Priest's hunch finally uncovers Porto's hidden holy scrolls

Few people ever knew, but the medieval alleys of the Portuguese city of Porto on the Atlantic coast once provided cover for a persecuted minority at risk of being burnt at the stake.

In the 16th century, a thick-walled granite house that still stands in a row of narrow buildings along a cobbled street held a dangerous secret. At the back, steep steps lead down to a warren of alleys ideal for conspiratorial comings and goings that helped keep an outlawed religious ceremony hidden.

Four centuries later, the secret of the synagogue is out. The mystery began unravelling when Fr Agostinho Jardim Moreira, a Catholic priest, bought the four-storey house for use as an old people's home for his parish. When construction workers told him they had come across a false wall, he told them to pull it down - sensing a hidden tale.

He had studied the city's Jewish history and knew his parish had been a Jewish quarter in the 15th and 16th centuries. He also knew that, after they were forced to convert to Catholicism in 1496, many Jews privately kept their faith and worshipped in secret. "I suspected that false wall was hiding something," said Fr Moreira. "I knew there had to be some kind of Jewish symbol behind it."

A worker's sledgehammer proved his hunch right. Beyond the wall was a room with a medieval holy ark - a nook in the wall of a synagogue where Torah scrolls are kept. Only two other arks from the period have been found in Portugal.

After corroboration by historians, the Portuguese Institute of Architectural Heritage authenticated the house last month as the site of a secret synagogue.

The chance discovery solved an enigma that had baffled historians for years, said Elvira Mea, a lecturer who specialises in Jewish history at the University of Porto. Immanuel Aboab, a 16th-century Jewish scholar, had written that, as a child, he had visited a synagogue in the third house along the street counting from the 14th-century Our Lady of Victory church.

But he didn't specify which side of the street, and archaeological digs had turned up nothing. Then came confirmation of the accuracy of Aboab's text: the house Fr Moreira bought was the third house down on the street the Jewish scholar had described.

Historians had been thrown off by the fact that Aboab never described the synagogue as clandestine. His childhood experiences took place five decades after the forced conversion - at a time when secret Jewish worshippers would be tortured and burnt at the stake if caught - so there was no chance a synagogue could function in the open.

"Everyone assumed Aboab had got his dates mixed up," said Professor Mea. "But it had been preying on my mind and, as soon as I saw the ark, all the pieces fell into place."

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
News
Keith Fraser says we should give Isis sympathises free flights to join Isis (AFP)
news
Life and Style
Google celebrates the 126th anniversary of the Eiffel Tower opening its doors to the public for the first time
techGoogle celebrates Paris's iconic landmark, which opened to the public 126 years ago today
News
Cleopatra the tortoise suffers from a painful disease that causes her shell to disintegrate; her new prosthetic one has been custom-made for her using 3D printing technology
newsCleopatra had been suffering from 'pyramiding'
News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Coachella and Lollapalooza festivals have both listed the selfie stick devices as “prohibited items”
music
Sport
Nigel Owens was targeted on Twitter because of his sexuality during the Six Nations finale between England and France earlier this month
rugbyReferee Nigel Owens on coming out, and homophobic Twitter abuse
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Web Designer / Front End Developer

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast expanding web managem...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor