Romaniote Jews are distinctly Greek Jews, unlike Sephardic ones. It is possible that they have lived in Greece from as far back as the Babylonian exile. Romaniote oral tradition advises that the first Jews arrived in the city of Ioannina just after the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE. By the 12th century, there were recorded communities of Jews in Corfu, Arta, Aphilon, Patras, Corinth, Thebes, Chalkis, Thessaloniki and Drama.
Romaniotes’ customs were distinct from those of Sephardic Jews, more similar to those of Italian Jews. A possible explanation being that they used the Jerusalem Talmud instead of the Babylonian Talmud. They also mostly spoke Greek and not Hebrew.
Today, the only Romaniote communities in mainland Greece are in Ioannina and Athens. The remainder of the Romaniotes live in either Israel or the U.S. (mainly New York). Although they identify themselves as Romaniotes, they use the Sephardic rite because the distinctive Romaniote rite has not survived, except for a few hymns used by communities such as in Corfu.
There is only one Romaniote synagogue in Athens, the Ioanniotiki synagogue. It is also the oldest synagogue in the city, as it was originally built in 1896 in a nearby location. Later on in 1903 it was moved to the present site. It is called Etz Hayim (Hebrew for Tree of Life) which is a common name for Romaniote synagogues. Still called “the Ioannina Synagogue” or “Ioanniotiki” by the community’s older members, it is used today mainly during the High Holy Days and the community occasionally hosts cultural events here. It has an area of 300 sq. m. and a capacity of 400 persons. The ground floor houses the community’s Administration offices, in rooms originally intended for a Jewish school. After the 1999 earthquake, the building was partially damaged. It was completely restored and renovated in 2009 by a great benefactor of the community.
The layout is traditionally Romaniote, with the bimah on the western wall and the Aron Kodesh on the eastern wall. The Torah scrolls are kept in tikkim, wooden and metal cases, typical to Romaniote tradition.
The exterior is an attractive modern neo-classical design, featuring a white façade with cream moldings. Black wrought iron balconies and railings run across the entire front of the Synagogue, encompassing an inviting patio area with paving stones and large umbrellas. The spacious prayer room is also decorated in a modern neo-classical design, implementing Jewish symbols into the design structure. The ceiling is cream with a tan alternating molded symbols of Stars-of-David and octagons. The floor features a large cream Star-of-David against a tan background.
The Aron Kodesh against the west wall is a beautifully carved structure in three tones of wood, with important Jewish elements carved and gilded in gold. A Torah curtain with gold embroidery is drawn across it. Rectangular, stained-glass windows featuring modern designs flank either side of the Aron Kodesh.
On the opposite side of the room sits the bimah. Wood panels surround the bimah, with a darker, ornamental piece of wood on the front, featuring a Menorah and other beautiful carvings, which are gilded in gold. Inside are the tevah (bimah) and several chairs and it is open to the back. Behind it is a small wall with two smaller versions of the stained-glass windows on either side. The women’s gallery (Ezrat Nashim) is upstairs, running along the sides and back of the sanctuary featuring striking wood paneling.
It is currently used one Shabbat every month and during the High Holidays. Occasionally, cultural events of the Community are hosted here. The Community Administration offices are located on the ground floor of the building.
SYNAGOGUE VISITING HOURS
MONDAY THROUGH FRIDAY: 8:30-13:30
Excluding Jewish and Greek holidays.
(Please make sure that you have with you your passport or identity card.)