I had a thrilling experience in Siracusa, Italy last year as part of a month we spent in Sicily and the region of Puglia.
Siracusa is located in the southeastern part of Sicily. The whole island is full of the vestiges of the many civilizations which have lived in this area. Staying a whole week in this city gave us the opportunity to learn about the history of the island and to visit many of the nearby attractions.
We were very pleased to be staying in a small hotel called “La Via Della Giudecca” which is Italian for the “street in the Jewish Quarter.” From the window of our room we were able to see directly across a very narrow alley to a church that people visited throughout the day. Early one morning, I heard the sounds of an organ. After mentioning this to the owner of our hotel, he asked me if I wanted to meet the person who was playing it. She was the daughter of the owner of the store just across from the hotel and had studied ancient music in college.
The next day, she brought us into the church and we climbed up to the second story by a narrow staircase to an ancient organ which had only one register (keyboard). This was located directly in front of the pipes of the organ.
She told us the story of the organ which was one of the oldest remaining organs in Sicily. It dated back to the 18th century and originally required a person to pump the air behind it with a system of bellows. When it was renovated in the early 1900s, it was re-fitted with an electric motor.
After demonstrating the sounds of the instrument, she asked me if I would like to try playing it. I jumped at the chance since I play the piano and even took some organ lessons when I was in high school. My wife thankfully took a video of this experience, recording very well how excited I was.
The next day, we were given a tour of the church. It stood on the original site of an ancient synagogue dating back to the 1100s when the population of Siracusa was about 20% Jewish. During that time, Sicily was under the control of the Spanish Crown. When the Inquisition began in 1492, the whole Jewish population of Sicily was ordered to convert to Catholicism or be expelled. Most of the Jews of Siracusa and neighboring towns escaped to nearby ports in Greece or Turkey where they had strong commercial ties.
This Catholic church was built not long after in the early 1500s. Subsequently, fires had destroyed several structures and the present building dates back to the mid-1700s.
One level below ground is a system of the original catacombs stretching for hundreds of feet to the Mediterranean and dated back to the Middle Ages. During modern times, these tunnels were used by more than 10,000 Siracusa residents during WW II when the island was heavily bombed by the British. We were able to visit the cisterns which were the reservoirs for the water used by the city.
On the second level beneath the church was the ancient mikveh, the Jewish ritual baths. Mikvehs are required to have a source of fresh flowing water, and there was still water running through it. However, these baths had not been used for more than 500 years. Although there are presently no Jewish people living in Siracusa, studies have shown that at least 30% of the present Sicilian population has common genetic markers with Sephardic Jews from Greece and Turkey.
Visiting Sicily was an exciting part of our trip to southern Italy, but playing the organ in the church was one of the highlights. It was even more meaningful since it was in a church in the location of where a synagogue had previously existed. We tried to imagine what it must have been like for Jews to live in this city for hundreds of years during the Middle Ages. Being forced to leave your ancestral home where you had been living in peace with Christians and Muslims is not only sad, but it demonstrates the strength of the people who were able to maintain a sense of community even when outside powers attempted to threaten their very survival.
Playing the organ was one of the highlights of our trip to Sicily
Staying a week opposite this church provided me a frame of reference to better understand the history of Siracusa and all of Sicily throughout the millennia. Being allowed to play the organ in a place of worship which was once a synagogue helped me appreciate the flow of various cultures who had passed through this fascinating place.