In his “Historia de las grandezas de la ciudad de Ávila”, (A History of the Great Events of the City of Avila), Father Ariz tells how, after the city was taken from the Muslims by the Castilian king, Alfonso VI, the first Jewish contingent arrived in around 1085, to join in the adventure of repopulating the city, under the auspices of the king’s son-in-law, Count Raymond of Bourgogne. Thus, the name of Rabbi Centén became part of the earliest chronicles of the re-foundation of Avila, after several centuries of neglect, during which it had been considered a “no-man’s-land” and the frontier between Christian and Muslim kingdoms.
The Jews of Avila were craftsmen in many different trades, but they were also wealthy cloth merchants. Amongst other things, this prosperity enabled the scholar Moshé de León, who lived in the house of Yuçaf de Avila, the king’s tax collector, to finish his Sefer ha-Zohar or Book of Splendour in the 13th century. This book is the last of the great Jewish Cabbalistic mystic trilogy, along with the Talmud and the Bible. Avila was also where Nissim ben Abraham, better known as the Prophet of Avila, wrote his book The Wonder of Wisdom, and where Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross, who were both descended from conversos, or apostate Jews from old Jewish families, reached the greatest heights of Christian mysticism.
THE JERUSALEM OF CASTILE
Having settled in different parts of the city at various times throughout history, the Sepharadic Jews of Avila had their main Jewish quarter in the south east of the walled city, in what is now the Santo Domingo neighbourhood, between the Adaja, Malaventura and Montenegro Gateways, and starting at the Mercado Chico, or Small Market, where the Roman forum once stood. The discovery of the old Jewish tanneries beside the river Adaja has revealed the best tangible proof of their industrial activities, in a town where such evidence has mostly been provided by documents, including the original Decree of Expulsion of 1492, which belongs to the municipal archives.
The streets and alleyways of the Jewish quarter, the remains of the synagogue of Don Simuel in Calle Pocillo, or the Rabbi’s house which is how the Belforad hostal, the impressive Santo Tomás monastery that was once the Inquisition headquarters, or the basilica of San Vicente, which recall the tale of the martyrs and the Jews – these are all highlights of a Hebrew Route that ends with the chronicle of the exodus of all those who left the city through the Malaventura gateway. Next to this gateway, in the garden that bears his name, the words of Moshe de Leon are an eternal reference for this spiritual city: “There are moments in which the souls in the garden rise up and reach the door of heaven. Then the sky itself revolves thrice around the garden, to the sound of a harmonious tune.”