Did the Nazis Cover Up a Jewish Discovery in Spain's ‘Oldest Christian Basilica’?
The dig at Elche was overseen by Nazi appointed archaeologists and a nationalist Franco supporter, and somehow a menorah discovered in the ancient mosaics went unreported...
In the outskirts of Elche, Spain, a mere twenty-minute drive from the touristy beachside town of Alicante, lies the remains of an ancient Roman colony. Among the many important archeological discoveries found in the area is a building that, for almost a century, has been identified as Spain’s oldest Christian basilica. This fact alone would make the site worthy of the attention, but new research argues that the church was originally a synagogue. The reason that neither scholars nor the thousands of holiday makers who flock to the region each year have heard about the building’s Jewish heritage is because excavations of the site during WWII were conducted under the watchful eyes of German archaeologists appointed by the Nazi regime.
The structure of the building took place in two stages. There is a main hall that was built in the fourth century and an apse that was added in the fifth. The apse clearly indicates that by the fifth century the space was being used as a church, but was this the case with the earlier structure? If it was, then it has a good case for being Spain’s earliest Christian basilica, but if not then we have to wonder for what purposes the building was used.
Robyn Walsh, an assistant professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at the University of Miami and the author of the recently published article “Reconsidering the Synagogue/Basilica of Elche, Spain,” argues that the basilica was originally a Jewish synagogue. She told The Daily Beast that the “best evidence” for the building’s use comes from the mosaic that was unearthed on the building’s floor. She pointed to inscriptions dedicated to the “archons and elders” and dedicating the building as a “place of prayer of the people” as suggestive of Jewish use. These, she said, “correspond well with inscriptions found elsewhere in the Jewish diaspora— including other synagogue inscriptions.”
The most suggestive discovery, however, is the presence of what is likely to be a seven-armed menorah in the mosaic. The identification of the image as a menorah is difficult because visitors to the site have defaced it by picking out small pieces of the mosaic as souvenirs; because it was at some point repaired by an amateur artisan; and because it is what Walsh calls a “figurative motif.” These caveats aside, said Walsh, “the figure doesn’t resemble—even in its fragmentary state—any decorative patterns or other icons that I recognize. But it looks an awful lot like menoroth created by non-professionals or amateur artisans in other contexts” including a menorah in the Kelibia mosaic in Tunisia. Add the evidence of the menorah to the inscriptional evidence and it seems almost certain that this Christian basilica was originally a synagogue.
What’s truly strange is how few archaeologists have thought to discuss the presence of the menorah in their reports. The invisibility of the menorah in archaeological reports is likely connected to the history of the site’s excavation. Local tradition maintains that the site was discovered by accident when someone unearthed a mosaic underneath a fig tree. Some initial excavations were undertaken in 1905, but the majority of the ‘formal’ archaeological work took place during the reign of General Francisco Franco. Control of excavations in Alicante as well as elsewhere in Spain, as Walsh writes in her piece, had fallen to the CGEA (General Commissariat for Archaeological Excavations), which was founded in 1939 with the dual role of advancing archaeological knowledge and guaranteeing “support for the ‘National Cause’.” Local representatives and officials of the CGEA were those who were both sympathetic to the regime and dedicated Roman Catholics. The preference for ideologically compatible representatives in the field meant that some of those appointed to oversee excavation work were non-professionals whose training was non-existent and education sometimes amounted to no more than finishing the equivalent of elementary school.
This state of affairs led, in the mid-1930s, to the appointment of Alejandro Ramos Folqués as a dig director at numerous sites throughout Alicante. His family happened to own the land on which the early Christian church was located. Folqués was not a trained archaeologist and, as the article puts it “was able to parlay a childhood hobby in numismatics [coins] into a successful career, under the permissive guidelines of Franco’s archaeological ministry.” Folqués, work, however, was supervised by German archaeologist Helmut Schlunk, who was appointed by the Reich to oversee archaeological research in Spain. The reports produced by Folqués and on Schlunk’s watch were instrumental in getting the site designated and publicized as the oldest church on the Iberian peninsula, but while they provide a great deal of information they never mention the menorah in the mosaic or entertain the possibility that the site was once Jewish. It was the influence of Folqués and Schlunk that meant that the menorah was not even identified until 2005 even though it was clearly visible in the early twentieth century. Walsh told me, “While I can’t speak to the intentions of any individual actor, that an archaeologist bankrolled by the Nazi regime omitted what looks like a menorah from their official report leaves a bad taste in my mouth.”
Walsh is not the only academic to note the ways in which political ideologies can shape the identification and interpretation of archaeological sites. Suzanne Marchand’s detailed and carefully nuanced book, Down from Olympus, reveals the ways that classical German archaeology was deeply affected by the nationalistic interests of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Similarly, in a 1998 article on “Research Under Dictatorship” Klaus Junker argued that many archeological projects endorsed under regimes like those of Franco and the Nazis were deeply affected by the ideological commitments of those regimes. This meant that archeological interpretation was performed with the goal of locating sites of national heritage and in keeping with perceived national interests. This, Walsh argues, can help explain the “myopic” interpretation of the Church at Elche and the way that indeterminate or ambiguous material evidence can be manipulated so as to exclude certain kinds of interpretations. In this case it was hardly in the best interests of either Franco’s pro-Catholic authoritarian regime or the Nazi-backed overseers to discuss the Jewish history of this Christian Church. At the time many dissociated the history of Christianity from its Jewish roots so entirely that they denied any relationship between them. The idea that Christians occupied the same religious space as Jews prodded at a very ideologically inconvenient truth.
Even for more recent archaeologists whose financial backers or personal investments fall in line with or continue to be influenced by Roman Catholicism find it’s difficult to want to give up the idea that this is Spain’s first church. The description of the site as the "oldest church" is a draw for tourists and supports the local economy. It’s also uncomfortable to realize that the cooption of the space by Christians is part of a larger trajectory of the history of Jews in Spain that is characterized by marginalization and persecution. The history of church councils, writes Walsh, charts the development of tensions between Christians and Jews in the now-Christian Roman empire. Despite the presence of laws in the fifth century Theodosian code that condemned the destruction of synagogue and Jewish homes, synagogues were burned or converted by Christians throughout the Roman Empire. From the fourth century Council of Elvira—which prohibited Christians from intermarrying, socializing at meals, or receiving blessings from Jews—to the forced conversions advanced in the canons of the Councils of Toledo in the seventh century, the relationship between Christians and Jews was at always tense. Even though Pope Honorius complained in 680 CE that the Spanish were “soft” on this issue, this is unlikely to be the way that Jewish Spaniards experienced the things. Severus of Minorca, our ancient source for the burning and conversion of synagogues in the Roman period, was based a mere three hundred miles (as the crow flies) from Elche.
The church in Elche may not be the oldest basilica in the Iberian peninsula, what it is instead is a rare piece of evidence about the history of Judaism in Spain. Walsh’s work is important because it looks behind a 1500-year-old project, begun by ancient Christians and perpetuated anew by the ideological interests of the Nazi regime, to obscure and efface that history and to appropriate and ‘Christianize’ the contributions and property of Jews in Spain.