Jewish Heritage Report
Vol. I, Nos. 3-4 / Winter 1997-98
Restoration of Hania (Greece) Synagogue

Restoration of Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Crete Begins

Hania, Crete (Greece).
Hania, Crete (Greece). Etz Hayyim Synagogue. North courtyard entrance portal. Photo: Abe Magid, 1992.

Restoration of the historic Etz Hayyim Synagogue in Hania, Crete, the only surviving Jewish monument on the Greek island, will begin in March, 1998. Sponsored by the Central Board of Jewish Communities of Greece (KIS), which owns the site, the project is being organized and overseen by the World Monument Fund's Jewish Heritage Program. Dr. Nicholas Stavroulakis, founder and Director Emeritus of the Jewish Museum of Greece, is Project Manager for WMF.

In 1996 WMF included the synagogue on its worldwide list of 100 most endangered monuments prepared by the World Monuments Watch, a program funded by the American Express Company. WMF has also listed the site among its Jewish Heritage Preservation Priorities (see JHR March, 1997). A $40,000 challenge grant from WMF's European Preservation Program funded by the Samuel H. Kress Foundation enabled planning for the project to begin in 1996. To date approximately $200,000 has been raised, enough to begin the first phases of on-site work, including dismantling the precarious roof and structural repairs to the synagogue walls. On completion, the building will serve as a center for cross-cultural understanding and scholarship, and be open as a public monument for visitors. The refurbished complex will include the synagogue with the names of victims of the 1944 deportation and bombing prominently displayed; a courtyard displaying the many inscriptions found on site and which can serve as a venue for cultural events; a museum and small library located in the reconstructed women's section, to function as a center for the study of Cretan Jewry; and a Judaica shop. The building has been abandoned for decades, used only by squatters for keeping poultry. In August 1995, however, the synagogue was the scene of a commemoration and religious celebration, when a group of 110 members of the Jewish Hellenic Youth Organization traveled to Hania and held services in the Etz Hayyim for the first time in half a century. The success of the event, and the flood of emotion it engendered, bodes well for future (occasional) use of the synagogue for worship, either on commemorative occasions, or on a more regular basis by the large number of Jewish tourists who visit Crete.

For centuries Hania has been the major port city of Crete, and Jews have played an important role in the city's history, particularly during the period of Ottoman rule beginning in 1669. The Etz Hayyim Synagogue, once the island's center of Jewish life, is located in the heart of Zudecca, the former Jewish Ghetto, and was an integral part of the old Venetian port.

In the 19th century, when the ancient Jewish community had dwindled considerably, when the majority of Hania's Jews lived in an area known as the Ovraiki, which had two synagogues, of which only the ruin of Etz Hayyim survives. The Ottoman Turks formally left Crete in 1896, and the island was established as an independent entity under a Greek regent. In 1913, Crete was annexed to the Kingdom of Greece. During this time there was a steady emigration of Jews from Crete, so that by 1941 there were only 269 Jews remaining. These were deported by the Germans in 1944 and met their deaths when their transport ship was bombed and sunk by the Allies.

Hania, Greece. Etz Hayyim Synagogue.Hania, Crete (Greece). Etz Hayyim Synagogue. The ehal support system on east wall. Photo: Nicholas Stavroulakis, June 1997.

The Building:
The synagogue was constructed in the 15th century (the period of Venetian rule) as the Church of St. Catherine. The arched wall construction relates to other Venetian buildings in Hania of the period. The church is believed to have been converted to Jewish use in the late 17th century. Numerous inscriptions document its subsequent history. The southeast corner of the building was struck by a bomb in 1941 and considerable damage was done. The building was used by squatters in the post-war years, and only recently have efforts been made to reclaim and restore the structure. The synagogue consists of a large rectangular hall, 9.76 meters long and 6.36 meters wide, surmounted by a timber-frame pitched roof with wooden beams which transverse the hall. To the north and south were roofed courtyards which included upper gallery space for women. These spaces were connected to the main hall by windows which were closed by grilles. The roofing of the courtyards and most of the structural aspects of the women's galleries are now destroyed.

Entrance to the synagogue was through a door into the south courtyard which was surmounted by the Hebrew inscription from Isaiah "Blessed are the just...". This courtyard was also used for communal functions, such as the building of the succoth.

The east facade was originally the entrance to the church. Venetian churches in Hania are "occidented" in this manner. The facade is distinguished by an oculus window high up in the gable which dates from the church and is typical of 16th-century Haniate architecture. Below this, about midway up the facade, are two large arched windows surrounded by finely carved limestone moldings. These were added in the late 17th or early 18th century, after the conversion of the building to synagogue use. The original iron grillwork over these windows remains. Beneath and between these windows was the original door to the building which was blocked to allow the placement of the Ark within. To the far left (south) on the same facade is a door which led to the women's section off the main sanctuary.

The north and south exterior flanks are each defined by two wide and deep structural arches. There may have been more arches when the building was a church. The structure may have been shortened when turned into a synagogue, perhaps to avoid inclusion of the church altar area into the new Jewish sanctuary.

The north courtyard contained the main entrance to the synagogue. Old photographs reveal a small wooden porch projected from this entrance, but this has been removed in recent years by looters. To the right of this was the shamash's room and stairs which led to an upper room. This is now blocked with rubble but it once served, closed with a grille, as an additional mehitzah. There is a small damaged inscription between the window and door and another over the entrance.

A new door leads directly into the synagogue through the easternmost of the two south flank arches. The windows within these arches were originally open and had been covered by metal grilles, serving as mehitzot, separating the women's section from the main sanctuary. The area to the south, which is now exposed, was a sort of roofed court off of which was the mikveh.

In the main sanctuary area, the east wall is defined by two large arched niches, the tops of which extend through the wall to create deep lunette windows. Against a flat stretch of wall between the arches was located the Ark, now gone. In a deep niche in the north-east corner, surmounted by a wide pointed arch, a (now blocked) doorway led to the mikveh. Above this blocked door, in the top part of the niche, is a window opening from the women's section of the synagogue. The west wall closed the space and against this was set the tevah (readers' platform). This wall transversed the original church space, cutting its size. The altar of the church was located on the other side of this wall.

Inside, parts of the original decorative tile pavement are preserved. The main sanctuary is paved with tiles laid in a diamond pattern. In addition to the synagogue proper, several related structures were nearby. To the north was a small schoolhouse; to the south a cave-like mikveh; and to the west there are remains of what may have been a bakery. Next to the synagogue and extending from it were interconnected houses of the Jewish quarter.

The interior of the mikveh is surmounted by a barrel vault. Within are stone benches and an immersion tank. In order to prevent periodic overflow from the natural spring which served the mikveh, the tank was, in recent years, filled with rubble and capped with three inches of cement. The tank can be restored by breaking the cap and removing the rubble.

Dr. Stavroulakis has established the Friends of Etz Hayyim Synagogue to assist with the restoration and long-term planning and operation of the site. For more information, contact ISJM or write to Friends of Etz Hayyim Synagogue, P.O. Box 251, 73110 Hania, Crete, Greece; tel/fax (0821) 70397; e-mail dori@hol.gr. Contributions to the project should be sent to World Monuments Fund, 949 Park Ave., NY, NY 10028, USA,. and designated "Hania Synagogue Restoration."

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Updated: 22-Jul-98