29 August 2019

Albania’s first synagogue
was built by an early
Balkan-Jewish community

Albania’s first synagogue, built in Onchesmos or Saranda in the fourth or fifth century (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I spent most of Wednesday [28 August 2019] in Albania, visiting the coastal town of Saranda, about 14 km across the Ionian Sea from Corfu. I was on my way to the remains of the ancient city of Butrint, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

It was 13 years since I visited Saranda and Butrint in 2006, and it is so obvious today that Saranda is experiencing a steady growth in the tourist sector. Saranda is known for its archaeological sites, and also has a large Greek population and is seen as one of the two centres of the Greek minority in Albania.

Saranda derives its name from a Byzantine monastery, Agioi Saranda (Άγιοι Σαράντα), meaning the ‘Forty Saints,’ in honour of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste. Under Ottoman rule, it became known in Turkish as Aya Sarandi and then Sarandoz.

Because of Venetian influence in the region, it often appeared under its Italian name Santi Quaranta on Western maps. During the Italian occupation of Albania in World War II, Mussolini changed the name to Porto Edda, in honour of his eldest daughter. Following the restoration of Albanian independence, the city once again became Saranda.

But in antiquity, the city was known by the Classical Greek name of Onchesmos (Ὄγκησμος). It was a port-town of Chaonia in ancient Epirus, opposite the north-west point of Corfu) Corcyra, and the next port along the coast to the south of Panormus.

Two mosaic pavements point to the presence of one of the earliest Balkan-Jewish communities (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

On my return from Butrint on Wednesday afternoon, I spent some time in Saranda at the site was the home to Albania’s first synagogue, built in Onchesmos in the fourth or fifth century. It is thought that it was built by the descendants of Jews who arrived on the southern shores of Albania around 70 CE, following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem.

This was one of the earliest Balkan-Jewish communities. However, the synagogue in Onchesmos did not last long, and was supplanted by a church in the sixth century.

The ruins of the fifth-century synagogue in the heart of Saranda, close to the city hall, have been excavated by archaeologists in recent years. There are four floor mosaics, which are normally covered with sand to protect them, although there are photographs on the walls.

The first excavations at the site were conducted 35 years ago in 1984, when Albania was under the strict rule of Enver Hoxha’s Communist regime. However, the remains of the synagogue only came to light in recent years during joint excavations carried out by the Albanian Academy of Sciences and the Hebrew University Institute of Archaeology.

The archaeologists found that the synagogue underwent various periods of use, including its conversion into a church at its last stage. Particularly noteworthy among the finds are two mosaic pavements. At the centre of one of them is a menorah or seven-branched candelabrum, flanked by a citron or lemon, as well as a ram’s horn – all symbols associated with the Jewish holidays.

The other mosaic pavement includes a variety of animals, trees, and symbols alluding to Biblical lore.

The archaeologists also found a structure that may have been the aron hakodesh or holy ark to hold the Torah scrolls.

The archaeologists also found other mosaic pavements that pre-date the building of the synagogue. These old ruins represent what was once a community centre and old school used for Bible studies. During the sixth century, the buildings were converted into a basilica, but this was later destroyed, either by an earthquake or by Slavic invaders.

Although there are official opening times and entry fees, the gates were left open yesterday, but there was nobody there to charge for admission or to show me around. In coming years, archaeologists hope to continue excavations and investigate other parts of the synagogue that remain covered by modern buildings and streets.

Archaeologists hope to continue excavations and investigate other parts of the synagogue site now covered by modern buildings and streets (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

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