Non-Christian Houses of Worship in GDL: a synagogue, a mosque, a kenesa

After the Karaites, Jews and Tartars broke away from their normal environment and took firm root in GDL, the houses of worship of each respective community became the hubs of religious and secular life, mobilizing the members of the community in question. A house of worship was one of the most essential elements of community functioning. It was a matter of honour for each community to strive to erect a house of worship after having settled down in a new place. For the construction of such a house of worship, the privilege of the Duke or owner of the town (small town) had to be obtained, whereby the permission was granted for the construction and in which the main constructional characteristics were described. It so happened historically that the presence of Jewish or Muslim houses of worship in a certain place was recognized as the main feature of the community existence. In the daily life of communities, such a house of worship performed many functions. It was not merely a community gathering place for common praying, a venue for celebrating religious feasts, but also a place for studying and learning from the sacred writings, a place for holding community meetings and religious  court within the community as well as a place for taking an oath as ordered by the GDL courts.

There is no mention of the houses of worship named as a synagogue (let alone a kenesa), or a mosque in the historical sources of GDL. Instead, the following equivalent names were used: Bożnica Tatarska (Tartars’ house of worship), Bożnica Żydowska (Jews’ house of worship) or Szkola Żydowska (Jewish school). Presumably, the tradition of referring to an ancient synagogue, still present in small towns, as škala or iškala must have originated from this source (Jewish house of worship). It was also indicated in the sources which ethno-confessional community a certain house of worship belonged to. Christians could easily tell by a mere look at a house of worship, which ethno-confessional community it represented. During the attacks against Jews or Tartars, such places would become the target of hate and intolerance manifestation.

Oriental peculiarities of non-Christian houses of worship

At the junction of the 14th and 15th centuries, the first houses of worship for the Jewish rabbis, Karaites or Tartars, that is, a synagogue, a kenesa and a mosque, were built. They differed from the Catholic and Orthodox churches, characteristic of the traditional Christian GDL environment, in architectural solutions, interior design as well as equipment and furnishings.

Traditionally, non-Christian houses of worship were built with an eastward orientation. A mosque usually had the orientation toward Mecca, whereas a synagogue and a kenesa were facing Jerusalem.

Yet another peculiarity characterising the orient communities’ houses of worship was the requirement to designate separate area for gender separation. Quite often, men and women used separate entrances. Side by side with traditional requirements for the construction of a synagogue or a mosque and their equipment and furnishings, which were determined by the religion in question, other restrictions had to be followed, imposed by Christian environment. With Counter-Reformation gaining prevalence, a decision was adopted in 1581, according to which additional requirements had to be complied with by non-Christian communities, whereby apart from the approval granted by the owner of the town (small town), permission authorized by the bishop of a respective diocese had to be obtained by non-Christians prior to construction a house of worship.

Ingenuity fostered by prohibitions

In 1668, the Constitution adopted by the Sejm of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth imposed even more stringent requirements for non-Christian communities.  Prohibition was imposed to erect mosques in the places where they had been non-existent up to that time. This legislative decision was recalled only in the second half of the 18th century (the Constitutions adopted by the Sejm in 1768 and 1775), to be followed by a revival of mosque construction and renovation. With the exception of individual localized cases, such prohibitions never applied to the construction of synagogues. This notwithstanding, strict requirements were imposed on those building a synagogue by Christians. To illustrate the point, the place for the construction had to be chosen further away from the main church of the town; a synagogue could by no means dominate the urban landscape; it had to be lower than the Christian house of worship and “hidden” in the Jewish quarter to make sure that “it had no resemblance to the Catholic or Orthodox churches whatever.”

The requirements established by Christians encouraged and unleashed the ingenuity of architects. For example, the Great Synagogue in Vilnius was constructed on a deep foundation, with its floor below street level about two meters, to allow for an interior height of five stories. The synagogue, which has not survived to our days, was built in the first half of the 17th century, was to become symbol of Vilnius as the Lithuanian Jerusalem. Synagogues built in this style are not that rare in Central and Eastern Europe.

Unlike the Muslims residing in GDL, the Jews succeeded in obtaining the right not merely to renovate but also to build new synagogues according to the community needs. This right was embedded in the general privilege granted by Władysław Vasa in 1646 as a separate clause.

Architectural heritage of GDL minorities

Presumably, the oldest mosque in GDL, mentioned in historical sources, is the mosque in Lviv.

In later times, a network of mosques started to develop, with mosques in Trakai, Raižiai and elsewhere built). From the architectural point of view, the mosques constructed in GDL were neither complex nor elaborate. The majority of them were made of timber, with a tall multi-level four-sided gable roof structure. Until the 19th century, most of them were devoid of expressive minarets, without which contemporary mosques are unimaginable. Why were mosques built of timber in those days? Among the reasons accounting for such choice of material might have been a meagre life the Tartar community was leading. The development of the Muslim sacral buildings in GDL might have also been influenced by the prohibition to repair or rebuild them. There were no clear trends or requirements regulating the choice of materials for mosque construction. At one point in history, both brick and timber mosques were built in GDL. The latter are poorly preserved; in other countries similar mosques are recognized as masterpieces of wooden architecture (currently, there are 17 surviving synagogue buildings in Lithuania). The first kenesa is believed to have been built in Trakai in the 15th century. During the Soviet times, this kenesa, the origins if which can be traced to the times of GDL, was the only kenesa functioning in the whole Eastern Europe.

Jurgita Šiaučiūnaitė-Verbickienė