Taormina is a favorite excursion for many cruise ship passengers. It is located on the east coast of the island of Sicily, Italy, about midway between Messina and Catania. While Taormina may be a lovely place to visit, its history is tarnished by the Inquisition.
Early records date back to 734 BCE, but the town did not begin to prosper until the 4th century BCE. References to the town were made throughout Roman history. Segments of its Greek and Roman past are still visible today. In the Middle Ages and Modern Era, the area was ruled by several different countries. Evidence of its medieval charm remain. From the 19th century to the present, it became a popular tourist destination. During the last century, expat artists, writers, and intellectuals have flocked to this area to enjoy its aesthetic beauty.
Like most ancient cities, Taormina was initially protected by walls. Today, a few fragments of the wall and ancient buildings remain.Tourists come each year to enjoy the beauty of the volcanic Mount Etna and the stunning views of the Ionian Sea coastline. Hiking and swimming are enjoyed by people who have more than a couple of hours to spare.
We entered the port on a cloudy overcast day. Rain was in the forecast so umbrellas were a necessity. We purchased a Celebrity Cruise excursion in order to reach Taormina. The bus careened through the countryside. As we climbed higher and higher in elevation, we could appreciate why people chose to relocate to this quaint and picturesque area. The coastline and surrounding vegetation created wonderful photo opportunities. I hoped that my camera could capture the images as our bus sped uphill.
After leaving the bus parking lot, we had two choices. We could wait in line for an elevator or climb 7 flights of stairs. Most of the people chose to wait which created long lines.
Prior to our cruise, I had checked to see if Jews had ever resided in this area. While Internet sources revealed evidence of a Jewish Quarter, I had to dig deep in order to find more facts. As we came upon the random signs and symbols, I wanted to know more.
We asked a few local shop owners and tour guides if they knew anything about the Jews who once lived in their town. I also asked the person at the main desk inside the municipal building. A bookshop owner told us about a book that had been written. However, it was only printed in Italian. Until I could learn more, I had to assume that the Jews were forcibly exiled long before the modern era.
Look closely at the picture above. Stars of David are etched into the medieval structure.
My research located the following facts. Starting in the 14the century, Sicilian Jews endured open discrimination and in some places were mandated to live in a ghetto. A decree was issued in 1492 ordering the expulsion of the Jews from Sicily. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia website there were 100,000 Jews living in 52 different places in Sicily. The printed version of the Encyclopedia Judaica cites 37,000. The edict was similar to the one issued in Spain. By 1493, all of the Jews had either left Sicily or had been baptized.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, the government invited the Jews to return to Sicily. Only a small number responded. It is no wonder that the locals knew nothing about Jewish life in Taormina and were probably unaware of the few Jewish signs that remain.
We were on our own to find the remaining vestiges of the lost Jewish community. We spotted Stars of David on these windows. It’s unclear what connection, if any, this building had to the Taormina Jews.
As we strolled through the narrow streets, we admired the quaintness. A clocktower gate serves as the starting point for the medieval section with its narrow streets and old shops. Tiny shops dotted our path.
We also passed several churches and interesting buildings. The main piazza drew small crowds as the skies were becoming increasingly threatening.
Occasionally we wandered off the main roadway in order to explore. We came upon this fenced off area that had a mosaic floor.
Everyone told us that a well-preserved Greek Theater in Taormina was a must see. It was built in the third century BCE, and later renovated by the Romans. It is the second largest ampitheater in Sicily.
It was restored in modern times and is now used for summer performances. Built into the hillside, it has natural acoustics and amazing views of the sea and Mt. Etna, Europe’s largest active volcano.
We checked out the nooks and crannies.As we walked through this ancient structure, I was reminded of other amphitheaters that we have visited in the past. Each takes me back in time and makes me reflect on how much life has changed.
At various points along the way, we stopped to look at the stunning coastline. Even during an overcast day, the absolute beauty was evident.
The rain fortunately held off until it was close to the time to return to the bus. The crowds ran for cover as we merely strolled with our umbrellas in hand. I was in no rush to return to the ship. However, the beauty of this town was tarnished by its history. As we lingered in the former Jewish Quarter, I stared at the Jewish symbols and signs that were ignored by most. Far too many Europeans during the Inquisition and the Holocaust era supported the government’s actions to remove their Jews.
Today, the locals have little interest in acknowledging a once thriving Jewish community. The Taormina Jews have become a small footnote in history.
A few hours later, the ship sailed out of the Catania port and headed to Naples. Future research will hopefully provide more facts. If you can shed any light on the history of Sicilian Jews, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment. I’d love to know more.
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Sandra Bornstein is the author of MAY THIS BE THE BEST YEAR OF YOUR LIFE. It is available on Amazon.
Sandra’s memoir highlights her living and teaching adventure in Bangalore, India. She is a licensed Colorado teacher who has taught K-12 students in the United States and abroad as well as college level courses. Sandra is married and has four adult sons.
The memoir was a finalist in the Travel category for the 2013 Next Generation Indie Book Awards, the 2013 International Book Awards, the 2013 National Indie Book Excellence Awards, 2013 USA Best Book Awards, and a Honorable Mention award in the Multicultural Non-Fiction category for the 2013 Global ebook Awards.
