The Spain of the three cultures is how the period of coexistence between Jews, Muslims and Christians in the Middle Ages is commonly referred to. Until the expulsion of the Jews in 1492; the Iberian Peninsula was nourished by the different traditions and cultural and religious expressions that came into contact. As a result of this relationship, the Jewish quarters or “Juderías” emerged, whose mark has remained impregnated in the architecture of many cities that today give living testimony to the Sephardic legacy.
During the 12th and 13th centuries, the Hebrews were not forced by law to live apart from the Christians, but they tended to group together in their own quarters. The Jewish quarters were like miniature cities, where they housed public buildings, synagogues, hospitals, schools, ovens and shops. This enclosure was normally separated from the Christian area by a wall, as desired by the civil and religious authorities. It also served as a method of protecting the Jewish community from possible attacks; as coexistence was not completely synonymous with tolerance. Although relations between Christians and Jews were generally peaceful, hostility gradually increased from the 14th century onwards.
These enclaves shaped what is today the old town of many Spanish municipalities. Walking through the narrow, labyrinthine streets of the old Jewish quarters is a reality, as are visits to their synagogues, houses and museums. An authentic journey through the Caminos de Sefard that the Spanish Association of Jewish Quarters has promoted in defence of the historical heritage and the Hebrew legacy. A selection has been made of the ten Jewish quarters with the most history in the whole of the Iberian Peninsula.
Toledo is the city of three cultures par excellence. Its Jewish quarter is, in fact, a city in itself, as it occupies a large space within the walled complex. Time has played in its favour by keeping a large part of the architectural structure intact, in a route that goes from the Puerta del Cambrón to the Church of Santo Tomé. There one can savour authentic Hebrew culture by visiting the Synagogue of El Tránsito and the Sephardic Museum. There is also the delicate and beautiful Synagogue of Santa María la Blanca; in whose interior the original decoration is preserved with some Christian elements from a later period.
The presence of Jews in Toledo covers at least eleven centuries, from the time of Roman domination in the 4th century. But it was not until the reign of Alfonso X el Sabio that the Jewish quarter reached its maximum splendour. It became known in all kingdoms and cultures for its sumptuousness and beauty; as well as for the intellectual quality of its rabbis.
Córdoba was another of the cities that collected the legacy of the three religions that inhabited the Peninsula during the Middle Ages, whose intercultural dialogue is present in its urban architecture. In addition to its incredible Mosque-Cathedral and the Alcazar of Los Reyes Cristianos, the Jewish quarter of Córdoba is another of the places that today receives the most visitors to the city, as well as having the privilege of being part of the area designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1994.
The Jewish quarter of Córdoba was built between the 10th and 15th centuries, going through different periods of domination. It experienced its golden years during the Caliphate; when the Hebrew community reached the highest level in the field of knowledge. The neighbourhood has the typical Islamic layout with two central transverse streets and a labyrinth of small roads; which are notable for their white colour and the flowers that decorate the interior courtyards. In the heart of the Jewish quarter is the Casa de Sefard; today converted into a historical and cultural museum by the Sephardic legacy. The Synagogue, another of the city’s must-sees, is home to the only remaining evidence of religious Hebrew architecture in the city.
Talking about the Jewish quarter of Córdoba is also reminiscent of Maimónides, the most important figure in Andalusian Judaism. The sculpture of this doctor, philosopher and rabbi from Córdoba, whose main task was to establish Jewish theology on the principles of philosophical reasoning, can be found in the Plaza de Tiberíades. Today, visitors who pass by there stroke his foot in search of good fortune.
Hervás is one of the Spanish towns that has made the greatest effort to recover and pay homage to its Jewish past. In this beautiful town in Extremadura you have to let yourself get lost in the labyrinth of its cobbled streets with adobe walls and half-timbered houses to savour the historical past of its Jewish community. In addition to the careful restoration of the entire medieval quarter; each street of the Jewish quarter is decorated with the symbol of the Star of David and receives a characteristic name that recalls the open coexistence between Jews and Christians between the 14th and 15th centuries.
Such is the pride of its citizens that, since 1997, the festival of the Converts of Hervás has been celebrated. For several days in June, the town commemorates the Sephardic past with cultural activities and a great theatrical performance about the historical moment of the expulsion; whose background scenario is the bank of the Ambroz River.
Unlike other Jewish communities in the Iberian Peninsula, Hervás lived its best moments during the 15th century. After the expulsion edict, half of the Jews remained in the town as converts until they could not escape the inquisitorial processes of the following century.
An important Jewish community was formed in Plasencia, the largest in all of Extremadura and with considerable economic power. Since the foundation of Plasencia by Alfonso VIII in 1189, Jews, Muslims and Christians have lived together in different parts of the city; so that the Hebrew traces can be seen in the architectural ensemble of the wall. The Castilian monarch and his son Ferdinand III were protectors of the Jews of Plasencia; the latter facing discriminatory ordinances after the Lateran Council in 1217.
This route through the streets of Plasencia is characterised by different walls and paths that still preserve the memory of the three cultures that lived there. The period of splendour of the Jews was in the 12th century when they mainly occupied the Plaza Mayor; the commercial centre of the city. However, it is in the Puerta de Trujillo and the Plaza de San Nicolás where the Hebrew essence of Plasencia can really be found; in the area of the old Jewish quarter of La Mota. The Church of San Nicolás was famous for the mixed trials between Christians and Jews. But, without a doubt, the jewel is the Jewish cemetery on the other side of the wall; which is open to the public.
