The Jewish Quarter

The Jewish Quarter is the best-known part of Cordoba’s historic centre, which was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984 and is one of the largest in Europe. To the northwest of the Mosque-Cathedral along the city wall, its medieval streets have a distinctly Moorish flair to them, reminiscent of the Jews’ prosperity under the Caliphate of Cordoba. This neighborhood’s history is a history of the Caliphate and of the West. Of special interest are the Synagogue and Souk.

Calle Judíos, in the Jewish Quarter.

Jews formed a part of Cordoba’s cultural mix from as early as the 2nd Century until their expulsion from Spain in 1492. Under the Moslems, both Jews and Christians were given religious freedom and self-governing communities. This arrangement was profitable to their rulers, who improved their tax revenue with special household taxes for non-Moslems.

During the 11th and 12th centuries the Jewish population in Spain reached its point of greatest prosperity, intellectual energy and well-being, coinciding with Cordoba’s greatest moment in history. Cordoba was the star of western Europe, seat of an independent Caliphate and a center for prosperity, commerce and learning in the midst of the so-called Dark Ages. Its mosque rivaled that of Damascus, its markets and palaces amazed travelers, and scholars came from afar to its prestigious university and library. When the very light of civilization flickered among poverty and ignorance to the north, Cordoba’s paved streets were illuminated with street lighting.

One prominent Jewish figure of the Caliphate was Hasdai ibn Shaprut (915-970), a scholar, doctor, and diplomat who acted as Al-Hakam III’s physician and minister of foreign affairs.

Statue of Maimonides in Cordoba’s Jewish Quarter

Another brilliant physician and thinker was Maimonides (1135-1204), who went into exile with his family and finally settled in Egypt. He became one of the two most-studied Jewish philosophers of all time (also recognized by Christians and Moslems as a revolutionary religious thinker). Among his works are the great Misneh Torah and the controversial Guide to the Perplexed. Until recently, only a stone in the courtyard of the synagogue commemorated him.

When Fernando III took Cordoba from the hands of the bickering Moorish Taifa Kingdoms, the Jewish community once again briefly prospered under Christian rule, maintaining their self-governing community, as in Moslem times. The last Jewish neighborhood we know of in Cordoba was separated and protected by walls on all sides, and lay approximately within the triangle formed by the city walls from Almodovar Gate to the Arab baths (once the northern, walled limit of the old Alcazar), Manríquez/Deanes streets and Almanzor street. Outside Almodovar gate there was once a Jewish cemetery.

In 1315 Simon Majeb built the Synagogue, which still stands today. It is one of the three significant synagogues remaining in Spain and is largely unaltered (its Mudejar reliefs were covered and it was used as a rabies hospital, seat of the shoe-makers’ guild and finally a 19th-century primary school). The buildings around it were probably used as public baths and a Talmudic school.

The rest of the neighborhood has a distinctly Islamic air. Nearby is the Zoco (Souk), a medieval version of the famed Arabic souks which used to dot the urban landscape of the Caliphate. Below the oldest houses are Roman remains, and while some of the houses are higher and increasingly modern, they respect the ancient urban layout.

Anti-Semitic Papal bulls in the 1340s and local jealousy of Jews’ wealth and influence lead to their neighborhood being stormed in 1391 and an end to their isolation. Perhaps at this time the eastern and southern walls and their 2 gates were torn down, disappearing along with the northern walls of the old alcazar, which used to enclose the Arab baths, just outside the Jewish Quarter. In 1492, as a part of their consolidation of power over a newly unified Spain, Ferdinand and Isabel presented the Jews with the choice of forced conversion or exile in 1492, causing the mass emigration of the Sephardic Jews from all over Spain.