Unearthing Spain’s Jewish Past

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Spain is an exceedingly diverse and multicultural country. The verdant northwest is best defined by its Celtic music, rainy weather and sensational seafood. When visiting Barcelona, it’s impossible not to draw comparisons between the local Catalan culture, food, and language and those of nearby France. In the lively south, flamenco music, mudéjar architecture, and Arabic-derived words reveal Andalusia’s Moorish past.

We see evidence of the country’s multicultural tapestry in its diverse cuisines, music, traditions, and languages. Throughout history, Iberians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, and Moors have called Spain home. However, one ethnic group less noted for its significant role in the history of Spain is its former Jewish population.

In the 15th century, the Spanish Inquisition forced many of Spain’s Jewish population to either convert or flee the country. Up until that point, many Spanish cities housed truly thriving Jewish communities—many citizens of which were among the most notable philosophers and scholars of the era.

One key to discovering Spain’s fascinating past is understanding the remarkable co-existence between the Jews, Christians, and Muslims. Spain’s historic neighborhood offer glimpses of this peaceful shared life, from magnificent mosques and cathedrals to Jewish ghettos and synagogues.

Here is a list of eight Spanish cities rich in Jewish heritage that you can’t miss on your next visit to Spain:

Barcelona

Visitors to Barcelona can explore the 11th-century Jewish neighborhood, El Call, deep in the heart of the Barrio Gotico. El Call, which translates to “alleyway,” is a maze of quiet, narrow streets occupied by Jews as far back as the 9th century. Jews in Barcelona were integral in the emergence of the city as a globally important trading port. One site worth visiting is the Jewish history museum Centro de Interpretación del Call. Another noteworthy stop is the restored 3rd-century Singagoga Mayor, one of the oldest of its kind in Europe.

Girona

Historic Jewish Cities in Spain

You can find one of the best-preserved former Jewish quarters in all of Europe in the city of Girona. Discover the town’s unique Jewish past with a visit to the Jewish History Museum, housed in an old synagogue. In the Girona Cathedral hangs the 11th-century Tapestry of the Creation, which depicts a Jewish couple considered the symbol of Girona’s Jewish Quarter.

Besalu

Medieval Spanish village

This lovely Catalan town houses a 12th-century mikvah—a stone room used for Jewish ritual baths. There are only two others of its kind in all of Europe.

Tortosa

Jewish Catalunya

Located in the southern part of Catalonia, Tortosa once housed a peaceful mix of Christian, Jewish and Muslim citizens. The Jews held a position of importance in the city as early as the 8th century, as they provided a cultural link between the Christians and the Muslims. Tortosa’s well-preserved 13th-century Jewish Quarter occupies the area around Carrer Mayor de Remolins.

Toledo

Jewish Medieval History Spain

Toledo was once known as the “Jerusalem of the West” and was home to one of the largest Jewish populations in Spain. In the Middle Ages, when much of Europe suffered an overall lack of education, Toledo was a mecca for scholars. Many Jewish and Muslim scholars in Toledo translated classical Greek texts from Arabic into Latin. These classical works spread throughout the rest of Europe.

Though most of Toledo’s synagogues were destroyed, two survived. One of these, the Sinagoga del Tránsito, now houses the Sephardic Museum.

Segovia

Spain's medieval Jewish neigborhoodMedieval Jewish Spain

Segovia’s Jewish Quarter stretches from the Convent of Corpus Christi (formerly the Sinagoga Mayor) to the Canonjías. Visitors can explore the remains of synagogues and Jewish palaces, as well as visit the Jewish cemetery of Pinarillo. Segovia’s Didactic Centre of the Jewish Quarter is also a great source of information on Jewish life in medieval times.

Seville

Jewish Seville Barrio de Santa Cruz

In 1391, the Jewish population of Seville was attacked by ruling Christians. Synagogues became churches, and Jews were either forced out of the city or killed. Today, the city’s Barrio de Santa Cruz contains traces of its Jewish past. Whitewashed houses, cobbled lanes, orange trees, and hidden gardens mark this historic neighborhood.

Córdoba

Jewish Cordoba SpainMedieval juderia CordobaJewish Medieval Spain

While Córdoba is best known for its Moorish influence, its former Jewish quarter is one of the most well-known in all of Spain. One of the largest, most flourishing cities in Europe in the Middle Ages, Córdoba harbored some of the best Jewish scholars, philosophers and doctors of the time. The 14th-century synagogue (now a museum) is the only one of its kind in Andalusia and the only one in Spain that never fell to the Christians. For more information on Córdoba’s Jewish heritage, visit the Casa de Sefarad, or “House of Memories.”

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