Estella-Lizarra is known as the Toledo of the North for its monumentality and beautiful surroundings. The palaces, bridges and rivers that surround it frame the city’s Hebrew heritage; where there were two Jewish quarters and possibly more than one synagogue. The Jewish community remained outside the Edict of Expulsion by the Castilian-Aragonese courts for six years, which is why this city of Navarre received population from other aljamas in search of refuge.
Unlike the other Spanish Jewish quarters, the Hebrew legacy of Estella-Lizarra can be seen behind the invisible holes in its history; as the buildings that formed it today are hidden underground. In the oldest part of the city, in Elgacena Street, is the old site where the disappeared Judería Vieja used to be. The only material part that can be found today is the wall that delimited and defended the Judería Nueva; located at the foot of the Way to Santiago. Despite the few buildings that remain, later Christian constructions also evoke the city’s Hebrew past; as in the lintels of the Church of El Santo Sepulcro where two figures identified as Jewish characters appear. Another example is the Romanesque temple of the Church of Santa María Jus del Castillo; which was built on the site of the old synagogue.
The Jewish quarters of Catalonia are known as “Call”, a word that comes from the Latin callis and means narrow passage between two walls. The Call de Girona was the second most important Sephardic community in Catalonia in the Middle Ages between the 10th and 15th centuries, after the Jewish quarter of Barcelona, and even had three synagogues in the same quarter. The current Museum of the History of the Jews of Girona, in the Bonastrucça Porta centre, is located on one of its sites.
This Jewish Quarter in Girona stands out for the incredible staircase of the Barri Vell, better known as the Pujada de Sant Domènec, which is also one of the most valuable historical and artistic sites in the city. Its beauty has played a leading role in scenes from some well-known films such as “Perfume: Story of a Murderer”.
The aljama of Segovia was one of the richest and most populated in all of Castile. For three centuries, the Jewish community developed a prosperous activity that also contributed to the growth of the city. The end of its days came in 1481, when the Jews were forced to live in a confined area. The Jewish quarter was set aside and closed off in the southern part of the wall from the old Main Synagogue to the Puerta de San Andrés.
To visit the Jewish quarter of Segovia is to travel back in time. Its streets maintain the essence of that past thanks to the beautiful set of stone houses that have been carefully restored giving it a unique appearance. The itinerary of this wonderful aljama begins in the old Main Synagogue, which houses exquisite Hebrew architecture. Casa Palacio del Rabbi Abraham Seneor is another mandatory stop. The Wall of San Andrés is also worth it. It was the main door that closed off the Jewish quarter; offering impressive views of the city to anyone who dares to climb it.
Along with the Jewish quarter of Segovia, the one in Ávila was also the most important in the kingdom in terms of size and importance of its inhabitants; as well as being one of the best preserved in Spain. The city enjoyed better treatment than in other aljamas in Spain, as some of the discriminatory provisions that were dictated against the Jews were not applied in Ávila. Then, in the 14th and 15th centuries the situation became increasingly complicated for the citizens.
Despite constituting one of the most important aljamas; the Hebrew imprint of Ávila has not managed to remain as in other cities. Its architecture has practically disappeared. Today we know that it had several synagogues; the most important of which -that of Belfard- was located in what is now the Calle de los Reyes Católicos. Next to it was the Rabbi’s House, where today a hotel stands. Perhaps the only visible building from Avila’s Jewish past is the Puerta de la Malaventura; which was the area where the Jews were confined in the last years before their expulsion from the Peninsula.
Sagunto was not only the land of the Romans, it also housed an important Jewish community that left its mark forever. It is believed to have been the oldest in the entire Iberian Peninsula according to the archaeological finds made there; which date back to between the end of the 1st and beginning of the 2nd century.
The Jewish quarter of Sagunto became the most important in the Kingdom of Valencia during the Middle Ages. Today it is possible to perceive the architectural heritage of vestiges from the 14th and 15th centuries; as it conserves practically intact the same urban fabric with its whitewashed houses and ogival advantages. The route begins by crossing the iconic “Portalet de la Sang” or Puerta de la Judería. Among its central streets is the house of the aljama, known as “Casa dels Berenguer“. This belonged to a noble Valencian family that financed a large part of the Jewish quarter. Although there are no traces of their old synagogue, the Hebrew cemetery has been preserved and has been converted into an open-air museum; which, curiously, was the first to be visited in Spain.
In Tarazona, Zaragoza, the two aljamas that it had during the Middle Ages are still in place. The Judería Vieja, today known as La Rúa, is a neighbourhood of secret alleys and mysterious passages that reflect the long history of the Jewish community up until the 15th century. At that time it was extended with the Judería Nueva. Although both are connected by stairs, each has a totally different personality.
The golden age of the Tarazona Jewish community was during a good part of the 12th century; when the most attractive sites of its Jewish quarter were built, in this case the old one. The iconic image of Tarazona is that of its hanging houses, built on the very wall of La Rúa. No less interesting, however, is its Main Synagogue or the Plaza de los Arcedianos; where the typical Jewish festival of Sukkot or the festival of the Huts was held one week a year.