History of Jewish Spain

History of Jewish Spain

Spain has a long and illustrious Jewish heritage that dates back to the Muslim conquest of 711. There proved to be huge opportunities for Jews to thrive in a Muslim country. Jews contributed to Moorish Spain in a variety of ways and the two faiths learned from each other but particularly the Muslims learned from the Jews such things as craftsmanship as Jews were skilled tanners, metalworkers, goldsmiths, silversmiths, and jewellers.

Synagogue in Toledo
Santa María La Blanca Synagogue in Toledo

Jews also excelled in the sciences, in particular medicine, and in particular the 10th century physician, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, who was probably one of the most influential people in Spain. Jews also excelled in scholarship and they satisfied the Muslims hunger for knowledge by translating important Greek and Latin works into Arabic. Conversely, they allowed the rest of Europe to learn from the Muslims by translating Arabic texts into Hebrew and Latin. Not surprisingly then there is a lot of evidence of the influence that Jews have had in Spain over the centuries.

The Jews thrived during the middle ages until the time of the Spanish Inquisition in 1478. Many Jews were then forced to convert to Catholicism. In 1492, King Fernando and Queen Isabella ordered the expulsion of all Jews in Spain. There are still a number of towns that have evidence of Jewish occupation and the attempts to eradicate them.

Barcelona’s Old City still has a lot of indicators that this was once a thriving Jewish community in the middle ages. For example, the street names include ‘Carrer de Montjuic’ or ‘Jewish Mountain Street’ and there are Hebrew inscriptions from eroded Jewish tombstones on walls. This Juderia is evidence of how the Jews were converted to Catholicism. Many of the street signs were changed in an attempt to catholicize them. For example, ‘Sant Domenec del Call’, is giving the Jewish Quarter a Catholic patron saint. There are a number of synagogues that survived but they were built over during the expulsion. In fact, an 11th century example, the Synagogue Mayor has been restored. It was found under the basement of a 17th century building within the Juderia.

Girona has one of the best preserved Jewish Quarters in Spain and was once home to Spain’s largest Jewish population. It is also where the Kabbalah was first written down. There is a stunning museum, the Museum of Catalan Jewish History, that continues to have exhibits added to it as they are uncovered after being buried for over 500 years. Near to Girona is the town of Besalu that has one of the oldest mikvahs in Europe, dating back to the 12th century.

Tudela, near Zaragoza, was once an important Jewish cultural centre. It was home to a rabbinical school. In the Jewish quarter there there is evidence of at least three synagogues and many other community buildings from medieval times.

Segovia is another medieval town that has evidence of Jewish daily life. However, it is for a far darker reason that this is worth a visit as part of any Jewish history quest. The fortress on the top of the hill is where King Fernando and Queen Isabella signed the 1492 order to expel the Jews from Spain.

Toledo was another major Jewish cultural centre before the expulsion. However, unlike many other towns, the synagogues have survived with more of their beautiful adornments and features intact. The two main synagogues to visit are the Transito (The Transit) and Santa Maria La Blanca (St Mary the White).

Santa María La Blanca Synagogue in Toledo
Santa María La Blanca Synagogue in Toledo

Cordoba was another major centre of learning during the Middle Ages. It had also been a capital city under the Romans and the Moors. In the Jewish Quarter there is evidence of the Jews and the Muslims living side by side in a number of the buildings, including a 14th century synagogue that is decorated in an Arab style that dates back to 1315 AD. However, it is most famous as the birth place of Maimonides, who was a great Jewish rabbi and renowned philosopher. He was born around 1135 and died in 1204.

It wasn’t until 1950 that Jews began to return to Spain. Since then Jewish quarters have grown up in the majority of Spain’s larger towns and cities. Many of them are on the original medieval sites of the old Jewish quarters. You can now see newly built or renovated synagogues and thriving Jewish communities that have been rebuilt after over 500 years of exile all over Spain. Evidence of the medieval Jews is still being discovered and it is a part of Spain’s history that is likely to be revealed for many years to come.

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