Years ago when I first visited the tourist office in Siracusa’s historical center, I noticed a sheet of paper scotch-taped to the front window announcing tours of a recently discovered ancient “miqwe.” The helpful woman behind the desk explained the word “miqwe,” and encouraged me to visit to the newly opened historical site: Europe’s oldest and best preserved ritual baths of the Jewish faith, the “miqwe” of Siracusa’s “Giudecca” Jewish quarter.
As I wound my way through the narrow streets passing building after crumbling building of baroque splendor, I entered into the “Quartiere della Giudecca,” the Jewish neighborhood. The streets shrank in width and I counted five parallel streets all with the same name of “Vicolo della Giudecca;” “Alleyway of the Jewish Quarter.” There didn’t seem to be much precision in the addresses here. Had the Giudecca been so insular that there was no need? Or was this atmosphere of secrecy created intentionally as a means of self-defense and protection?
OLD WORLD MELTING POT: THE ISLAND OF SICILY
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.
JEWISH PURIFICATION WATER
In Hebrew “miqwe” literally means any “gathering of waters” but the term is specifically used in Jewish law for the ritual immersion bath for purification and cleansing. Mandatory before holy days and the Sabbath, the miqwe is also used for purification by women after childbirth and their monthly period, for those converting to Judaism and for the required immersion of eating utensils manufactured by a non-Jew. The water of the miqwe cannot be drawn by hand and must flow uninterrupted and uncontaminated from a natural spring or flowing river. Ancient texts also specify that each bath must contain at least two times the normal human body volume or 40 “sa’ah” (200 gallons) of water. A miqwe is fundamental to the existence of a Jewish religious community: to enter a synagogue one must be pure, therefore the miqwe is as important, if not more important, than the synagogue itself.
UNCOVERING THE SECRET BATHS
The discovery of the miqwe baths in Siracusa is quite remarkable. 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 it’s dimensions.
The Marchesa Daniele said she intuited immediately that this was a sacred place. Down here the silence is broken only by the trickle of water. The deeper you descend into the chamber, the further back in time you travel. As you slowly negotiate the steep stone stairs, individual chisel marks are still visible in the rock showing the human effort and devotion that helped create this holy site. This pure resource so essential to the Jewish faith was hidden deep beneath the earth’s surface.
The story of the miqwe unfolded The Marchesa researched old records which showed that the Jewish “Bianchi” family were the palazzo’s original owners. The construction date of the baths is thought to be during the Byzantine Era (6th Century), predating the palazzo by centuries. During the years of the Spanish Inquisition (1490’s) the ruling Spanish King Ferdinand ordered the synagogue destroyed and the expulsion of the Jews from Italy. Theories say the Jews themselves filled the miqwe with rubble before closing off the entryway to avoid desecration in their absence. The subsequent pooling of the water was likely caused by later nearby construction, blocking the original water outflow route. (Today a pump is necessary to keep the room clear). Over the centuries, the history of the destroyed synagogue was remembered but the existence of the miqwe—hidden safely beneath the ground— was forgotten.
VISIT THE BATHS
Today the miqwe is a fascinating visitors’ site and an important religious experience for many Jews. The Marchesa Daniele plays an important, although unexpected role within the Sicilian Jewish history. “…Even though it doesn’t belong to my culture, tradition or faith I feel a profound sense of respect thinking of the men and women who lived such fundamental moments of their religious beliefs in this space.”
Guided visits of the miqwe are conducted in English, on the hour, 11am-7pm, Monday through Saturday. Sunday at 11 am and 12 noon only. Reservations necessary only for groups of five or more.
Contact the Residenza alla Giudecca at: email@example.com
or call directly (011-39) 0931-222-55