The Great Synagogue in Budapest is not your typical Jewish temple. If you ever visited a synagogue you probably remember they are generally quite simple and austere places of worship. But not this one. The Great Synagogue stands tall and majestic on Dohány Street, within the Jewish Quarter, and features one of the largest and most
impressive cathedral naves that I have ever seen. No wander it is considered the most famous and beautiful synagogue in all of Europe. Erected between 1854 and 1859, the Dohany Street Synagogue seats 3000 people and is considered the largest synagogue in Europe the second largest in the world.
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The building was erected in the mid 19th century, based on plans designed by a German architect who previously designed Vienna’s synagogue. With its golden dome flanked by two towers and its great nave that could accommodate up to 3000 worshipers, the Synagogue was quite an architectural achievement at the time. Jews have lived in Buda since medieval times and have always been entrepreneurial merchants, shopkeepers and craftsmen. By the 1900s they were constituting 20% of Budapest’s population, so you can understand the opulence of this building.
During World War II, the Jewish Synagogue served as a stable and as a radio communication center for the Germans. Towards the end of the war, the building was badly damaged and remained in that state for a long period of time. It wasn’t until after the fall of the Communism, in the first half of the 1990s, that it underwent a full-scale restoration. The Synagogue was rededicated in 1996, just before Rosh Hashanah.
The Jewish Synagogue complex consists of the Great Synagogue, the Heroes’ Temple, the Cemetery, the Holocaust Memorial and the Jewish Museum.
The Synagogue‘s nave resembles that of a cathedral, but it is decorated in a Moorish style with a mixture of Byzantine and Gothic elements. The interior walls have oriental motifs in shades of pink, beautiful frescoes and ornaments, many chandeliers, lamp-brackets, a beautiful pulpit and even an organ. In line with the ancient Jewish tradition, in front of the east wall of the Synagogue stands the Ark of the Covenant, which contains the Torah scrolls. During the World War II the scrolls have been hidden by a couple of Catholic monks who wanted to save them from the Germans. They have been later returned to the Jewish community.
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On top of the synagogues you can see the stone tablets with the ten commandments and above the main entrance gate the inscription in Hebrew: “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25,8).
The Heroes’ Temple was added to the complex in 1931 as a memorial to the Hungarian Jews who lost their lives during World War I. The temple can seat about 250 people and is used for religious services during the winter time.
The Cemetery located in the backyard of the Synagogue was the result of a historical circumstance. Although it is not customary to have a cemetery next to a synagogue, during the winter of 1944-45 over 2,000 people died in the Jewish ghetto and were buried here in improvised mass graves (95 per grave).
The Holocaust Jewish Memorial sits in the rear courtyard, behind the Synagogue and the Heroes’ Temple. The Memorial erected in remembrance of the 400,000 Hungarian Jews who were murdered by the Nazis in the Second World War. The Memorial resembles a willow tree on whose leaves are written the names of victims.
The Jewish Museum, adjacent to the synagogue, features Jewish traditions, costumes, as well a detailed history of Hungarian Jews.
The Jewish Synagogue complex is open for visitors daily between 10:30 a.m. and 5:30 p.m., except for Saturdays (when there are services). Guided tours in many languages are also available and they are very instructive. I am generally not a big fan of guided tours, but this one provided a lot of inside information, detailed facts and trivia to questions that we asked. Inside the synagogue men have to wear a small skullcap called kipah or yarmulke (handed out at the entrance) and women have to have their shoulders covered.