A guide to the Roman Jewish quarter Tortoise fountain at Piazza Mattei: flickr/Emanuele

A guide to the Roman Jewish quarter

Get off the beaten track and discover Rome's Jewish history in the Eternal City.

Nowadays, if you ask a Roman Jew who built Rome’s first all-stone amphitheatre, the Colosseum, you will probably hear someone shout out: “I did,” for there are those who still claim to be descendants of the Jews who were enslaved or killed by Roman centurions during the Jewish revolt two thousand years ago.

Their ancestors may have lost the battle with Rome, but at least they left a legacy. The construction of the most recognisable structure in Imperial Rome – the Colosseum – was financed by the plundered spoils that derived from the Jewish Revolt. It provided enormous wealth for Rome, which led to the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, countless treasures seized from Jewish citizens, and the sale of some 97,000 Jewish prisoners.

Colloseum: flickr/LASZLO ILYESColloseum: flickr/LASZLO ILYES

Since 81 AD the booty of Judea  (the riches of the Temple treasury, which included the candelabrum with seven arms and the silver trumpets) have been immortalised on the Arch of Titus which is located at the highest point of the Via Sacra leading to the Roman Forum. The arch commemorates the conquest of Judea, ending the Jewish Wars (66-70 A.D.) To this day, the Talmud forbids Jews from walking under the Arch. 

A community of around 14,000 Jews resides in Rome today. Behind Teatro Marcello, you can enter the Jewish quarter, formerly known as the Jewish ghetto. Luckily, this walled area formed of four crammed blocks closed off from the rest of Rome, is no longer a ghetto in the modern sense of the word.

Titus Arch: flickr/George RexTitus Arch: flickr/George Rex

Built in 1555 on the banks of a frequently flooded part of the River Tiber, it was the forced home of the Roman Jewish population until 1882. The Jewish community in Rome is believed to be the oldest in Western Europe, and its history is inextricable from modern Roman Jewish life. Indeed, according to many studies, the history of Italian Jews pre-dates the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. An altar discovered in one of Europe’s oldest synagogues in ancient Ostia Antica, for example, did not point in the direction of Jerusalem, as is the usual practice of synagogues constructed thereafter.

The Jewish quarter is now one of Rome’s coolest areas and comprises a rich assortment of ancient, medieval and Renaissance architecture. The Great Synagogue, built in 1904, is the most recent testimony to what is still identified as the Jewish quarter, situated on the edge of the former ghetto. Inside the synagogue is the Jewish Museum, which features seven rooms displaying Roman- Jewish art and antiquities, including silverware, textiles, and marble sculptures. It receives around 88,000 visitors per year and is one of the most visited Roman museums after the Vatican and the Capitolini Museum.

Great Synagogue of RomeGreat Synagogue of Rome: flickr/Avinash Kunnath

At the heart of Rome’s Jewish district lies Via del Portico d’Ottavia, a street peppered with medieval homes, kosher food stores, and restaurants serving Jewish specialties: an area where you can truly get a taste of yesterday's ghetto and today’s Rome.

Piperno is a fine example of elegant dining, serving Roman Jewish cuisine (la cucina ebraica romana). The most celebrated dishes feature mouth-watering carciofi alla giudia (Jewish-style deep fried artichokes), fiori di zucca (fried zucchini flowers), and aliciotti e indivia (anchovies with endive), as well as Kosher wine from high above the Sea of Galilee in the Golan Heights.

Piperno restaurant: www.myluxury.itPiperno restaurant: photo courtesy of www.myluxury.it

Rome’s best kept secret, can be found in a tiny unmarked corner of 
Via Portico d’Ottavia. Pasticceria Ebraica ‘Boccione’ is a hole-in-the-wall confectionary shop serving delicious Jewish sweet treats. Specialities include Torte di ricotta e visciole (ricotta and sour black cherries cakes); Pizza Ebraica (Jewish Pizza, sweet crunchy little cakes with raisins, candied fruit and almonds); Mezzaluna (‘Half Moon,’ glazed cakes with marzipan and candied fruit, prepared only once a year at Yom Kippur), and Torta di Mandorle (almond tart).

BoccioneBoccione: photo courtesy of www.ginomagazine.it

And finally, make sure you don't miss Piazza Mattei nearby with its elegant and quirky Fontana delle Tartarughe (Fountain of Turtles)...see main photo.

1 Great Synagogue of Rome
2 Piperno
3 Pasticceria Boccione
4 Fontana di Tartarughe