A municipal work crew from the City of Coimbra looking to find a water leak in the heart of the old city stumbled upon what appears to be a complex of 600-year-old Jewish ritual baths.
The discovery was made off the Rua Vizconde da Luz, the central shopping district of Coimbra, and a once home to the Jewish Quarter City. City workers repairing leaking pipes went into the basement of an old building. They followed a series of stone stairs into large room with what appeared to be pools. Vault had a ceiling covered in a fresco painted with flowers, the Publico newspaper reported. Realizing the place was quite ancient – the work crew notified the city, which notified the national institute of archeology.
Archeologist Jorge Alarcão said the pools appear to be mikvah, or ritual Jewish baths, predating the 14th century – or the reign of King D. Fernando I. The remarkable state of preservation, as well as intact frescos, led the team to conclude that these were mikvah for Jewish women. “This could be the only discovery of its kind made in Portugal.” The only other mikvah to be found in Portugal are in Tomar, and date from a later period.
Traditionally, both men and women regain ritual purity according to regulations written in the Torah and in classical rabbinical literature by using the mikveh. The word mikveh makes use of the same root letters in Hebrew, as the word for "hope" and this has served as the basis for homiletically comparison of the two concepts in both biblical and rabbinic writings.
Coimbra Mayor Manuel Machado told the Publico newspaper “this could be the most important archeological discovery made in Coimbra in the past 70 years.” More than a century ago a Roman cryptoporticus - built to create an artificial platform over which the city's Forum was built - was discovered by workmen under the Bishop's Palace. It offered a wealth of information, and was it in amazingly good condition.
One of Portugal’s most important Jewish quarters was to be found in Coimbra in the 13-14th centuries as the city was home to colleges and a university, which enjoyed royal support. Coimbra at the time had three Jewish quarters, with the one in the current downtown, called Santa Justa, being the most important, and the mikvah may predate that period – making it among the oldest mikvah in Europe. Jews were expelled from Portugal starting in 1496, and the area was renamed the Rua Nova.