In the summers of 2000, 2001 and 2002 architects Ivan Ceresnjes and Zoya Arshavsky, photographer Zev Radovan, and CJA Director Prof. Aliza Cohen-Mushlin continued the documentation of Jewish visual culture in the countries of former Yugoslavia. For the 2000 expedition, Architectural Historian Dr. Samuel Albert joined the team in documenting synagogues in Zagreb and West Slavonia, Croatia and in Maribor, Slovenia.
Situated on the Drava River, the city of Maribor gradually grew around a fortress castle built sometime in the vicinity of the eleventh century. Its medieval synagogue, recently restored, is one of the few surviving synagogues from this era in central Europe and is one of Slovenia’s most important Jewish relics.
A Jewish community is first mentioned in Maribor in 1277. The Jewish quarter in Maribor was situated in the old town near the southwest corner of the town walls, above the river. The area is still known as Zidovska ulica (Jewish street). Adjacent to the synagogue was the Jewish cemetery, the Rabbi’s house and the school; the mikveh was located in front of the town walls, on the bank of the river. Jews were expelled from Maribor by the decree of the Emperor Maximilian I of Austria in 1496, banishing Jews from all of Styria. In 1511 after the expulsion of the Jews, the synagogue became the All Saints Catholic Church.
The medieval synagogue in Maribor survives as testimony to the Jews who lived there from the thirteenth to the late fifteenth century. The synagogue’s exact date of construction is unknown and it was remodelled on several occasions.
On the eastern wall there is a rosette window flanked by two Gothic lancet windows and a similarly shaped double window on the western wall. Under the rosette window is a Torah ark niche at a height which indicates that there was a least one step in front of it. The original entrance portal to the prayer hall from the vestibule is situated on the south corner of the western wall. It is made of grey sandstone and decorated by two thin columns. A later reconstruction on the northern side completely destroyed all evidence of the earlier structure.
Broken parts of tombstones from the Jewish cemetery were used as building materials during the reconstruction after 1496 and used as parts of the rib vaulted ceiling. The exterior and interior were remodelled at least twice before 1496. One reconstruction may have taken place after the earthquake of February 1348, when a large part of the city walls were damaged. According to an archaeological report of the Institute for the Protection of the Natural and Cultural Heritage in Maribor, an excavation to the depth of three meters revealed a Jewish cemetery on the eastern plateau between the “Jewish Tower” and the synagogue. Stairs below the building lead down to the Drava River where the ritual bath was located.
A short distance to the east, in the southwest corner of the town’s wall, is the “Jewish Tower” built in 1465. It might once have been next to the Jewish ghetto and used for the defence of that part of town. Connected to the “Jewish Tower” by a bridge is a Renaissance pentagonal water tower, dating from 1555, standing outside the city walls.
In 2001 the researchers focused their efforts on the city of Belgrade (Beograd), in the region of Vojvodina in Serbia, and Montenegro. In Belgrade the researchers documented the only synagogue still in use today. Built in 1925, it was used as a brothel for German soldiers during World War II. After liberation it was re-consecrated.
One of the highlights of this expedition was documenting the Hungarian secession-style synagogue in Subotica, Serbia. Built in 1902, its modernity reflected the Neologue (Hungarian Reform) affiliation of most Jews in Subotica. The synagogue, the last remaining example of secession-style, was one of the first to employ concrete and steel construction; eight steel columns support the vast central dome. The interior is richly decorated in a playful manner characteristic of the Hungarian secession style. The Subotica synagogue has been included in the list issued by the World Monuments Fund “100 Most Endangered Sites” for 2002 due to its urgent need for restoration.
In 2002 our expedition surveyed a region without Jews since 1941: Kosovo, central Serbia, Vojvodina and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. These were old communities situated far away from the major Jewish centres, with their own particular types of synagogues, cemeteries, ritual baths, slaughterhouses, and Jewish schools. One of the oldest Jewish communities in this region is the Romaniot community of Bitola, Macedonia. Currently, only one Jew remains in Bitola where a late 15th century Romaniot/Sephardi cemetery and cemetery chapel still stand.
One of the most interesting aspects of this survey is the archaeological site in Stobi. This ancient city once housed a Jewish community, attested to by two excavated synagogues – one built on top of the other. The first is from the 2nd -3rd-century; the second is from the 4th century. A Roman basilica was constructed on top of the synagogues in the 4th-5th century.
In 2001 architect Ivan Ceresnjes made a special trip to Ulcinj, Montenegro in search of the burial place of Shabbatai Zvi. The famous false messiah Shabbatai Zvi (1626 -1676) created a spiritual upheaval among Jews all over Europe, North Africa, and more distant parts of Asia by declaring himself the messiah. Eventually he was imprisoned in Constantinople in 1666, and after several months, converted to Islam. Between 1666 and 1672, he maintained an Islamic public identity while continuing to preach his messianic message to the Jews. In 1673, Shabbatai Zvi was re-arrested by the Turkish authorities and exiled to Ulcinj, a townlet with no history of Jewish life whatsoever. He died in 1676.
The location of Shabbatai Zvi’s burial place remains something of a mystery. Some claim that he is buried in Berat, Albania; others locate his final resting-place in Ulcinj, Montenegro. After researching the various theories and delving into volumes of Ulcinj history, Ceresnjes came to the conclusion that Shabbatai Zvi’s burial place is in a turbe (a Muslim one-storeyed mausoleum) in the courtyard of a house in Ulcinj. Painted green, the colour found all over the former Ottoman Empire, this turbe is regarded by the locals as the burial place of the illustrious Jewish convert to Islam—Shabbatai Zvi. Mr. Qazim Mani, now 80, is the custodian of this turbe, which is infrequently visited but regarded as a holy place for Muslims.
Ivan Ceresnjes is the recipient of a scholarship from the Cecile and Michael Greenberg Endowment Fund established by Lorna Scherzer and siblings in memory of their parents.