A chance discovery during renovations of a building in this Atlantic port city has revealed a secret from Portugal’s past: a 16th-century synagogue.
Built at a time when Portugal’s Jews had been forced to convert to Catholicism or risk being burned at the stake, the house of worship was hidden behind a false wall in a four-story house that Father Agostinho Jardim Moreira, a Roman Catholic priest, was converting into a home for old-age parishioners.
A scholar of Porto’s Jewish history, he says that as soon as the workers told him of the wall, “I knew there had to be some kind of Jewish symbol behind it.”
His hunch was confirmed when the wall came down to reveal a carved granite repository, about five feet tall, arched at the top and facing east toward Jerusalem. It was the ark where the medieval Jews kept their Torah scrolls. Pieces of decorative green tiles in the ark further confirmed the age of the ark when specialists dated their glazing to a method used in the 16th century.
“It’s quite exciting. You feel part of history when you see it,” said the Israeli ambassador to Portugal, Aaron Ram, who has been involved in efforts to preserve the ark since its discovery last year. “It’s a very important site. … We all have to remember our history, so we can be prepared for the future.”
Only two other arks from the period had been found in Portugal, and in November, the Portuguese Institute of Architectural Heritage authenticated this one as the third.
The building of thick granite walls stands on cobbled Sao Miguel Street. At its rear, steep steps lead down to a warren of alleys ideal for conspiratorial comings and goings around an outlawed synagogue.
Father Jardim Moreira, 64, knew his parish had been an officially designated Jewish quarter in the 15th and 16th centuries. He also knew that after the Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism in 1496, many privately kept their faith and worshipped in secret, behaving like Catholics in public.
“I suspected that false wall was hiding something,” the priest said.
The workers’ sledgehammer solved an enigma that had baffled historians, said Elvira Mea, a lecturer at the University of Porto who specializes in Jewish history.
Immanuel Aboab, a Jewish scholar born in Porto in the mid-16th century, had written that as a child he visited a synagogue in the third house along the street counting down from the 14th-century Our Lady of Victory Church.
But he didn’t specify which side of the street, and archaeological digs turned up nothing.
“Everyone assumed Aboab had got his dates mixed up,” said Miss Mea. “But it had been preying on my mind, and as soon as I saw the ark, all the pieces fell into place. I was so happy I could hardly believe it.”
The secret synagogue dates from a convulsive period in the Jewish history of the Iberian Peninsula.
In 1492, neighboring Spain had expelled all Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism, and some 60,000 poured across the border into Portugal. At a time of Portuguese empire-building, they prospered, but they were kept at arm’s length, forced to live in a Jewish quarter, and subject to a curfew.
Then came the harsher crackdown. Portugal’s King Manuel I, hoping to seal a royal alliance with Spain’s powerful rulers, Ferdinand and Isabella, by marrying their daughter, forced the Jews to convert.
Some fled, but those who stayed were subjected to humiliating public baptisms. They were designated “New Christians” or “Marranos,” Iberian slang for pigs. Even then, they remained at risk from religious persecution. In 1506, some 3,000 Jews were massacred in Lisbon.
Father Jardim Moreira said he intends to place a protective glass screen over the ark while authorities decide how it can be exhibited.