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Toledo Jewish Quarter

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Basic Information

Location Toledo, Spain
Country Spain
City Toledo

General Information

Open to visitors yes
Need appointment no
Handicap accessibility yes
Website http://www.redjuderias.org/rasgo/index.php?option=juderia&view=article&itemId=225&id=103&lang=en
Geographical Coordinates 39.86283,-4.02732


Rightly regarded as a true «city within a city», the madinat al-Yahud, or city of the Jews, constitutes a broad urban space which occupies almost ten per cent of walled Toledo. Divided, in turn, into different districts which correspond to the different stages of its expansion, the Jewish quarter of Toledo is an intricate maze which needs to be marked out in order to gain a real overview of what the Jews of Toledo were like and how they lived for at least eleven centuries. Although the oldest written documents date their presence back to the 4th century, in the context of the Roman Toletum, the Sephardi goes further back and relates the Jews to the very mythical origin of the city, deeming it likely that the first Jews arrive in the Iberian Península at the time of the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles in the 8th to 6th centuries B.C.

History and time period

Historically speaking, there is sufficient evidence of the Jewish presence as from the approval of anti-Jewish measures or the confirmation of the previous ones carried out at the different councils held in the city. Under the Visigoth monarchy (5th to 8th centuries), the period when Toledo was the capital of the kingdom, the Jews formed a numerous colony and hence the existence of a Jewish quarter can be assumed from at least the 6th century. As from the Third Council of Toledo, (589) when King Recaredo and his Goth subjects abandoned Ayrianism to convert to Roman Catholicism, there began to be problems with cohabitation. The persecutions and punishments which started upon the conversion of Recaredo led to many Jews deciding to convert to Christianity, leave or stay and resign to the new situation.

The hostile legal stipulations vis-à-vis the Jews of Toledo continued until the occupation of the city in 711 by Moslem troops. The destruction of Visigoth power at the Battle of Guadalete in 711, the ignorance of the Arab combat method and the probable death of Rodrigo at the battle left the door open to the leader Táriq ibn Ziyad to take control of Toledo in 711. Faced with repression, the Jews greeted the Arab invaders with open arms as their saviours after the fall of the Visigoth regime. What is for sure is that the city, unprotected as Rodrigo took his comitatus with him and the swordsmen of the royal guard, did not put up a fight so it would not be unusual to assume that the Jewish community had opened the gates in the wall to the Moslem troops whilst the inhabitants of Toledo were at mass. Legend or otherwise, the fact of the matter is that the Arab domination of Toledo began a long period for prosperity for the Jewish community.

The Moslems, as they regarded Jews as «people of the Book»too, afforded them great freedom. The Jews soon assimilated the uses of the new governors, adopting their language as a cultural vehicle and they used it until the 13th century, even in their internal or religious documentation. During this time until the late 11th century, many learned Jews were born or educated in Toledo such as Abraham ibn Ezrá or Yehuda Ha-Levi himself. It was here that Abraham ibn al-Fakhar was born and wrote his poetic works, dying in 1231, Israel of Toledo and many more who displayed the light of their knowledge in the Castilian court.

In around 1000 the Jewish community of Toledo was insignificant and prior to this date there is scant data about its presence. They are families who cohabit with the Christian population, doing business and working in the fields. Their fate was tied to that of the Reconquest whose ebbing and flowing directly impacted the state of things. Moslem Spain afforded great opportunities a high standard of living. The Jews of Al-Ándalus took advantage of the tolerant climate of the Caliphate and took the values of that refined civilization as their own without giving up their religious beliefs.

In 1085 Alfonso VI conquered Toledo and the Jewish quarter began am age of prosperity and population growth. The Jews helped the Castilian King conquer the city and Alfonso VI granted them the same rights as the Christians. The height of the Jewish community was maintained with the Christian Kings, accruing their social and political representativeness and becoming the most important Jewish community in the Crown of Castile in the 12th century. The doctor and nasi of Toledo Joseph ben Ferruziel, also known as Cidellus, was to become the monarch´s prime minister and this gave way to a series of Jews holding important office in the court of Castile.

