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Ancient Hebrew inscriptions in Syracuse


Since antiquity Syracuse had a large Jewish community, based during the Greek period in the district of Akradina, on the mainland, near the so-called small harbour. Archaeological finds of the 3rd and 4th century are exhibited at the "Paolo Orsi" museum. During the middle age the town became smaller and located only on the island Ortygia, nowadays the old town center of Syracuse. Also the Jewish community, of about 3000 people, moved to the island in a small district in the northern part of the island. Also today this district is called "Giudecca". The community lived and prospered there for about 800 years. Ancient written records describe the existence of an hospital, a slaughterhouse, a synagogue and ritual baths. The Giudecca district is also today part of Ortygia and is located between the modern streets via Maestranza and via Larga, along the small via Alagona and via della Giudecca (the medieval platea judeorum). The memory of the ancient Jewish community is preserved in the name of the area but it's hard to identify the former district. This is caused by the historic events which involved also Sicily. During the 15th century Sicily was part of the Spanish empire and in the year 1492 due to the Alhambra decree of Ferdinand II of Aragona, the practing Jews were expelled from the Kingdom. The district was depopulated and in the year 1693 a terrible earthquake destroyed the town and many of it's ancient buildings.

Visiting Jewish Syracuse

Facade of St. John's church in OrtygiaIt's still possible to find memories of the ancient Jewish community in Syracuse. The Giudecca district is absolutely worth a visit during a stay in Syracuse, also for the picturesque narrow streets and the nearby "lungomare di levante" promenade. Archaeologist and historians have largely debated about the position of the ancient synagogue also because inaccuracies in the ancient written records. Probably after the year 1492 a Christian church was built over the ancient synagogue but it's not clear if this church is the partial ruined church of St. John the Baptist (locally called San Giovannello) or the nearby church of St. Philip the Apostle. Most archaeologist believe that the ancient sinagogue was located between via Alagona and via della Giudecca under the modern San Giovannello church and the back lying Palazzo Bianca. The location corresponds with what is described in the ancient records moreover, the archaeological finds seem to confirm this hypothesis. Inside the church of St. Giovannello some ancient stone blocks were reused for the new building and there were found two ancient inscriptions in Hebrew letters. The translation of the first inscripton, inside the church is "...to the synagogue of Syracuse established in righteousness and faith" . During the restoration work of the nearby Palazzo Bianca a second inscription was found telling about a land donation for the construction. In the undergrounds of Palazzo Bianca was also found a miqweh, an ancient Jewish ritual bath. It belongs to a rare category of ritual baths and the pure spring water rises out of the living rock.

Nowadays the church of St. Giovannello, along via della Giudecca, is consacrated and used for marriage ceremonies. At present it's not open for visits except for special events where it's also possible to see the block with the inscription in the apse of the church. Palazzo Bianca, in the parallel via Alagona hosts nowadays the touristic residence "Alla Giudecca" and beside booking the hotel it's also possible to visit the underground miqweh. Guided tours of the ritual bath run every hour, also with English speaking guides (entrance fee € 5, photos not allowed). During the tourist season the miqweh is open to visitors from 9am to 7 pm. During the low season only in the morning. We suggest to contact the reception for updated information about the opening times, phone +39 0 931 22255, mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. It's not possible to book the tickets online so you will need to buy it at the entrance, in via Alagona nr. 52.

The undergrounds of St, Philiph's church

The undergrounds of St. Philip's churchAlong via della Giudecca, under the baroque church of St. Philiph the apostle there is a second underground with three levels which hosts the crypta of the Christian church, a bomb shelter of WWII and at 18 meters depth an ancient well with fresh spring water. This underground structure is mostly identified as a well of Greek Hellenistic age or a Christian baptistry but along the walls there is also a small inscription in Hebrew letters and in 2019 some researchers have speculated that this structure could also be the remain a Jewish ritual bath. This theory needs further confirmation and studies but the visit of the undergrounds of this church is certainly impressive. The crypta is open to visitors daily only during the tourist season (usually from May to October). Also for this monument it's not possible to buy the tickets online but only at the entrance in via Piazza San Filippo.

Jewish inscriptions at Syracuse's museums

Ancient archaeological finds are also visible in two museums in Syracuse. In the courtyard at the entrance of the Bellomo museum, in via Capodieci, in the old town center of Ortygia, there are some ancient gravestones with inscriptions in Hebrew letters. In the modern Neapolis district it's possible to visit the "Paolo Orsi" archaeological museum and in the late roman sector, at the first floor, there are other ancient finds from Syracuse, including the epigraph of Nofeios and Nife with an ancient menorah.

Guided tours to the ancient Jewish Syracuse

At present there are no specific tours to visit Jewish Syracuse but some companies like Hermes Sicily Tours offer walking tours of Ortygia with a private guide and on request it's possible to include during the visit also the walk through the Giudecca district. Further information and contacts are available on the Hermes Sicily's website.


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