Diarna (“Our homes” in Judeo-Arabic) is an online geographic museum dedicated to preserving and providing untrammeled access to the sites (schools, cemeteries, synagogues, shrines) and memories of Middle Eastern Jewish life. We are pioneering the synthesis of traditional scholarship, fieldwork, and multimedia technologies—Google Earth satellite imagery (complete with terrain, zoomable perspectives, tiltable views and 360-degree rotation), immersive panoramas, three-dimensional architectural reconstructions, archival and contemporary photography, and place-based oral history recordings—to create virtual entry points to once-vibrant, yet now largely vanished, communities.
Lauren, a project researcher, relates how documenting sites in this manner enlivens her mother’s roots in a country she couldn’t imagine visiting now: “I have studied Farsi; I have attempted Persian cooking; and I wear my great-grandmother’s jewelry to try to connect with my identity. But when will it be safe for me to visit the neighborhood where my grandparents met? Now I have a virtual passport, Diarna, to experience the sweep of 2,700 years of Jewish life in Iran.”
There may only be a five-year window in which to document as many as possible of the sites and memories that are still extant, decades after communities have completely disbanded, structures are decayed or destroyed, and political strife has stymied preservation efforts. What remains is in danger of being irrevocably lost.
Diarna identifies individual sites within Google Earth satellite imagery. We then build a data layer allowing the sites to become virtually “visitble” – in this case, the Saba synagogue in Fez. The site is brought to life via archival photos as well as a video clip featuring a 1950s Purim megilah reading contrasted with contemporary footage obtained by Diarna researchers from within Saba, which is today a private home and generally inaccessible.
Diarna worked with Yassi Gabbay, the architect responsible for the 1970s restoration of the Judeo-Persian shrine to Esther and Mordechai in Hamadan, Iran, to obtain exclusive (example at left) photos and to create a digital reconstruction (at right) of the shrine. A roof-top ornament in the shape of a “Jewish star” (quite possible the only one visible from space) adorns the shrine’s subterranean synagogue. Published by Google, the shrine is now “on the map” for millions of users to discover within Google Earth.
The Diarna project is a long overdue and invaluable undertaking that will enable this and future generations to recapture the rapidly disappearing record of the millennial travels of the Jewish people. — Rabbi Maurice S. Corson, President Emeritus, The Wexner Foundation
The story of who we are, individually and as a people, is rooted at the intersection of place and memory. Over time, decades removed from Jewish life, the Middle East’s Jewish sites are physically disappearing. And the precious history they represent risks being forever lost as the last indigenous generation passes on. Diarna creates a tangible mechanism for preserving and exploring individual memories and communal histories. Adam, whose mother’s family is from the rural village of Nabeul, Tunisia, yearned to discover what Jewish life there had been like, only to find that “hardly anyone in my family could give me a good sense of that and, even if they did, the line between myth and history was blurred. It was not until I realized that I could see the places where my family had lived for centuries [via Diarna] that this almost mythical place became real.”
Diarna seeks to memorialize Jewish historical sites across the Middle East via three core products: (1) a map of Jewish sites across the Middle East stored in a digital database and plotted directly onto Google Earth satellite images; (2) a multimedia collection featuring archival and contemporary images and videos of these sites; and (3) dynamic education methods for sharing this information with the public, including virtual tours, interactive presentations, three-dimensional models, and curricula. These products will provide new academic material to advance research; an opportunity to establish common ground for interfaith dialogue; and a model for 21st century digital preservation projects. Indeed, the initiative may be the only way to guarantee the memory of these diverse sites is bequeathed to future generations.
Diarna eschews politics by focusing on collecting factual information and allowing varied audiences to draw their own conclusions. The project’s data reveals that Jews lived in towns across the Middle East, built a vast array of communal structures, and left a mark on the landscape visible long after communities have completely disbanded. The collection’s factual material resonates with a range of audiences, including the general public, the Jewish community, as well as young Arabs, Persians, Berbers, and Kurds – who grow up (in most cases) surrounded by Jewish sites but without Jewish neighbors. Deepening appreciation of this often ‘hidden history’ can perhaps help promote tolerance.
Diarna’s ability to give contemporary voice to an important aspect of Jewish history, while successfully collaborating with other institutions, distinguishes it as an emerging leader in the field. I feel a great sense of pride knowing that Diarna, an organization dedicated to the preservation of Arab-Jewish history, exists with such eloquence and relevancy in today’s technological world. — Dana Raucher, Executive Director of The Samuel Bronfman Foundation
In four years Diarna’s international team of volunteers has:
Driven by a team with diverse backgrounds and outlooks, core personnel include scholars and students, Google Earth developers in Europe and the United States, social entrepreneurs, and young Middle Eastern researchers eager to map virtual common ground. For a complete listing, click here.
Until now there has been no systematic approach equal to the challenge of preserving a single site in toto — no less thousands. Diarna has emerged at the right moment when technological feasibility has converged with the exigency of human memory.
To translate possibility into reality—to create the first model of an online geo-museum—we seek partners to share their memories and documentation, provide scholarly consultations, venues for events and exhibits, archival resources, and funding for galleries, exhibits, and expeditions.
An independent initiative, Diarna also collaborates with established institutions to advance its mission. Prominent partners include:
We are also grateful for pro bono assistance provided by photographers and researchers who have kindly agreed to share their unique collections. These include D.R. Cowles, Jono David/HaChayim HaYehudim Jewish Photo Library (who provided, among others, the photo of Dura-Europos in the intro images), Peter Geffen/Kivunim, C. Motzen, Alice Hecht, Norma Fares/Norma’s Media Insight World, Yassi “Elias” Gabbay, and Jeffrey Malka/Sephardicgen.