Archeological sites of Jewish interest

Funeral inscriptions from the third century A.D. indicate definite Jewish settlements in the Southern cities of Bari, Oria, Capua, Otranto, Taranto, and above all at Venosa. These were important stops, or accessory routes, on the Via Appia, the Appian Way, the main trade route from Rome to the Eastern Mediterranean and Byzantium. The Jews who lived along this route formed a chain in the international trade, lived on friendly terms with the rest of the population, and suffered equally with the Christians from the Saracen and Northern invasions. Earlier literary rather than epigraphic sources from the first century, indicates that there were extensive Jewish settlements throughout Sicily, especially at Syracuse, Palermo, Catania, Messina, and Agrigento starting from the first century A.D.


Ostia Antica (no longer standing)

Ostia’s Synagogue, the oldest synagogues in the world located in the main archeological area of the port city of Ostia near Rome. It dates from the reign of Claudius (41-54 A.D.) and continued in use as a synagogue into the 5th century. Scholars are still debating whether in the 1st century A.D, the synagogue was housed by a residential building or was instead a public building from the beginning. In Its earliest form, the synagogue was comprised of a main hall with benches along three walls. Four marble columns surround the propyleum or monumental gateway and the triclineum or dining room is set up with couches along three walls. There was a water well and basin nears the entryway for ritual washings. The main door of the synagogue faces the southeast, towards Jerusalem. An aedicula, to serve as a Torah Ark added in the 4th century A.D. A donor inscription implies that it replaced an earlier wooden platform donated in the 2nd century A.D., which itself had been replaced by a newer Ark donated by one Mindus Faustus in the 3rd century.


Consular roads, Portico d’Ottavia, Catacombs of Vigna Randanini, Villa Torlonia and Via Ostiense

The Jewish catacombs of Rome are located beside an ancient Roman consular road, the via Nomentana, which extends between the northeast and the Roman walls of the city. The catacombs contain some of the best-preserved testimonies -painting and inscription- of Rome’s Jewish community during the Late Antiquity. The preservation of these sites has been care of Rome’s State Archaeological Commission, since the revision of the Lateran Concordat in 1984. Ever since the Italian State acquired the Torlonia catacombs, there has been limited study of the site. The presence of noxious gasses lingering in the corridors and several incidents of vandalism has forced the closing of the catacombs for visit and study. During the past two years the catacombs have been open to the public during an exclusive tour offered on the European day of Jewish culture.

Even though there are no longer traces in loco of the Hebrew inscriptions of late Antiquity, archeologists have had access to a great number of burial epigraphs, in which the names of the synagogues are mentioned. From these testimonies as well as from literary sources we know that after the 1st century AD about 15 synagogues were located in Via Nomentana, Via Labicana outside the Porta Maggiore, Via Appia Pignatelli, Via Appia (Via Cimarra), and on the Via Ostiense at Monteverde. The burial sites of the Jewish catacombs confirm this topographic reconstruction. Many of the burial inscriptions are preserved at the Jewish Museum of Rome.


Synagogue of Bova Marina (no longer standing)
The Bova Marina Synagogue is the second oldest synagogue discovered in Italy and one the oldest in Europe. Located in a small coastal town in Calabria the remains of the Bova Marina synagogue were unearthed in 1983 during road construction. The site features a mosaic floor with the image of a menorah and accompanying images of a shofar and a lulav to the right and an etrog on the left. In addition, there are other decorative motifs such as Solomon’s Knots. There is also a wall niche that may have once contained the Torah scrolls. The synagogue was built in the 4th century with renovations dating to the 6th century. There appears to be an older structure beneath the site, which cannot be excavated. The synagogue is oriented to Southeast and resembles the Byzantine synagogues of the Galilee. It appears to have ceased functioning around the year 600 when the entire area was abandoned. In addition to the site itself, many artifacts have been discovered such as amphora handles with menorah impressions and three thousand bronze coins.


Miqwe of Syracuse/Ortigia
During the excavation of a medieval palace on the tiny island of Ortigia in Siracusa, in 1989, an underground room with a miqwe, a Jewish ritual bath, was discovered 30 feet beneath the ground floor. A flourishing Jewish community is known to have lived in Ortigia until the expulsion of 1493. Most likely the bath was adapted from a pre-existing cistern from the Byzantine period. The bath rooms are surrounded by stone benches.


Catacombs of Venosa
The Catacombs of Venosa, located on the Maddalena hill, were discovered in 1853 and since 1974 have become the object of systematic research. Dated between the 4th and 6th century A.D., they are comprised of a series of corridors through which it is possible to follow individual burial places, iconography and inscriptions.