In its glory days, in the early years on the 20th century, the Dar Bishi synagogue in Tripoli, in the capital’s Old City a few blocks from the Mediterranean, was the pride of Libyan Jewry; it was considered the most beautiful Jewish house of worship in the country.
Today it is deserted and crumbling. Litter fills the empty sanctuary, pigeons fly around, the walls are cracked and the Ten Commandments tablets atop the outside are pockmarked. The mikvah next door houses squatter Libyan families.
Libya had a Jewish presence for more than 2,000 years; after World War II, more than 40,000 Jews lived there. But, as in other Arab countries in the Middle East and northern Africa, hostility towards Jews grew when Israel was created in 1948; widespread emigration ensued. By 1967, only 6,000 Jews remained in Libya, most of them in Tripoli; after Israel’s victory in the Six-Day War, conditions deteriorated for Libyan Jews; more left. The last known Jew there left in 2003.
Over the years, most of the synagogues around the country were demolished, turned into mosques or put to different uses.
In 2011, David Gerbi, a Libyan Jew whose family had emigrated 44 years earlier, returned during the Arab Spring uprising that toppled Muammar Kaddafy, to start renovating Dar Bishi, with permission of the new government. He recruited a team of helpers from the neighborhood to cart out garbage; then he was warned to stay away, for his own safety. The repairs ended.
Today, the synagogue bears silent testimony to a once-flourishing Jewish community.