Not for the first time, an unexpected discovery unearthed during construction work has given a town a new tourist attraction. La Sinagoga del Agua (Synagogue of Water) has joined the Renaissance palaces, churches and monuments of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Úbeda, in Jaén province, after it was "accidentally" found in 2007 during development work on a property in the city center.
The owner of the building, businessman Francisco Crespo, stopped work for three months while experts identified the discovery as belonging to a time when the Jewish community had a big presence in Andalusia.
Although no documents making reference to the construction of the synagogue exist, what is known is that over the centuries the site was inhabited by different families who didn't know what was underneath their feet: it even served as a garbage dump during renovation work on the upper levels.
After being cleared and rehabilitated, under the supervision of the town hall archeologist, the synagogue was discovered to be composed of seven rooms on different levels, starting on the ground floor and ending in the basement with the mikveh or purification bath - one of the few from this time to include it.
The visit starts in the so-called "Inquisitor" room - a name it takes from the adjoining house, which features the crest of the Inquisition on its front door. And the first thing that surprises you is that it is decorated with 15th-century Christian symbols which have nothing to do with the rest - crucifixes, statues, paintings and other elements evoking the history of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain.
The rooms are connected by doors, passages and stairways, some of them cut from the surrounding rock. Heading through the Puerta del Alma you enter the synagogue itself, a space divided into three sections by two arcades. At one end is the women's gallery, where female worshipers could take part in services without being seen by the men.
The other rooms: the wine cellar, the ovens, the patio and the mikveh complete the visit. The mikveh, situated on the lowest floor, contains a kind of tank where people took their purification bath. It is big enough to allow one person to completely immerse themselves with the aim of carrying out the purification ritual prescribed by Judaism.
And it is these hydraulic qualities that provide the key to why the synagogue was built in this precise spot. The water slowly trickles in and is filtered by the subsoil of the building all year round, remaining clean and clear through the continuous movement.
Sinagoga del Agua, C/ Roque Rojas/Esquina Las Parras, Úbeda (Jaén). Open daily. http://sinagogadelagua.com