Built in 1868, the Spanish Synagogue in Prague Czechia is heavily influenced by Islamic architecture and the Moorish Revival style.(Image Credit: Thomas Ledl)
From the mid-19th century into the early 20th century, it was common for Jewish communities in central Europe and the United States to build their synagogues in the Moorish Revival style — a Western architectural genre that appropriated Islamic design features.
Moorish Revival synagogues were prevalent not just in large cities like Berlin, New York, and Vienna, but also in smaller ones like Corsicana, Texas, Owensboro, Kentucky, and Quincy, Illinois.
That Jews built their synagogues in ways that resembled mosques challenges prevailing conceptions about Jewish identity and Jewish-Muslim relations.
Synagogue Architecture Features
Over the millennia, the actual design of synagogues varied according to location, era, and the level of safety felt by Jews.
Synagogues tended to be non-descript or reflect the broader architectural milieu. For example, America’s first synagogue, the Touro Synagogue — built in Newport, Rhode Island in 1763 — was constructed in the Georgian style, with striking ionic columns.
But there are some standard features to synagogue interiors. Synagogue sanctuaries generally have an ark (Aron Kodesh) where Torah scrolls are stored, a raised platform (bimah) where the rabbi leads services, and a flame (Ner Temid) that symbolizes the Divine Presence.
The Emergence of the Moorish Revival Synagogue
The Moorish Revival style took form in the early 19th century in central and western Europe. Non-Jewish Europeans used the supposedly “exotic” architecture of the Muslim world to express fantasy and whimsy. The Roval Pavillion in Brighton, with its Indo-Saracenic exterior, built in 1815, is an early example of this exoticism.
Ideas and forms can take on different meanings over time. The Moorish Revival style was popularized by European Christians for secular purposes as a kind of aesthetic playfulness. But Jewish communities in Europe and, later, the United States, embraced it in adorning their houses of worship.
The Jewish embrace of Islamic architectural styles in synagogue design began in the early-mid 19th century during a period known as the Jewish Emancipation. Ashkenazi Jews residing in Germany began to gain more economic and civic rights, including permission to live in major cities. In search of social “respectability,” they built large synagogues.
In building these synagogues, they faced the choice of design. Given the precarious nature of Jewish diasporic communities, a common synagogue architecture never emerged. They could have emulated the Gothic or Romanesque styles common to Christian churches — and many communities at some point did. But during the 18th century, many Jewish communities — first in Germany and then elsewhere in the West — opted for the Moorish Revival style, which was already in vogue. Some also fused Gothic and Romanesque forms with “Moorish” features, including horseshoe arches.
The Moorish Revival style was used both by non-Jewish architects of synagogues and by Jews themselves. The reason, the scholar Ivan Davidson Kalmar explains, is that in this time period, “Jews were considered by others and by themselves as the Orientals [i.e. Easterners] of the West.” (The “Orient” was a term at the time used to designate the Middle East and the rest of Asia.) According to Kalmar, Jews “hoped that they could convince the public of the nobility of their Oriental blood.” Moorish Revival synagogues served that pursuit of prestige.
The Semper Synagogue in Dresden — designed by Gottfried Semper and opened in 1838 — is often cited as the first Moorish Revival synagogue. This synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis in the Kristallnacht pogroms a century later. The Semper Synagogue’s interior features ornamented columns replicating that of the Alhambra Mosque in Spain.
The Semper Synagogue, however, was preceded by the Ingenheim Synagogue, which — Susan Beth Teichman notes in her study of Moorish Revival synagogues — featured a mihrab-style niche for the ark on its eastern wall. (The Ingenheim Synagogue too was destroyed on Kristallnacht.)
Synagogues categorized as Moorish Revival did not necessarily adopt the design and forms of Islamic architecture wholesale. They tended to make use of one or many Islamic architectural features, including domes, horseshoe arches, iwans, minarets, and mihrabs.
Later, Moorish revival synagogues were built across Europe, including in Vienna, Mainz, Leipzig, and Budapest. The Leipzig synagogue was designed by Otto Simonson, a Jewish architect who studied under Semper.
Moorish Revival Synagogues in America
The first Moorish Revival Synagogue in the United States was the Bna’i Yeshurun Synagogue in Cincinnati, Ohio, now known as the Isaac M. Wise Temple. Built in 1866, this synagogue features an iwan-style entrance and two tall minaret towers.
In just a few years, the Moorish Revival fever would spread to New York City. In 1868, New York City’s first Moorish Revival synagogue opened. Temple Emanu-El, located on Fifth Avenue and West 43rd Street, featured two striking minaret-style towers and was the first building in the city that was recognizable as a synagogue. (Previous synagogues in Manhattan did not contain exterior features that were distinctive.)
Temple Emanu-El was designed by Leopold Eidlitz, a Jewish architect whose portfolio includes P.T. Barnum’s Moorish Revival “Iranistan” estate.
In 1872, two additional Moorish Revival synagogues — Shaarey Fefilah and Central Synagogue (Congregation Ahawath Chesed) would be built nearby. And so in the late 19th century, one could walk through the streets of midtown Manhattan and encounter three mosque-like synagogues within close proximity.
New York’s Central Synagogue, which still stands today, is a near-replica of the Dohany Street Synagogue in Budapest. It is the clearest example of the transmission of the Moorish Revival synagogue style from central Europe to America.
In 1887, on the Lower East Side, the Moorish Revival Eldridge Street Synagogue opened, serving an Eastern European immigrant community who perhaps embraced the style to signal they had reached the prestige of their more affluent and urbane German Jewish religious kin uptown.
For some Jewish communities, the Moorish Revival style also harkened back to the era of “convivencia” in Islamic Spain — a period seen as one in which Christians, Jews, and Muslims lived in relative coexistence and tolerance.
During the 19th and early 20th centuries, synagogues in the U.S. also explored a range of other styles, from San Francisco’s Byzantine Revival Temple Emanu-El to the Egyptian Revival Temple Beth El in Borough Park, Brooklyn. But the Moorish Revival style stands out because of how non-Western its forms were.
Why Moorish Revival Synagogues Matter
The 19th century was an era in which Jews in the West began to experience more freedom through the Jewish Emancipation. In this period, they sought to figure out their place in Europe and America. They often looked to the aesthetic traditions of Muslim civilizations to situate themselves as non-Christian Americans or Europeans.
Many Moorish Revival synagogues no longer exist. As the Nazis spread throughout Europe, they destroyed not just millions of Jewish people, but also the worlds they constructed for themselves, including their houses of worship. In the United States, as Jewish communities moved or dwindled in size, many Moorish Revival synagogues were demolished or fell into disrepair.
This context makes the Moorish Revival synagogues that remain today even more special. They serve as reminders of a moment in which Jews looked to Islamic civilization to present themselves to the world. And, more broadly, they reflect the fluidity of how we as humans conceive ourselves and how we view our relations to others.
History shows us the many possibilities of existence — and co-existence. Its study can free us from the shackles of the present.