As I write this, I am looking at a magnificent view of Mt Etna from the Hotel Timeo. There is very little reference in Sicily to the vibrant Jewish community that once comprised 5-10% of the population. By the end of the 15th century they were expelled or converted to Catholicism. About half of all the Jews converted. In that sense, I suppose many Sicilians have Jewish ancestry. I have also searched for the remnants of the various communities in all the towns I visited. Sadly, very little remains.
If you visit Ortigia (Siracusa) where there was also a Jewish community prior to 1492, do not miss a visit to the mikvah which was discovered by chance in the 1990’s. You need to book a guided tour at the hotel under which the mikvah is located. Look up ‘Siracusa mikvah’ on the Internet for details. Supposed to be the oldest mikvah in existence in Europe.
Sandra Bornstein says
Pam, Thanks for sharing. Is Ortigia near Taormina?
Fred Farzan says
my wife and I were on a self served South of Italy vacation last week of May, on June 2, 2017 we took a semi-Private tour to visit Tarmina and other cities in the vicinity; Giardini Nexos, CastleMola, etc.. Our first stop on top of the hill was CastleMola. a huge very old historucal building caught my eye specialy with 2 Jewish stars on the top . on one side of the buikding, almost in the middle of the height of the building you see a carved stone with Greek writing, saying that the building was originaly built by Greeks, and on top of that there is large round window with a Jewish star made of Iron bars.
In Taormina, as soon as I saw the main large historical building, again I noticed the Jewish star. after asking few stores, one shop owner told us, that the Municipla building used to be a synagouge. Another female tourist with British accent, commented ” most thingfs in Europe startted with some kind of Jewish background”, when I asked a different shop owner, that has there been jews in the far past in this town with the Jewish stars.
and apparently at the end of the main road, near Catania Gate there is a Jewish center.
Very interesting and beautiful city. Anyways, although there has been trouble for jews in the past history of this city, I still appreciate the opportunity and efforts of whoever was in charge to keep few last signs of the jews intact on these building and monuments.
Sandra Bornstein says
Thanks for sharing additional information about Taormina and the surrounding area. Jewish communities have flourished throughout the world. However, in many instances government edicts and outright anti-Semitism forced them to abandon their homes, livelihoods, and communities in search of a safer place. As you saw in Taormina, only a few traces of a Jewish presence remain. Even written records of Jewish history are difficult to track down, especially when you don’t know Italian.
I agree that it’s a positive gesture that no one destroyed the Jewish stars and symbols. I’m disappointed that the locals tour guides, shop owners, and government employees know nothing about the Jews who lived in Taormina a long time ago. Perhaps, someone who reads this blog will be able to add more information.
In 2014, my adult daughter and I went on on a Rick Steves tour of Sicily. We enjoyed Taormina but our absolute favorite town was Ortigia! As we were walking past a bookstore one evening we glanced in and, to our amazement, we saw a man wearing , what appeared to us to be, a kipah ( Jewish skull cap )! There was a group of people sitting around him. Since that day was the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah we figured we found a group of Jews praying. But alas, it was not. BUT, the man with the skullcap knew a great deal about the Jewish history of that area and was able to make a list for us of things we should check out and it was fascinating. The bookstore owner and my daughter have stayed in touch these last few years and my daughter even sent her a mezuzah to put on the door to her bookstore (which was originally owned by two Jewish brothers) who emigrated to Israel and left the bookstore to this woman’s family .
P.S. I am returning to Sicily with my husband at the beginning of October to show him this wonderful part of Italy which is yet to be overrun by tourists
Sandra Bornstein says
Thanks for sharing. We visited a bookstore in Taormina, but the attending clerk was unable to provide much information. Taormina is such a lovely town. It’s a shame not much is recorded in English about its past Jewish history.Please feel free to write back if you learn anything more this fall.
Kay Bagon says
There is a Jewish quarter in Taormina with street names such as Traversi Degli Ebrei and Vico Ebrei ,
The police station is an a municipal building with Magen David’s in the walls.
hazel stein says
am visiting taormina and have seen same things sandra, thanks for your description. in 1492 sicily was ruled by spain and so governed by edict which expelled jews and, don’t forget, also the moslems. our guide to mount etna told us a number of sicilians are attempting to discover and return to their jewish roots. this has also happened in spain and portugal. and we are having fabulous weather, sunshine all day, in october. best regards hazel
I am Jewish and visiting Sicily. I am in Taormina today and tomorrow which is Kol Nidre and Yom Kippur.
If there are any other Jewish people here who would like to meet up – possibly to say a prayer – I would love to meet them.
You can call me – I am staying at the Hotel Excelsior!
Sandra Bornstein says
Even though the chances are slim that you will connect with other Jews in Taormina during Yom Kippur, I wish you the best of luck in finding anyone. Perhaps, your hotel is aware of a nearby town that has a Jewish community. Best wishes for a sweet New Year. Shana Tova and G’mar Hatima Tova.
Chris Vasilopoulos says
We have been all over Sicily, Taormina included! Isn’t that a smashing destination?? Beaches, ancient landmarks, and all that history related to Greece.