Investigations are under way in the Spanish town of Utrera to determine if the foundations of a medieval synagogue lie under a former pub in the city center. At the same time, on the island of Mallorca another building that may (or may not) have been a medieval synagogue is at the center of research.
These are among the latest examples of a trend that has seen Spanish cities seeking to rediscover their medieval Jewish heritage, both to broaden an understanding of local history and to attract tourists.
It has entailed the recent restoration or planned restoration of buildings known to have been synagogues, such that as in the town of Híjar, which we wrote about in December – but also efforts to seek out or identify sites whose original identity to date has not been confirmed.
In Utrera, a city official told JHE that the municipality had been combing through documents and archival materials since 2015 to try to determine the possible location of the city’s medieval synagogue. This research led it to conclude that the remains of the synagogue could be hidden under an abandoned building in the city center that was used, until two decades ago, as a restaurant and pub.
The city purchased the abandoned building in 2018 and performed preliminary surveys on the site. These indicated that the remains of the Misericordia Hospital that occupied the space from 1492, following the expulsion of Jews from Spain, lie under the building, and beneath that there might be the remains of the synagogue itself.
Nothing can be confirmed, however, without archaeological research on the site. Mayor José María Villalobos and other officials visited the site in February and formally requested the Provincial Commission of Culture and Historical Heritage of the Junta de Andalucía to authorize a first phase of research.
Miguel Ángel de Dios, chief archaeologist of the project, told a news conference that this first phase of the works would last approximately a month and consist of carrying out surveys below elevation and reading of walls, which will help date the different layers of the property. Further research would be based on these findings. He said one of the points to investigate is whether the currently standing walls might have been part of a synagogue.
Watch excerpts from the news conference:
(Click here to watch the entire news conference)
De Dios also added that once these excavations are carried out, “we will look for the characteristic elements of a synagogue, such as the niche that hosts the Torah scrolls, the women’s gallery, and the mikveh in an adjacent space.” Antonio Jaramillo, chief architect for the project, said the synagogue’s foundations could lie around a meter and a half below the current level of the building.
Mayor Villalobos said that if it was confirmed that a medieval synagogue had existed on the site, “it would be a bombshell from a patrimonial and touristic point of view.”
He said that at the moment the city can count on €500,000 in municipal funding for the project, which could be increased, if needed.
The possibility of finding a synagogue there, “represents an inestimable value under many points of view,” Utrera’s cultural officer María del Carmen Cabra Carmona told JHE.
On the one hand, [we want] to rescue a very important part of our history, the history of our city and its people, of a part of our population and of our families who were repudiated and expelled, and who will now have the opportunity to know and value their origins. It’s time to reunite.
But also, she added, “At the heritage level, [the possible discovery of a synagogue] has a magnificent potential, that would enrich our city and bring a less frequent kind of tourism.”
Another building that may (or may not) have been a medieval synagogue is being investigated in the city of Inca, on the island of Mallorca. The building, called Can Monroig and located in the city’s former Jewish quarter, was restored in 2004-2009 by Marie-Noëlle Ginard Féron and Robert López Hinton, old building restorers who use it as their residence and work studio.
During the restoration several architectural features that may point to it as having been a synagogue came to light. These, the couple said, include the apparent layout of the building, the possible location of the women’s gallery and the Ark, the entrance from a secondary street, and the presence of wells, possibly indicating a mikveh.
Only in 2012, however, did Ginard Féron and López Hinton realize that the building could have been a synagogue. “The first time we were told about a mikveh, we didn’t even know what it was,” they told JHE. “From there we looked for information, we visited Girona and Besalú [where two centuries-old mikvaot are located] and ultimately, we started to be interested in Jewish culture and history.”
The couple also run Can Monroig as an art gallery and cultural venue and have hosted events such as theatre performances, concerts, dances and exhibitions. In 2018, it also hosted a Rosh Hashanah service organized by the Jewish educational program Limud Mallorca — watch the video!
“The city council of Inca is following with great interest how the research on the Jewish quarter is evolving,” Ginard Féron and López Hinton said. They said a study on Can Monroig and the hypothesis of it being a synagogue by art historian Guillem Reus Planells will soon be published. Other scholars have also been conducting research.
In a web site and brochure about the project, the couple said their aim was to
form a collective of historians, archaeologists, architects, artists, etc to study Can Monroig and the Jewish quarter of Inca” to together develop “the hypothesis of Can Monroig as the synagogue of Inca (1346-1391). The need to investigate the historical archives and to develop an archaeological project to uncover areas of the house like the kiln, wells and the hejal [ark] niches and uncovering elements such as the balconies and niches in the matroneum area.
Ginard Féron and López Hinton told JHE that whatever the outcome of research, they plan to continue to live in the building, but might create a Jewish exhibition there.
“Revaluing the old Jewish quarter of Inca would be very positive because towns and their inhabitants have to know their origins in order to know themselves,” they said. “Making the Jewish quarter of Inca known to all of Mallorca and to those who visit us seems like a good reason to continue pursuing our cultural project.”