2015 Spring Jessica Benmen Temple Rome

A Religious Experience

We all know that Rome is headquarters for Francis and his Catholic buddies, but the city is actually home to a few other religious populations as well. This month I checked out some non-Catholic options, and here’s what I found:

Fun Fact: The Saint Paul's mosaics are so special that the Italian government has declared the church a national monument
Fun Fact: The Saint Paul’s mosaics are so special that the Italian government has declared the church a national monument

La Chiesa Episcopale di San Paolo dentro le Mura (Saint Paul’s Within the Walls Episcopal Church)

Not to be confused with Saint Paul Outside the Walls, a Catholic basilica, Saint Paul’s Within the Walls is an Episcopalian Church, not far from the Repubblica metro stop. It was the first Protestant church to be built in Rome and was completed in 1880, ten years after Italian unification marked the end of Papal rule, thus enabling the construction of non-Roman Catholic religious buildings. It’s not quite as grand as the Catholic cathedrals of the city (although its apse mosaic is nothing to scoff at), but what it lacks in size it makes up in coziness.

I went to Saint Paul’s for a Sunday morning mass and immediately felt welcome and comfortable (the fact that the congregation was largely composed of Americans might have had something to do with it). The service was pretty standard, the organ player was great, the reverend was enthusiastic, and I particularly enjoyed the choir members, who sat with the congregation in the pews. Especially nice was the strong sense of community among the congregation—from the children’s aisle, furnished with crayons and toys, to the upcoming programs, including events like “Bibles and Beer” and a movie screening of Into the Woods, it seemed like a really vibrant and active group. If all of that isn’t enough of a recommendation, they also serve coffee and cookies after services.

Don't forget a headscarf at the mosque!
Don’t forget a headscarf at the mosque!

La Moschea di Roma (The Mosque of Rome)

In 1974 the Rome City Council donated a plot of land just north of the city for the purposes of building a mosque, and 20 years later the project was finally completed, rendering Italy home to the largest mosque in Europe. The building was in many ways a testament to the religious tolerance practiced in Italy, in addition to being an impressive display of modernist architecture.

The mosque interior
The mosque interior

From the lush carpets to the beautiful tile mosaic patterns to the incredible curves and spirals of the ceiling, I feel pretty confident in guaranteeing that you’ve never seen anything else like it.

I couldn’t find much information about religious services, but the mosque is open to visitors on Wednesdays and Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. As a sign of respect, women are expected to wear scarves over their heads, and everyone is required to take off their shoes when entering the carpeted areas. Be warned, this is no ordinary tourist attraction, so don’t be surprised if no one knows English (apparently the Imam speaks English, but he wasn’t there when I visited). It’s also really easy to get to the mosque from school—you can take the FC3 tram from Piazza del Popolo and be there in 10-15 minutes—and it’s well worth the trip!

Il Tempio Maggiore di Roma (The Great Synagogue of Rome)

The holy ark, which houses the Torah scrolls
The holy ark, which houses the Torah scrolls

Rome is host to the oldest Jewish population in Europe, dating back to the second century BCE. The Jews resided in Rome without major incident until Christianity was legalized in the empire, at which point their situation worsened progressively, culminating in the Papal institution of the Jewish Ghetto from 1555 to 1870. At the turn of the century the unremarkable ghetto synagogue was replaced by the Tempio Maggiore, a majestic building meant to convey the vitality and permanence of the Jewish community in Rome.

If you’ve ever been to a synagogue in the United States, prepare for something completely different. The Tempio Maggiore is much grander than most American synagogues, and as per European tradition, women sit separately from men on a tall balcony. While the balcony provides a nice view of the synagogue, it also makes it a little more difficult to hear the prayers going on below, which are conducted in Hebrew. I went to a Friday night Shabbat service, which lasted just under an hour.  If you’re interested in doing the same, I recommend checking the start time in advance, as the start of the service depends on the time of sundown. To see the synagogue without going to services, guided tours are provided with an entrance to the Jewish museum, housed in the basement of building.

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