Synagogues have rarely conformed to stylistic rules anywhere in the world over the ages or, as building type, been resolved in unique or recognizable terms. This is due in part that Judaism has never had a central authority or text dictating organizational or aesthetic requirements, and that Jews have long been a particularly dispersed people influenced by many traditions and forces. Select design inspirations and guidelines, some vague and others more directed, were nevertheless established over time, yet synagogues have always been a particularly inexact building genre. The ones throughout sub-Saharan Africa are no exception. They vary considerably in form, style, size, materials, arrangement, construction technique, and design language.
Some synagogues realized by sub-Saharan African white European Jews are grand and of various Western revival historicist styles, a handful nearly pure, others more eclectic. Among the assortment of their synagogues found throughout the continent are ones in the neo-Baroque, Classical Revival, Romanesque, Renaissance Revival, Moorish, Ottoman, and Art Deco traditions. In South Africa, the design precedent for the Johannesburg Hebrew Congregation Synagogue of 1914 (Image 1) was Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia of the sixth century, the Kimberly Hebrew Congregation Synagogue (Image 2), completed in 1902, recalls characteristics of tenth-century medieval architecture built in Germany, in Pretoria the now-closed and boarded-up Witwatersrand Hebrew Congregation Great Synagogue from 1898 (Image 3) is a Moorish-inspired structure. The 1930 synagogue in Lubumbashi, DRC (Image 4) seems to reference features seen in sixteenth and seventeenth century wooden synagogues of Poland and Lithuania, while in Mozambique, Maputo’s Honen Dalim Congregation Synagogue of 1926 (Image 5) was designed in the Portuguese Neo-Baroque style. At Cape Town South Africa, the Old Hebrew Congregation Gardens Synagogue from 1841 is a Greek Revival example yet with Egyptian flourishes (Image 6), and the synagogue in Asmara Eritrea, dating to 1905 and more pure Greek Revival in style, was built by the Adenite (Yemen) Jews who came to settle in the country. Other European Jewish community synagogues are hybrid or particularly stylized historicist styles, and the results are less-distinct period buildings. The 1924 Windhoek Hebrew Congregation Synagogue in Namibia (Image 7) represents an example of this difficult-to-label, more ambiguous historicist tradition as does the Shaare Shalom Congregation Synagogue from 1958 in Harare Zimbabwe (Image 8).
Alongside the varied revival-style synagogues in sub-Saharan Africa are a number of Jewish houses of prayer designed and built in the Modern International aesthetic fashionable throughout the world during the 1950s and 60s. It was during this period that the white European Jewish population in sub-Saharan Africa was at its height, leading to the construction of a number of new synagogues. The Durban United Hebrew Congregation Synagogue of 1961 (Image 9) and Bloemfontein Progressive Synagogue from 1964 in South Africa (Image 10), the Harare Hebrew Congregation Synagogue completed in 1977 in Zimbabwe (Image 11), and the Nairobi Hebrew Congregation Synagogue in Kenya (Image 12) of 1955 are examples of this transnational and more forward-thinking stylistic trend.
Not all synagogues constructed by the white European communities of sub-Saharan Africa were grand revival-period buildings or more progressive Modern ones. Several, particularly in the smaller cities and towns of Zimbabwe, Zambia, Kenya, and Namibia as examples, with architecture that cannot neatly be categorized, are modest if not unassuming buildings. Yet these simpler, typically smaller, and less costly structures (Images 13 - 15) were used lovingly by their respective congregations, and they were as proud of them as those owned by the Jewish communities with the largest and fanciest buildings. A few synagogues erected by black African Jews include vernacular buildings traditions expressed through materials, plans, details, or construction techniques. Small mud and dung synagogues with corrugated metal roofs and covered yet open-air ones built by the Beta Israel in Ethiopia (Images 16 and 17) and a thatched-covered Abayudaya Jewish community structure in Putti Uganda (Image 18) are primes examples of this type of region-specific grass-roots architecture. The result, albeit particularly modest, was the creation of distinct and highly-memorable place making. The more recent synagogues built by the Igbo Jews of Nigeria, such as the Ghihon Hebrews’ Research Synagogue in Abuja of 2005 (Image 19), the even more recent Lemba Jews’ building in Rusape Zimbabwe, and the House of Israel Synagogue in Sefwi Wiawso Ghana (Image 20) are unassuming, utilitarian buildings that reflect little of the particular identities of these communities aside from the limited resources and ready-made building products available to them.
Whereas some of the synagogues built by the white European Jewish communities who settled in sub-Saharan Africa are today still operational – in some cases actively so and in other instances marginally due to the decline of the congregations – others were sold and converted to other functions. This happened following the decline of the white European Jewish population as a result of social and political changes in the region beginning in the 1960s, which was contemporaneous with the end of European colonialism in Africa. These former synagogues have been regularly repurposed often as black African churches in such places as Bulawayo Zimbabwe at the former Bulawayo Hebrew Congregation Synagogue of the early twentieth century and enlarged in the early 1960s (Image 21), the Midlands Regions of Zimbabwe at the former Kwekwe Hebrew Congregation Synagogue (Image 22), and the Copper Belt Region of Zambia at the former Mufulira Hebrew Congregation Synagogue of 1946 (Image 23). All these and other former synagogues have ably continued to be used as religious buildings. This reveals a phenomenon of how a building constructed for one spiritual gathering purpose can be transformed, remaining vital to a different community yet in the same location. Aside from conversions to black African churches, former white European synagogues now serve other functions: examples include one in Nakuru Kenya dating to 1956 and now operating as offices for an orphanage (Image 24), one from the mid-twentieth century in Kitwe Zambia now owned by the Salvation Army, and another in Keetmanshoop Namibia from the 1920s (Image 25) that serves as a dairy.
It is important when documenting, writing about, discussing, and preserving sub-Saharan African synagogue architecture that not only the grand in scale, richly decorated, or spatially complex examples be included, but also the more modest and less architecturally distinctive ones as well. Beautiful synagogues with lavish details, elaborate and costly materials, and the most progressive and bold designs have certainly been built over the years throughout the region, and these can be feasts for the senses. Yet they should alone not define the sub-Saharan African synagogue as a building genre. Throughout history and in various places of the world, including sub-Saharan Africa, Jews in certain cases were not able to afford or chose on their own volition to build large, well-marked, and fancy synagogues. The result is that many ended up being small, simple spaces with minimal detail or architectural flair. More about construction versus high architecture, these buildings rarely expressed any clear stylistic or aesthetic intent or agenda. They are, nevertheless, still synagogues in the truest expression of the word. The origin of the word synagogue is, after all, Greek for a gathering space, which has little to do with the scale and eminence of the space. A synagogue space can be, and sometimes is, more about simplicity and functionality. To their respective congregations, the buildings were their religious homes, and they were much loved.
The website affirms that sub-Saharan Africa’s more ordinary synagogue buildings, which often times incorporated simple local materials and vernacular building techniques seen in such places as Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Ethiopia, served or continue to serve the religious, social, and communal needs of their respective congregations just as well that the more lavishly monumental and highly decorated ones available in such places as South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Eritrea with imported products and the most skilled craftsmen. In a quieter, more modest, and practical way, they too are physical manifestations of various Jewish communities, and hence are on equal footing with the most extravagantly or intricately-conceived synagogues. All sub-Saharan African synagogues, regardless of cost, scale, craft, or configuration, have made contributions to Jewish and architectural history, and they have enriched, expanded, and helped define African culture and traditions.
—Jay A. Waronker