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The oldest parts of the Old Synagogue were built in around 1100 on private ground in the courtyard area between the fish market, Michaelis Strasse and Waage Gasse. Timbers from this phase have been dendrochronologically dated to the year 1094. They come from the lintel of the Romanesque biforium on the west facade and were probably used here again. The masonry, which is decorated with scored joints, has only survived in the lower part of the west wall, over a width of about eight metres.
The building of this first synagogue proves that there had been a Jewish community in Erfurt since at least the late 11th century. The dimensions of the synagogue indicate that the community must have been fairly large, since a fairly large number of people were able to fit into the building of worship then.
As was normal in the Middle Ages, the floor was below street level. It was a sign of humility to go down a few steps when entering the place of worship. Today, we can only speculate about the interior of the building, because of the later modifications and rebuilding work.
Phase 2Around the middle or end of the 12th century, the Synagogue was refurbished or rebuilt. Only a short section of masonry in the west wall has still survived from this period. The masonry has no scored joints, and its only decoration is the biforium, into the lintel of which old beams were re-installed.
In 1270, perhaps as part of the reconstruction following the persecution of the Erfurt Jews in 1266, a very prestigious synagogue was created, incorporating the older parts of the building. The west wall was built as a decorative facade, with five lancet windows arranged symmetrically in two rows crowned by a large window rosette with tracery. The facades of the other three outer walls were so drastically altered that it is impossible to reconstruct their original appearance. A timber barrel vault, the original plaster edge of which is still to be found under the present roof on the west wall, spanned the high interior of the synagogue.
It is nearly impossible to draw any conclusions about the fittings in the interior, which was probably plastered in white. The only original piece of decoration that has been retained is the row of light fittings. This is a cornice that once ran around the room, to which lamps to light the synagogue were attached. This cornice has only been preserved on the east side of the room; it has been removed from the other walls.
The east wall probably contained the Torah shrine, which was later destroyed when the gate entry was built. It is also impossible to determine precisely where the bima was, however, because there are no traces on the floor. Parts of the structure, however, have survived, such as the two arched stones, from which a probably octagonal bima can be reconstructed.
In about 1300, the synagogue was extended a few metres to the north and another storey added. This alteration can be seen particularly clearly on the west facade, where the newer masonry, made from harder limestone, clearly protrudes. It is impossible to say, on the basis of the remains of the building today, how the roof looked during this phase. However, it certainly was a few metres higher than the present roof, which dates from around 1350.
On the north side, the extension had a magnificent, symmetrically structured facade. In the middle of the facade, there was originally a doorway decorated with an ogee moulding, which served as the entrance to the synagogue. There were five high lancet windows, laid out in a row, above the doorway. Only the remains of three of these survive today: When the storage areas were added in around 1350, the windows were made smaller using the old jambs and the lancet arches were moved down and used as window lintels. The remains of these arches and thus the original window height can still be seen today in the stones in the masonry above the three remaining windows. The window over the door was slightly wider and probably higher than the other windows and formed the central axis of the facade. There were probably two more windows to the left, which together with the three still existing formed a five-axis symmetrical facade.
The extension probably contained the women's synagogue, which is traditionally separated from the area in which the men pray, or was used as the school for the boys learning Hebrew. It was probably separated from the actual synagogue area by two large lancet arches decorated with ogee mouldings.
Changes of use
After the devastating pogrom in 1349, in which the roof and the north facade of the synagogue in particular were severely damaged, the building was sold by the City of Erfurt to a local trader. He already owned the building at Michaelis Strasse 2 and converted the Synagogue into a storehouse. Within the outer walls, he had a large vaulted cellar built. In addition, a new roof structure was built and two solid timber ceilings added, the beams for which could be dated dendrochronolically to 1350.
In order to allow carts to pass from the front building in Michaelis Strasse into the storage area and on into Waage Gasse, two large passage gates were cut into the east and north facades. The Torah recess in the east wall was probably destroyed at this time. The synagogue was used as a storehouse nearly without changes over the next 500 years. Even today, a few grains of corn and husks behind the new panes of glass in the lancet windows in the west facade bear witness to this past.
From the middle of the 19th century, the former synagogue was used mainly for catering purposes. Firstly, a dance hall was built on the first floor, where the luxurious decor, with stucco figures and coloured paintwork, has been largely preserved. The upper wooden ceiling of the storeroom was removed and replaced by galleries all round.
The kitchen was housed in the ground floor, with a restaurant added later. There were also two bowling alleys - one on the ground floor and another in the cellar. These were used both by the Old and the New Feuerkugel - the two inns on the Fish Market and in Michaelis Strasse.
After 1990: Discovery and rescue
It was known, from medieval descriptions, that in the time before 1349, the synagogue of the Erfurt Jewish community had been located in the courtyard area between the Fish Market, Michaelis Strasse and Waage Gasse. However, for a long time it was unclear how much of the original substance of the building still existed. Following the countless alterations, extensions and installations, the original shape of the synagogue had become almost unrecognisable.
In the late 1980s, the Institute for the Preservation of Monuments make some initial attempts to document and evaluate the parts of the building that still survived. But it was only with the building investigations carried out by the Free Institute for Building Research and Documentation led by Elmar Altwasser that a clearer picture began to emerge. In somewhat adventurous conditions, having abseiled down a narrow gap between the synagogue and the neighbouring house, the researcher discovered the west facade with its lancet windows and window rosette. This discovery proved that the Old Synagogue, built to the most superb standard, had been almost completely preserved. The particular significance of the building was revealed piece by piece.
At this time, the synagogue was in a lamentable state. Because of its use as a storehouse and restaurant along with decades of neglect, the building was in acute danger of collapse. But the new owner, who had acquired the synagogue and complete building complex back in 1990 from the trustees, Treuhand Liegenschaftsgesellschaft, and who wanted to set up a brewery and large restaurant there, had made no attempt to carry out refurbishments. Only the most severe damage to the roof had been repaired, as part of the Thuringian Emergency Protection Programme.
Because of the clearly unique nature of the building, the City of Erfurt tried to save the synagogue and to ensure that it was used appropriately. After difficult negotiations, the City succeeded in buying the synagogue in 1998. There was now nothing to stand in the way of a comprehensive investigation. The building was then sensitively refurbished.
1999-2009: Refurbishment und plans for a museumThe particular history of the Old Synagogue meant that a particularly sensitive refurbishment was required. The building had been changed in many ways in the centuries since it had ceased to be a place of worship. These later alterations had completely concealed the original appearance of the synagogue, but they also, to a certain extent, saved its life: they meant that the Old Synagogue was not recognised as such - and therefore undamaged - during the Third Reich.
For this reason too, it was decided to retain many of these traces during the refurbishment. The extensive work carried out around the floor, ceilings and roof would in any case have made it very difficult to restore the building to its original state. And so efforts were limited to removing modern fittings in the hall and the ground floor in order to retain these two large rooms. To reveal the building as a synagogue on the outside, many unattractive extensions and secondary buildings were also removed.
When considering the future use of the Old Synagogue, an idea was born which has gradually been taking shape since 2003: the establishment of a museum commemorating the culture and history of Erfurt's Jewish community in the Middle Ages. A number of unusual artefacts supplementing the documentation of the building's history as the oldest synagogue in Central Europe preserved with roof come from Erfurt. They will be housed in the future Museum in the Old Synagogue from 2009, and will, in their totality, throw light on the history of the Erfurt community, which was of outstanding significance in Europe in the Middle Ages.