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)

Four Irish politicians
in 19th century Corfu:
1, Sir Richard Church

Corfu depicted on a painting in the Blue Sea Hotel in Agios Georgios (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

Four Irish politicians and administrators played key roles in shaping 19th century political life in Corfu: Sir Richard Church (1784-1873) from Cork; Sir Charles Napier (1782-1853) from Celbridge, Co Kildare; George Nugent-Grenville (1789-1850) from Co Westmeath, 2nd Baron Nugent of Carlanstown; and John Young (1807-1876) from Balieborough, Co Cavan, later Lord Lisgar.

Sir Richard Church (1784-1873), who has been described as the ‘liege lord of all true Philhellenes.’ This forgotten Irish hero is commemorated in windows and memorials in Saint Paul’s Anglican Church in Athens, where a plaque claims he won the affection of the people of Greece ‘for himself and for England.’ Yet Church was Irish-born and his commitment to Greece owed much to his faith as an Anglican.

Church was born in Cork into a Quaker merchant family. In his youth, he ran away to join the army. His Quaker parents were disowned or excommunicated for buying him a commission and so they became Anglicans. He arrived in Greece in 1800 as a 16-year-old ensign serving under Sir Hudson Lowe from Galway. Lowe, who is remembered as Napoleon’s jailer, was the second-in-command in the expedition to the Ionian Islands.

Church took part in the capture of Kephalonia, Ithaki, Lefkhada, Zakynthos and Kythera. He wrote home: ‘The Greeks, who are slaves to the Turks and are Christians, are ... a brave, honest, open generous people.’

He soon began providing military training for Greek revolutionaries, including Theodoros Kolokotronis, who became the pre-eminent general in the Greek War of Independence. Church recruited the Greeks troops who captured Paxos and the town of Parga on the mainland, and he assisted in the negotiations for the surrender of Corfu.

For a brief period in 1811, Church was based in Corfu as the British governor of the Ionian Islands. By then, he had become ‘more Greek than the Greeks.’

At the Congress of Vienna, he argued for an independent Greece. But he was ordered to disband his Greek regiments, the Ionian Islands became a British colony, and, in an act of treachery, Parga was sold to Ali Pasha (1740-1822). A disappointed Church left Greece for a military career in Austria and Italy. But when the Greek War of Independence broke out in 1821, Kolokotronis and Edward Blaquière, a Dublin seaman of Huguenot descent, campaigned to bring Church back to lead the armed forces.

Two weeks after Church married Elizabeth Augusta Wilmot, who was a sister-in-law of the Earl of Kenmare and related by marriage to the pot and Philhellene Lord Byron, the Greek government invited Church to take command of the army. After an absence of 12 years, he returned to Greece in 1827 to a hero’s welcome.

Back in Greece, Church played a decisive role in uniting the Greek factions and in the election of Ioannis Kapodistrias from Corfu as President of Greece, and Church was sworn into office on Easter Day, 15 April 1827.

One of his first actions was a disastrous attempt to drive off a Turkish force besieging the tiny Greek garrison in the Acropolis in Athens. But he soon rallied his forces and stirred a fresh rebellion across the northern Peloponnese. A major turning point in the War of Independence came at the Battle of Navarino, the last sea battle of the age of sail. Thanks largely to the actions of Church and Gawin Rowan Hamilton, an Irish officer in the British navy, a large Turkish naval force was defeated in a four-hour battle in October 1827. Turkey’s naval power was broken and Church rejoiced at what he called ‘this signal interposition of divine Providence.’

Church found it increasingly difficult to work with Kapodistrias, resigned and left Greece. But he soon relented, returned to Greece permanently, and became a Greek citizen. In 1834, he and his wife moved into a house in the heart of the Plaka, beneath the Acropolis in Athens.

King Otho (1832-1862) restored Church to the rank of general and appointed him Inspector-General of the army. But Otho was a despot, and in 1843 Church played a key role in a coup d’état, presenting the king with an ultimatum that demanded reforms or his abdication. Otho later took his revenge on Church, dismissing him as Inspector-General. But Church remained a life senator and during the Crimean War (1853-1856) he was recalled as a general. A popular revolt in 1862 finally forced Otho to abdicate.

A year later, in 1863, the Ionian Parliament voted in Corfu for the unification of the Ionian Islands with the modern Greek state, and when Britain acceded to these demands in 1864, it was seen as effort to bolster the reign of King George I, the new monarch.

Church died in his 90th year on 27 March 1873. He received a public funeral and was buried in the First Cemetery of Athens, close to Kolokotronis and the heroes of the War of Independence. In his oration, the Greek Ambassador to London, Ioannis Gennadios, described Church as ‘the truest Hellene, the most steadfast and most affectionate of the sons of Greece.’

Church, who often travelled with nothing more than his Bible and his sword, believed the Greek struggle was a holy war.

This connection between his faith and action is seen in Saint Paul’s Anglican Church, Athens, where two sets of windows to his memory use Old Testament imagery to represent the Greeks as the chosen people and Greece as the Promised Land. Church is represented as Caleb who helps them capture the land from the Gentiles, and as David who, despite his stature, defeats the Philistines. The inference is that the Turks were Amalekites or the Philistines who deprived the Chosen People of the Promised Land.

The inscription on the brass tablet below the two-light north window was composed by the British Prime Minister, William Gladstone, who had once been based in Corfu as the British Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian Islands. Gladstone unveiled the plaque to Church in Saint Paul’s in 1873. The south windows were presented in 1875 by the Church family, including his nephew, Richard Church, Dean of Saint Paul’s Cathedral, London, and a friend of Newman and the Tractarians.

Church’s grave is marked by a tall slender column with his carved profile, and topped with a Greek cross and a laurel wreath. The simple inscription reads: ‘Richard Church General who having given himself and all that he had to rescue a Christian race from oppression and to make Greece a nation lived for her service and died amongst her people rests here in peace and faith.’

The grave of Sir Richard Church in the First Cemetery of Athens (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)