Siracusa in Sicily is usually associated with the Ancient Greeks and Romans, so I was surprised to find that it’s also home to the oldest Jewish ritual baths, or mikveh, in Europe, open to the public, located on the tiny island of Ortigia off the eastern coast. Yet there has been a Jewish presence on the island for at least 1,400 years and perhaps as many as 2,000 years.
Tradition has it that the first Jews were brought to Sicily as slaves by the Romans after they destroyed Jerusalem in 70 AD. Yet the island’s location at the heart of the Mediterranean means it’s possible that Jewish merchants and traders settled there before then. By the Middle Ages, Jewish communities were flourishing in Sicily and were to be found in 50 towns across the island, including Palermo, Messina, Taormina, Catania, Siracusa, Agrigento and Agira, where they worked as cloth merchants, doctors, bankers, farmers, tradesmen and goldsmiths. There are thought to have been as many as 100,000 Jews living in Sicily before they were expelled from the island in 1492 by its Spanish ruler - and the main architect behind the Inquisition - King Ferdinand II of Aragon, known as Ferdinand the Catholic.
The Jews that remained faced execution unless they converted to Catholicism. At that time Siracusa’s Jewish population was second only in size to that of Palermo and Jews accounted for a quarter of Ortigia’s inhabitants. The mikveh in Ortigia is one of the many traces you can still find of the presence of Jewish communities on the island. It was unearthed in 1989 during restoration work on a medieval palazzo once owned by the Jewish Bianchi family.
The mikveh lies 30 feet (9 m) below ground under the Residenza Alla Giudecca hotel in the heart of what was once the town’s Jewish quarter, the ‘Giudecca’, which also housed a synagogue. It lay hidden for so long because when the Jews fled into exile they filled the mikveh with rubble and sealed its entrance, concealing it from prying eyes. Ferdinand’s decree forbad Jews to conceal property, so perhaps some brave Jews hoped to return to use what was a holy place in more tolerant times. The mikveh dates from the 6th century and was in continuous use until the 15th century when it had to be abandoned.
Mikvehs are used for certain Jewish religious rituals that require immersion in ‘living water’ that flows naturally. A freshwater spring flows underneath Ortigia, making it an ideal location to build a mikveh, and originally the islet housed three of them. The surviving mikveh was likely adapted from an existing cistern constructed by the Byzantines in the 5th century. It is accessible via a steep stone staircase hewn out of the surrounding bedrock. You descend via 48 steps to arrive in a square room with a vaulted ceiling supported by four pillars carved out of the limestone bedrock. A ventilation shaft provides the only natural light, but when the mikveh was in use it was also lit by oil lamps.
There are three central baths surrounded by stone benches where visitors would presumably wait their turn. Two small rooms contain other baths, which would have been used by wealthier clients who could afford to pay for some privacy. The faithful would walk down eight steps to immerse their bodies in one of the baths to achieve ritual purity: perhaps couples preparing for their wedding day or women after menstruation or childbirth. Mikvehs are also used during traditional religious ceremonies when someone converts to Judaism.
The Residenza Alla Giudecca on Via Alagona 52 offers guided tours to the baths in English and Italian regardless of whether you’re staying there or not. Tel: +39 0931 22255.