The Ostia Antica Synagogue
The Synagogue, the oldest in Europe, at Ostia Antica was initially built in the first or second century (CE), when Ostia became the port on the Mediterranean for Rome, at the mouth of the Tiber River. In a short period of time, this was the seat of commercial activities, notable by the presence of people of diverse religious beliefs and attracted numerous Jews. Grain was one of its most important imports. The city grew and changed, as did the synagogue. Its final reconstruction dates to the fifth century (CE), during a period when the port of Ostia was still busy.
The Synagogue covers a large area, including an entrance, its façade, and many other rooms. In its earliest form, the synagogue featured a main hall with benches along three walls; a monumental gateway featuring tall Corinthian columns; a dining room with couches along three walls, and a basin near the entryway for ritual washings. Importantly, as it should be, benches around the apse faced Jerusalem, not Rome.
The most notable Jewish feature among the ruins are columns—technically—and architrave, with an incised menorah, a shofar, and the lulav and etrog (used for the holiday of Sukkot).
The Virtual Walking Tour of Ostia Antica
The Virtual Walking Tour of Ostia Antica with Andrea Stoler will highlight the synagogue, but there are also amazing ruins of Ostia Antica to be seen (as good as Pompeii some people have commented). One can view the remains of a flour mill: places to store the wheat, the millstones for grinding it, and a large oven for baking bread. Related and fascinating, at the synagogue bread or matzoh were made, as ruins of an oven and marble table are present.
She will point out how the architectural elegance of this particular sacred structure, a little synagogue, seems out-of-place within the empty landscape and overgrown weeds. But the history is very provocative, originally being near water and on the outside of the city walls. Looks and location can be deceiving, as recently it has been postulated to be a relatively populated area with villas during the final reconstruction phase.
Take a journey through time, visit ruins of a relatively intact ancient Roman city and hear stories about the oldest synagogue in Europe which has features similar to synagogues today. Her virtual tour will include images of important aspects of the Ostia Antica Port and an explanation of the entire complex, including fascinating lesser-known archaeological finds that will soon be published.
About the Writer, Brenda Lee Bohen
Brenda is a Latina and a proud Veteran of the United States Army Reserves. She holds dual citizenship in both the United States and Italy. She is a trained historic preservationist who tirelessly advocates the scholarship and history of the Jews of Rome. She has her certification in Jewish leadership and continues advanced studies at the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership. Brenda is also a licensed and accredited tour guide at the Jewish Museum of Rome and the Vatican Museums.
Treasures Of The Jewish Museum Of Rome: Guide To The Museum And Its Collections, by Daniela Di Castro. Araldo De Luca Editore, Rome 2010; reprinted 2016