Over the centuries, this versatile building has been transformed from a holy temple to a hospital, home for abandoned children, a bustling restaurant, and even a lively disco-pub. But that’s not all! This site has a rich history, with references being made about it more than 400 years ago, making it a truly remarkable find.
This discovery of the rare Spanish medieval synagogue makes it one of a select few to have survived the aftermath of the infamous expulsion of the Jewish people from Spain in 1492. This was following the Alhambra Decree, which was enacted to protect the Catholic population of Spain. Jewish people were either forced to flee Spain or convert to the dominant religion.
A team led by the archaeologist Miguel Ángel de Dios discovered the Torah ark area and the prayer hall. ( Utrera city hall )
A Lost Temple and its Wider Historical Association
The primary source for the lost temple comes from a local priest, historian, and poet named Rodrigo Caro, who described the area of the city center in his 1604 historical documentation of Utrera . He wrote about a place where “only foreign and Jewish people…had their synagogue where the Hospital de la Misericordia now stands.” Archaeologist Miguel Ángel de Dios said that “it was like cracking hieroglyphics. Once we had that key, it all came together.”
The significance of this find cannot be overstated, as it is only one of four such buildings in all of Spain, reports The Guardian . The mayor of Utrera, José María Villalobos, spoke about the two-year search and how it means that “we can now be scientifically certain that we’re standing in a medieval synagogue right now.”
Excavations inside the rare medieval Spanish synagogue. ( Utrera city hall )
The city council’s decision to purchase the property for €460,000 four years ago has been justified by this discovery. Moreover, it represents an opportunity for the city to recover its history and attract tourists and researchers.
The plan is to open the site to the public visits as the archaeological work continues. Although the women’s area and the ritual bath have yet to be discovered, the site could still hold many more secrets, according to de Dios. The next phase of the investigation will look for a rabbinical house and religious school nearby.
The significance of this find extends far beyond its architectural value. De Dios said:
“Apart from the heritage value – this is a building with an important history that was once a synagogue – the thing that makes me happiest is knowing that we can get back a very, very important part of not just Utrera’s history, but also the history of the Iberian peninsula.”
The Story of Othering in Spain: The Alhambra Decree and Judaism and Islam
The story of the Sephardic Jews in Spain was almost erased or hidden for a long time, but the discovery of this former synagogue-cum-hospital-cum-children’s-home-cum-bar could help Spaniards reflect on their past and present. This is in addition to Spain’s history with Islam.
It was only in 2015 that the Spanish government passed a law offering citizenship to descendants of Jews expelled in 1492 in an attempt to make amends for a historical error. Over 130,000 people applied for citizenship under this program before it ended in 2019.
The Alhambra Decree represents a dark chapter in Spanish history and serves as a reminder of the devastating consequences of religious intolerance and prejudice. It was a royal edict issued on March 31, 1492 by King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile, ordering the expulsion of Jews from the Kingdom of Spain and its territories and possessions.
The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain (in the year 1492)’ by Emilio Sala y Francés. ( Public Domain )
The edict was named after the Alhambra, the palace in Granada where it was signed. The decree stated that all Jews who did not convert to Catholicism had to leave the country by July 31, 1492. The deadline was later extended to December 31 of that year.
It was estimated that around 200,000 Jewish people were expelled from Spain as a result of the decree. Those who did not convert to Catholicism were forced to flee, often with only the clothes on their backs and with no chance to recover their property or assets. Many of the expelled individuals settled in North Africa, the Ottoman Empire , and other parts of Europe, while others continued their journey to the Americas.
De Dios hopes that this discovery will provide an opportunity for Sephardic Jews to speak to us through a window or megaphone and for Spaniards to listen and learn about their history and heritage. This is a unique opportunity to reflect on the Sephardic diaspora and to not get too focused on the building itself, but to consider the greater historical and cultural context.
Jewish people were not the only ones adversely impacted by the Alhambra Decree. Islam, which had a long and storied history in the Mediterranean and Iberian Peninsular area, faced a post-Crusade fury from the Catholic Church, in cahoots with the ruling intelligentsia of Western Europe. In the case of Spain, the Alhambra Decree was an ethnic cleansing event, part of the Spanish Inquisition and the wider policy of religious purification and conversion by Catholic monarchs.