Despite royal protection, Isaac ben Jacob na-Cohen, known as Alfassi, an 11th century Talmudist, refers to persecutions in Toledo in 1090, five years after the entry of Alfonso VI in Toledo. In his Responsa, Alfassi alos talks about the slaughter of Jews in 1108, the year in which Salomón ibn Farissol died. Neither does it seem that the equality between Christians and Jews would last for long. A decree of 1118 forbade the Jews from having any jurisdiction over a Christian, leading us surmise that this was previously habitual.

In 1135, with the arrival of the Almohads to Al-Ándalus, there was a headling rush of the Jewish population feeling to Castile and Aragón, leaving Moslem Spain virtually free of Jews. The Almohads, «those who recognise the unity of God», or Banu Abd al-Mumin, was a Moslem dynasty of Berber origin which emerged in modern-day Morocco in the 12th century as a reaction to the relaxed religious attitudes of the Almoravides and they dominated the north of Africa and the south of the Iberian Peninsula from 1147 to 1269. Faced by Almohad intransigence, the aljamas, such as that of Toledo, increased their population with Jews from Moslem Spain. May arrived in 1147 and the nasí of the Jews of Toledo was Judá ben Joseph ibn Ezrá, a relative of the poet.

The consequences of this mass emigration proved decisive. Toledo was settled by poets, grammaticians, philosophers, scientists, doctors and other learned men, making the city their main destination. The Archbishop of Toledo don Raimundo de Sauvetat, who later became the Chancellor of Castile with Alfonso VII, wished to take advantage of the climate which allowed Christians, Moslems and Jews to live in harmony, provided his backing to different translation projects requested by all the courts of Christian Europe. The prestige of the School of Translators of Toledo was so great that not even the anti-Jewish stipulations of the Lateran Council in 1215 could stop it from flourishing.

Royal favouritism to the Jews was frequently the cause of unrest such as the revolt of 1178 in which the Jewish lover of King Alfonso VIII died. This revolt also put paid to Judá and Samuel Alnaqua. Or the revolt of 1212, coinciding with the arrival of Jews fleeing French intolerance. The Archbishop of Toledo responded by burdening the Jewish community with new taxes: any Jews aged over twenty would have to pay an annual encumbrance, whilst they would have to pay an additional charge for profits foregone when purchasing houses from Christian owners.

The reign of Alfonso X the Wise was the one which entailed the greatest prosperity and splendour for the Jewish community of Toledo. Their situation is attested to by the amount of taxes the aljama paid in 1284: one million maravedis. During his reign the Jewish quarter of Toledo became known for its scale, the luxuriousness and beauty of its public buildings and the intellectual quality of its rabbis.

After the death of the Wise king, the Jews fell into disrepute again. During the 14th century, the epidemic of the Black Death in 1348 and the war between Pedro I the Cruel and Enrique of Trastámara resulted in deep social ill-feeling borne out by the attacks on the Jewish quarter in 1355 and 1391. In addition, there was a fire in the enclosure of Alcaná, a commercial district where the Jews had their shops, workshops and some houses. Until 1222 the year in which the cathedral began to be expanded, the main mosque, consecrated in December 1086 to Christian worship, remained relatively unchanged. In the late 14th century the construction of the cloister was planned and this began to be built on August 14th 1389. There is some doubt as to whether the fire was started by the Chapterhouse of the cathedral to allow the construction of the cloister planned by Archbishop Pedro Tenorio in the Alcaná area.

The anti-Jewish revolts of 1391 reached Toledo too. On June 18th the Jewish quarter of Toledo was attacked at night in a similar way to other cities in the kingdom. The victims of the slaughter included prominent craftsmen, poets and men of letters. The majority of the synagogues of the city we destroyed or seriously damaged. In February 1398 the King ordered the mayor Juan Alfonso and the main treasurer Juan Rodríguez de Villareal who carried out investigations into who had committed the robberies in the Jewish quarter of Toledo, imposing a fine of thirty thousand gold doubloons on the guilty parties.

