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s_africa exteriorExterior View (2011), 15” x 11” Watercolor, Jay A. Waronker

south africa

WFormer Witwatersrand Hebrew Congregation Great Synagogue (Completed in 1898; Building Closed in 1952)
Paul Kruger Street in the city center
Pretoria, South Africa 80




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During the period from the mid-nineteenth century through the first years of the twentieth century, the Moorish (or Orientalizing) Revival became one of the preferred styles for synagogue architecture in countless places around the world.  This was so despite its Islamic association, one that seemed incongruous to Jewish tastes and preferences.  Yet Jews of this period living in majority-Christian places seemed to be more inclined to not use a Christian aesthetic, such as the Gothic Revival.  For whatever reasons, the style was sometimes seen as most characteristic of the Middle East or Semitic style.   It was a style that had been less studied in Western countries, and the results were particularly varied and not always faithful or properly carried out according to tradition.  Onion domes, horseshoe and foliated arches, monumental archways, polychromatic surfaces, slim columns, minarets, squat towers, foliated surfaces, a minbar to resemble the bimah (table where the Torah is read), muqarnas-like (honeycomb) details, and a pulpit and ark to recall a mihrab were the orders of the day and liberally used.  Many Moorish-Revival synagogues built over a time span that lasted a good many years were realized in the United States, Canada, Europe, and elsewhere.  Included in the repertoire of buildings is this fine, relatively late example erected by the Witwatersrand Hebrew Congregation in Pretoria in 1898.   This synagogue, the first to be built in Pretoria, was realized on a Paul Kruger Street on a prime site in the center of the city.   

The synagogue is typical of the Moorish-Revival buildings with its central wide massing featuring a second story large horseshoe arch finished in contrasting black and white stone and muqarnas-like details above an entrance portal with a small horseshoe arch.  There is also a large window with a pattern that is distinctly Moorish.  The building’s central massing is flanked with twin towers with more polychromatic surfaces and period details.  The matching towers are each capped by onion domes crowned by finials.  Flanking these towers and set back slightly are two lower outside or end bays.

For more than a half a century this grand building ably served it congregation until the apartheid government expropriated it in 1952 for the purpose of using the space as a court for security-related cases, the activities of the black opposition movements, and socialist/communist alliances.  From August 1, 1958, to March 29, 1961, the treason trial of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and twenty-six others was held at the former synagogue.  All the accused were eventually acquitted.  From October 22 to November 7, 1962, Mandela was again on trial here, and he was this time sentenced to prison.  Other prominent South African legal proceedings, including the Rivonia Trial in 1977 and the inquest into the death of Steve Biko shortly thereafter were also conducted in the large, double height sanctuary space of the former synagogue.    Following the exterior, the interior of the synagogue was also designed in the Moorish Revival style.

Once the building was appropriated, the congregation built a new synagogue outside the city center.  Yet the old synagogue, a venerable and landmark structure, sat repurposed and eventually abandoned.   Even after more than a half a century, the building, now boarded up and in derelict condition and locked, has never been torn down.   At the time of this painting, it was surrounded by a chain link and barbwire fence.  Plans have been devised and revised to repurpose, tear down, or restore the historic structure, but at the time of this painting it remained standing, injured yet still proud, with an unknown and threatened fate.

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