Diarna is an initiative of Digital Heritage Mapping, a 501c3 non-profit organization using technology to map and preserve cultural heritage sites around the world. “Diarna” means “our homes” in Judeo-Arabic, a version of Arabic mixed with Hebrew spoken by Jews across the Middle East in numerous local dialects. Read an overview article about Diarna in AJS Perspectives, the magazine of the Association for Jewish Studies.
Challenge: Hundreds of Jewish sites from Morocco to Iran are rapidly disappearing, while the generation with first-hand knowledge of these locations is passing on. The synagogues, cemeteries, schools, and traditional tombs of biblical prophets stand today as testament to the vibrant communities that once spanned the entire region. Yet it is difficult to visit and impossible to preserve many of these sites, and while historians have written about these communities, few have provided geographic documentation. Many audiences thus remain disconnected from a historic heritage, including thousands of Jews who left their hometowns decades ago and have never returned. Moreover, young Muslims today – the first Middle Eastern generation not to have Jewish neighbors – regularly pass by Jewish cemetery walls and shuttered synagogues without knowing the rich history they represent.
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
Goals: Diarna seeks to memorialize Jewish heritage 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.
Audience: 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
Team: 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. Diarna’s project coordinator is Jason Guberman-Pfeffer, and the project’s lead academic expert is Professor Frances Malino, director of the Jewish Studies Program at Wellesley College. Additional team members are Maarten Lambrechts, a Google Earth expert based in Belgium, Egyptian-American researcher, Shaymaa Salama, and Raphael Elmaleh, Morocco’s only Jewish tour guide. For a more complete listing, click here.
Diarna’s dynamic and factual approach gives virtual resonance to the beauty, geography, and complexity of Jews from Arab countries. Indeed, it is an important way to preserve the memories of a community that has essentially ceased to exist, falling from a pre-1948 population of approximately 1 million to less than 5,000 today.
— Carole Basri, Esq., professor, award-winning filmmaker, and descendant of Iraqi Jews
- Alliance Israélite Universelle, providing extensive archive materials;
- Beit Hatfutsot – The Museum of the Jewish People, providing rare photographs;
- Wellesley College, providing research assistance and academic perspective;
- Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi/Ben-Zvi Institute, the world’s leading research centre on Mizrahim.
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, Ali Kaba, Jeffrey Malka/Sephardicgen, and Ben Ragsdale.