When I told some friends, I was going to Suriname, very few knew where it was. Most thought it was a country in Africa, and even fewer had ever heard of Paramaribo, its capital city located on the banks of the Suriname River. To be honest, I probably would not have known either, was it not for an old project at the archaeological site of Jodensavanne, which I inherited in 2001, while at the World Monuments Fund. Since then, Suriname has been on my “bucket list.”
I was able to check it off in 2016, thanks to a call from the Inter-American Development Bank. They asked me to come to Suriname as part of a team working on an urban rehabilitation program, to provide preservation expertise for the rehabilitation of historic buildings in the Historic Inner City of Paramaribo, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This British-Dutch settlement, surrounded by a tropical forest in South America, is truly a historic gem from the 17th and 18th centuries. To think that Suriname was traded in 1667 by the British in exchange for New Amsterdam (New York), is to realize the Dutch were savvy negotiators.
After a week of meetings and site visits, I was able to steal away and visit Jodensavanne or Jewish savanah, located 50 Km south of Paramaribo. Along the way, I saw some remaining signs of Suriname's bauxite industry, practically defunct since the departure of Alcoa a few years ago, as well as logging activity, an important part of Suriname’s economy, together with oil and gold extraction. Surrounding Paramaribo, the ground is red because of its laterite content, but upon arriving to Redi Doti, the Amerindian village closest to Jodensavanne, the landscape changes and the white sands of the savannah become apparent, as well as the black water creeks, which are popular swimming destinations for locals who believe in the medicinal effects of their mineral rich waters. However, the most impressive feature of the landscape were the majestic ceibas, considered sacred trees by many Pre-Hispanic cultures, rising to the sky.
In the 1630s, the first wave of Portuguese Jews arrived in Thorarica, the old capital of Suriname. In 1652, a second group settled near the Cassipora Creek, located in the savannah, and finally in 1664, after their expulsion from Brazil and French Guyana, a third group arrived to the area, led by David Cohen Nassy. The earlier settlers joined them in Jodensavanne and established a successful agricultural settlement that thrived from 1675 until 1775, thanks to sugar plantations and slaves, and was finally abandoned by 1832 when a fire raged through the village. Today, the exact location of Thorarica is unknown, the second settlement of Cassipora is gone except for a few burials, but Jodensavanne has two impressive cemeteries and the monumental remains of its synagogue.
Upon arriving in Jodensavanne, after a short walk through the forest, I saw the African cemetery, where the graves are indicated by anthropomorphic wooden markers covered in thick moss. I was told that the inverted heart shape at the top of the markers was a sankofa, a symbol from west Africa which in the Twi language of Ghana translates as “go back and get it.” Sankofa symbols are also depicted as a bird looking backwards, and are still used to remind the living of the importance of learning from the past.
Further along we encountered the Jewish cemetery separated by a white picket fence. There, the graves were covered by massive bluestone markers, which were fabricated in the Netherlands, and bore delicately carved symbols, and Portuguese and Hebrew writing. Despite the strict separation between the Jews, gentiles and Africans after death, the Jewish settlers that came to Suriname had numerous children, many bore by their African slaves, and this intertwined genealogy is clearly expressed by the names appearing on the graves of both cemeteries. For example, I noticed several graves had the name Wijngaarde which means vineyard in Dutch, then I saw the grave of Abraham de la Parra (parra means vine in Portuguese), a Portuguese Jew who had a daughter with an African slave, that was named Annaatje van la Parra Wijngaarde. Wijngaarde, a common surname in Suriname, was the name given by the de la Parra family to their manumitted slaves.
In the center of the village sit the remains of the 1685 Beracha v’ Shalom synagogue. The monumental building was built at the highest point (as mandated by the Talmud) from European bricks that arrived as ballast. It was the largest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, and a fitting symbol of the success reached by the independent Portuguese Jewish Nation, known as Jerusalem on the River. The colony became one of the richest in the Americas (they partially funded the construction of Shearith Israel, the first synagogue in New York), and was allowed total freedom by the Dutch, including the permission to create its own army to defend from pirates and maroons. Apparently, the Jodensavanne militia was the only official Jewish army existing in the world before the creation of the State of Israel.
The view of the river from the top of the wooden stairs leading to the dock was peaceful, and the forest beyond the water was lush and thick. It was clear that after almost two centuries of colonization and massive agricultural exploitation, nature had taken back the land along the banks of the Suriname River.
As I was leaving the archaeological site, a family of golden handed tamarinds jumped loudly from tree to tree, as if saying good bye. I turned around to take a picture, but they disappeared in the forest, so I waved good bye to the monkeys and walked away from the archaeological remains of this extraordinary Jewish settlement.
However, like the bird in the burial markers, I would like to someday “go back and get it.”