In 1170, King Sancho the Wise fostered the creation of a Jewish quarter in the upper side of the city, protected by the Castle walls, and this became the New Jewish quarter, which existed alongside the Old Quarter for some time. There is evidence of at least two synagogues, the Greater and Smaller, plus a third one in the weaver’s neighbourhood. The Major synagogue, which has been beautifully restored, contains a large prayer room and a gallery (azará) for women at the end; the ceiling and the geometrical design on the walls date from the 13th century, while the delightful painted wooden structures are 15th-century.
Under Moorish rule, the Tudela Jewish quarter was a major commercial and cultural nucleus, and its Talmudic schools were as famous as its Islamic ones. When the city was handed over to the Christians in 1119, Alfonso the Battler recognized the Jewish community in the Charter of Nájera, along with its rights and property, and set the limits of the aljama to be what we know today as the Judería Vieja, or Old Jewry, on the south of side of the wall. This initial settlement, very close to the river, contains houses with a 1.5 to 2m-high stone wall-base, to protect them from floods, and with three or four storeys made of brickwork.
In Christian times, the aljama of Tudela was governed by a collegiate of twenty members, who were responsible for applying the Taccanot, which were decrees written between 1297 and 1305. Trade and crafts were the main occupations for Tudelan Jews, although some of them owned vineyards and others became important advisors of the aristocracy and the King. Three of them, at least, became known well beyond the local region.
Yehuda ha-Leví (1070-1141) is considered “the prince of Andalusian Hebrew poets” and is one of the key figures of the diaspora. “My heart is in the East, while I live in the extreme West”, wrote the author Kuzari, one of the fundamental books on the conscience of the wandering people; he died on his way to Jerusalem, in Alexandria, aged almost seventy. Abraham ibn Ezrá (1069-1164) was an itinerant scholar who lived in Cordova, Seville and Lucena. In 1140 he decided to travel through Europe and North Africa. After Maimonides, he is the greatest writer in Sepharad. Born after the city was conquered by the Christians, Benjamin de Tudela (1130-1175), was also a tireless traveler and scholar and a great polyglot. He left Tudela in 1160, and travelled to Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Bagdad and Cairo, then returned to Paris. His Book of Travels is, even today, a key work in order to understand what Europe and the Middle East were like in the 12th century.
Despite the existence of the Manta, or “the Mantle”, a canvas containing the names of all Tudela’s conversos that hung in the Cathedral until 1783, the truth is that Navarre held out against the Catholic Monarchs’ decree of expulsion for six whole years, and Tudela was famous at the time for protecting the murderers of the Inquisitor of Zaragoza.