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400-Year-Old Torah Discovered in Portugal

My 1996 novel “The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon,” begins with the discovery of medieval Portuguese-Jewish manuscripts in the basement of a house being refurbished. So I was initially amazed and then unsurprised when people started messaging me that a 16th or 17th Century Torah scroll found in the small Portuguese city of Covilhã had just been authenticated by archaeologists.

Some 10 years ago, and unbeknownst to anyone but his family, a builder demolishing a house in Covilhã unearthed an old-seeming scroll written in Hebrew. After his discovery, the builder wrapped the scroll in a sheet and brought it home for safekeeping.

About six months ago, he showed it to specialists, and it is currently on show at Covilhã’s City Hall. Unrolled it is about 30 yards long and 2 feet wide. It is in very fine condition and its letters are easily readable. The mayor of Covilhã plans to keep the scroll at the city’s Historical Archive.

The house where the Torah was discovered was next to a church dating from the 16th century where descendants of Jews forcibly converted to Christianity were known to have worshiped. Virtually all the Portuguese Jews were converted by King Manuel I in 1497. They and their descendants were generally referred to as New Christians or Conversos, or even Marranos, meaning swine.

The Torah unearthed in Covilhã would have been used by New Christians practicing Judaism in complete secrecy; at the time, the Portuguese Inquisition would have arrested anyone openly practicing Judaism.

The drama of my novel comes from a murder within a family of secret Jews in the early 16th century. In this case the drama comes not from a violent departure from the New Christian community, but from a suddenly apparent survival.

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