The building of Etz Hayyim Synagogue dates back to the mid-15th century, when the Venetians began an intensive building programme in Hania. The powerful gothic arches and a carved oculus in the main pediment attest to this Venetian origin.
During the restoration, evidence of a large entrance was found in the centre of the east wall, just behind of what is today the Ehal. It was also discovered that the original floor level was about 80 cm beneath the present floor. Equally, in keeping with the usual dimensions of a Gothic church, the building must have extended somewhat further to the west. Therefore, great changes must have been made to the original 15th century building. The cause of these changes is linked to Crete’s contested ownership.
In the early 16th century, the Ottomans began seriously to apply themselves to the conquest of Crete, the last major part of the Greek territory not yet belonging to their Empire. Several expeditions were sent under the Chief Admiral of the Ottoman fleet, Khair ad-Din Kapdian Pasha, also known as Barbarossa. In the 1540s he heavily bombarded Hania on several occasions. During the synagogue’s restoration, two Ottoman iron cannon balls were found, one imbedded deep in a pier, the other in the outer street wall. It seems that the original Venetian church had suffered heavy bombardment and was then left abandoned to the elements, without a roof.
Sometime after the Ottoman conquest of Hania in 1645, a century after Barbarossa, the site was acquired by the Jewish community and significant changes were made. The floor was filled in with broken rubble from the site, curtain walls were added encapsulating the Venetian piers and arches, and a low arch was constructed on the west wall to sever the building from the remaining ruins behind it.
In the late 19th century, with financial assistance from the Alliance Israélite Universèlle, the marble floor was laid. Around the year 1900, repairs were carried out, with funds provided by Albert Rothschild of Vienna, on the synagogue building and the main gate, which had suffered damage during an earthquake.
During the bombing and strafing of Hania in May 1941, at the beginning of the battle of Crete, Etz Hayyim Synagogue was spared a full hit, but its main women’s section was destroyed. Beth Shalom Synagogue, located in the immediate vicinity, suffered considerable damage and was later completely removed.
After the arrest of the community, Etz Hayyim Synagogue was desecrated and looted and the Jewish Quarter was re-settled by squatters as due to the 1941 bombing of Hania available housing was quite limited. Some squatters set themselves to the task of digging into walls, the marble paving stones in the sanctuary and the flagstones of the Mikveh, possibly in a search for buried valuables. The interior of Etz Hayyim was then divided into makeshift partitions, oddly enough utilizing components from the Bima and Ehal as well as benches. The stone pediment over the main gate was torn down and its sections, including its Hebrew inscription, were incorporated into a fill blocking the window of the minor women’s gallery. All of the Gothic arches in the synagogue were filled in with bricks and set with square windows. The inscription over the entrance to the synagogue proper was gouged out and a lighting fixture set in its centre.
The three rabbinical tombs in the south courtyard were broken open and what remained of the burials were scattered in the area. The interior of the Mikveh suffered no less. An opening was bricked in and a partition was erected, cutting off the ritual bath from the dressing area.
After its reopening, the Synagogue had to face another incident of serious damage, when in 2010 two arson attacks were committed within ten days.
Photos 1, 2: © Anastasios Skikos
Photos 3, 5, 6, 7: © The Jewish Museum of Greece
Photo 8: © Nikos Stavroulakis
Photos 9, 10, 11: © Etz Hayyim Synagogue