Campaigners bid to save rare 1,700-year-old Greek island synagogue mosaic
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Campaigners bid to save rare 1,700-year-old Greek island synagogue mosaic

150,000 euros sought to preserve vivid geometric floor mosaic from what is arguably the oldest Jewish prayer house in Greece

Amanda Borschel-Dan is The Times of Israel's Jewish World and Archaeology editor.

Detail from a 4th-century Greek inscription found in a Romaniote Jewish synagogue on the island of Aegina. (Courtesy Friends of the Mosaic Floor of the Aegina Synagogue Project)
Detail from a 4th-century Greek inscription found in a Romaniote Jewish synagogue on the island of Aegina. (Courtesy Friends of the Mosaic Floor of the Aegina Synagogue Project)

Champions of a 4th-century synagogue mosaic found on the Greek island of Aegina are seeking benefactors to renovate and preserve a rare colorful work of ancient Jewish art.

Located an hour’s ferry ride south of Athens’s Piraeus Port, the crumbling mosaic’s two Greek inscriptions and lush geometric and floral designs immortalize a once prosperous Jewish community that built the house of prayer.

The Aegina mosaic “is very important in terms of the Jewish history because it is undoubtedly a synagogue – in contrast to the older synagogue in Delos which has been doubted – thanks to two inscriptions in Greek honoring Theodoros the Archysynagogos who built it from donations,” said architect Elias Messinas, an expert on Greek synagogues and an activist advocating the mosaic’s preservation.

Now, with the support of the Greek government, Messinas and wife Yvette Nahmia-Messinas are mounting a campaign to preserve this important piece of history for future generations.

At an August 7 event launching the conservation project, members of the Eforate of Antiquities of Piraeus and the Islands of the Ministry of Culture and Sport, Jewish community representatives, and NGO ECOWEEK founders Messinas and Nahmia-Messinas opened an exhibit commemorating the island’s Jewish community and the importance of the mosaic.

But for the Messinas couple, preserving the mosaic is both a professional and personal mission.

Architect Dr. Elias Messinas presents the history of the Aegina Synagogue mosaic at the Archaeological Museum of Aegina, August 7, 2019. (Courtesy Friends of the Mosaic Floor of the Aegina Synagogue Project)

“Having understood the lesson of the past where synagogues can still be lost, we felt it important to us that the Aegina Mosaic would be preserved and protected,” said Nahmia-Messinas, the coordinator of the Friends of the Mosaic Floor of the Aegina Synagogue campaign. Husband architect Messinas has led projects to restore and repair two synagogues in Thessaloniki and is nearing the completion of a renovation of a synagogue in Trikala, once a thriving center under the Ottomans.

Nahmia-Messinas added that her family has holidayed on Aegina every summer for three generations. “Our children are the fourth generation of the family who have deep roots and a deep connection to the island of Aegina,” she said.

Yvette Nahmia-Messinas, founder of the Friends of the Mosaic Floor of the Aegina Synagogue Project, in front of a sign publicizing an exhibit about the 4th-century mosaic, August 2019. (Courtesy)

“It is also important to me as a Greek Jew who is concerned with preserving my Greek Jewish roots and heritage in Greece,” said Nahmia-Messinas, whose Hebrew University master’s thesis was “Under the shadow of the Holocaust: The disappearing Jewish Communities of Greece.” The Greek Jewish community was all but wiped out during World War II and the country is dotted with crumbling synagogues and former Jewish neighborhoods.

“Finally, it is important as a monument of value for the island of Aegina, as it indicates a prosperous Jewish community living on the island on the 4th century CE,” Nahmia-Messinas said.

The island was successively settled from 3,000 BCE onwards, and from at least the late 3rd or early 4th century, Romaniote Jews inhabited an area on the island near the commercial and military port called Karantina. The Romaniote Jewish community is one of the oldest of the Diaspora and is native to Greece and the eastern Mediterranean. According to Messinas, the Aegina community “dealt with tanning and textile-dying and was prosperous enough to build such a magnificent synagogue!”

The synagogue was built near the port in circa 300 BCE, where erosion and water damage contributed to its current poor state. In the 7th century, the island’s Jews, fed up with frequent pirate attacks, resettled in Paleochora on the island and likely built a second synagogue (although there are no known remains today).

The 4th-century synagogue floor mosaic from the Greek Aegina island. (Courtesy Friends of the Mosaic Floor of the Aegina Synagogue Project)

The mosaic was first unearthed in 1829, but was covered and unearthed several times in various excavations since, including by founding father of Israeli archaeology Prof. Eleazar Lipo Sukenik, who came to the island in 1928 to study the mosaic. In the 1930s, American archaeologist Belle Mazur continued to excavate the site and uncovered the synagogue’s apse.

During the 1960s, the mosaic was removed and relaid at the island’s main archaeological site, the Hill of Kolona, which showcases ruins of a Doric Temple to Apollo dating from 520 BCE. Interestingly, the pagan temple was torn down at approximately the same time that the synagogue’s mosaic was laid. Now only one column remains, giving the tourist site its name.

According to Prof. Rachel Hachlili in her book “Ancient Jewish Art and Archaeology in the Diaspora,” the mosaic measures 13.5 by 7.6 meters and is filled with panels of multicolored geometric shapes, including four-petaled rosettes, interlacing flowers and climbing ivy. There are two Greek inscriptions, which were laid near the western entrance of the synagogue.

Members of the government and supporters of the campaign to save the Aegina Synagogue mosaic at the Archaeological Museum of Aegina, August 7, 2019. (Courtesy Friends of the Mosaic Floor of the Aegina Synagogue Project)

Interestingly, Hachlili writes, the term “synagogue” is found in the inscription, meaning both the building and the community that worshiped in it. Also found in the mosaic is the Greek term “archisynagogos,” which she wrote was almost certainly a strictly Jewish term that was used for the head of the synagogue that appears in several donors’ inscriptions throughout the Roman Empire, including in the Holy Land. In the Aegina inscription, “Theodoros Archisynagogos” is given credit for the synagogue’s foundation.

The motivation of the ancient philanthropists, writes Hachlili, is signaled through another term, receiving a “eulogia” or “blessing” — presumably while still alive — rather than being remembered for posterity. The scholar concludes this suggests a dominant Greek influence on these Diaspora Jews, rather than that of the Land of Israel.

The preservation program will cost circa 150,000 euros ($166,000) and a crowdfunding platform has been set up to support donations.

Messinas said that in addition to new signage, landscaping, lighting, and an explanatory video, the conservation plan “includes preservation work to stabilize the condition of the mosaic and to repair the damage from decay – including rainwater, proximity to the sea and exposure to the environment.” The project will include the construction of a protective roof over the mosaic to protect it from further damage.

“People can also help by donating to the project online through the web page for the Mosaic and by spreading the word. The whole process is really like a mosaic – piece by piece, person by person, we can do this together,” said Messinas.

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