August 25, 2023

Ostia: Home to one of the greatest centers of post-Temple Jewry - opinion

By Barbara Sofer

A quiz from a recent edition of the Lubavitch movement’s premier publication Lubavitch International:

After thedestruction of the Second Temple, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai famously established the new Jewish center in the Yeshiva (Academy) of Yavne. At a later date (after the Bar Kochba revolt), the Talmud names nine yeshiva centers that were established by several great sages in various cities. Only one was established outside of the Holy Land. It was the yeshiva in:

  • Nehardeah (today near the junction of the Euphrates and the Royal Canal).
  • Rome, Italy.
  • Pumbedita (today, the area near Fallujah, Iraq).
  • Alexandria, Egypt.

The correct answer is…

b. Rome, Italy.


How did a Jewish yeshiva end up in Roman-era Ostia?

WHERE EXACTLY was this yeshiva? The Talmud doesn’t say. The only extant synagogue left from this period isn’t in Rome itself. It’s 32 kilometers down the Tiber River in Ostia.

For the second time, I’m visiting that city, now called Ostia Antica.

Twenty years ago, my husband and I were vacationing in modern Ostia and happened to visit the nearby site without knowing its rich Jewish history. At that time, fewer buildings were excavated. But there was a synagogue, considered the oldest in Western Europe! We were also intrigued by a large house with a warren of rooms, called the “freeman’s house,” apparently a dormitory for freed slaves. Back in Jerusalem, an expert confirmed the names of the homeowners as Jewish.

Ostia was the busiest port in the Roman Empire. Jewish slaves were imported by the thousands after the Romans destroyed the Second Temple (the stolen riches of which paid for the construction of the Coliseum), and again after the fall of Beitar in 135. As Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891) wrote in the History of the Jews:

“From among the youths above 17 years of age, the tallest and handsomest were selected for the Roman triumphs, whilst others were sent to labor in the mines for the rest of their lives, or were relegated to the Roman provinces to take their part in the fights of the arena. Youths under the age of 16 and most of the female captives were sold into slavery at an incredibly low price, for the market was glutted. How many scenes of horror must have been witnessed and enacted by those unfortunate ones?”

They had, it is true, one ray of comfort left: Possibly they might be carried to some Roman town where a Judean community existed; their own people would assuredly give any sum to purchase their freedom and would then treat them with brotherly sympathy.

MOVED BY this history and role of Ostia Jews in freeing our brethren, my husband and I always wanted to return. This August, we booked a room in the Rome Airport Hilton (reachable by foot after landing). Ostia is ten minutes away by cab. Its synagogue owes its astonishing discovery in 1961 to road construction accessing the then-new Leonardo da Vinci Airport.

A huge city, preserved by silt deposits, has risen from the ground in this now formal archaeological park.

Even though we are there in the tourist season, there are few visitors. A van of physically challenged Italians is allowed in, but for the rest of us, this is a walking experience over bumpy stone paths marked by ancient wagon wheels. A breeze blows through the umbrella pines and cypress trees.

At its zenith in the second century (under emperor Hadrian, 117-138 CE), Ostia had 50,000 residents – many thought to have resided in apartment buildings – as compared to the 20,000 persons in better-known Pompeii. Ostia was a cosmopolitan commercial hub. Shipmasters could replenish their supply of ropes and dolia, the jug-like containers made of fired clay holding up to 1,300 liters of olive oil. Travelers could join locals for a performance in the theater or steam in one of the elaborate mosaic-tile baths.

The theater is still there, used for modern-day productions. So are the twenty-something baths. The original dolia stand tall on the well-tended lawns.

We happily visit with archaeologist Dario Daffara, who confirms that Jews played a significant role in the bustling ancient city. “Many Jews were tradespeople, and others were educated in Alexandria and brought their sophisticated knowledge of philosophy to the city.” The city was religiously pluralistic, with pagan and Christian observance as well.

The thriving port built by Emperor Claudius was the threshold for imports from around the Roman Empire, particularly grain, and other goods from Carthage and Egypt.

Daffara says that freed slaves of Ostia were integrated into society. They became city leaders, possibly serving in the local senate.

My husband and I leave Daffara’s office to find the synagogue. We have the archaeologist’s directions, a map, our phones with Google Maps, and even my husband’s pocket compass. Nonetheless, we – and other tourists seeking the synagogue – are stymied.

Suddenly, a rescuer appears: a thin man in the wrinkled blue uniform of the Italian Polizia. His name is Bruno, and he says he’s a retired jazz drummer volunteering at the park and he’d be glad to lead the way. It will take 20 more minutes of walking in the huge park, but he promises and produces succulent blackberries growing wild to sustain us.

Bruno has directed Jewish groups before. For the last 20 years, the synagogue has been the scene of Arte in Memoria contemporary art installations that reflect on history, and there’s a modern Holocaust memorial, too. The Jewish groups like to pray in the ancient synagogue, he says.

He’s guessed our intent. It’s time for the afternoon prayer.

At last, we see it across a prickly field. Excavated rooms, a curved wall, flanked by Corinthian columns. Closer, there are mosaics, and the columns are stamped with images of the menorah.

The first digger, archaeologist Maria Floriani Squarciapino, concluded that the synagogue was originally built in the first century. Others, particularly University of Texas archaeologist L Michael White, determined that the synagogue was used for centuries until the city declined as the Rome port grew. Two years ago, an international conference of scholars marked 60 years since the synagogue’s discovery and re-evaluated some of the thousands of early artifacts.

Archaeologist Mary-Jane Cuyler, in her reporting on Roman ports, provides perspective. “Although we often think of synagogues as places of meeting and worship, there is evidence for a variety of activities in the building.” Of the three Ostia synagogue buildings that have been found, one had a kitchen and one was “a building of unknown function that was destroyed by the construction of the modern highway.”

Might it have been the yeshiva in the quiz above?

Among the original discovered artifacts are many oil lamps, like the columns, embellished with menorah images.

The same menorah carried by gleeful Romans in triumph to Rome from the Temple in Jerusalem.

My husband uses his app to find the direction of prayer for us.

Sure enough, the synagogue has been constructed so that the ancient congregants prayed toward Jerusalem.

Our ancient co-religionists, merchants, philosophers, or slaves never forgot Jerusalem. Nor have we.