There were Jews in Rome before there were Christians; the first evidence dates back to 150 BC when emissaries of the Maccabees were sent to their co-religionists in the up-and-coming power in the west. For most of these 2,150 years, though, their places of worship were low-key affairs. There is a handsome but small structure in Ostia Antica, very much on the edge of the town, and another in Trastevere, a mediaeval synagogue.

In 1555 the Jews of Rome were confined to a ghetto, between Teatro Marcello, Portico dOttavia, modern-day Via Arenula and the banks of the Tiber. This was an area where they had always lived, but this time with no choice to live elsewhere and with gates closed every night. The short-lived republics in the 19th century gave the community brief moments of freedom and removed the walls and gates, but the ghetto was not definitely abolished until 1870 when papal rule ended and Rome became the capital of Italy.

Then for the first time in two millennia, the Jews of Rome did not have to hide their place of worship for fear of inviting reprisals. Most of the old ghetto was demolished and the building which housed the existing synagogues was destroyed in 1893. All that remains of them is the name of the square where they used to stand: Piazza delle Cinque Scole.

Like Jews throughout Europe in that age of emancipation, the Romans sought a style for their new synagogue which was imposing and expressed their freedom, but which could not be mistaken for a place of Christian worship. The style is known as "Assyro-Babylonian", a fin de sicle evocation of a mythical Jewish past. The architects were Osvaldo Armanni and Vincenzo Costa who took their inspiration from the Florence synagogue built in 1882 and the 1874 Rue de la Victoire synagogue in Paris. In Rome, the synagogue had to have a dome, but this one was square and it was made of aluminium, which was modern, and distinguished it from the churches. Less modern, at least for visiting liberal or reform Jews is the matroneum, the womens gallery. One of the arks, containing the scrolls of the law, comes from the 16th-century Sicilian synagogue, and next month when the centenary celebrations begin, seven of the scrolls used in the original inauguration a century ago will be used once again, this time in the presence of Italys president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.

The synagogue was built, as the chief rabbi said in his inaugural sermon, "above the ruins of the ancient ghetto". The president of the Jewish community was close to the liberal Risorgimento politics of the day and, very conscious that emancipation from papal rule had taken place just 30 years previously, he emphasised Italian Jews loyalty to the new, united and secular Italy. The temple, he said, was built "between the Capitol and the Janiculum, between the monuments to Victor Emmanuel II and Garibaldi, the two builders of our Italy; a temple which is majestically free and surrounded by the pure and free sun sign of freedom, equality and love."

That loyalty was betrayed by both Italy and Victor Emmanuel III personally when he signed Mussolinis racial laws without demur in 1938. There are plaques inside and outside the synagogue which bear witness to the hopes and tragedies of the last century of the Roman Jewish community. A visit by king Victor Emmanuel III is rememberd (there were prayers for his health in every Saturdays services, in contrast to the churches), as are the dead of world war one. The 2,091 Jews deported by the Nazis between 1943 and 1944 are remembered along with the victims of the Ardeatine cave massacre in March 1944, 75 of whom were Jewish.

After world war two, the synagogue could once again fulfill its function openly as the centre of the community. There was tragedy in 1982 when a Palestinian bomb killed a child and wounded many others, but there have also been signs of positive change. Pope John XXIII broke with papal aloofness when he stopped his car outside the synagogue in a gesture of friendliness in the early 1960s. John Paul II took a momentous step in 1986 when he became the first pope to visit those whom his predecessors had considered their Jewish subjects. However, he has declined an invitation to attend the centenary celebrations, saying in a letter to the Jewish community that he wished to keep the 1986 visit a "unique event". The Pope will be represented by Cardinal Ruini, his deputy as bishop of Rome, and Cardinal Kasper, head of the pontifical council for inter-religious dialogue.

Todays chief rabbi, Riccardo Di Segni, describes the building as a "visible symbol of freedom and equality. We are looking forward to a joyful event with the participation of the whole city." The mayor of Rome, Walter Veltroni, has been at the forefront of the organisation of the celebrations emphasising how much the community is part of the city. The Jewish community has recently become the focus of political contention once again with parts of the political right trying to dispel the remnants of its former anti-semitism. There is also controversy over a museum of the Shoah planned for Rome; its precise location is being fought over by the city administration, governed by parties of the centre-left, and the Lazio regional government, under the control of the centre-right.

In the meantime, the synagogue begins its second century.

Centenary celebrations

23 May, 16.00. President Ciampi will take part in a ceremony to bring the seven Sefarim (scrolls of the law), used in the original dedication in 1904, to the synagogue.

13 May-31 October. "The Temple and the emancipation of the Jews of Rome". Exhibition in the newly restored halls under the temple, organised by Bice Migliau.

20 May. Commemorative stamps issued in Italy and in Israel.

17 June, 21.00. Concert in the Auditorium-Parco della Musica, in the Sala S. Cecilia.

16-17 June. International conference; "Jews and emancipation in the formation of the European consciousness". University of Rome, Tor Vergata.

24 October. International rabbinical conference: "The contribution to Jewish culture by Italys Jews".

For information contact: Comunicare Organizzando, Viale B. Buozzi 77, tel. 06/3225380.

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