The project to preserve the medieval synagogue in Hijar, Spain, was the subject of a feature article by Jewish Heritage Europe this month.
The Foundation for Jewish Heritage has been working closely with Luis Carlos Marquesan, Mayor of Hijar in Spain, and volunteer leader, Lucia Conte Aguilar, on the plan, and it is hoped the building will eventually be restored and adapted to serve as a Sephardi Heritage Centre.
The feature article is reproduced below:
Spain: 3-year restoration work at medieval synagogue in Hijar is winding up; remarkable finds during the process, including remains of the bimah, document its history
Extensive restoration work is winding up at the former medieval synagogue in Híjar, a small town in the northern Spanish region of Aragon. The first stage of work in 2017 revealed striking evidence of the building’s history, including the foundations of the bimah and wall paintings showing a menorah and Hebrew inscription. A second stage of work is expected to be completed by the end of the year.
The synagogue was built in the early 15th century in the mudejar style, a fusion of Muslim and Christian influences typical of Spain from the 13th to the 15th century. However, after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, it was transformed into a church, as were many other synagogues in the country. The church was dedicated to St. Anthony the Abbot, and today, though still a church, the synagogue is known as St. Anthony’s Synagogue.
It was officially declared an Aragonese Cultural Heritage site in 2018 following the remarkable discoveries made in 2017.
Little was known materially about the synagogue until then. During the works, which began seven years after the partial collapse of the roof, major structural damage that had been concealed by previous repairs was discovered, and wall paintings hidden for centuries were revealed — including fragments of paintings showing a seven-branched menorah and an inscription in Hebrew.
In addition, archeologists excavating inside the building identified other elements documenting that the building had been a synagogue. These included the remains of the bimah and its two access stairs.
The bimah would have been a square structure equipped with corner pillars to support a wooden floor, with two ladder-like wooden stairs, facing each other to the north and the south of this platform, by which the platform could be accessed — similar to the platform shown in the anonymous Catalan painting of Christ Among the Doctors.
“The Híjar synagogue preserves all the elements of a medieval synagogue, which is something extremely rare,” archaeologist Antonio Hernández Pardos said in a video by the local news site La Comarca in 2019. He spoke during a visit to the synagogue by members of the Moreshet Jewish Heritage Network, which links several cities, towns, regions and organizations involved in Jewish heritage activities.
There are remains of the niche where the Ark used to stand, the bimah, the mudejar-style roof, the windows behind which the women used to follow the services, and some decorative elements, including a Hebrew inscription, and a representation of a Menorah.
The total expense of this first stage was around €298,250, funded by the Aragon Region Development Fund for the Teruel province (FITE), where the village is located.
The first half of the second phase of works took place during a three-month period in 2019, funded by around €125.000 from the FITE. The aim was to rehabilitate and stabilize the building’s structure, with the consolidation and repair of the arches, walls and abutments, the placement of a lighter roof, the reinforcement of the choir, and other details.
The second half of these works, currently underway, started at the end of September and should be completed by the end of this year, according to the plans of the Aragon regional council for Territory, Transports and Housing. A total expense of about €41.000 was allocated for it, co-financed by the FITE 2018 fund.
The works include the replacement of the nave floor and the choir’s plaster floor, the restoration of the access doors and the sacristy, the installation of a structure to access the interior of the bell tower, the installation of lights and fire protection elements, and the restoration of the choir railing, the old beams in front of the choir, and the sacristy window’s grates. Also, the external entrance level will be adjusted with the interior pavement level.
In an interview with Radio Sefarad in 2018, Hijar’s mayor, Luis Carlos Marquesán, said that the municipality’s aim is to guarantee a double function of the building, by keeping its current use as a church, but also transforming it into a cultural space, with the possibility of hosting Jewish services as well.
According to the Foundation for Jewish Heritage, the aim is “to turn the synagogue into a Sephardi Heritage Centre presenting the Jewish life that was, while running educational programmes and cultural events for the town and wider region.”
Future plans also aim to develop the old Judería area where the synagogue stands.
“We have plans for the [Jewish] quarter, starting from the rehabilitation of the square [where the synagogue stands],” Mayor Marquesán said in the video report by La Comarca. “To do so, we need to prepare a project, including the excavation of the square, in order to check whether at the time it looked the same as it does today, or if there were houses there instead”.