On the first-ever documented Jewish tour of Palermo, Benjamin of Tudela (on his journey between 1170-1173) reported several synagogues and a Jewish population of about 3000 people. On a Jewish heritage tour, you’ll discover not only the remnants of one of the cradles of culture and science in the ancient world, where crossroads of civilizations intersected, but also the Jewish facets which contributed to the city`s reputation as a melting pot.
Convivencia – ancient dialogue
It is not by accident that Palermo was called convivencia – a Spanish term for the peaceful coexistence of Catholics, Muslims and Jews. To explore the city’s Jewish heritage, every tour will discover the “Giudecca,” in which one can find the most obvious sign of Palermo’s attempt to return to its former cosmopolitan heritage: surprising trilingual street signs written in Hebrew, Arabic and Italian.
Called “Harat al Yahud,” the Jewish quarter was part of Harat Masgid (the area of the Ibn Saqlab Mosque), consisting of the Jewish sector, close to the Cassaro area, and the Muslim sector, Harat abu Gamin. Palermo´s Jews have been in the lucky position to choose their districts for living, unlike other Italian cities, where the Jewish populations were forced into ghettos. However, the State Archive in Palermo keeps on display a document testifying to the unstable times for Jewish people in Europe – the document declaring the expulsion of Jews from Italy.
Today, the Jewish quarter is located between Via Maqueda and Via Roma in the city centre. The district holds tails and hidden gems, all of which our Palermo Jewish tour shall unravel for you.
One of Palermo’s mikvahs is located right under the historic Palazzo Marchesi, a late fifteenth-century building that stands in the heart of Palermo, in Piazza Santissimi Quaranta Martiri al Casalotto, a stone's throw from Via Maqueda. A mikvah, or ritual bath, has been discovered there, after the structure was thought for years to have been a burial site.
Donation towards a new synagogue
Although there are no operational synagogues in the city, there are efforts and on-going projects to establish a new synagogue, making use of the church of Madonna del Sabato, which was built on the grounds of a medieval synagogue. A donation by the bishop of Palermo has made this project possible. The site can be visited upon request with our private Jewish tour guide.
Palermo is one of the destinations which are newer for the traveller with a Jewish interest. While it’s not love at first sight for most visitors, Palermo is breathtaking for those interested in culture, once you get used to its pace, and to the corners and edges that you can sometimes bump into. Splendor and beauty, decay and dirt, are often only a few meters apart.
The most beautiful town
Palermo is a city that leaves you with so many impressions after the first encounter that you will always want to come back to see and experience more. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “Palermo, where we stayed eight days, was lovely. The most beautifully situated town in the world, it dreams away its life in the Conca d'Oro, the exquisite valley that lies between two seas. The lemon-groves and the orange-gardens were so entirely perfect…”