The legacy of Sefarad: Spain

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  • 11-03-2017

The Sephardic community (word that comes from the Hebrew and designate the Jews of Spain) was present in Sefarad (Hebrew word that designates the Iberian peninsula) from remote times, as confirm some remains found in the peninsula dated of the VII BD century. 

The number of Jews in Spain increased in the Roman Hispania, during the Diaspora and by the importation as slaves by the Romans.

In the Visigothic Hispania, at the beginning of the sixth century, the Visigoths, Arian Christians, lived in peace with the Jewish community, although from the Kingdom of Recaredo (587 AD), which converted to Catholicism and ordered the conversion of the whole peninsula, the Jews were prosecuted and isolated, fomenting the first Jewish quarters (called aljamas or juderías in spanish). During the following kingdoms, this situation became worse and many Jews left the land to the North of Africa, culminating with the approval of the slavery of Jews and converts with the King Égica in the year 694.

This situation changed radically in Al-Andalus. The conquering Muslims of the Iberian peninsula proved to be much more tolerant with the Jewish culture, a fact that started being noticed from the 8th century, when the number of Jewish quarters started to grow all over the peninsula, but mainly in the South area. Several Jews from all over Europe moved to the peninsula, and were able to carry out government positions or commercial and financial activities, which allowed, little by little, to incorporate the rest of the Jewish population to the Islamic culture, reaching positions of treasurers, tax collectors, money changers and lenders, which Muslims were forbidden to work due to their religion. This was with no doubt the most splendid time of Hebrew culture, specially in medicine, mathematics, astronomy, philosophy and religious studies. Some of the most important characters of the time in these sciences were: Avicenna, Aberroes and especially Maimonides, the Rabbi of Cordoba Moshe ibn Maimon, thanks to his contributions in Medicine and Philosophy. 

In the Christian kingdoms, the role of the Jews was of great importance: as transmitters of Muslim culture, in medicine, as collectors of taxes and the state treasury, etc. However, the lower classes only could see them as exploiters, and the Catholic Church had the perfect excuse to support this anti-Semitism.

Besides the prohibitions to Jews established in the Order of 1412, in the Cortes of Toledo of 1480 the Catholic Kings decided to change the Jewish quarters into ghettos surrounded by walls. Following this series of restrictions, in 1492, shortly after the end of the war in Granada (ending with the last Muslim citadel in the Iberian peninsula), the Catholic kings signed the decree of expulsion, forcing the not Converts (to Catholicism) Jews to leave the peninsula, in less than four months, by their own means and selling their goods. Some decided to stay and convert to Catholicism, especially the richest and most educated and most rabbis. The Jews who left the country and their descendants are known as Sephardim.

Today there are 24 municipalities that form the Jewish Network, an association to rescue and reclaim the Sephardic heritage. Many of the places have been abandoned or converted to Catholicism, yet traces and clues remain of this rich Jewish culture. Some of the most important municipalities in this area are: 

Granada, a beautiful city with important monuments such as The Alhambra, the Generalife, the Palace of Carlos V and the Albaicín.

Córdoba, former capital during the Muslim era. The Mosque-Cathedral, the Synagogue (it is said that it is the purest of the four remaining in all Spain), the Castle of the Monarchs or the Roman Bridge are some of the most recommended places to visit.

Toledo is the cradle of most of the Jewish history in Spain, with such emblematic sites as The Cathedral, the Old Synagogue and the Santa María Synagogue, the Madraza, the Carnicería (butcher shop) and the house of Samuel Ha-Levi.

Segovia, a city inhabited by Jews for more than three centuries, has some key places such as the Roman Aqueduct, the Synagogue, the Alcázar and the Cathedral.

Barcelona, ​​and its Gothic Quarter have many Sephardic past buildings such as the New Baths, Old Butcher Shop, Hebrew Stone, and many other symbols of Hebrew culture.