Sha'ar HaShamayim Synagogue Engineer Lane
The Great Synagogue of Gibraltar, also known as Kahal Kadosh Sha'ar HaShamayim is situated behind a three-storey domestic looking façade with round headed windows and doorway at 49 Engineer Lane. The appearance is typical, with shuttered windows, although these lack the characteristic iron works balconies of Regency Gibraltar. The plain building is rendered and painted with stone quoins and surrounds. Some alterations were made in the centenary year of 1912, as the inscriptions in the stone window heads flanking the main door attests.1
The Great Synagogue was founded in 1724 and has been rebuilt several times in the ensuing 300 years of existence. The present building largely dates from 1812 and shares features in common with the parent Spanish & Portuguese synagogues of Amsterdam (1675) and Bevis Marks in London (1701). It is the oldest synagogue in continuous use in Gibraltar. The facade of the two-and-a-half-story, domestic-scale building features round-arched windows flanking a round-arched doorway. The interior features colourful tiles, wrought-iron balustrades, dark wooden furnishings, and marble floors.
The Great Synagogue owes its construction to the event leading from the expulsion of the Jews from Gibraltar in 1717 following pressure from Spain who argued that their presence contravened the terms of the Treaty of Utrecht. However, in that same year Spain broke its own promises and launched an expedition intended to recover Sardinia and Sicily which she had lost under those same terms. War ensured and supplies across the border was cut once more. The British had no alternative but to reopen trade talks with the Sultan of Morocco who refused to negotiate unless Jews and Moslems were allowed to settle in Gibraltar.
In 1724 Colonel Hargrave, Governor of Gibraltar presented a Jewish merchant, Isaac Netto, with a piece of land in Engineer Lane where he built a shed for use as a synagogue. Netto was the Governor’s secretary in all matters relating to Morocco so his influence was telling. Netto had been born in Leghorn and had been taken to London at a young age when his father became Chief Rabbi of the Spanish and Portuguese (Sephardi) Jews congregation in Bevis Marks in the City of London.2 The synagogue was an offshoot of the Sephardi synagogue in Amsterdam hence the similarities in features of the Sha’ar HaShamayim synagogue in Gibraltar.
Netto was therefore the founder and first religious leader of the Jewish community of Gibraltar. He organised the community along the same lines as that of Bevis Marks in London and gave it the same name of Kahal Kadosh Sha'ar HaShamayim which means "Holy Congregation Gate of Heaven." However, it became known as the Great Synagogue or Esnoga Grande locally. This makes the Great Synagogue in Gibraltar one of the oldest in the entire Peninsular.
Montresor map detail 1753. The area in red shows the property demarcation for 49 Engineer Lane.
The original building had its entrance in what is now Serfaty’s Passage but this building was destroyed in the great rainstorm of the 30th December 1766 during which 80 people drowned.3 This access, from a narrow alley was once colloquially referred to as ‘Synagogue Lane’.4 The same storm caused a breach in the Line Wall that had to be hastily repaired by William Green and his engineers. A new larger building was constructed with a new entrance in Engineer Lane (the date in Hebrew can still be seen on the facade). However, on the 17th May 1781 the building, like most of the town was destroyed by indiscriminate Spanish gunfire following the arrival of the second relief convoy escorted by Admiral Darby’s fleet a few weeks earlier.
The synagogue had to be reconstructed again in 1812 after it had been damaged by a fire and the present vaulted ceiling dates from that time. It is possible that the Engineer entrance dates from the 1812 rebuilding. The synagogue was rebuilt with a simple classical façade in keeping with the character of the Old Town which largely dates from the Regency period.5 Three of Gibraltar’s synagogues are concealed behind the façade of typical early 19th Century terraces in the narrow streets of the Old Town.
Architectural design of the Shar HaShamayim Synagogue
Main entrance to the Great Synagogue.
Window of the Great Synagogue with bilingual sign.
Sha'ar Hashamayim abal.
Sha'ar HaShamayim tevah and abal.