For many years, the Lithuanian capital of Vilna—known today as Vilnius—was a hub of Jewish religious and cultural life. There were centers of Torah learning, private schools, Jewish presses and theater organizations. Jewish writers and poets lived there, as did esteemed rabbis—most notably the Vilna Gaon, a famed scholar of the 18th century. In the middle of it all was the Great Synagogue of Vilna, an ornate structure that served as both a place of worship and a community center.
During WWII, as thousands of Lithuanian Jews were being murdered, Nazis looted and burned the 17th-century synagogue. What remained was later destroyed by Soviet authorities, who built a school atop the site. But in spite of the ravages it endured, vestiges of the synagogue remain to the present day. As Laura Geggel reports for Live Science, a recent archaeological excavation has unearthed a series of treasures—among them a Hebrew inscription marking the dedication of a table that once stood on the synagogue’s bima, the platform where the Torah is read during services.
The excavation was a joint project between Israeli, Lithuanian and North American archaeologists. According to David Israel of the Jewish Press, a team has been working at the site every summer for the past four years, ever since the remains of the synagogue were detected by a Ground Penetrating Radar survey in 2015.
Built in the Renaissance-Baroque style, the Great Synagogue was a five-story structure that appeared much smaller from the outside; Jews were not allowed to erect houses of worship that were taller than churches, so “the synagogue’s floor was set well below that of the street,” according to a website devoted to the excavation project. Over the years, a complex blossomed around the synagogue, comprised of a library, a bathhouse, kosher meat stalls, additional synagogues and other buildings.
Inside the Great Synagogue was a prayer hall that could hold some 450 people, with a three-tiered bima installed in the center of the room. A Torah ark, adorned with floral, animal and Jewish symbols, was situated on the eastern wall, and bronze and silver chandeliers hung from the ceiling.
Last year, archaeologists located parts of the bima, and some floor tiles that once surrounded it. What’s more, they discovered two ritual baths, or mikvaot, dating to the early 20th century. Colorful tiles that lined the floors of the baths still survive, as do the steps that bathers walked down as they entered the baths and a pool that collected water for one of the mikvaot.
During the most recent excavation, according to Geggel, the team unearthed the front section of the bima, and a cellar that held a prayer book. Among the other finds were 200 coins, dating from the 16th to the 20th century, and buttons that match those worn by Napoleon’s army—likely relics from the time when French troops passed through Vilna on their way to Moscow in 1812.
The Israel Antiquities Authority revealed that archaeologists also found a seating plaque honoring the head of the Tzedaka Gedola association, which managed the Great Synagogue between the end of the 18th century and 1931, reports Israel of the Jewish Press. But the team was perhaps most excited to discover a large inscription written in Hebrew that once adorned a stone Torah reading table on the bima. The inscription dates to 1796, and explains that two brothers—Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shmuel—had donated the table in their parents’ memory. The text also notes that the mother and father had emigrated to Tiberias, where they died.
“These are the discoveries that fascinate us most,” state Jon Seligman of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Justinas Račas of the Cultural Heritage Conservation Force of Lithuania. “[I]t is the personal objects that provide a direct connection to people, to those who prayed here, that immediately ignites the imagination.”
Editor's note, 7/25/19: This piece has been updated to clarify that ritual baths, or mikvaot, were identified in an previous excavation.