The building dates to the 15th century and was originally a Venetian Catholic church, the Church of St. Katherine, located in the heart of the small, centuries-old Jewish neighbourhood called Evraiki situated directly behind the harbour-front along Kondylaki, Skoufon, Zambeliou and Portou Streets. The church was damaged in the 1540s during one of the Ottoman Turkish attacks on the city led by the Chief Admiral of the Ottoman fleet, Khair ad-Din Kapdian Pasha, otherwise known as Barbarossa. In the mid to late 17th century, after the eventual Ottoman conquest of Crete (1669), the building was acquired by Hania’s Jewish community who then converted it into a synagogue. Prior to the Second World War, Kal kadosh Etz Hayyim, a Romaniote synagogue, together with Beth Shalom (bombed in 1941), a Sephardic synagogue, served the needs of Hania’s Jewish community. Once the community was deported in 1944, Etz Hayyim was looted and desecrated and then occupied by squatters until the mid-1950s. From that time until the mid-1990s, the derelict synagogue served as a repository of neighbourhood rubbish, and invariably as a chicken pen, dog kennel and storeroom.
Etz Hayyim Synagogue Today
Since 2010, Etz Hayyim has been operated by a non-profit organisation in cooperation with the Central Board of Jewish Communities in Greece (KISE). This non-profit organisation is registered as a charity in Greece and, because Etz Hayyim does not receive any public funding, it raises funds for the maintenance of the synagogue and for the various religious and cultural events to ensure its long-term preservation.
Two decades after its rededication, Etz Hayyim has become a fixture in the religious and socio-cultural life of Hania as a place of prayer, study, recollection and reconciliation. It is an active, non-denominational synagogue used for celebrating various Jewish holidays and non-religious cultural events including lectures, concerts and exhibitions. Its small dedicated staff undertake ongoing research into the history of Cretan Jews at the same time as engaging both local and international school groups and teachers as part of the synagogue’s educational outreach program. The synagogue today welcomes Jews of all different backgrounds, as well as non-Jews and as such, Etz Hayyim stands as perhaps the only active reminder of the once multifaith, multicultural society of Hania and Crete.