Andalusia offers Jewish treasures

The interior of the historic synagogue in Cordoba, Spain. (Ron Csillag photo)

The past few weeks have been a good time to be in Spain – or not so good, depending on where you stand. In this month’s general elections, the fourth in as many years, the country re-elected the socialist government of Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, but he’s had to form a coalition with the even further-left Podemos party to stay in power.

But that wasn’t the real news. The true shocker here was the rise of Vox, the far-right, ultra-nationalist, xenophobic party that won 52 of the Spanish legislature’s 350 seats, up from 24 in April, the first time it had entered parliament. Vox was declared the election’s real winner and many worry that progressive Spain is succumbing to the populist nativism spreading across Europe.

The other news here was the Oct. 1 cutoff to apply for Spanish citizenship under a 2015 law that offered historical redress to the descendants of Jews who were expelled in 1492. To date, an estimated 127,000 applications – 50,000 in September alone – have been received from 60 countries.

It’s not an easy process. Of the applications submitted before Aug. 31, only some 26,000 have reached the Justice Ministry for final approval. This is partly because applicants are required to appear before a notary in Spain, who certifies whether they are of Sephardic origin.

One might not regard Spain the same way as eastern Europe, but it does seem that most Jewish history here is hidden, buried or has been wiped out. The Spanish Inquisition, established in 1478 and not abolished until 1834, was designed, strictly speaking, to eradicate heresy, but an untold number of Jews were expelled, forcibly converted or killed.

Two dates bracket the Spanish Jewish experience: 711 CE, when Islamic Arabs and Moors of Berber descent in northern Africa crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and conquered Christian Hispania; and 1492, when the Catholic monarchs Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon issued the Edict of Expulsion. By then, more than half of Spain’s Jews had converted to Christianity as a result of religious persecution and pogroms a century earlier.

In few places is this story told more vividly than in the southern region of Andalusia, the second-largest of Spain’s autonomous areas, where Judaism, Islam and Christianity co-existed for centuries and produced a rich tapestry of culture.


Our tour began in Toledo, in the region of Castilla-La Mancha, north of Andalusia. Our first stop offered a perfect example of religious co-operation: The Synagogue of Santa Maria la Blanca (literally, the Synagogue of St. Mary the White) could be mistaken for a mosque, given that it was built in 1180 by Muslim architects who favoured geometric filigree, plain white walls and columns, and Islamic-style archways. The synagogue was turned into a church in the early 1400s and today is owned and preserved by the Catholic Church.

The nearby Museo Sefardi, on Samuel Levi Street (named for Samuel ha-Levi, treasurer to King Peter of Castile), offers an impressive display of Judaica spanning centuries. It is housed in the former El Transito Synagogue, which was seized by the monarchy after the expulsion and donated to a military order that Christianized it and made it a burial site for the Knights of Calatrava.

Our guide told us that today, Toledo is home to two Jewish families. He hesitated, then said that both are messianic – that is, they say they are Jewish, but accept Jesus as their saviour. On our first night, the guide swept his arm over the twinkling night cityscape and exhorted: “Repeat after me: ‘Holy Toledo!’ ”

A sign for “the street of the Jews” in Cordoba’s old Jewish quarter. (Ron Csillag photo)

Some 200 kilometres south lies the city of Cordoba, where Maimonides was born in 1135. The feet of a bronze statue of the Jewish sage and physician gleam brightly from being rubbed by tourists.

The city’s synagogue was built in 1315 by Muslims. The sanctuary, along with an adjoining house, went through several uses following the expulsion: a Catholic hermitage, a hospital for people suffering from rabies, and a shoemaker’s guild.

In 1884, a priest discovered Jewish markings under the crumbling plasterwork on the walls and, a year later, the building was declared a national monument.

It was in Seville that the persecution of the Jews began on a large scale, with the pogrom of 1391. The city’s three synagogues were converted to churches, including another Santa Maria la Blanca, which had been a mosque before it was given to Jews.

Today, the trendy Santa Cruz district contains the city’s former Jewish quarter, which now consists of cobbled streets, white-washed houses and cute shops. We were told there are 200 Jews in the city, who are served by the Beit Rambam, Comunidad Judia de Sevilla.

The Centro de Interpretacion Juderia de Sevilla, which offers a complete history of the community, is worth a visit.

No trip to this region is complete without a stop in the small town of Ubeda, about 125 kilometres east of Cordoba.

It was here that real estate developer Fernando Crespo undertook to transform an old building that housed a ladies hair salon into apartments, shops and underground parking. In the process, he discovered the Sinagoga del Agua (Synagogue of Water).

Changing his mind about the project, Crespo began excavating the subterranean site in 2007 and, three years later, it was opened to the public. Down a creaky flight of stairs two levels below the street, one finds six distinct spaces of heavy stone and wood dating to the 14th century. Connected by stairways and passages, there’s the main worship space that’s divided by two large arches, a women’s gallery, a kitchen and, giving the synagogue its name, seven wells, two of which still function.

The mikveh in Ubeda’s Sinagoga del Agua. (Ron Csillag photo)

The reason the synagogue was built on this precise spot is best answered by the presence of a mikveh that is even deeper underground. The clean, clear water slowly trickles in, filtered by the subsoil of the building all year round.

Adding more drama to the discovery is the fact that the branch office of the Inquisition was right next door. The inquisitor’s coat of arms is still visibly engraved on the doorway. Possibly, this is where the rabbi once lived.