The Sepharad Route Toledo
There is documentary evidence of the presence of Jews in Toledo since Roman times, in the 4th century, but their arrival much earlier is linked to the legendary foundation of the city. This was the Toletum of the Carpetans and Romans; the civitas regia capital of the Spanish Visigoth Kingdom; the Muslim Toleitola that was such an example of peaceful coexistence between the three cultures; the Toledo of Alfonso X the Wise and the School of Translators; the city of El Greco and the leading Episcopal Cathedral of Spain. But this Castilian city was also the great Jewry of the West, a spiritual centre that, for centuries, was a reference for all the Jews of Europe.
The Cambrón Gateway, built on the remains of an earlier Visigoth gateway, was the main entrance to the Jewry, which stretched as far as the Cathedral, and at one time had more than 10 synagogues and a population of three to four thousand people. During the first week of September every year, Jews are the focus of attention in Toledo, when a major convention is held here on Jewish culture. Their presence can still be felt, in what was for centuries their hometown, and highlights include the remains of the old baths, or mikve, inside the El Greco house and museum, or the Casa del Judio, or Jew’s House, at number 4, Calle de San Juan de Dios. But above all, it can be felt in the two great synagogues that still stand in the town.
Designed as a city within a city, the medinat al yahud, the Jewish fortified town, stood, according to various historical accounts, to the south-west of the city, and the inhabitants would go right down to the river Tagus to drink. It was a complex network of walls, alleys and passageways with its own fortified ramparts and many gateways leading to other neighbourhoods in the town. Inside, there flourished poets and philosophers, Rabbis and scientists, geographers, translators and others who were role-models and examples to other European Jewish communities. In the 13th century, the work of Yehuda ben Moisés Cohen, an author of the Alfonsine Tables, and Isaac ben Sayid, along with that of other Jews and a large number of Christian and Muslim scholars, was decisive to the recovery of fundamental Greek works by the Toledo School of Translators, and they were divulged throughout Europe from the city of Toledo, during one of the city’s greatest periods of cultural splendour.
The synagogue of El Tránsito, which houses the Sephardic Museum, is undoubtedly the prime example of the art of the Muslim master-builders who worked for the Jews. It comprises a large prayer room, an azara, or women’s gallery, the rooms of the old Rabbinic school (now the museum), and the remains of the ritual baths, with their water tanks. A highlight is the magnificent plasterwork and the ceiling, which is one of the finest examples of medieval carpentry in Toledo. On the west wall, where the hekal was kept (the Ark containing the Torah Scrolls), you can see a text praising Pedro I, “a man of war and a brave warrior”, whose diplomat and financial advisor, Samuel ha Leví Abulafia, was the patron of the temple’s construction in the 14th century.
The synagogue of Santa María la Blanca, which opens on to the Calle de los Reyes Católicos through a simple garden, is a symbol of the good relationship between King Alfonso XIII and the Jewish community. It has five aisles, separated by pillars holding up a magnificent arcade of horseshoe arches, and is reminiscent of a Muslim mosque. According to legend, the synagogue of Santa María la Blanca was built with earth brought from Jerusalem.
A valuable stone plaque inscribed in three languages - Hebrew, Greek and Latin - bears witness to the presence of the Jews in Tortosa in the 6th century, at the latest, under Visigoth rule, although quite possibly there were members of the Jewish community there in Roman times. A tradesman, poet and philologist, and the author of a grammar book commissioned by the Andalusian Hasday ibn Shaprut, Menahem ben Saruk was a Jew of great renown in Muslim Turtuxa, as was the physician, Ibrahim ben Iacob. Following the Christian conquest of the city in 1148, Count Ramón Berenguer IV handed over the Arab shipyards to the Jews, and they became what was known as the Old Jewry, which went from Calle Jaume Tió Noé to the Barranco del Célio, soon after the first sixty houses were built. Thanks to the many medieval documents still kept in Tortosa, it has been possible to locate the sites of the synagogue, the bakery and the butcher’s, none of which remain.
The capital of the Baix Ebre region, this two-thousand year-old city was founded as a Roman colony in the 1st century BC. It looks out onto the Mediterranean thanks to its river, which gave its name to the Iberian Peninsula: the Ebro. An important Visigoth settlement and the capital of its own Taifa Kingdom under the Muslims, Tortosa had a significant Jewish population for centuries, who had a great deal to do with the town’s prosperity in the Middle Ages.