Ostia, menorah, Lazio

Situated near the mouth of the River Tiber, Ostia was one of the harbors of Rome and became at the end of the Republic an important commercial center. However, Ostia flourished mainly under the Flavian and Antonine Dynasties. From the middle of the 3rd century C.E., its slow decline began.

At the end of the 19th century, the site was excavated and a few epitaphs in Greek and Latin were discovered, which seemed to indicate the presence of a Jewish community (universitas Judaeorum). In 1961, the remains of a synagogue found near Ostia provided definite proof that a Jewish community had existed there. The excavations have shown that part of the building was constructed at the end of the first century, underwent alterations and enlargements during the second and third, and was considerably enlarged and partly rebuilt at the beginning of the fourth. As a result of the diminished population of the city, the synagogue fell into ruins at the end of the fourth or during the fifth centuries.

The building, which is of the basilica type, stands between the ancient seashore and the coastal road (Via Severiana), and faces east-southeast, in the direction of Jerusalem. It has three entrance doors, recalling the synagogues of Galilee. From the door in the center a step leads down to the synagogue proper, a large rectangular hall about 81.6 × 41.0 ft. (24.9 × 12.5 m.). This is divided into three aisles with four marble columns surmounted by finely worked Corinthian capitals. It has been suggested that the lateral sections, which are divided by stone balustrades, were reserved for women. The wall at the back is slightly curved. In the oldest hall, the seats were of stone, set against the walls. An inscription from the second or third century, partly in Latin, partly in Hebrew, refers expressly to the ark: “For the Emperor’s health Mindis Faustos (with his family) built and made (it) from his own gifts and set up the ark for the Holy Law.”

In the later fourth-century building, the Tabernacle for the Ark, shaped as an aedicula, rises behind the pulpit in the left aisle along its entire length, a few steps leading to it. Jewish symbols, which can be found also in other synagogues of that period, are carved on the corbel of the aedicula’s architrave: a seven-branched menorah, a shofar, and a lulav and etrog.

The floor is covered with a bichrome mosaic decorated with floral motifs.

It is thought that a stove for baking maẓẓot can be identified in one of the surrounding rooms, as well as a mikveh, and a spacious hall which served for religious instruction or as a resting place for pilgrims. The building of the synagogue of Ostia is the first ancient synagogue known in Italy and Western Europe.

Various various terracotta oil-lamps with an obvious Jewish character were found in the area around the synagogue. Most were decorated with a menorah and one with a Torah ark.

The community must have numbered several hundred Jews.


Source: Jewish Virtual Library