Ubeda is an astonishingly lovely Spanish town. Its harmonious renaissance buildings of honey-colored stone perch on a cliff over the Valley of the Guadalquivir. During the first half of the 16th century, local agriculture boomed and the gentry chose to build palacios in town and endow churches and public buildings. They had the benefit of a talented architect who was up-to-date in Italian Mannerism, one Andres de Vandelvira. Then the market fell and the town’s population shrank. In the 1910s, the great poet Antonio Machado found the area deeply depressed:
But what vitality for a dying people? With two thirds of our territory uncultivated, the greatest number of desperate emigrants from Europe, minimal population, are we still talking about confidence in our vitality, in our prolific strength and in our future? Isn’t it absurd to talk about trust? Our starting point must be a “desperate insubordination.”
Depopulation at least preserved the renaissance architecture, and now Ubeda and the neighboring town of Baeza appear prosperous.
In 2007, a local entrepreneur, Fernando Crespo, was planning to develop three connected properties when he discovered the remains of a medieval synagogue dispersed through these buildings. One of the facades still bears the insignia of the town’s inquisitor–a man whose job would have included persecuting people of Jewish descent. Crespo financed the recovery of the original synagogue, including a two-story prayer hall with a women’s gallery and a ritual bathing area that fills naturally with clean water. It makes a beautiful and moving sight.
In the local newspaper in 2011, Alberto Roman Vilchez reported that “several experts questioned whether, at this time, it can be said that the so-called Sinagoga del Agua de Ubeda is a synagogue or another type of monument.” Among the critics was Francisca Hornos, director of the Museo Provincial de Jaen, who acknowledged that the law permits anyone to say what they want about their own property, “but the typological and formal analysis of an archaeological, ethnological or artistic heritage should not be done after the fact. … Where is the archaeological excavation that was done there? Who did it? Where is the inventory of this excavation?” An archaeologist named Vicente Barba Colmenero took the view that archaeology must proceed according to “proper procedures, “with public disclosure.” Without a proper process, the building “cannot be called a synagogue.”
To this day, the amount of scholarly writing seems a bit sparse, and it’s perhaps unusual that the archaeology was conducted by the private owner, who now manages the site as a museum. However, in 2011, Pablo Jesus Lorite Cruz published a piece on the “Location and Authenticity of the Synagogue of Ubeda.” He emphasized that the upper balcony is consistent with a women’s gallery, the basement is consistent with a ritual bath, and the immediate district could well have been populated by Jews before 1492. He wrote that he had consulted documentation and a “technical architecture report defended at the Polytechnic University of Madrid on the primary building, currently in press.” He concluded, “In our humble opinion there is no doubt that what was truly discovered in Ubeda is a synagogue that in a short period of time time will reveal new ideas, hypotheses and even theses about the Jewish heritage and especially that of the city of Ubeda.”
I have not been able to find the technical report that Lorite mentioned, but Andres Domingo Lopez published a 2013 monograph on The Synagogue of the Hills: History of the Jews in Ubeda, which treats the building as a synagogue.
Apparently, a very long-standing Jewish community built a handsome temple near the city’s main square in Islamic times, and when the main Christian persecution began in 1492, this synagogue either gradually dissolved into secular buildings or was intentionally hidden in the hope that Jews might one day return. Although I wish the scholarly evidence were somewhat more transparent and robust, I was grateful to have been able to visit this place.