This gem of a city on Sicily’s east coast, overlooked by Mount Etna, Europe’s highest volcano, boasts a multitude of cultures in its historic curriculum – Greek, Roman, Byzantine, Arabic, Norman, Aragonese, and Spanish, just to name a few – and Catania’s Jewish Heritage is surely high on our list of must-sees.
Founded by the Greeks in 729 BCE with the name of Katane, Catania was later conquered by the Romans; the impressive architectural remains of the Augustan period attest to its prosperity during that time. After the Byzantine dominion, it passed to Arab rule in the 9th century and then to the Norman rule. The Aragonese period marked a time of recovery in the city, which became the seat of the royal court. The subsequent Spanish domination led to a severe economic crisis in the city, and it turned out to be disastrous for the Jewish community, whose presence on the island dates back as early as the time of the second temple!
In Catania, the earliest records of Jewish life are an inscription from a Jewish tombstone dating from 383CE and an epistle written by Pope Gregory in 596CE, which indicated that Samaritans lived in the city. In the middle ages, the community thrived in two different Jewish districts, each with its own synagogue. Jews had houses and shops both inside and outside these districts and were deeply involved in the economic life of the town.
However, under Spanish rule, Jews were forced to visually identify themselves, and were soon expelled completely from the whole island. This would be the last Jewish presence in Sicily for over 500 years. The Jewish community today is small, and the only Synagogue on Sicily is in Palermo, but there are many things to see in Catania that tie this region to its ancient Jewish past. In our Jewish Catania Tour, we will follow the traces of Jewish life in the city, from the remains of the synagogue, near via Bellia, to the Funerary Epigraphs from the Jewish catacombs, kept in the Civic Museum at Castello Ursino. We’ll explore in depth all the charms of Catania’s Sicilian Baroque soul. The architectonic style, for example, which gives the city its unique character, is the result of reconstruction after the strong earthquake of 1693, and has earned the city the title of UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Piazza Duomo, where the reconstruction of the city began, beloved meeting point of Catania’s citizens, is also the centre stage of the city’s most memorable monument, the smiling Fontana dell'Elefante (Fountain of the Elephant), which, according to local folklore, possesses magical powers; and of the Duomo (Cathedral), dedicated to Sant' Agata, the Patron Saint of the city. Constructed and rebuilt over the centuries, it still retains pieces of its Norman origins.
The Peschiera, Catania's raucous fish market, which takes over the streets behind Piazza del Duomo every workday morning, reminds us that the sea is only a stone’s throw from here. Surrounding the market are a number of delicious seafood restaurants that you won’t want to miss.
Speaking of food, fish is certainly the main course in Catania. Don’t miss the famous seafood salad with octopus, shrimp and “Occhi di bue” (“ox eyes,” a shellfish typical of this sea). And what’s Catania’s most delicious drink? Surprise! It’s almond milk! You can drink it in a bar, in a “chiosco,” and, during the summer, almond milk granita (iced) is the most refreshing drink you could ask for.
Explore Catania through all your senses on our Catania Jewish tour!