1996 World Monuments Watch
The Etz Hayim Synagogue is the only surviving Jewish monument on Crete, and home to the only surviving mikveh, or ceremonial bath, in Greece. The structure was originally a fifteenth-century church dedicated to St. Catherine. In the seventeenth century, the Jewish community of Hania acquired the church, which by then had been vacated, and converted it into the Kal Kadosh Etz Hayim, or Holy Congregation of the Tree of Life. The synagogue, which housed both a Beth Midrash, or Talmudic school, and the communal mikveh, became an important center for the Haniote Jewish population. By the early twentieth century, however, many Jews had left Hania. In 1941, Nazi forces deported all 376 remaining Jews on Crete when they captured the island. The ship carrying the prisoners was attacked and sunk, killing all those aboard.
The Etz Hayim Synagogue remained standing but suffered some bomb damage in World War II. The site was abandoned at the end of the war. Additionally, the structure was damaged by earthquakes in 1992 and 1995. Etz Hayim was included on the 1996 World Monuments Watch.
A showcase of Cretan Jewish history
Following the site’s inclusion on the Watch, World Monuments Fund supported a conservation project at Etz Hayim. The aim of the project was to restore the synagogue, which retained architectural elements from the original Church of St. Catherine, as a functioning place of worship and educational center for Jewish history in Crete. In 1998, WMF rebuilt the roofs and walls to protect against structural fragility, water damage, and future earthquakes. Architectural features such as the tympanum and oculus were repaired, and dilapidated sections of the building were reassembled from fragmentary stone pieces. A library and community center were created as part of the project. WMF also conserved the courtyard mosaics and interior pavement, cleaned and reassembled the building’s heavy chestnut doors, installed heating and air conditioning outlets, and re-plastered the mikveh. In 2009, conservators completed work on the ezrat nashim, or women’s galleries.
Despite these significant advances, the synagogue remained a target for vandals and in early 2010 arson caused major damage to the library and recently restored women’s galleries. Fortunately, the synagogue was repaired, and today regular services are held at Etz Hayim Synagogue for a small congregation. The temple also serves as a cultural and historical research center, and it has become a tourist destination and showcase of Cretan Jewish history.
Since the Watch
In July 2016, a mobile phone application that allows visitors to discover the Etz Hayim Synagogue and learn more about the Jewish heritage of Crete was developed. It is expected that this app will help to create a better understanding of the island’s rich Jewish history, which dates as far back as the second century B.C.