The Synagogue and Catalan Mansion
Both of the two narrow streets (Byzantiou and Symmiou) west of St Mary of the Burgh lead into the heart of Jewish Rhodes and to the Synagogue. On the right hand side of Byzantiou, a doorway with a Hebrew inscription gives onto the roofless, vaulted ruin of what was once a synagogue (‘Kahal Midrash’). During the last War, this area was the worst affected by British air-raids—just as it had been the area most damaged in the sieges of 1480 and 1522. Only about 40 Jews now remain on Rhodes and only one of the four synagogues and three oratories that once served the community survives—the Kahal Kadosh Shalom (or ‘Congregation of Peace’) at no. 8 Symmiou Street. Built between 1575 and 1577, it is the oldest stand synagogue in Greece (open daily, except Sat, 10.30–3).
An elegant and luminous rectangular prayer-hall of fine proportions is traversed breadth-wise by two rows of stone columns and pure arches. The lay-out is typical of Sephardic synagogues, with the Bema or Tevah, in the centre of the room facing in the canonical direction of Jerusalem. The floor is attractively paved in Rhodian chochlakia work with an abstract design, and bears the date 5601 (1840). The walls were originally decorated with murals of the Ten Commandments: these have been partially—and a little clumsily—repainted on the left-hand wall. (The difference can be seen on entering between the decorative elements on the central arch which are original, early 19th century work, and those on the smaller arch to the right which are re-painted.) The collection box is a fluted, pagan altar-stand. To the east side of the building is a courtyard where a water-fountain has been recently uncovered bearing an inscription in Hebrew with the date 5338 (1577)—the same year as the completion of the synagogue.
Across from the Synagogue, a little further up Symmiou Street, is a remarkable 15th century mansion referred to as the ‘Catalan House’, because of the especially wide voussoirs of the arch of its portal which are characteristic of Late Mediaeval, Catalan building practice. The gate leads into a low entrance-court with a broad, sweeping vault above. Much of the upper area inside has gone, leaving only the façade standing. The window frames are delicately defined with oak-leaf and rosette motifs: these combined with the massive doorway below, give the building a noble air that is unexpected in such an area of simple residences. The unusual and ornate shape of its surround suggests that the small coat of arms on the façade of the building belonged to a more recent owner.
The Jewish community of Rhodes
It was in the early years of Ottoman rule—one of the freest and most tranquil periods for the Jews in Greece—that the synagogue was built. Jews had been present in Rhodes since the 3rd or 2nd century bc, attracted by its commercial vitality; they are referred to by Suetonius a couple of centuries later; and in 12th century Byzantine Rhodes there was a community of over 500. Their co-existence with the Knights of St John was peaceful and constructive until, in the wake of the Spanish expulsion of Jews during the Inquisition, Grand Master Pierre d’Aubusson under pressure from the Church imposed either exile or forced conversion on the island’s Jews in 1502. Most tookadvantage of the 40 day period of grace and left for Salonica, Ferrara, Constantinople and other destinations with already large Jewish populations. Suleiman the Magnificent, on taking the city, did more than rescind this proscription: he encouraged the repatriation of Jews to Rhodes , sanctioned a measure of administrative autonomy for them and accorded several privileges to the community. This attracted many Jews to Rhodes again, but the result was that the balance of the community changed: there were many more Sephardic refugees from Spain now settling in Rhodes than there were original, Greek speaking Jews, and they brought with them a Judaeo Spanish language referred to as ‘ladino’. It was widely used right through into the 20th century: the news paper of the community appeared in ladino. Italian occupation after 1912 initially brought no particular discrimination or problems under the Governorship of Mario Lago; but, with the arrival of Cesare Maria de Vecchi in 1936, restrictions increased and autonomy was successively reduced, until the Fascist racial laws finally enshrined the elimination of Jewry as an article of faith. The inevitable consequences of the island passing under Nazi German control in 1943 are dispassionately recounted in the small display in the rooms adjoining the Synagogue. In July 1944 almost 1,600 Jews who had not had the possibility or fore sight to flee before were rounded up, shipped from Rhodes to Athens, and thence ultimately to Ausch witz. Only 30 men and perhaps 120 women survived; but the unbroken, millennial community of Jews on Rhodes was finished.
Rhodes Island is part of the Dodecanese Island Group, Greece.