Located in the historic city center, on the banks of the River Tiber, the Rome Jewish Ghetto is an extremely desirable place to live. Boutique stores, delicious kosher bakeries and ancient Roman ruins sit cheek by jowl with each other creating a chic, bustling neighborhood where everyone is welcome. And as the oldest Jewish community in Europe, this flourishing district is central to the history of Rome as well as to the Jewish faith. But it wasn’t always like this. To find the original ghetto we need to go back over 400 years to 1555; this is the story of how and why Rome founded the second oldest Jewish ghetto in Italy.
Founding the Rome Jewish Ghetto
These days the word ghetto is synonymous with run-down neighborhoods and isolated communities today and back in the 1500s when Rome was founding its own the situation was no different.
Jews had lived in the city since the days of the ancient Roman Empire and the birth of Christianity. In fact Rome was home to the oldest Jewish community in Western Europe with the first members arriving in the 2nd century BC as trade envoys, merchants and later even as slaves after war in Judea. Many more arrived as refugees from towns and cities around Europe, simply searching for a safe place to live, work and bring up their children. It wasn’t unusual for foreign merchants to be housed in separate parts of cities and accordingly many Jews settled in the Trastevere district, outside the city walls, along with other foreigners.
Whilst the Roman Empire flourished, the few hundred Jews who called Rome home were accepted. But as the empire’s fortune receded and Christianity began to dominate during the Crusades of the 10th and 11th centuries, Jews found their lives becoming gradually more controlled. Rights were eroded by the state, stopping Jews from founding synagogues or spreading the word about their faith. The right of owning property was also restricted but even against this background, life for Jews in medieval Rome was still better than in many other European states that were expelling and banning them altogether.
Opposition to Jews in Western Europe, however, really came to a head in the early 1500s with the Church deeming anyone not practicing Catholicism as heretics; this included both Protestants and Jews. Spain had recently expelled hundreds of Jews in accordance with the Church’s edict. And finally, in 1555, Pope Paul IV decided to contain and control the 4000 Roman Jews, forcing them to move to a small area in the bend of the River Tiber next to the old fish market. The Rome Jewish ghetto was born.
Conditions in the 7-acre ghetto were cramped. Walls and guards enforced a night-time curfew. Laws forbade Jews from working in the best jobs, owning property or travelling without wearing yellow caps and scarves. And just to add to the humiliation, the ghetto was surrounded on all sides by churches. Life in the smelly, swampy ghetto was pretty unbearable and took many dramatic twists and turns down through the centuries as persecution reached new depths but the residents bore it as they had little other choice.
Touring the Rome Jewish Ghetto today
Thankfully the Rome Jewish ghetto has changed a lot since 1555. The walls were taken down in 1870 after the unification of Italy and the old ghetto is now a highly desirable place to be, not just for the few thousand Jews that still call it home but also for the many new incomers and visitors. But despite the recent gentrification of the area, the story of the Roman Jews is sadly almost completely unknown and many tourists pass by without stopping or even realizing that the ghetto is there.
To unlock the fascinating secrets of over 400 years of ghetto history and discover more about what life really was like inside the walls a tour of the Jewish ghetto and nearby Trastevere is just perfect. Your expert guide will help you explore the little-known streets, recounting stories to bring the bricks and mortar alive. Hear how, for many, celebrating the Sabbath at their ornate synagogues was their only escape, with worship offering fleeting moments of freedom from the poverty and squalor. And learn how the oldest Jewish community in Europe managed to survive through centuries of poverty, persecution and finally achieved prosperity.
Your first stop is the lively Via Portico d’Ottavia main street, leading you through 2000 years of history. From the majestic Porticus Octaviae entrance to ancient Roman temples at one end to the modern kosher restaurants, delis and cafes serving delicious traditional recipes like Carciofi alla giudia or Jewish style artichokes at the other, it’s always been at the center of the oldest Jewish community in the world.
And you can’t miss the next stop either as the imposing aluminium dome of the Great Synagogue, standing on the banks of the River Tiber, marks the center of worship overlooking the old Rome Jewish ghetto. But to understand the ghetto history fully, you also need to appreciate how it fits into its surroundings. So once you’ve explored the old Jewish sites with your personal guide, you’ll cross the old Roman bridge to the lozenge shaped Tiber island, once the river site of an ancient temple. And finally you’ll take bridge over to Trastevere, one of Rome’s most distinctive districts and home to one of the oldest churches in Rome, Santa Maria in Trastevere.
Ultimately the Rome Jewish ghetto, at the center of this beloved historic city, has a long, fascinating story to tell. From the first Jewish settlers arriving 23 long centuries ago, through the early prosperity during the rise of the Roman Empire, to the dramatic twists and turns that shaped the second oldest Jewish ghetto in the world there is plenty to discover. So what are you waiting for? Our friendly travel experts are here to help you explore the oldest continuous Jewish community in the world.
And in the meantime, make sure you leave us your comments with your favorite spots in Rome. Buona vacanza, happy holiday!