08 October 2021

‘That we may lie down in peace,
and rise up to a new and nobler life’

Inside Bevis Marks Synagogue … the oldest synagogue in Britain has won the first round in a battle to block plans for high-rise towers that would overshadow it (Photograph © Bevis Marks / Blake Ezra)

Patrick Comerford

Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, the oldest synagogue in Britain in continuous use, has won the first round in a battle to block plans for two high-rise towers that would overshadow it.

The City of London Corporation Planning Committee met on Tuesday (5 October 2021) and rejected plans to build Bury House, a 48-storey office tower next to Bevis Mark, a Grade I listed 320-year-old synagogue. Councillors voted 14-7 to reject the planning application for the tower, which would be built on Bury Street.

A second planning application for a 21-storey, high-rise building on nearby Creechurch Lane is still being considered, however.

‘The special status of Bevis Marks has been recognised by the Planning Committee and common sense has prevailed,’ said Dame Helen Hyde, Chair of the Foundation for Jewish Heritage. ‘We hope the Committee will make the same decision with the second application which is equally unacceptable.’

The rejected proposal for Bury Street involved demolishing an existing building and building a new building with two basement levels, two mezzanines and a ground floor plus 48 upper storeys. It was planned for office use and flexible retail/cafe use, with ‘publicly accessible internal amenity space and community space,’ a new pedestrian route and a ‘new and improved public realm’ as well as ancillary basement ‘cycle parking, servicing and plant.’

At the meeting earlier this week, critics stressed that if the two planned high-rises were built, they – along with existing buildings – would block sunlight to the synagogue for all but around an hour a day, affecting religious observance and other synagogue functions. The proponents of the plan, however, claimed the effect would be minimal.

The committee received more than 1,800 comments about the Bury Street plan, most of them critical, stressing the national importance of the site and raising the concerns that the high-rise would dominate the space, cut the synagogue off from light and access, and possibly provoke structural damage.

A final decision will be made by the by the City of London’s assistant town clerk, after receiving the committee’s rejection recommendation.

The Save Bevis Marks website raised awareness of both high-rise projects and marshalled protests against them, stating: ‘High-rise office buildings would never be considered 4m away from Saint Paul’s Cathedral — so why should it be acceptable here?’

Prominent public figures, including the historian Sir Simon Schama, gave their support to the campaign to save Bevis Marks.

Bevis Marks was built in 1701 and is administered by the Spanish and Portuguese Sephardi Community. At present, it is undergoing renovation and development work aimed to expand and improve visitor experience.

Bevis Marks received a grant of almost £2.8 million from the National Heritage Lottery Fund in 2019 for ‘vital restoration work and conservation for its collections’ so that they can be displayed in a new section of the synagogue complex. It received £497,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund in February (2021) to kick-start the renovation and other work that had been hampered over the previous year by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The work is begin overseen by the Bevis Marks Synagogue Heritage Foundation, which was established in 2019 with Prince Charles as its patron.

In my Friday evening meditations this evening, I am reflecting on a prayer for a Sabbath Eve Service, written by Rabbi John Rayner and Rabbi Chaim Stern for Service of the Heart:

‘As we look back on the past week, an awareness of failure oppresses us. Cares and anxieties have caused us to forget you, O God; indifference and self-seeking have made us neglect our duties to our fellow men. May this hour of worship recall us to our obligation, and help us to rededicate our lives to your service.

‘Turn us from indifference selfishness, O God; let our constant care be to help one another; and give us a quiet spirit, freed from the voices within whose clamour deafens us to our neighbour’s cry.

‘When we return to our homes, may the tranquillity which reigns in this sanctuary abide with us, that we may lie down in peace, and rise up to a new and nobler life.’

Bevis Marks Synagogue is the oldest synagogue in Britain in continuous use (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Praying in Ordinary Time 2021:
132, Saint Nicholas Cathedral, the Fortezza, Rethymnon

The former Venetian Cathedral of Saint Nicholas on the Fortezza in Rethymnon … the stump of the former minaret is to the right (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Patrick Comerford

Before the day gets busy, I am taking a little time this morning for prayer, reflection and reading. Each morning in the time in the Church Calendar known as Ordinary Time, I am reflecting in these ways:

1, photographs of a church or place of worship;

2, the day’s Gospel reading;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

My theme for these few weeks is churches in Rethymnon on the island of Crete, where I spent two weeks last month.

My photographs this morning (8 October 2021) are from the former Venetian Cathedral of Saint Nicholas on the Fortezza in Rethymnon.

