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Eureka! A Mikvah in Siracusa!

October 14, 2010 By:
Sharon McDonnell. JE Feature
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Boasting Greek ruins better-preserved than in Greece; architecture and savory-and-sweet food that reflect waves of invasions from Arabs, Normans and Spaniards; an endless coastline along a turquoise sea, picturesque towns and untouched nature, Sicily -- the biggest island in the Mediterranean -- is a treasure trove for the discerning traveler.

In Siracusa (Syracuse), a Greek colony founded in the eighth century C.E. on Sicily's southeast coast and a rival of Athens in power and prestige, I pass by the oldest Greek temple in Sicily -- a handful of Doric columns and a wall, the remains of the sixth-century BCE Temple of Apollo -- as I stroll the old town, called Ortigia.
A Byzantine church in the seventh century C.E., a mosque in the ninth century, a Norman church in the 11th century, then a Spanish barracks in the 16th century, the temple is a microcosm of Sicilian history.
So is the cathedral, whose Baroque facade is grafted onto the skeleton of the Temple of Athena, and whose fifth-century columns are clearly visible, both inside and out.
In this city of Archimedes -- the Greek mathematician who ran through the streets crying "Eureka!" after a scientific discovery, and set fire to invading Roman ships by using mirrors and lenses to focus the sun's rays -- I'm making discoveries of my own, tasting my way through the vibrant food market: pistachios, some bottled as pesto, others in bags of farina; almonds, often in paste bars that look like bars of soap; spices; sesame seeds -- all brought by the Arabs.
The Parco Archaelogico della Neapolis remains a backdrop for plays.
Other discoveries: chocolate, flavored with chilies, cardamom and cinnamon -- the legacy of Spaniards who imported cocoa from South American colonies; squid, sardines, eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, fruit from prickly cactus pears; figs, peaches to plums, piled high on tables. And cheeses -- from creamy soft ricotta to sharp pecorino.
Drenched in History
Then, another layer of history: a mikvah, dating back to Byzantine times and one of the oldest in Europe, beneath a hotel. A remnant of the once-thriving Jewish community in Siracusa -- one of the biggest in Italy; one-third of people in Ortigia were Jews, my guide said -- it was discovered during construction of the Hotel Alla Giudecca (www.
Walking down a stone staircase more than 50 feet below the hotel, converted from a former palace, observing indentations in the stone walls where candles were once placed, I saw several ritual baths and the freshwater source that fed them during one of the tours, offered daily in English, Italian and Hebrew.
The baths were sealed off after the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 from Sicily, then under Spanish rule. Many fled to mainland Italy or Greece; many remained and became conversos.
While the Jewish quarter, or Giudecca, once extended from the Via della Giudecca to the Ionian Sea, today the Church of San Filippo Apostato stands on the site of the Jewish market, and the Church of San Germain Battista marks the spot of a synagogue.
At Trattoria La Foglia in the Giudecca -- a quirky spot with embroidered tablecloths, cabinets stacked with colorful glassware, menus adorned with fabric and costume jewelry (each a work of art) and an elderly owner who waits tables -- I savored one of my tastiest meals in Sicily.
In a white, stone, fifth-century Greek theater across town in the Parco Archaeologico della Neapolis -- where plays by Aeschylus were performed before their author -- classical Greek plays are still performed each May and June.
In the small city of Modica nearby, renowned for its chocolate-making, I found the spicy chocolates that intrigued me in the food market, at Antica Dolceria Bonajuto, Sicily's oldest chocolate-maker, founded in 1880. Again, ghosts of the past: owner Francesco Ruta, great-grandson of the founder, told me his family believes that they are descended from Spanish Jews who emigrated from Valencia.
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