Builders Reveal Hidden Synagogue and Dark Era of Portugal's Past

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PORTO. A chance discovery in recent months during renovations of a building in this Atlantic port city has revealed a dark secret from Portugal's past: a 16th-century synagogue.

Built when Portugal's Jews had been forced to convert to Catholicism or risk being burned at the stake, the house of worship was hidden behind a false wall in a four-story house that the Rev. Agostinho Jardim Moreira, a Roman Catholic priest, was converting into a home for some older parishioners.

Father Moreira, a scholar of Porto's Jewish history, said that as soon as the workers told him of the wall, "I knew there had to be some kind of Jewish symbol behind it."

His hunch was confirmed when the wall came down to reveal a carved granite repository, about five feet tall, arched at the top and facing east toward Jerusalem. It was the ark where the medieval Jews kept their Torahs. The ark contained pieces of decorative green tile that further confirmed its age. Specialists determined that the tiles had been glazed by a method used in the 16th century.

"It's quite exciting," said the Israeli ambassador to Portugal, Aaron Ram, who has been involved in efforts to preserve the ark. "You feel part of history when you see it."

"It's a very important site," he added. "We all have to remember our history so we can be prepared for the future."

Only two other arks from the period have been found in Portugal, and last month the Portuguese Institute of Architectural Heritage authenticated this one as the third.

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