The over-sized dome has a base diameter of 11 metres and rests on eight arches (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Fortezza towers above the city of Rethymnon. It was built by the Venetians during their rule in Crete (1204-1669) to protect the city and people from Ottoman invasions. It is built on the hill of Paleokastro and the site the acropolis of ancient Rithymna.

The cathedral of Rethymnon was destroyed during a Turkish attack on the city by the Pasha of Algeria, Ulu Ali Reis, in 1571. A new Episcopal Palace was also built on the Fortezza in 1575, and the foundation stone for a new cathedral was laid in 1583 by the Latin Bishop of Rethymnon, Bartolomeo Chiapponi.

The new Venetian cathedral on the Fortezza was dedicated to Saint Nicholas and stands next to the former Episcopal Palace. When the cathedral was completed in 1585, Bishop Chiapponi’s successor, Bishop Giulio Carrara, refused to celebrated the Mass there, claiming conditions in the cathedral were too cramped and there were no sacred vessels there.

Perhaps these were only excuses, for Bishop Carrara did not want to move up to the Fortezza, and hoped to stay living in the Bishop’s Palace in Arampatzoglou Street (ThessalonĂ­kis Street) in the old town.

The Venetian rettore or governor of Rethymnon, Benetto Bembo, whose official residence was opposite the new cathedral, was insistent on its use, and had alterations made to the cathedral in 1586 so that it could accommodate soldiers and residents at the Sunday Mass and so that the bishop could have no further excuses.

During the Ottoman period, from 1646, the form of the Fortezza did not change significantly, apart from minor extensions and additions. The one significant change they made was to convert Saint Nicholas Cathedral into the Sultan Ibrahim Khan, named in honour of the reigning sultan.

When the cathedral was converted into a mosque, an over-sized dome, with a base diameter of 11 metres, was added. The dome rests on eight arches, four of which are in the middle of the sides, while the other four are in the corners. The side and corner arches meet at a height of about 3 metres above the floor.

This was the first mosque in Rethymnon, and with the large dome and minaret it towered above the city.

The mosque is a square structure with spherical triangles that are formed in the corners by the arcs of the four walls. The unique architectural element that indicates the former existence of the Venetian cathedral is the angular extensions in the north and the west corners of the building.

The heptagonal mihrab or prayer niche pointing towards Mecca is on the south-east side of the mosque. It is decorated elaborately, with the semi-conical coverage decorated with relief stalactites, and with engraved circular rosettes on five of the sides.

Above is a small recessed inscription in Arabic lettering. This is an inscription from the Quran: ‘When Zachariah came to see Maryam (Mary) in the sanctuary’ (3: 37), a reference to a passage about the Virgin Mary’s conception of Christ, designed, perhaps, to appease Christians and encourage their acceptance of the Muslim presence in Rethymnon.

The many openings in the walls ensure good lighting. A heavy chain hanging from the centre of the dome held a large chandelier. The water for the fountain under the dome was stored in a tank.

The interior of the former mosque has been maintained and restored. Only the stump of the minaret survives today. The former mosque is now used for exhibitions and as a venue for music events and recordings.

Inside the former cathedral and former mosque on the Fortezza (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Luke 11: 15-26 (NRSVA):

15 But some of them said, ‘He casts out demons by Beelzebul, the ruler of the demons.’ 16 Others, to test him, kept demanding from him a sign from heaven. 17 But he knew what they were thinking and said to them, ‘Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house. 18 If Satan also is divided against himself, how will his kingdom stand? —for you say that I cast out the demons by Beelzebul. 19 Now if I cast out the demons by Beelzebul, by whom do your exorcists cast them out? Therefore they will be your judges. 20 But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out the demons, then the kingdom of God has come to you. 21 When a strong man, fully armed, guards his castle, his property is safe. 22 But when one stronger than he attacks him and overpowers him, he takes away his armour in which he trusted and divides his plunder. 23 Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.

24 ‘When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it wanders through waterless regions looking for a resting-place, but not finding any, it says, “I will return to my house from which I came.” 25 When it comes, it finds it swept and put in order. 26 Then it goes and brings seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and live there; and the last state of that person is worse than the first.’

The mihrab or prayer niche pointing towards Mecca is decorated elaborately (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

The Prayer in the USPG Prayer Diary today (8 October 2021) invites us to pray:

We pray for the work of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. May this arena facilitate the inclusion and amplification of the rights and needs of indigenous communities worldwide.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Looking out to the Fortezza from the main door of the former cathedral and mosque (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

The modern Erofili Theatre on the Fortezza modern Erofili Theatre, was built in the Saint Elias Bastion in the 20th century and is named after the play by Georgios Hortatzis, the Rethymnon-born poet of the Cretan Renaissance (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2021)