26 March 2008

Sicily: The ancient mikveh of Siracusa

EyeItalia is not a site for Jewish genealogy. In fact, it is a site for beautifully created items from Italy, such as linens, bedspreads, notepaper, leather journals and much more.

I didn't expect to find Jewish anything on the site, but was surprised with this great story on the ancient mikveh of Siracusa.

The waves of cultures that have bathed Sicily over the centuries have left their traces in the cuisine, language and architecture. The Jews are all but invisible. The island was a virtual melting pot of cultures and an important center of Mediterranean commerce. Because of this prosperity, Jewish merchants were likely here very early in the islands history. Around the year A.D. 63, thousands of Jews, were brought as slaves by Roman armies returning victorious from the Holy Land. Over the centuries, “Giudecca,” or Jewish quarters, varying in size from 350 to 5,000 people developed in 50 Sicilian cities. By the 1300’s many towns were dominated by Jews.

Siracusa, in particular had an affluent Jewish community. Records show that many Jews owned luxurious homes. Their professions ranged from doctors and cloth merchants to goldsmiths and tradesmen. In the mid-15th century Sicily’s Jewish community totaled one quarter of the population. Soon however, the heavy hand of the Spanish Inquisition descended on the Sicilian Jews who dispersed to other parts of the world or converted to Catholicism. Until recently the only remaining evidence of this once thriving culture were the repetitive street names in the Giudecca. Now Jewish history comes alive again with the uncovering of the ancient “miqwe” baths.

The article goes on to explain what a mikveh is used for and technical matters of where the water originates.

How was the ritual bath discovered?

In the 1980’s a Sicilian noble woman, the Marquis or “Marchesa” Amalia Daniele, purchased a crumbling palazzo in the old historical center to convert into a “residence” hotel. During the extensive restoration, an odd pattern in the pavement bricks of a courtyard indicated a walled-over threshold. One torn-down wall and five truckloads of rubble later, a stone staircase was revealed that descended 30 feet underground. The next challenge was to drain the enormous amount of water that pooled in the chamber below. As Sicily is an island, nothing is far from the sea however the most obvious “saltwater theory” proved false. This was fresh water that undoubtedly came from the same source as the Fountain of Aretusa; the nearby sacred Greek fountain.

Once the water was removed, the structure beneath was revealed: a square chamber with a vaulted ceiling supported by four pillars carved completely out of bedrock. Three water-filled baths were located in the floor of the main chamber and off to adjacent sides were two very unusual, smaller private chambers, each with a bath. All the baths are connected by a common source of water, as required by Jewish law. The privacy provided by the smaller rooms was certainly only for those who could afford it. The size and wealth of Siracusa’s Jewish community may explain why this miqwe is unusually elaborate in its dimensions.

The Marchesa researched old records indicating that the Jewish Bianchi family were the original owners of the palazzo. The baths' construction is believed to be 6th century Byzantine, predating the palazzo by hundreds of years.

The Jews were expelled from Sicily in 1493 - a year after the Spanish Expulsion. There are theories that the departing Jews (many also went underground as secret Jews and stayed) filled in the mikveh with rubble before sealing the entryway. While the neighborhood's destroyed synagogue was remembered, the mikveh was forgotten.

Guided tours (in English) of the mikveh are on the hour, 11am-7pm, Monday through Saturday and on Sunday at 11am and noon. Reservations are necessary for groups of five or more. For more information, contact the Residenza alla Giudecca at: allagiudecca@hotmail.com.

Read more here.


  1. Anonymous9:35 AM

    I was really entertained and educated by this piece. Well researched and informative.
    I am Alon's aunt, Guilda, and my email to you bounced back. I wonder if among all the vast info that you have on Jewish culture, you would be able to help me.

  2. Anonymous4:02 PM

    Read the article re: mikvah and the ancient site in Siracusa - wow! - going with friends to siciliy early may 2008 - we're jewish and our travel agent suggested we try to view this preserved treasure. I am thrilled to have found this piece - can't wait to go!

  3. Anonymous12:14 AM

    I was interested to discover that the tour guide was an American Christian who knew very little about the baths other than was contained in the flyer. I commented that it was odd not to have a Jewish guide and she answered that 'there are no Jews in Sicily'.

    That was when i discovered all the Jews (and Muslims) had been expelled from Spanish possessions in 1492/93. The Sicilians wrote heated protest notes to Isabella, arguing that Jewish Sicilians neither proselytised nor operated as money lenders, that they were a great asset to Sicily and the Sicilians absolutely did not want them to go. The Queen thereupon gave the Jews a year of grace. That was why they left in 1493 when Jews in Spanish possessions elsewhere had to go in 1492. In the 18th century when the Medici invited Jewish communities to settle Livorno, offering them a charter of municipal autonomy, and allowing them every freedom possible (other than marrying Christians), the Sicilians asked Jewish communities to return to Sicily, but none came. Those who departed kept the names of the places where they came from, the "Ortigia" community coming from Siracusa. The amazing thing is that until the baths were discovered, no Sicilians were aware that they had had a sizable Jewish community for 1500 years. The story is not told in schools. Why would it be? The inquisition was already more than 200 years old in Sicily in 1492 and the Church of Rome was intent on ridding itself of religious competition, today enjoying a 'brand' dominance any modern corporation could never dream of emulating. If the Jews had remained in Sicily, more than likely Sicily would be a modern capitalist economy instead of the economic shambles it is, with unemployment at a norm of 25 per cent, and schooling focused on superstition instead of science.