In spring 2002 the architects Zoya Arshavsky and Dr. Mavluda Yusupova conducted an expedition to the cities of Samarkand and Shakhrisabz where they documented cemeteries, synagogues, Jewish homes, many of which contain private synagogues. This expedition was the CJA’s third to Uzbekistan. Previous expeditions in 1992 and 2000 surveyed and documented synagogues and ritual objects in Samarkand, Shakhrisabz, Tashkent, Bukhara, Katakurgan and Karmina.
The modern Jewish quarter in Samarkand, Mahalla-i-Yahudion, was established in 1843 on a plot purchased from the Emir of Bukhara. Some of the houses in the Jewish quarter (mahalla) include private synagogues. The houses are adapted to local climatic conditions, addressing such factors as aridity and heat. These houses, mostly one and two- storey structures are enclosed within walls which form two courtyards: an outer courtyard (tashkary) and an inner one (ichkary). Rooms face different directions, depending on their purpose: the summer hall and rooms face northward, whereas winter rooms face southward.
The central guestroom (mekhmenkhona) in houses of wealthy members of the Jewish community functioned also as private synagogues on Shabbat and holidays. These interiors are decorated with exuberant stucco ornamentation such as muqarnas (stalactites), polychromatic wall decoration and Hebrew inscriptions.
The Private Synagogue of Rafael Abrahamov
One of the most interesting private synagogues in Samarkand is the House of Rafael Abrahamov built in 1893-1903. Rafael Abrahamov was from a family originating in Afghanistan. The house with its many rooms is organized around an inner courtyard. The main building with a deep portico (iwan) is elongated from west to east: in the eastern part there is a two-tiered synagogue, in the northwestern part there is a two-storey residential area. The prayer hall is a rectangular elongated space oriented from north to south. In the western wall the second floor level was used as a mezzanine for important visitors and as a women's gallery (bibicha-khona). The north wall has two tiers of windows; those on the upper tier have ganch traceries (pandjara).
One of the unique features of this private synagogue is a series of painted panels depicting holy places. The south wall is devoted entirely to scenes of Jerusalem. This tradition of decorating the walls with pictures of holy places is typical of Eastern European synagogues, not Bukharan synagogues; the direction of prayer in this private synagogue is to the south-west and not to the east. Abrahamov explained that his great-grandfather brought postcards from the Holy Land which depicted a variety of Jewish holy sites which were copied by the painter commissioned to do the wall paintings. Other private houses documented include the House of Yair Zevulunov (1905), the House of Abraham ben Isaac Kalantarov (1902-1916), the House of Pinhas Abrahamov and the Mullokandov private synagogue, both from the beginning of the 20th century.
During the 19th century, thirty public synagogues were active in Samarkand, serving the general community. Today only three synagogues are functioning. Each synagogue comprises a complex of buildings surrounded by a wall forming an inner courtyard. One of the earlier public synagogues is the Kaniso-i Kalon, the Great Synagogue, which was built between 1870 and 1900 and currently functions as a music school and library. This synagogue complex originally included six separate prayer halls built around the courtyards from donations by private individuals including several butchers. Currently, three synagogue halls are preserved.
One of the remaining functioning public synagogues in the Jewish quarter of Samarkand is the complex of Kaniso-i Gumbaz, namely “the dome synagogue” in Judeo-Bukharan. The complex was built between 1882 and 1891 from funds donated by Rafael Ben Moshe Nosi Kalantarov in memory of his wife, Tzporo (Zipporah). The architect was David Ben Avraham. The “large Gumbaz” synagogue is situated in the southeast corner of the courtyard complex. A small rectangular synagogue known as the “small Gumbaz” is in the northeast corner. An iwan with two columns connects these two buildings. Auxiliary Jewish public buildings, such as one housing an oven for baking matzot, occupy the western part of the yard. The “large Gumbaz” synagogue is a square hall with a dome. The entrance is from the northeast on the side of the iwan. The heikhal, formed by several Torah Arks set within niches, is situated along the south wall. The blue interior of the dome is decorated by a web of star-like geometrical ornaments (girikh). In the centre of the hall, below the dome is a raised wooden teivah decorated by carvings and surrounded by a carved wood balustrade.
In the 1980s a one-storey women's section was added on the west side of the synagogue. During a restoration in 1990-1991 under the guidance of architect R.M Issakharov a Jewish artist named Robinov decorated the walls of the synagogue with stucco ornamentation. In 1992 he was murdered by anti-Semitic Muslim extremists.
The Synagogue of Shalomo Sofiev
Alongside the architecture and decorations done according to the local Jewish tradition some synagogues and houses were influenced by the decorative tradition brought from European Russia with the Russian conquest in the 1860s. An example is the Synagogue of Shalomo Sofiev built in the beginning of the 20th century in the new, “European” part of Samarkand. The walls of the building and all its decorative elements are made of brick in characteristic Russian style.