Etz Hayim Synagogue

Historical Background (including Crete as a whole)

The island of Crete has had a history quite distinctly its own, due to its relative isolation from the mainland of Greece and its proximity to North Africa, Egypt, and the coast of Palestine. Depending on the dominant power in the eastern Mediterranean, Crete has thus been drawn into various orbits of influence, political and economic.

Left: The "throne of Moses" in the remains of the Delos synagogue, 1st century B.C.E.

Once Crete had emerged from some 2000 years of in-fighting and relative isolation after the Dorian invasions the island found itself centrally located in the new international world that had been created by Alexander the Great. It is into this world that not long after Jews began to settle in great numbers in many of the new Hellenistic cities such as Alexandria, Antioch, Ephesus and along the coast of Asia Minor. We can assume that many began to settle as well in Crete which was in close proximity to all of them as well as central to new routes of trade that linked Rhodes, Delos and Thessaloniki.

The Jews of Crete are first mentioned in 2 Maccabees and appear to have had a community at Gortys. This city came into administrative prominence during Hellenistic times and attracted artisans and technicians from Alexandria. It is likely that the members of this early Jewish community were originally from Egypt. Inscriptions found on the island of Delos indicating the existence of a Samaritan community at Knossos/Herakleion in the 1st century B.C.E., make it likely that a Jewish community also existed there.


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