The capital of the old kingdom of Leon, which stands on the site of the Roman settlement founded on the banks of the river Bernesga by the Legio VII in 68AD, is one of the main stops on the pilgrim’s Way of St. James, or Road to Santiago. It is a modern city, whose period of greatest splendour was in the Middle Ages, when it was decisive in terms of consolidating the Christian Reconquest. The first Jewish settlement in Leon was in the Puente Castro neighbourhood, outside the city walls, and also known as the Castrum Iudeorum or Jewish Hill Fort. It stood on the southern slope of La Mota hill, which had previously been occupied by an Astur “castro” or hill fort, and later by the Roman and Medieval fortresses.
The first Hebrew families must have arrived in around the 10th century, and over the next two centuries it became an influential aljama with, at one point, a thousand inhabitants - almost a third of the city’s population. The Hebrews of Castrum Iudeorum, protected by the Charter of 1090 which gave them practically the same rights as the Christians, owned their own land for farming and winegrowing. But, above all, they were the mainstay of Leon’s commercial activity.
The Cathedral Museum, the Museum of Leon, and the Synagogue of El Tránsito, in Toledo, all contain valuable tombstones in their collections that were uncovered during excavations at the Castro de los Judíos.
AND THE CASTRUM IUDEORUM
The defensive features of the quarter enabled the Jews of León to withstand for almost three days the joint attack. in July 1196, of Alfonso VIII of Castile and Pedro I of Aragón, who took advantage of their rivalry with Alfonso XI of Leon to inflict as much damage as possible on what was one of the strongest financial centres of the region. Following the attack, the Jewish quarter was ransacked and destroyed, and survivors had to move to the Santa Ana neighbourhood outside the city walls.
From the 13th century onwards, the New Jewish Quarter lay between the squares of Plaza Mayor, Santa Ana and Del Grano.Today, the buildings, cellars and passageways that lie within this triangle are being restored. They were once part of the old Jewish settlement where Moshé de León was born, in 1240. His Book of Splendour is considered one of the leading Hebrew Cabbalistic texts. Although the old names of the streets in the Jewish quarter, such as Cal de la Sinagoga or Cal Silvana, were changed to Misericordia, or Puerta del Sol, the famous Barrio Húmedo (or “wet neighbourhood”, in reference to its bars and taverns), which is one of the city’s main gastronomic attractions, has streets that serve as a reminder of the trades of the Jewish craftsmen of the Middle Ages: Zapaterías (Shoemaker’s), Platerías (Silversmith’s) or Azabachería (Black Jet Jeweller’s).
The Main Synagogue of the new aljama stood in Calle Misericordia, while the palace of the Marquises of Jabalquinto - which stands in the middle of the Barrio Húmedo and has been converted for a variety of purposes - is a reminder of the Jewish converso origins of a family who, having embraced Christianity after the 15thcentury persecutions, became famous in the 19th century for their support of the Carlist cause against the Royalists. Right next to the medieval walls was the Prado de Los Judios, or Meadow of the Jews, the old Hebrew cemetery, where generations of Leonese Jews were buried. The cathedral itself, or Pulchra leonina, is a magnificent example of the Gothic style imported from France in the 13th and 14th centuries. One of the frescoes in its ambulatory, painted by Nicolás Francés, still bears witness to the Jews who lived here alongside Christians, and portrays them wearing their 15th century clothing.