2010, a small stone sculpture was discovered on one of the huge sandstone ashlars: The head, approximately 30 cm tall and of remarkable handicraft, wears a crown with a lily and can thus possibly be identified as a portrait of King David. It originates from the first half of the 12th century, thus adding the first mikveh building, the supposed source of the boulders, to the small group of early mikvaot in Germany. Moreover, it is the only known mikveh so far with figurative sculpture (Karin Sczech, TLDA).

The archaeological excavation was concluded in 2010, its results are due for publishing in 2013 (see Literature). After having concluded the excavation works, the erection of a protective building began, defending the remains of the medieval mikveh from external influences on the one hand and enabling its exhibition on the other. Since September 2011, the mikveh is accessible to visitors within guided tours.

The "Stone House"

In a complex of buildings on Benediktsplatz 1 in the historic city centre, surrounded by younger structural elements, a medieval stone structure is located. The building rises above a medieval cellar whose earliest construction phases can be dated into the 12th century by a Romanesque portal. Yet the edifice predominantly dates from the 13th and was merely changed in few parts during the 14th century. Exceptionally numerous essential structures from its time of construction around 1250 have been preserved, among those the portals to both main storeys, the beamed storey ceiling, the original stepped gable as well as the wooden roof structure.

Unique throughout Germany is the upper storey's room interior with a lancet arched vented lighting niche, hardly changed outer walls with scored joints as well as a painted beam ceiling. The boards of the ceiling are consistently decorated with a wheel motif, while each of the beams features different ornamentation. The beams have been dendro-dated to 1241/42. The so-called "Stone House" is an exceptional testimony of late medieval secular building culture. What is more, thanks to the analysis of medieval tax lists, the edifice can be related to Jewish owners from the end of the 13th century at the latest.

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

In the largely intact Old Town of Erfurt, unique evidence of the important Jewish community from the late 11th to the mid-14th century has been preserved: the Old Synagogue, one of the oldest, largest and best preserved medieval synagogues, its appendant mikveh and a secular building. The conserved buildings are complemented and enhanced by an unequalled abundance of original objects such as gravestones, manuscripts and the globally unique Erfurt Treasure. Together, they offer priceless clues to Jewish community and everyday life as well as to the coexistence of Jews and Christians in medieval cities. Nowhere else can so many exceptional and authentic testimonies be found gathered in one place to which they are also historically related. Erfurt is an outstanding example of the early heyday of Central European Jewish culture before it was brutally disrupted by the "Black Death" pogroms in the mid-14th century.  

Criterion (iii): Unique testimony to the culture of Central European Jewry in the Middle Ages

The Old Synagogue is the best preserved synagogue in Central Europe, its oldest parts dating back to the late 11th century. It is complemented by the medieval mikveh, the "Stone House" and singular authentic objects: The Hebrew Manuscripts from the Erfurt Jewish Community, the Erfurt Jewish Oath (dating back to late 12th century, it is the oldest preserved Jewish Oath in the German tongue), a Bronze Lamp, originating around the year 1200 (the oldest known example of its kind) as well as around 60 preserved tombstones from the 13th to 15th century from the former Jewish cemetery. What is more, the "Erfurt Treasure", with a weight of nearly 30 kg the largest and one of the most important hoards of medieval Jewish property from the 14th century, offers inestimable insight on status, everyday life and trading relations of wealthy Jews as citizens of central European towns and cities.

Together, they bear witness to an era when Jewish presence moulded European culture, economy and society. The knowledge it provides about the Jewish community between approx. 1200 and 1349 illuminates, in unrivalled detail, the status of medieval Jewish communities as part of urban society as well as the tense relations between Jews and Christians in everyday and religious life. Erfurt's Jewish heritage thus is a showcase of Jewish communities in Ashkenaz, the settlement area of Central European Jewry.

Criterion (iv): Outstanding examples of medieval Jewish religious and secular architecture

The Old Synagogue's quality and state of conservation are exceptional, especially in comparison to other preserved synagogues of a similar age. Its architectural history mirrors in a distinct manner the story of a Jewish community and its highly charged relations to its Christian surroundings. Beginning in the 11th century the Jewish community increased and flourished until the riots and persecution, which culminated in its complete extinction during the pogrom of 21 March 1349. At the same time, general developments in Jewish sacred architecture between the 11th and 14th century can be understood. Put into context with various Erfurt churches, different concepts of sacred spaces become apparent. Due to conversions and alterations of the 19th century when the synagogue housed a restaurant and a ballroom, its original design was hardly recognizable for a long time. Hence, it was virtually unknown to general perception and thus remained intact during the Third Reich.

