Monday, December 26, 2005

Marrano Synagogue revealed in Portugal

From NY Times:

A chance discovery in recent months during renovations of a building in this Atlantic port city has revealed a dark secret from Portugal's past: a 16th-century synagogue.

Built 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 the Rev. Agostinho Jardim Moreira, a Roman Catholic priest, was converting into a home for some older parishioners.

Father Moreira, a scholar of Porto's Jewish history, said 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 Torahs. The ark contained pieces of decorative green tile that further confirmed its age. Specialists determined that the tiles had been glazed by a method used in the 16th century.

"It's quite exciting," said the Israeli ambassador to Portugal, Aaron Ram, who has been involved in efforts to preserve the ark. "You feel part of history when you see it."

"It's a very important site," he added. "We all have to remember our history so we can be prepared for the future."

Only two other arks from the period have been found in Portugal, and last month the Portuguese Institute of Architectural Heritage authenticated this one as the third.

Father Moreira, 64, said he knew that his parish had been an officially designated the Jewish quarter in the 15th and 16th centuries. He also knew that after the Jews here were forced to convert to Catholicism in 1496, many Jews privately kept their faith and worshiped secretly, while publicly following Catholic rituals.

"I suspected that false wall was hiding something," he said.

The workers solved an enigma that had baffled historians, said Elvira Mea, a University of Porto lecturer who specializes in Jewish history.

Immanuel Aboab, a Jewish scholar born in Porto in the mid-16th century, wrote that as a child he had visited a synagogue in the third house on the street counting from the 14th-century Our Lady of Victory church.

But he did not specify which side of the street, and archaeological digs turned up nothing.
"Everyone assumed Aboab had got his dates mixed up," said Ms. 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 expelled all Jews who would not convert to Catholicism, and 60,000 of them poured across the border into Portugal. They prospered, but were kept at arm's length, forced to live in a Jewish quarter subject to a curfew.

Then came harsher action. 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 of religious persecution. In 1506, about 3,000 Jews were massacred in Lisbon.

Father Moreira said he intended to place a protective glass screen over the ark while authorities decided how it to exhibit it.