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27 Teves 5760 - January 5, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Sicilian Aristocrat Unearths Ancient Mikve

by S. Yisraeli

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 Spain.

Since then, at least officially, no Jews have lived in Sicily.

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 Jewish inhabitants.

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 says.

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.

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