the Synagogue in Ostia Antica

The synagogue (from the Greek: "house of assembly") represents the most important community structure of Judaism since the destruction of the 2nd Temple of Jerusalem under Titus in 70 A.D. However, it is commonly believed that its origins date back to the exile in Babylon, following the destruction of the 1st Temple (Nebuchadnezzar, 586 B.C.) and there is no doubt of its spread following the return to Israel (538 B.C.).
After its total destruction, the Sanctuary of Jerusalem remained in the memory of the Jewish People as a symbol of the loss of their national identity; many of its functions were transferred to the synagogue, while others were expressly prohibited (sacrifice, for example, which was substituted by prayer). Since the 2nd century A.D. the synagogue became the centre of daily life for Jews as a space of devotion and for the reading, study and teaching of the Torah.
While the Temple of Jerusalem was never rebuilt, any Jewish settlement was home to at least one synagogue.


Ostia Antica
site plan
path to the Synagogue


The architecture of the synagogue is influenced primarily by the socio-cultural context in which it is constructed. There are no particular regulations for its external appearance, though the interior is subject to a number of rules dictated by rabbis over the course of the centuries. However, a number of common elements can be found in the synagogues of various Diaspora communities.
Numerous sources testify to the importance of water for bathing or ritual ablutions to be made before any liturgical acts, though it is obvious that it was not always possible to construct near a source of natural water (the sea, a river, a well). This was corrected by inserting cisterns and ponds that could also be used for other purposes, located in proximity to the entrance to the building.
An observation of the first synagogues whose remains exist to this day reveals the presence of entrances oriented towards Jerusalem (to the East in the Mediterranean), a practice that appears to have been abandoned when the Holy Ark containing the Torah, a portable temple, was fixed to the Eastern wall. It is also written that the entrance must be preceded by a space (atrium, portico or other) that creates a buffer between daily life and the sacred world. For this reason, rabbis held that its was best to enter and approach the ark with a sign of respect that was not direct, but gradual.


Another general characteristic, based on Daniel's practice of praying while facing Jerusalem through the window (Dan. 6,11), is that the synagogue must have windows; it was later suggested that they be constructed as high up as possible to overlook the surrounding houses and facilitate a view of the sky, a source of inspiration for the faithful.
The most sacred objects inside the synagogue are the scrolls of the Law that are conserved inside the sacred ark, hidden behind a curtain, in front of which burns an eternal light. This layout recalls that of the Sanctuary where a wall hid the Sancta Sanctorum, to which only the high priests were allowed access. While to a lesser degree with respect to the Temple, the synagogue shares this sacred quality, acting as its symbolic substitute; on the inside, the ritual objects and the space itself increase their holy value the closer they are to the ark and the scrolls of the Torah. At the centre of the room or in front of the ark, depending on different traditions, we find a raised dais for the reading of the Torah. The space for women is separate.

Ostia Antica, Synagogue.
Ideal reconstruction of the aedicule
(aron ha-qodesh)
View of the synagogue complex during the first excavation campaign (1961)

Axonometric drawing

The synagogue in Ostia was unearthed in 1961 during the work to construct the new road to Fiumicino Airport: in the absence of any historic evidence, it is an eloquent testimonial to a Jewish presence in the multi-ethnic and thus multi-religious context of the city. It represents some of the oldest archaeological evidence of Diaspora Judaism (second only to that in Delos, from the 1st century B.C.) and many of its typological characteristics are similar to those of other ancient synagogues. Located in proximity to the original coastline, along what would later become the Via Severiana, the building is constructed according to a technique that was widely used in Ostia from the second half of the 1st century A.D. onwards. It was most likely built after the construction of the port called for by the Emperor Claudius (41-54), which led to an increase in the volume of commercial traffic in the city and a consequent increase in the population - Jews included - that lived there. Remaining elements of this first phase include parts of the perimeter wall and other walls that allow us to define the smaller dimensions of the original structure: the central hall was smaller, though it already contained the monumental Propylea and the three frontal entrances. The front area with the small adjacent room most likely formed a single space, perhaps with the same functions as the later room with its counters.   

The structure was modified and enlarged during the following centuries during a significant renovation at the beginning of the 4th century; the signs of its abandonment can be dated back to some time in the 5th century.
The monument that exits today is composed of a series of spaces placed along the east-west axis covering an area that measures 23.5 x 36.6 metres, overlooking a corridor, perpendicular to the road that provides access to the building.
Originally the synagogue was composed of a large rectangular hall with a curved end, preceded by an entry rendered monumental by four columns that created an intermediate passage between the rectangular space (vestibule), located transversally with respect to the hall, and the hall itself.
Benches lined the three walls, while the far end was home to the tevah, the pulpit from which prayers were recited.
This layout was transformed, perhaps in the second half of the 2nd century, by the creation of partitions that would have changed the use of the vestibule. The construction of a low waterproof basin, connected with the nearby well and cistern, was most likely a space of bathing and ablution and/or for ritual aspersions (miqwè).


of the first phase of the synagogue


For this reason, these hydraulic structures were not in contrast with the proximity to the sea and are, perhaps, evidence of the introduction of different rituals.
The spaces of the synagogue that are visible today reflect the transformations of the building during the 4th century, when the complex was enlarged by creating a new corridor-like entry, with an elbow-shaped access; the closure of the space between the main building and the residential structure to the west created an ulterior vast environment with counters along the exterior walls. In one of the spaces of the original vestibule a kitchen was created with an oven and spaces for underground food storage, while an aedicule was constructed inside the main hall to house the scrolls of the Law (The Torah), known in Hebrew as aron ha-qodesh (the Holy Ark). This highly articulated structure created a new fundamental centre of interest during the liturgy inside the hall; composed of a semicircular wall preceded by two small columns with brackets that support a beam decorated with a menorah (the seven armed candelabra) flanked by a sho far (goat's horn) and a lulav and etrog (one of the three species accompanied by a yellow citron). The walls are finished with decorated marble panels.

Ostia Antica, synagogue, the oven
This new layout confirms information from various sources stating that the synagogue served as a hostel for Jewish travellers, merchants and the poor or, as shown by other evidence, that religious leaders were allowed to live inside the building. A recent proposal was made that these latter figures may have lived in the building to the west of the synagogue. The structures, still partially visible, testify that this element was subject to the same changes as the synagogue and, in particular, that the southern environment was transformed into a nymphaeum





Ostia Antica,
The aedicule
Bracket with menorah


Text by Micaela Vitale taken from the publication edited by the Soprintendenza per i Beni Archeologici di Ostia.