When the Taliban detonated 1,700-year-old sandstone statues of Buddha in Afghanistan back in 2001, there was instant international outcry and condemnations. Few tears have been shed, however, over the silent but steady destruction of Hebraic architectural artifacts in Pakistan as monuments of Jewish civilization have been reduced to rubble out of neglect and apathy.
After the Russian Revolution of 1917, a number of Jewish families migrated to Afghanistan and some well-to-do, entrepreneurial souls headed for Pakistan to try their luck. They mostly settled in major cities such as Peshawar, Rawalpindi and Karachi, establishing businesses and building synagogues, cemeteries and houses as they integrated with an alien civilization. And their migration from Central Asia is marked by the ruins of edifices they inhabited until 1948, when Israel came into being and they left en masse for their new promised land.
According to Hebrew University of Jerusalem anthropologist Shalva Weil, “in 1947, when Pakistan got independence, there were small Jewish communities in Karachi, Peshawar, Quetta, and Lahore. Some of Pakistan’s Jews belonged to India’s Bene Israel (tribe of Israel) community, others were brought on by the British to fill a host of administrative positions, and still others had trickled in from Afghanistan.” The 1941 census recorded 1,199 Jews nationwide – a number which may well be an underestimation. A local Jew named Abraham Reuben even got himself elected to Karachi’s city council.
Most of the buildings these Jewish settlers left behind have now been either destroyed by religious zealots or demolished by developers to make way for skyscrapers and commercial centers. Where once stood a synagogue, in the central square of Karachi’s Ranchore Line, there is now a multi-storey shopping plaza known as Madiha Sqauare. The official name of the street was, historically, ‘Synagogue Street’. Meanwhile, a former synagogue in Babu Mohalla, Rawalpindi, now exists as a residential building.
“It was such a good time: Hindus, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in peace, joining each other’s religious festivals freely with no compulsion or social restriction on their interaction”
Standing tall on Nishtar Street, in the heart of a city that is some 21 km south of the nation’s capital, Islamabad, this rundown relic of Jewish architecture is one of the few reminders left of Jewish emigres’ struggle for survival in South Asia at the turn of the 20th Century. It is also a testament to the religious tolerance and harmony that prevailed in Pakistan prior to the penetration of extremism and religious bigotry into its social fabric.
On the one side of the yellowish building stands the Bohra mosque, which in turn is flanked by a Victorian-era church. In the street behind, meanwhile, there is a spacious Hindu temple. The synagogue building houses three families but shows signs of neglect and ruin: there are broken window panes and the plaster is peeling on parts of the facade. Local residents know little about its origins; however Stars of David are still visible on what is the only example of Jewish architecture to have escaped ruin in the city.
“It was such a good time: Hindus, Christians, Jews and Muslims lived in peace, joining each other’s religious festivals freely with no compulsion or social restriction on their interaction,” says an aged auto part dealer, Haji Salman, in conversation with Asia Times in Rawalpindi.
Dr Ali Jan, a Peshawar-based historian and conservator who has conducted extensive research on Jewish communities and heritage in Afghanistan and Pakistan believes the Pashtun tribes native to the north-western areas of Pakistan and the Jalalabad and Kandahar provinces of Afghanistan may be a “lost tribe” of Jews. Over the centuries, Peshawar, an important center of Pashtun culture, absorbed many different cultures and communities. Jews from Central Asia who arrived in Pakistan around a century ago were just one such group and the remains of a synagogue they built near the city’s clock-tower still exist.