Steeped in history and rich in culture, the Jewish Ghetto is among Rome’s most atmospheric historical neighborhoods, but no exploration of the Jewish Ghetto would be complete without visiting the Great Synagogue of Rome. For more than 100 years, the synagogue has stood at the physical and metaphorical center of Rome’s Jewish community, serving as a place of prayer, ritual, and communal congregation. This remarkable, architecturally unique structure houses not just the synagogue itself but Rome’s foremost Jewish museum, detailing the fascinating history of the Jews in Rome – dating from the time of Julius Caesar right through to today.
A brief history of Rome’s Synagogue – Tempio Maggiore
The Great Synagogue of Rome stands on the former site of the Jewish Ghetto, where the Jews had been confined since 1555. Its genesis came from the Italian army’s conquest of Rome in 1870, and their incorporation of the papal state into the Kingdom of Italy. This meant an end to the Jews’ persecution in Rome, as they were granted equal rights and emancipation along with the diaspora across the rest of Europe.
Plans for the erection of the Great Synagogue, known as Tempio Maggiore in Italian, were drawn up towards the end of the nineteenth century, and a public competition was announced to determine its architects. The task ultimately fell to Italian architects Vincenzo Costa and Osvaldo Armanni, who drew inspiration for their design from an amalgamation of ancient architectural styles: Greek, Assyrian and Babylonian.
Construction of the Great Synagogue started at the turn of the century, in 1901, and it was inaugurated three years later. It replaced an earlier, more Spartan structure which housed the five scolas (a Jewish-Italian word meaning synagogues) of the former Jewish Ghetto.
What to see when visiting the Great Synagogue of Rome
When visiting the Great Synagogue of Rome, you should set aside at least an hour to explore its museum – the Museo Ebraico di Roma. Its beautifully organised collection guides guests through the history of the Jews in Italy – from their arrival in Ostia in the 2nd century BC right through to the present day.
The Jewish Museum exhibits a truly extraordinary collection. Historical documents and decrees, liturgical furnishings, incunabula, and marble sculptures adorn its walls, detailing the fascinating social history of the Jews in Rome, and the preservation of their identity in the face of the papacy.
The Museo Ebraico di Roma offers something to intrigue every visitor. But among my personal highlights are coins dating from the Roman-Jewish War, tapestries, maps and decrees dating from the Middle Ages, an immersive, multimedia presentation detailing the Nazi occupation of Rome and a small yet sumptuously furnished synagogue.
However it is the main synagogue that demands the most time and attention. The Great Synagogue’s most striking feature is its square-based, aluminium covered dome, which is visible from all over the city. The dome’s interior design is simply stunning: a visually striking rainbow-colored design whose meaning I would love to enlighten you with on a Jewish Ghetto and Synagogue tour.
The synagogue’s interior is curiously non-conformist; for its art nouveau-style bimah (pulpit) is positioned in such a way that does not conform to the tradition of the Roman rite. When visiting the Great Synagogue of Rome you’ll find a wealth of treasures and curiosities – not just the liturgical objects adorning its walls but also hidden marks preserving traces of historical events which only an expert guide can elucidate and explain.
Join me on a Jewish Ghetto and Synagogue tour
As with ancient Rome and the Vatican, the best way to explore the Jewish Ghetto and Great Synagogue is in the company of an expert, licensed guide. “I was born and raised in Rome, to an Orthodox Sephardic family that arrived in this city over 500 years ago.
My grandmother ran a licensed souvenir stand in the Vatican (a traditionally Jewish profession!), which she passed on to my father, and my father to me. Now, as an independent guide, I take joy in offering my intimate knowledge of the city and its Jewish history (including Talmudic and Midrashic sources) directly to you.
As a professionally trained tour guide and a graduate of the Rome Yeshiva who has deep roots in this city and its ancient Jewish community, I can show you a truly unique side of the Eternal City.
After visiting the Great Synagogue of Rome, I’ll show you around the Ghetto, where I was born and raised, and introduce you to some of the best kosher restaurants in Rome for a relaxing lunch in the center of the city. Visiting Rome with a Jewish tour guide is by far the best way to scratch beneath Rome’s surface and immerse yourself in its fascinating history. I look forward to welcoming you to my city!
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