The Roman Ghetto

The word ghetto has become somewhat of a disparaging term in American vernacular, especially those of my generation – see “I totally live in the ghetto” or “that car is ghetto-fabulous” for example. But ghetto is not an adjective, it’s a place: the ghetto.

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The Tiber River waterfront today, across the street from the ghetto. Literally ghetto-adjacent.

But the truth about the idea of the ghetto is that we stole it from the pope. It’s true. The word ghetto is Italian.

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Jewish symbols built into a building in the ghetto

Back in the 1500s, when the Vatican controlled an independent kingdom in Italy called the Papal States, the ruling Pope issued a decree that all Jews in Rome would be forced to live in a walled neighborhood less than eight acres in size. Gates would be manned and a curfew enforced. From one hour after sunset until sunrise, no Jews were allowed to leave the ghetto. All of Rome’s Jews at the time – some 2000 people – were rounded up and relocated to the ghetto, one of the worst sections of waterfront along the Tiber River. That figure would more than double to over 4000 Jews.

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Ponte Fabricio – the oldest bridge in Italy, possibly the oldest bridge still in use in the world

Although this was a crushing number of people in such a small area and the land was subject to frequent flooding, the inhabitants of the ghetto found their new-found segregation helpful in some ways. They now lived in an area where there was no Catholic influence, and they were able to worship more openly. They also formed a very strong sense of community, free from the dilution that comes with living as a minority group in a large city.

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The Great Synagogue of Rome, built in the Roman Ghetto

When the Ghetto was finally abolished in the late 1800’s, the Jews rejoiced and built a large synagogue along the river. They had to commission all the stonework, however, since in the transpiring 400 years no one remained in the ghetto who possessed the skills of stonemasonry.

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Some of the many faces that adorn the Ponte Fabricio bridge

Today, the Ghetto occupies the same plot of land that it did 500 years ago, near the Ponte Fabricio bridge, built by the Romans more than 2000 years ago and in constant use all that time.

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Flowing Tiber River

There are still many references to the district’s past, from references to Judaism in the architecture, to street names (Piazza Giudea).

We passed through here looking for the best bakery in Rome, according to TripAdvisor. We couldn’t find it. But we did find some other cool things.

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There were so many peppers that I could taste the heat from them ten feet away

Like this chili pepper shop. You could smell the heat coming out of this place, it was unreal.

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An artichoke bouquet

Also apparently, the only place in the world where artichokes are cooked correctly is in this neighborhood. A number of restaurants feature them.

And of course, it wouldn’t be Italy without an accordion player, or some roman ruins.

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An old Roman road passing through the city

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The story of the ghetto is a very sad one, but today a neighborhood remains as proud and vibrant as any other.

 

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