Archaeologists uncover rare 14th-century Spanish synagogue

MADRID (AP) — Archaeologists in the southern Spanish town of Utrera confirmed on Tuesday they had uncovered a 14th-century synagogue hidden within a building that was later converted into a church, hospital and most recently a bar.

Archaeologist Miguel Ángel de Dios told journalists that “the first thing to confirm is the presence of the prayer room” following years of analysis of the building's walls and floor.

“The fundamental elements of the synagogue, such as the entrance hall,” he said, “or the perimeter benches that have emerged in this survey, now confirm that we are indeed in the prayer hall.”

The only hint of the Jewish temple’s existence came from a priest and historian, Rodrigo Caro, who wrote in 1604 that a hospital now stood on a site where Jews used to pray. There are a tiny handful of medieval synagogues surviving in Spain, including in the cities of Toledo and Cordoba.

The Utrera synagogue was converted into a church in the 16th century, de Dios added, when all traces of its Jewish past were erased. His team now hopes to identify the pulpit and a bath used for rituals.

“We now have the scientific certainty that we are standing in a medieval synagogue,” Utrera mayor José María Villalobos said. “The state of conservation of the synagogue, being partial, is nevertheless exceptional,” he added.

Attracting tourists interested in Spain's Jewish past has become a key focus for towns with historic traces in recent years.

In 1492, Spain's Catholic monarchs, Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon, decreed that Spain's 200,000-strong Jewish population convert to Christianity or be expelled.

Spain has attempted in recent years to make amends for what the government termed this “historic mistake.” In 2015, the Spanish government allowed the descendants of exiled Sephardic Jews to apply for Spanish citizenship, with 132,226 people doing so.