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Jewish Identity and Egyptian Revival Architecture

From: Journal of Jewish Identities
Issue 5, Number 2, July 2012
pp. 1-25 | 10.1353/jji.2012.0020

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Between 1798 and 1806, a highly unusual synagogue complex was built around a courtyard in the city of Karlsruhe, capital of the Grand Duchy of Baden. An enormous pair of Egyptian-style trapezoidal pylons flanked a gate that led to a courtyard, open to the sky and lined with a Doric colonnade. Buildings on three sides of the courtyard contained the rabbi's home, a school, and community offices. At the far end of the courtyard, a Grecian pediment topped the façade of the synagogue proper.

The Karlsruhe synagogue (destroyed by fire in 1871) was a thoughtful attempt on the part of architect Friedrich Weinbrenner to employ a style that would evoke Jewish ancientness and also allow him to work in two avant-garde modes: Greek and Egyptian revival. Weinbrenner also attempted to evoke the Temple of Solomon itself in the layout of the Karlsruhe complex. First Kings specifies that the Temple have three parts, the ulam (a porch or vestibule, perhaps roofless), the hekhal (great hall), and the dvir (Holy of Holies), separated from the hekhal by a parochet, or curtain. At the ulam stood a pair of named columns, Boaz and Jachin. The text does not make clear whether these columns were free-standing or structural, or whether they were inside or in front of the building. Architect Weinbrenner built Boaz and Jachin as pylons in the style of the entrance to the Temple at Karnak, Egypt, the ulam as a roofless courtyard, the hekhal as the synagogue building and, inside that, the Holy of Holies as the curtained Torah Ark.

Greek revival architecture was still new in

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Image 1. 

Egyptian-inspired pylons at synagogue complex, Karlsruhe. Synagogue façade and pediment visible through arch. (Friedrich Weinbrenner Collection, the Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania)

Europe at the turn of the nineteenth century. Weinbrenner was one of the first German architects to visit the early Doric temples at Paestum, and they inspired not only his synagogue but also his faux-ruined Doric temple, designed for the Baden Grand-Ducal gardens. He was also unusual for his time in having seen ancient Egyptian buildings, albeit only in a spectacularly innovative stage set. Weinbrenner was a student in Vienna in 1791, the year of the premiere of Mozart's opera, The Magic Flute. The sets were notable for their exotic Egyptian style. Weinbrenner attended twice, and saw Mozart himself conduct. Although Dominique Jurasse notes that Weinbrenner's "peristyle, worship area, [and] sanctuary" design was "inspired by the Temple," the reasons for building of this and other Egyptian revival synagogues has not been satisfactorily explored.

Weinbrenner was among the first architects to explore the idea of discovering the appropriate historicist architectural style for specific building types. During his early years in Karlsruhe, he designed an Ottoman-style building for new steam-baths, a Gothic chapel for one of the country estates of the ruling family, a small medieval fortress to serve the army as a powder magazine, and the synagogue in ancient Egyptian and Doric styles. Weinbrenner later abandoned this wide-ranging historicism, devoting his career to masterful application of Classical forms. His students would popularize the idea that the identity of a building should inform the choice of architectural style. And among the most intriguing of these choices this movement faced was the puzzle of identifying an appropriate historicist style for synagogues.

The Temple, of course, was the ancient Jewish building most intimately familiar to Europeans for the simple reason that it is the only building that the Bible describes in detail. An architect seeking to embody ancient Jewish architecture naturally opened the Bible to the Book of Kings, only to be disappointed by the detailed descriptions of layout and utter lack of attention to style. Weinbrenner may have used Egyptian and Doric elements because they were the most ancient styles then known to Europeans.

It has not previously been noted that two of Weinbrenner's students also built synagogues that evoked Jewish antiquity with nods to both Doric and Egyptian styles. In 1822, Weinbrenner's nephew and student, Johann Ludwig Weinbrenner designed a synagogue for the nearby small town of Sulzberg. It underwent careful restoration...

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