Sandra Bornstein takes us along on a cruise in the Mediterranean Sea...

Finding Jewish History in Ephesus, Athens, and Taormina

Sunrise off the coast of Sicily
Sunrise off the coast of Sicily


A cruise provides a wonderful opportunity to explore bits and pieces of different ports of call. Taking time to find Jewish culture and heritage can be enlightening, but at the same time can be frustrating. With only a limited number of hours in each location, it is important to plan ahead.

Throughout history, Jews have lived in communities along the Mediterranean Sea. At different points in time their livelihood was affected by many socio-political events. Thus, it is not always possible to get a thorough understanding of Jewish life in a particular place. Nevertheless, it is exciting to locate different aspects of Jewish life. If you’re indulging in a Mediterranean cruise and stopping in Kusadasi (Turkey), Catania (Sicily), and/or Athens, consider exploring these sites to get a small taste of Jewish history.


The ancient city Ephesus is located in Selcuk, a small town 30km away from Kusadasi. Ancient Ephesus dates back to 6000 BCE. However, the ruins at Ephesus are not as old. This ancient city was founded by Lysimakhos, one of Alexander the Great’s generals, in 287 BCE. It was the capital and largest port city of the Roman Province of Asia during the Roman and Hellenistic periods.

Archaeological excavations and partially restored buildings can be viewed from both sides of the path. In some areas, the viewing is restricted. Ropes mark off certain areas. Signs provide basic facts.

During our guided tour we stopped at Hadrian’s Temple.

It was built to honor Emperor Hadrian (117-138 CE). The reliefs over the door lintel illustrate the Ephesian Foundation myth. Most will

 Temple of Hadrian- Ephesus
Temple of Hadrian- Ephesus

remember Hadrian for his contributions to Rome and Athens. As a Jew, I remember the diabolic role Hadrian played in Jewish history. At first he showed compassion to the Jews by allowing them to return to Jerusalem and granted them permission to rebuild their Temple. The Jews started to make arrangements and then Hadrian changed his mind. Hadrian deported Jews to North Africa, outlawed ritual circumcision, and started to build a temple to Jupiter on the site of the former Jewish Temple.

Under Shimon Bar-Kohkba leadership, the Jews revolted. Hadrian’s military might suppressed the uprising. Jerusalem was leveled and the Jews were forbidden to visit except during the 9th of Av to mourn their losses. Hadrian changed the country’s name from Judea to Syria Palestina. Hadrian’s distaste for the Jews translated into harsh anti-Jewish decrees that prohibited Jewish observances. Jews were forced to assimilate or become martyrs.

When I asked our guide about the Jewish community in Ephesus, he told me to wait. It was unclear what he was going to show us.

Menorah Inscription on steps of library
Menorah Inscription on steps of library

Historical references indicate that there was once a Jewish community in Ephesus. The exact dates of the community’s existence are not known nor have the remains of a synagogue been excavated. Paul preached early Christian teachings in an Ephesus synagogue. Jews were granted citizenship during the Hellenistic period while during the Roman period Jews were exempt from military service in deference to Jewish law. Other documents indicate that Jews were allowed to practice their Judaism openly even though inscriptions on Jewish tombs indicate assimilation.

The only Jewish inscription that our guide shared with our group was a 7 branched candelabra engraved into the library steps. It dates back to the  Roman Imperial Era. It is just a small piece of evidence.

To see my original posting- Exploring Ephesus– click here.

If your travels to Ephesus included any other Jewish remnants, please consider sharing your pictures and/or information.


We walked to the museum after a half-day guided tour of the Acropolis. We only had a few hours before we needed to return to a

Exhibit inside Greek Jewish Museum
Exhibit inside Greek Jewish Museum

designated spot for our bus ride back to the ship.

The Jewish Museum of Greece was founded in 1977 to collect, preserve, research, and exhibit the 2300 years of Jewish life in Greece. It is organized on multiple levels that spiral around a octangular atrium that is lit by a central skylight in the roof.

There is a small gift shop that offers books and a few items.

This small museum houses an amazing collection of objects. There are item from a restored synagogue in Patras, a variety of ceremonial objects from different points in history, artifacts chronicling Greek Jewish history, items from the Shoah including the efforts of Righteous Gentiles, and ceremonial clothing dating back to the 19th century. If you can squeeze in a visit to this museum, it is worth the effort.

After spending a couple of hours in the museum, we walked to the Athens Holocaust Memorial and the nearby Beth Shalom Synagogue. I recommend calling the synagogue in advance, if you’d like the opportunity to see the inside.

Holocaust Memorial- Athens
Holocaust Memorial- Athens


To see my complete article- Looking for Greek Jewish History– click here.







Taormina is located on the east coast of the island of Sicily, Italy, about midway between Messina and Catania. While Taormina may be a lovely place to visit, its history is tarnished by the Inquisition.

Building with Stars of David in former Jewish Quarter- Taormina
Building with Stars of David in former Jewish Quarter- Taormina

Prior to our cruise, I had checked to see if Jews had ever resided in this area. While Internet sources revealed evidence of a Jewish Quarter, I had to dig deep in order to find more facts. As we came upon the random signs and symbols, I wanted to know more.

Street Sign in former Jewish Quarter
Street Sign in former Jewish Quarter

We asked a few local shop owners and tour guides if they knew anything about the Jews who once lived in their town. I also asked the person at the main desk inside the municipal building. A bookshop owner told us about a book that had been written. However, it was only printed in Italian. Until I could learn more, I had to assume that the Jews were forcibly exiled long before the modern era.

Building in Taormina with Stars of David
Building in Taormina with Stars of David

Look closely at the picture above. Stars of David are etched into the medieval structure.

My research located the following facts. Starting in the 14the century, Sicilian Jews endured open discrimination and in some places

Small sign of Jewish life
Small sign of Jewish life

were mandated to live in a ghetto. A decree was issued in 1492 ordering the expulsion of the Jews from Sicily. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia website there were 100,000 Jews living in 52 different places in Sicily. The printed version of the Encyclopedia Judaica cites 37,000. The edict was similar to the one issued in Spain. By 1493, all of the Jews had either left Sicily or had been baptized.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the government invited the Jews to return to Sicily. Only a small number responded. It is no wonder that the locals knew nothing about Jewish life in Taormina and were probably unaware of the few Jewish signs that remain.

To see my complete article- Taormina- A Lovely Place With a Troubling History– click here.

Sandra Bornstein is the author of MAY THIS BE THE BEST YEAR OF YOUR LIFE. It is available on Amazon.



About Sandra Bornstein

Sandy Bornstein lived as an expat in India. Her award-winning memoir, May This Be the Best Year of Your Life, highlights what she learned as the only American teacher at an international Bangalore school. After living abroad, Sandy continues to explore the world and write about her travels. You can follow Sandy's adventures at

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One comment

  1. Come hear Sandra talk about her book at the Boulder JCC on Thursday, June 13, at noon. RSVP to Kathryn at 303-641-2056,

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