More than 500 years have passed since the Jews were expelled
from Sicily by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, the same year
the Catholic king and his queen exiled the Jews from
Since then, at least officially, no Jews have lived in
But according to a report in the Jerusalem Post a
nearly obsessive archeological expedition by a member of the
Christian aristocracy of Syracuse, Sicily, in a small twist
of irony, recently unearthed part of the buried history of
the Jews on the Mediterranean island.
Following their curiosity, without an idea of what treasure
awaited them, a search team turned up what is believed to be
the largest mikve in Europe. Experts agree that it
could be the most beautiful.
It is totally intact, and there is a chance it is also the
oldest one in Europe. And archeologists and historians have
only gotten their feet wet with the find: 54 truckloads of
dirt containing artifacts await their perusal.
Several years back, the Marquise Amalia Daniel delli Bagni,
whose family dates back dozens of centuries in Syracuse,
purchased an ancient building in Judeca, the Syracuse
neighborhood that still goes by the name of its original
She renovated it as a hotel, as it is surrounded by gorgeous
views from its location on the coast of the island of
Ortygia, the oldest part of Syracuse.
After the bulk of the renovations was finished, the marquise
came across a small window in the building's courtyard. She
assumed the window was the top of an ancient Greek well, grew
curious, and ordered her teams to continue digging.
Workers discovered that the window was in fact a door, and
that a massive stairwell lay below it. Ten years and 10.5
meters later, the mikve was uncovered at the bottom of
a 55-step descent.
It contains three baths instead of the usual one, and two
auxiliary baths. Other ancient mikvaos usually contain
only one bath. "Archeologists are thinking it could date from
the sixth or seventh century, from Byzantine times, but they
can't say for sure until they go through the remains," she
Other mikvaos that have been discovered in Europe date
back as far as the 12th and 13th centuries.
The find was presented at a conference of the Organization of
Italian Jewish Communities last summer in Judeca, attended by
200 archeologists, rabbis, architects, and historians.
The Syracuse Jewish community ranked second in size to
Palermo's in Sicily. The island essentially fell apart
economically after the expulsion of the Jews, who played a
vital role in its commerce.
Some Jews chose to convert at the time, which allowed them to
remain on the island and keep the wealth they had
accumulated. No Hebrew words were found in the mikve,
but archeologists and historians are certain that the cavern
is a mikve, and that it had belonged to Jews.
What the marquise found was a large square hall measuring 5.6
meters on all sides, four pillars with crossed vaults carved
with amazing precision, and three baths.
The baths are nearly a meter and a half deep, and were filled
with pure water that came directly from a spring.
Perhaps the most spectacular finds were two auxiliary rooms
also containing ritual baths.
But the underground treasure still leaves many questions up
in the air. For one: The function of the well isn't clear.
The inhabitants may have dug through the Greek well in order
to create the mikve or the well and the mikve
may have been created simultaneously.
The well may have been used for pouring boiling water into
the cavern below to melt frozen water in the wintertime, or
as a channel to shuttle items that were bought from non-Jews
to be purified down below.