The disastrous economic consequences for the city were soon felt; particularly by private individuals, monasteries and other religious institutions who lost the income they had from the taxes on the Jewish aljamas. The hardest hit was the chaplains whose ecclesiastical profits derived from the rents in the Jewish quarter. In 1411 the Dominican Vincent Ferrer arrived in Toledo on his preaching campaign of 1411-1412 and according to Francisco de Pisa in his Descripción de la Imperial Ciudad de Toledo (Description of the Imperial City of Toledo) of 1605

"Viniendo a esta ciudad de Toledo, vista la obstinación incredulidad y perfidia de algunos, tomando consigo alguna gente de armas entró por el barrio de la Iudería [...] y en el antiguo templo que ahora llaman santa María la Blanca (que era su synagoga), y a pesar de todos los Iudios la bendixo, y él echando los fuera la hizo iglesia [...] y en ella celebró Missa."

Doubt was later cast on this testimony by Francisco de Pisa as it seems that Vincent Ferrer gave his sermon outside the walls (as the Cathedral could not accommodate everyone who wished to hear it), but it is clear sign of the state of affairs as regards the Jewish community of Toledo.

The aggressiveness of the Christians to Jews and Moslems, which became ever more pronounced, resulted in the proclamation of a series of ordinances against them in 1451 whereby they were required to obey a series of restrictive measures such as the prohibition to walk around the streets at night, enter churches or monasteries without authorisation, leave their houses during Christian festivities as well as the obligation to wear distinctive signs sewn into their clothes. The Jews of Toledo had already complained that in 1450 King Juan II had ordered the revocation and cancellation of all anti-Jewish ordinances in place in the Castilian kingdom as there had been many places where they had done so and the Jews had left. The King ordered the Town hall of Toledo to follow his order and the latter, meeting on February 23rd 1452, reviewed the ordinances, doing away with some, but modifying and maintaining others.

Several fires accompanied the conditions of social disequilibrium which were still in place in the 15th century. Supported by the League of Nobles, who symbolically dethroned Enrique IV in the so-called Farce of Ávila on July 5th 1465 and crowned his brother Alfonso (recalled by Jorge Manrique in Coplas por la muerte de su padre (Coplas on the death of his father) in 1476), the old Christians started clearing the lands of Castile of all those who had Jewish blood, whether they were Jewish or convertsas well as Moslems converted to Christianity. The latter, feeling threatened, staged an uprising in Toledo on the day of the fires of Magdalena, on July 22nd 1467. Heavily armed, the converts surrounded the cathedral and they kept the Christians under siege after killing two canons and a few others. A thousand Christians and reinforcements of one hundred and fifty men arriving from Ajofrín came to the rescue of those besieged. The converts took gates and bridges of the city and put up four barricades. The fighting then began on the outskirts of the cathedral and continued in the Magdalena district. Those besieged were able to get out, some say via the door giving out onto Ollas street; other via the gate door onto Reloj street. The converts responded by setting fire to the Magdalena district. All the houses neighbouring the Don Diego Yard burned to the ground immediately. Friar Mesa, a chronicler of Castile, says that the fire spread quickly because of the wind to Trinidad, passing near San Juan de la Leche, reducing Nueva and Sal street to ashes, reaching as far as the spices market and the church of Santa Justa. According to the chronicler the fire continued via Tintes street and burned down the house of Diego García de Toledo. One thousand six hundred houses were destroyed. The old Christians, after many days of fighting, were finally able to control the fire and reduce the converts. Their ringleader, Fernando de la Torre, was put to death; the same fate would befall many other converts in the following days.

The uprising was of little benefit to the insurgents who were forced to flee from Castile with their assets. Those who decided to stay, deprived of their right to bear arms or hold posts in the Administration, finally had to convert and attest to their good faith to be Christians before the Inquisition Court.

After the Edict of expulsion by the Catholic Monarchs, on March 31st 1492 the aljama of Toledo disappeared and the public buildings of the Jews, save the odd exception, were distributed by the Catholic Monarchs between the nobles and religious orders to make up for the loss in income. Many inhabitants of the Jewish quarter decided to convert, but others left, en route to exile. There are various details attesting to the devotion they had to this land which was theirs too. They retained their Judaeo-Spanish in their destinations and more importantly, they kept the keys to their homes thinking they might come back.

They never did.

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