The mikveh belongs to the range of early medieval Jewish ritual baths in Europe. Its main construction phase is to be dated to the mid-13th century; one older building phase is traceable. The building's shape is unusual and so far unequalled.

Europe-wide, the so-called "Stone House" is one of the few remaining buildings from this era. Without doubt owned by Jews since 1293 at the latest, it features an original painted beam ceiling from the mid-13th century. It is thus an outstanding example of a medieval secular building from a Jewish context.

Criterion (vi): Direct association with Judaism and its reception by its Christian surroundings

The coexistence, incessant discourse and dispute between Jews and Christians have shaped and defined Europe over centuries. Erfurt's rise to scholarly and economic prosperity is a showcase of urban development in the Middle Ages. The contribution of Jewish communities to this age-long process is so far underestimated. Today, medieval Jewish rite, Jewish everyday life as well as Jewish-Christian coexistence are documented in Erfurt with a number of authentic testimonies unrivalled by any other known site worldwide. Yet the same testimonies also bear witness to conflict, persecution and expulsion of Jews in the Middle Ages which is inseparably linked to common memory. In this context, treatment of the Old Synagogue is also exemplary: Beginning with its conversion into a storehouse in the aftermath of the 1349 pogrom, its age-long oblivion until its recent rediscovery and its renewed life as a museum for the history of the Jewish community of medieval Erfurt. In this way Erfurt fulfils Germany's particular historical responsibility to commemorate the common cultural heritage of Judaism and Christianity in Europe and to honour the age-long defining contribution of Jewish citizens to scholarliness and prosperity and therefore to German and European culture and society.  

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The Old Synagogue's architectural history reflects all building phases and its various uses from its time of construction up to subsequent conversions and latest changes to the building in the 19th century on the basis of its original parts. Most parts of the building, however, date from the construction phases around 1250-1320 when it was used as a synagogue. After 1350, the synagogue was converted into a storehouse, since the 19th century it was used gastronomically. The traces of these later uses, too, were preserved during restoration, as they were deemed to be the reason the medieval structures survived.

The Old Synagogue is enhanced in its impact and significance by a mikveh, excavated in 2007 in the immediate historic city centre as well as a medieval secular building, the "Stone House", in Jewish possession since late 13th century and mostly unaltered since that time. In addition, there are singular authentic objects with an exceptional validity for Jewish culture in Central Europe, globally unique in their sheer plenty. The Jewish-medieval heritage of Erfurt as a whole stands out as an exceptional example of metropolitan and community culture in medieval Ashkenaz.

Comparison with other similar properties

From the range of few preserved Jewish ritual buildings from the Middle Ages, the Old Synagogue stands out as one of the oldest, largest and best preserved prayer rooms in Central Europe. Comparable buildings have either been destroyed and rebuilt or are preserved to a much lesser extent. Sites representing this early height of Jewish life in Central Europe are currently not listed as World Heritage. In addition to sites of biblical Judaism (Masada, Biblical Tels of Megiddo, Hazor, Beer Sheba) as well as sites serving as centres of the three world religions Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Jerusalem, Toledo, Saint Catherine Area), only the World Heritage Site "Jewish Quarter and St Procopius' Basilica in Třebíč" (Czech Republic) relates to ashkenazic Jewry. It commemorates the coexistence of Jewish and Christian culture from the Middle Ages up to the 20th century. Medieval synagogues and mikvaot as testimonies of Jewish religion and culture are so far not listed as self-contained World Heritage Sites. Even younger synagogues, which have been preserved slightly more often, are either not represented on the World Heritage List or merely so as part of a historic Old Town (Prague, Cracow, Bardejov).

Owing to its size and quality, the Erfurt Mikveh can be classified as a monumental mikveh similarly to the well-known shaft mikvaot preserved for instance in Cologne, Speyer, Worms and Friedberg (Hesse). Unlike these, however, it represents an entirely different and so far singular type of medieval Jewish ritual bath.

The "Stone House" with its original interior is unique throughout Europe.

The recent Erfurt rediscoveries and intense scientific research they have triggered significantly broadened the existing knowledge of Jewish settlement and cultural history of the early and high Middle Ages. The abundance of authentic architectural heritage should be seen in context with the previous state of research chiefly based on written sources. On the other hand, material testimonies such as the Erfurt Hebrew Manuscripts have raised an entire set of new questions. In addressing these, further far-reaching insights on Jewish-European history can be expected over the forthcoming years.