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: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Read more here.