As a bridge between Europe and Africa, Andalusia has a rich and diverse history, though the cultures and religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have undeniably left the most important and lasting marks. They coexisted in relative harmony, and even supported one another in various ways for centuries; however, following the gradual and brutal Christian reconquest, Jews and Muslims in 1492 were forced to convert. The only other option was to leave the region or die.
After the Expulsion, many Jewish and Muslim sites were destroyed in a concerted effort to bury their history, but the legacy is impossible to erase and even in recent times new remnants are being unearthed or recovered. The Islamic Moors ruled Al-Andalus for more than seven centuries and their influence is unmistakable. The Sephardic Jews (referring simply to the Jews of Spain), had a different history in the region but left an indelible heritage, perhaps less immediately noticeable but no less important. The Sephardi are believed to have inhabited the region half a century before the arrival of the Islamic Moors and even before the Romans.
With a bit of guidance one can explore the Sephardic legacy in Andalusia to a fair degree. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Andalusian capitals reveal some of the most important sites, though there are true gems outside of the cities. Here are some sites across the region to help begin the discovery.
The city of Cordoba holds perhaps the most concentrated and accessible sites relating to the Sephardic heritage in Andalusia. The hometown of the famed and historic Jewish philosopher Maimonedes, the old walled city of Cordoba holds at its centre the well preserved Jewish quarter, or Judería, and one of only three surviving synagogues in Spain from before the Expulsion of 1492. The entire historic centre of Cordoba has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Meanwhile, no tour of Cordoba would be complete without a visit to the unique and dazzling Mezquita Mosque-Cathedral, rounding out the history of the three cultures in Cordoba.
The city has culinary delights to enhance the Sephardic exploration of the city as well. The Sephardic restaurant Casa Mazal serves and preserves traditional Judeo-Spanish dishes; meanwhile, Noor restaurant, complete with a Michelin star, serves a tasting menu covering a millennium of culinary influences from the three cultures of Al-Andalus.
South of Cordoba, near the town of Lucena today, an ancient Jewish necropolis was discovered only some 15 years ago. With about 380 tombs all facing toward Jerusalem, it is one of the most important archaeological finds of recent history.
In Jaen province, another recent discovery in Úbeda unearthed a previously unknown synagogue as work began on a real estate development in 2006. The project was abandoned after some arches and a ritual bath (Mikveh) was discovered and with further excavation the synagogue emerged. It’s known as the Water Synagogue for the Mikveh below, but the best estimate is that the site predates the fourteenth century.
Back to the major capitals… Granada is of course the home of the old Moorish palace, the Alhambra. It is an absolute must see and one of the most popular and important historical sites in all of Europe. The contrasts within are mostly between the Moors and Christians; however, one of the most impressive spaces is the Fountain of the Lions, donated to the Muslim King by the Jewish community. The Edict of Expulsion in 1492 was signed in the Alhambra as well, as Rabbi Iasaac Abravenel pleaded with Ferdinand and Isabella, to no avail, to rescind the edict.
Granada maintains its own historic Jewish neighbourhood also, the Realejo. There is a dedicated Sephardic museum and another small museum, the Palacio de los Olvidados, focusing more on the expulsion and persecution of the Sephardi rather than their contributions.
Two of the remaining Andalusian capitals, Seville and Malaga, also have their Sephardic history, though the remaining sites are somewhat less impactful. There are two “former” synagogues in Seville and an old Judería that has become a bit of a touristic area. Malaga is making efforts to revive its Sephardic past after 500 years, with a new heritage and community centre as the state has invited all Sephardic Jews who can prove ancestry to return to live in Spain after the diaspora.
These are but some general points to assist the curious traveller for a self-guided tour of the Sephardic history of Andalusia. For a more in depth and professionally guided exploration, contact a local, specialist tour agent such as Toma and Coe.
Alan Hazel is Owner and Director of Cortijo El Carligto. Cortijo el Carligto is a private Andalucían hideaway and luxury rental estate in the hills of Malaga, Spain, overlooking the Mediterranean.
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