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Virtual Jewish World: Delos, Greece

DELOS, a small island in the Cyclades, measuring just 3 miles (5 km.) north to south and nearly 1 mile (1.3 km.) east to west. Its earliest occupation dates to the third millennium B.C.E. The mythological birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, it had become the center of the Apollo cult by the seventh century B.C.E. It is mentioned in Homer's Odyssey and in a Homeric hymn to Apollo. In 478 B.C.E., Delos became the site of the treasury for the Delian League. By the end of the third century B.C.E., there was an influx of traders from all over the Aegean, many of whom established their ancestral cults and associations on the island. Delos also became one of the main centers of the Aegean slave trade. As a thriving cultic, trade, and slaving center, Delos was often raided and caught between local warring factions. By the mid-first century B.C.E., disruptions on Delos had taken their toll, leaving Delos outside the commercial loop. The priest of Apollo no longer lived on Delos, and only returned once a year for the annual ceremonial sacrifice prescribed by the cult. In the second century C.E., the Emperor Hadrian attempted (unsuccessfully) to revive the old Delian festivals but by then, according to Pausanias (8, 33:2), the island was very sparsely inhabited. Delos was abandoned around the fifth century C.E.

While there is some literary evidence relating to Jews on Delos, not a single piece of it refers to the existence of a synagogue. The earliest reference to Jews on Delos is found in I Maccabees (15:15–23). The other piece of literary evidence relating to Delos comes from Josephus (Antiquities 14:213–16) and, interestingly, mentions the Jews on Delos being prevented from following their traditional customs, but there is no mention of a synagogue.

It was André Plassart, of the Ecole française d'Athènes who, during excavations of 1912 and 1913, identified building GD80 on Delos as a synagogue. He relied on six Greek inscriptions, the principal one having been found some 100 yds. (90 m.) north of GD80 in a residential area near the stadium. The other five inscriptions were found scattered within the two main spaces of GD80. Plassart interpreted ID2329 as reading "Agathokles and Lysimachos for the synagogue," whereas it actually reads "Agathokles and Lysimachos for a prayer/votive." It is notable that no direct evidence was found in or around GD80 to identify it as a synagogue.

Plassart also considered that the internal configuration of GD80 was similar to that of later synagogues. However, there are other buildings on Delos with the same configuration as GD80, such as Sarapeion A (GD91) and C (GD100). Coincidentally, the names Agathokles and Lysimachos are mentioned in inscriptions relating to donations to both Sarapeia in IDS 2616 and 2618, raising further doubts about the validity of the ID2329 inscription as relating to a Jewish context.

In 1979, Philippe Fraisse of the Ecole française d'Athènes found two Samaritan inscriptions on Delos not far from GD80. Both inscriptions are in Greek and are dedicated by the "Israelites who offer to Holy Argarizein," clearly indicating the presence of a Jewish and/or Samaritan community on the island. The question is where on the island that community was based and whether or not it had a synagogue or some sort of community or association hall at all.


J.R. Bartlett, 1 Maccabees (1998); P. Bruneau, Recherches sur les cultes de Délos à l'époque hellénistique et à l'époque impériale (1970); P. Bruneau and J. Ducat, Guide de Délos (1970); M. Brunet, "Delos," in: Bulletin de correspondence hellénique, 114 (1990), 669–82; F. Durrbach, P. Roussel, A. Plassart et al., Inscriptions de Délos (1921–35); B.D. Mazur, Studies on Jewry in Greece (1935); M. Holleaux Mélanges Holleaux. Recueil de mémoires concernant l'antiquité grecque (1913); L. Matassa, "The Myth of the Synagogue on Delos," in: SOMA (2004; British Archaeological Reports, 2005); J. Overman, and R.S. MacLennan (eds.), Diaspora Jews and Judaism. Essays in Honor of, and in Dialogue with, A. Thomas Kraabel (1992); A. Plassart, "La synagogue juive de Délos," in: Revue Biblique (1914), 23.

[Lidia Domenica Matassa (2nd ed.)]

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.