On the southwest coast of Albania on the Ionian Sea, opposite the Greek island of Corfu, beneath the modern town of Saranda, lies the ancient city of Onchesmos.
That ancient city had a synagogue, the remains of which can be seen from the modern street as a large hole filled with stumps of walls, columns, and young palm trees. Built in the 2nd or 3rd century C.E. and enlarged in the 5th and 6th, it bears a unique mosaic floor depicting a menorah flanked by a shofar and an etrog, as well as geometric designs and fish.
The site was noted by Albanian archaeologists decades ago but was excavated in 2003 and 2004 by a unique joint team from the Albanian Academy of Sciences and the Institute of Archeology at Hebrew University. Unfortunately only two seasons of excavations took place.
An ancient synagogue on the Mediterranean is not in itself unique. But the story of Jews in Albania and the synagogue of Saranda are distinctive and point to a larger question of Jewish responsibility to the past—and, by extension, to the present.
Small numbers of Jews arrived in Illyria (as Albania was then known) during the Roman period and many more after the expulsion from Spain. But enough Jews were present in those early years to build the synagogue at Onchesmos, and to keep it in use for several centuries.
Much later, in 1939, Albania was occupied by Italy. Albanian Jews, numbering only a few hundred and supplemented by refugees from elsewhere, were removed to the country's interior. But the Italians and Albanians refused to turn them over to the Nazis. When Albania was occupied by the Germans in 1943, Christian and Muslim Albanians sheltered Jews and provided many with false papers. Although some were eventually sent to their deaths, it appears that Albania actually ended the war with more Jews than when it started.
The Albanian relationship with Jews during the Holocaust was defined not by religion but by Besa, a local code of honor that literally means "to keep a promise." Having lived alongside Jews, and received them as refugees, this sense of honor kept Albanians from turning them over to the Nazis. Albanians are justifiably proud of their role saving Jews during the Holocaust—a story that took decades to be recognized due to the Communist isolationist regime that virtually cut Albania off from the world.
Rebuilding itself after this regime, Albanians saw this synagogue as a potential tourist attraction, a boon to a struggling domestic industry. After all, heritage tourism—even the smaller subset of Jewish heritage tourism—is big business these days. Organized Jewish tours move throughout Europe, visiting Warsaw and Kraków, Prague, Córdoba, and Rome. But not only there: Jewish tourists range widely outside the main cities looking for the towns and shtetls of their ancestors.
But to look only at Europe is to give short shrift to Jewish heritage tourism, real and potential. Jewish tourists to Shanghai visit the quarter where German Jewish refugees joined those from the Russian Revolution, together with members of an already-present community dating back more than a thousand years. Tours to Egypt visit the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo where the famed genizah was found. The truly adventurous may explore Samarkand or Zimbabwe.
But tourism is not just a recreational and aesthetic experience for the tourist. It is a business, and as such it poses moral questions as to the specific experiences that are bought and sold.
For instance, there are still Jewish communities living in far-flung destinations. On the Tunisian island of Djerba, a tiny enclave of Jews is one of the very last remnants of the vast North African Jewish experience that stretches back millennia. The Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue on the island of Curaçao, founded over 350 years ago, gets a regular boost in Shabbat attendance when cruise ships dock at the island. Some 25,000 Jews still live in Iran. Who visits them? Do Jewish tourists have a special responsibility toward living Jewish communities?
Even among the dead, the ethical questions are real, and the ironies are evident. While Albanians had hoped to use their commendable historical story to draw tourists, their synagogue now languishes and decays. Meanwhile, Nazi concentration and death camps, above all Auschwitz, are sites of pilgrimage and remembrance—and a source of significant tourism revenues to Germany and Poland.
Why go one place rather than another? Albanians saved "their" Jews—are they owed something in return by Jewish tourists? Or should Jews instead visit Germany and Poland, to keep the Jewish histories of those countries from falling victim to the Nazis, to rebuild Jewish life, or even to offer prayers at cemeteries?
The scale of the problem is overwhelming, as there is no end to Jewish heritage sites. Everywhere Jews lived, they left behind schools and synagogues, dwellings, markets and factories, and cemeteries. Few of these sites are beautiful. Proportionally, sand-floor synagogues in Curaçao are vastly outnumbered by destroyed or usurped synagogues in Ukraine or Belarus. And everywhere there are the cemeteries, mass graves, and other assorted killing fields—overgrown and forgotten, ploughed up, or routinely desecrated. Another responsibility thus looms, to preserve the dignity of the Jewish dead.
But the synagogue of Onchesmos deserves to be seen—and not only by Jews. After all, remembering that Jews were a vital part of the Mediterranean world is, if nothing else, important to understanding that they remain a living part of that world today. Archeologists have responsibilities as well, not only to preserve the remains but to present them in such a way that they become at least a small part of the living present. Otherwise they should be left in peace.
Alex Joffe is a research scholar with the Institute for Jewish and Community Research.
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