Content on this page requires a newer version of Adobe Flash Player.

Get Adobe Flash player

Education | History Jodensavanne | Cassipora Cemetery

Cassipora Cemetery



( "Ohalim" prismatic gravestones)


The oldest known and least accessible Jewish cemetery in Suriname lies hidden in the savannah forest, situated a little more than two kilometer south of Jodensavanne, close to the bank of the Cassipora Creek and the Suriname River with coordinates N 05¢ª 24'42'' and W54¢ª 58' 41'' covering about 6000M2. About 216 stone markers are all that remains, which does not mean that these were the only persons laid to rest. Burial registers confirm that there were many more burials at Cassipora and Jodensavanne than there are known tombstones. Dr. Ben-Ur has estimated over 400 burials at the Cassipora cemetery. The oldest tombstone dates back as far as 1666, with the inscriptions: Grave of Abraham Chyllon d Fonseca Meza, clever in life died on the 22nd of Tishrei the year 5427. May his soul delight in glory, Amen. The newest is from 1873. The inscriptions are in Hebrew, Portuguese, Spanish, Aramaic and Dutch. With the exception of the two ‘ohalim’ (prism-shaped gravestones), all the markers are horizontally laid slabs of various types of limestone and marble. The prismatic stones date to Talmudic times, and have been traditionally reserved for rabbis and other communal leaders. The decedents buried underneath ohalim at Cassipora, david de Meza and Abigail de Meza, were likely important figures in the community. All other tombstones are rectangular.

The first synagogue in Suriname was located in the vicinity. The building is believed to have been a modest wooden structure. Any evidence would have disappeared by now, taken back in the arms of the jungle. The first is thought to have been at Suriname’s former capital Thorarica. The Cassipora synagogue was consecrated in 1671 by the “Joodse Burgerwacht Compagnie”. During several decades at the end of the 17th century the communities of Cassipora and Jodensavanne existed simultaneously, and their cemeteries were maintained as active burial sites. In the late 18th century the Cassipora-residents moved to the prospering village of Jodensavanne. Mr. and Mrs. Strelick, and Dr. De Bye made an assessment of the Cassipora cemetery in 1995 and produced a first map of the monument. This map greatly contributed to the understanding of the site but it was neither complete nor precise. In the 1999 survey under guidance of Rachel Frankel, a full documentation including photographic records and epitaph transcriptions was executed. A full layout was produced by Dikland in 2002.

Funerary art of Cassipora and Jodensavanne do not always show images of a specifically Jewish nature, identifiable solely as Hebraic. Designs on the markers often depict a tree being chopped down by the angel of death, or the hand of God. This symbolizes a life taken before its time. Significantly present are: circumcision scenes and implements, priestly benediction hands, Levitical ewers and basins, grape clusters and shew bread tables. In the Cassipora cemetery 63 percent bears Jewish symbols, while for the Jodensavanne cemetery it is 29 percent. The tombstones reveal many historical features and thus serve as open-air archive. The Cassipora and Jodensavanne cemeteries pay considerable pictorial homage to their women. This finding of Dr. Ben-Ur is in consonance with their unusual public role in synagogue and professional life. Analysis of epitaphs, synagogue architecture, and communal archives suggest that women worshipped at the Beraha VeShalom synagogue in separate services parallel to those of men, with their own female cantors and ritual honors, and that some enjoyed honored positions as midwives.

Most pictorially engraved tombstones in Suriname’s jungle were produced through the first half of the eighteenth century, coinciding with 1650 – 1750, when the most elaborate Sephardic monuments were designed. Since artists generally did not sign their carvings, it is impossible to definitively ascertain the provenance of most of this art. However, the majority of tombstones likely originated in Amsterdam, whose Sephardic community boasted accomplished calligraphers and engravers. In any event, all of the tombstones are of European origin and were incised before shipment to the new world.