Sunday, 3 May 2015

Victoria Ballmes: Architecture and the Construction of Communal Memory: The Emergence of the Grand Synagogue in Late Antiquity

As Christianity became the dominant religion in the Roman Empire and ecclesiastical authority was increasingly aligned with political power starting in the fourth century, the accompanying shift in religious and political power led to a change in social relations between Jews and Christians in Late Antiquity. We see this play out in increasing violence against Jews, in particular through the destruction and appropriation of religious buildings and sacred space. Despite imperial laws that forbade the building and rebuilding of synagogues, Jews continued to construct synagogues in Late Antiquity.  In fact, they built even larger and more elaborate synagogues than ever before.  It is exactly in this time period, when synagogue construction was outlawed and institutionalized violence against Jews and their institutions was growing, that we see the emergency of the so-called Grand Synagogue in Syria/Palestine and the Diaspora.

Architect Rodney Douglas Parker demonstrated in “The Architectonics of Memory” (1997) that architecture is closely linked with the human mind and how it creates memory.  Architectural motifs were common in ancient rhetoric; even the oldest surviving Latin rhetoric book, the Rhetorica ad Herennium, outlines the importance of architecture in the form of loci as backgrounds in which are placed mnemonic symbols to help the orator remember.  In this short communication I will argue that the construction of monumental synagogues served as a way to articulate and reinforce communal identity on the part of Jews who were facing increasing attacks and limitations on their religious practices and legal standing in the Roman Empire.

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