Back in March 2017 I had the pleasure of visiting Bevis Marks Synagogue – the only synagogue in the City of London. I enjoyed looking round but as photography wasn’t permitted, I could only take a couple of pictures of the exterior. I recently contacted the synagogue and explained about my City Churches project and they kindly agreed to let me take some photos of the interior today.
Opened in 1701, the synagogue holds the distinction of being the only one in Europe to have held regular services continuously for over 300 years. The architecture is very reminiscent of many of the other churches I have visited during my project, although the fixtures and fittings naturally reflect the Jewish faith and religious practices.
The synagogue was built by Joseph Avis, a Quaker, for the sum of £2650, although it’s said that he returned all the profit he made from the project to the congregation. It’s also said that Queen Anne provided an oak beam from one of her naval ships for use in the construction of the roof. It’s a lovely tale, but one for which sadly there is no direct evidence.
Miraculously, the synagogue was spared any major damage in the Blitz, but it wasn’t so lucky in 1992 and 1993 when the IRA exploded two bombs nearby in the City. Ironically this damage allowed the synagogue to be restored to its former glory during the repair process and it certainly looks resplendent today.
I spent about ninety minutes pottering around the synagogue with my camera and tripod and the staff couldn’t have been more helpful in enabling this. While there I chatted to one of the regular worshippers, who told me a little more about the building. The ark on the eastern side of the building is where the Torah scrolls are kept – the most holy part of the synagogue. I learnt that these are covered by thick curtains in most synagogues as they are so precious. In Spain though, the scrolls were more often kept in a cupboard (hidden in plain sight) as the Jews were persecuted there for many centuries. As a result, the ark is left without a curtain in remembrance of these earlier struggles by the Sephardic Jews who worship here today.
I was also intrigued by the little cubby holes in the seats, each one carefully numbered. I learnt that these are used to store one’s prayer shawl and prayer books. Today the regular congregation of Bevis Marks is just a few dozen, so there are plenty of empty cubby holes, but in centuries past this wouldn’t have been the case, with a congregation of several hundred attending every week. Of course, when the synagogue was opened in 1701 the City of London had a large resident population. Today the City is mostly a working district, with only a minority of people living here out of working hours. It’s good to know that the synagogue is still used regularly as a place of worship and even while I was there several people popped in, either to look around or just to sit quietly.
13 February 2020