Archaeologists Discover Pre-Expulsion Synagogue Ark In Sevilla Church

Spanish archaeologists have uncovered the remnants of a medieval synagogue under the church of  Santa Maria la Blanca in Sevilla.

According to Jewish Heritage Europe, the Ark has long been hidden by the church altar. The Ark was where the sacred Torah scrolls were kept.

José María Rincón, the director of the restoration, said that the Ark had been concealed by the wall-sized, gilded baroque altarpiece, built in the mid-1600s. Rincón called the discovery “a unique opportunity to witness an element unseen for 350 years, soon to be veiled once more, likely never to be seen again.” The Ark was in “an exceedingly precarious” condition, he continued.

The Santa Maria la Blanca church functioned as a mosque from the 11th century until the Catholic reconquest of Seville in 1248. After this, the building became a synagogue, located in the centre of the medieval Jewish quarter.

However, in 1391, over half of Spain’s Jews were forced to convert to Christianity as a result of religious persecution and pogroms. The building was subsequently turned into a catholic church.

Any remaining Jews were expelled or forced to convert in 1492, when the Catholic Monarchs; Ferdinand and Isabella instituted the Alhambra Decree, otherwise known as the Edict of Expulsion, which ordered the expulsion of between 45,000 to 200,000 practicing Jews from Spain.

Jews forced to convert during this time are sometimes called conversos. Those who continued to practice were known as Crypto Jews.

The Santa Maria la Blanca church underwent architectural alterations over the centuries, culminating in the Baroque aesthetic we still see today after its altarpiece construction in 1657-1660. The intricate structure features twisted columns framing an image of the Virgin Mary and Jesus.

Before work began on restoration in November 2023, Rincón told local media that he believed the remains of the medieval synagogue would be uncovered. Historians had previously suggested that the altar’s location was the site of the original Synagogue Ark.

The altarpiece was then dismantled for restoration, a project commandeered by the Heritage and Urban Planning Department of the Andalusian regional government.

The remnants of the Ark will once again be obscured by the altarpiece once its restoration is completed.

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