Jews first settled in Sicily no later than the 1st century CE. By the time they were expelled from the island by the Spanish monarchy—which ruled it at the time—their population had reached about 30,000. Dror Eydar, currently the Israeli ambassador to Italy, recounts what he learned on a recent visit to Sicily, which included a tour of Syracuse, historically the island’s second largest city:
After the expulsion of the Jews, the Syracuse [Jewish] cemetery was abandoned. In the following century, fortifications were constructed in the area of the small port and the sea flooded the tombs. It was only in the 1960s that they were found at the bottom of the port. Time and water had eroded the markings and little remained legible. We saw some of the tombs at the Bellomo Museum. I tried to decipher the ancient Hebrew carved on the stones and recall something of the Jewish names that lived here once and pay them respect.
We walked up the Road of the Jews, which has retained its Italian name, Via della Giudecca (the ghetto had yet to be invented and the Jews crowded together for social reasons) and we reached a hotel where there was a very moving find: . . . Jewish ritual baths (mikvehs) from the 9th century! The ritual baths were discovered by chance when the owner of the hotel, Amalia Daniele, wanted to restore it and discovered a vault that has been sealed off and filled up with dirt. It took more than 150 trucks to remove all the earth until at the bottom of a staircase (we went down dozens of stairs) five ritual baths that received their waters from the spring below were discovered.
A glass cabinet in the heart of the [government archives in the regional capital, Palermo], presents the protocols of the Sicilian Senate from 1492 with the decree to deport the Jews of the island, translated from Spanish to Sicilian. . . . The Jews managed to postpone the decree until January-February 1493, because of the difficulty in expelling them and the severe harm that their departure would cause the economy and society.