The Glorious and Turbulent History of Jews of Spain

A brighter and darker side of Spanish history.

Miniature from 14th-century Spanish Haggadah manuscript

As I discover the fascinating history and culture of Spain in more depth, I cannot but help to come across some of the more tragic and darker parts of the country’s past. Below is a quick recap of an initially glorius time in Spain’s history that turned into one of its darkest. I’m talking of Jewish civilization in Spain.

So, let’s start from the beginning.

Jews have been part of Spain from around the 3rd century up to their official expulsion in 1492. Always being a small but sizable minority, they lived under both Christian and Muslim rulers. It’s ironic that during this time, Jewish communities in Spain prospered under Muslim rather than Christian, something which many would find hard to believe given today’s political climate. Spain’s history would be incomplete without learning about the significant role that Jews played in Spanish society.

Despite the Spanish Inquisition and persecution of Jews by many Christian rulers, Spain was a great center of Jewish life and scholarship for over 500 years.

Authors Naomi Pasachoff and Robert Litman divide up history of Spanish Jews into three parts: early Christian, Muslim (or Moorish rule) and the period of the Reconquista, or conquest of the Iberian peninsula once again by Catholic armies.

Early Jewish Communities

Artist depiction of Spanish Jews

After their exile from their homeland in Judea/Palestine, many spread out all over the world. Some invariably set up shop in Spain among the local Roman and pagan communities there. However as soon as the land started to become Christian, anti-Jewish laws began to be enacted. It all started under Roman rule. For example as early as 305, the Council of Elvira forbade Christians from eating with Jews or living in the same houses as them. If you that that was bad, things would get much worse. When in the 5th century the Roman Empire’s authority collapse in the region, their successors, the Visigoth kings forcibly converted many Jews to Christianity. In 613 King Sisebut ordered all Jews were to either be baptized or to leave Spain, period. In the following decades, other decrees stating that only Catholics could live within Visigoth lands were also passed. Those Jews who remained and were baptized had to sign a special document stating that they would follow the Catholic religion and participate in all rites of the faith.

In spite of this, many Jews decided to stay Spain and practice their religion in secret. When the authorities discovered what was going on, they banned circumcision for all males to prove that they were not Jews (circumcision of males is a Jewish rite of passage and for many a religious requirement). Despite persecution, forced baptism and even threats of death, small communities of Jews persevered throughout the Iberian Peninsula.

Muslim Conquest and Rule of Spain

Just when it seemed that Spanish Jews could take no more, their fortunes changed with the arrival of the Muslims in the 8th century. In 711, the Muslim commander Tariq bin Ziyad crossed into Spain from North Africa and went on to defeat the Visigoth King Roderic. This opened up the peninsula and Spain to further conquest by Muslim armies, most of who were made up of ethnically Arab and Berber soldiers. In a fortunate turn of fate, the roles of the Jews became reversed. Unlike the Christian rulers who persecuted and all but banished Jews, the Muslims actually welcomed them and gave them high positions within their administrations. Given their suffering as well as small numbers, the Jews were both not allies of the Christians nor were those sizable enough to pose a threat. Thus they became trusted subjects of Spain’s Muslim rulers. Many Jews who had fled to North Africa now returned to their ancestral Spanish homeland.

In 755 a new Muslim dynasty was founded by Abd al-Rahman, a descendent of the Umayyad caliphs of Damascus who had been overthrown by the Abbasids from the East. Abd al-Rahman made Córdova the capital of his new kingdom, under which both Muslims, Jews and even those Christians who remained prospered. Though living in sizable numbers in the capital, many Jews also flocked to the cities of Granada, Lucena, Seville and Tarragona, all of which were extremely prosperous at the time. Along with commerce, Jews became respected in many fields such as medicine, philosophy, theology, literature and the arts. Many Jewish academies dedicated to studying the Talmud were also founded. It was in this environment that the famous Jewish physician and philosopher Moses Maimonides lived.

Moses Maimonides

The Decline of Spanish Jewry

Like all things, the glory and power of Spain’s Umayyad dynasty was not destined to last forever. By the 11th century, internal squabbles had broken up a once powerful Muslim state into a group of kingdoms and petty fiefdoms. Due to this weakened state of affairs, Christian armies were able to gobble up Muslim lands piece by piece. Though this process known as the Reconquista took nearly four centuries, all of Spain and the Iberian Peninsula were under the rule of Catholic monarchs. Along with the change in regimes came the end of Jewish prosperity in Spain.

The Spanish Inquisition, Persecution and Expulsion from Spain

Jews had been harassed in Europe for centuries, but things to a harsher turn when in 1391, Ferrant Martinez, the archdeacon of Ecija, urged the local population to destroy and synagogues and kills any Jews who resisted. In June of that same year, a riot broke out in Seville and the Jewish quarter was burned. Those Jews who were not killed were rounded up and sold into slavery. However it didn’t stop there. Soon riots broke out in Toledo, Córdoba and Madrid and spread to the surrounding towns and districts. After three months of carnage, it was estimated that nearly 50,000 Jews were killed with another 100,000 being forced to adopt Catholicism. 1 As if that wasn’t enough, in 1415, King Ferdinand I banned Jews from studying the Talmud and increasing the size of any synagogues within his kingdom. More persecutions followed with entire Jewish populations being forcibly relocated and others forced to wear special badges to distinguish them from ordinary Spaniards.

While the Inquisition existed in many parts of Europe, it was arguably the most brutal in Spain. The way it worked was like this: if a person was considered a heretic, i.e. not a follower of Catholicism, the Inquisition tortured a person until he or she was repentant. Once the person had repented, they were given to the civil authorities who in most cases locked them up in prison for life.

With the last Spanish Muslim kingdom of Granada surrendering in 1492, the conquest of all of Spain by Christian forces was complete. On March 31st of that year, the Spanish Crown under King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I issued what became known as the Alhambra decree, a proclamation stating that all Jews were to be expulsed from Spain. Though at first Isabella seemed hesitant because of the economic power many Jewish communities held, Spain’s Grand Inquisitor, Tomas de Torquemada, insisted that it was necessary for national and religious unity. King Ferdinand however agreed with Torquemada and eventually carried out the decree. All Jews were given three months to leave the country but were forced to leave behind any valuables including gold, silver, weapons and horses. Half of Spain’s Jews left. The other half converted to Catholicism.

Depiction of Spanish Jews pleading to King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I, while Grand Inquisitor Torquemada looks on…

With all non-Catholics forced to convert, leave or essentially die, the Inquisition had to find new people to persecute. They did this by putting Catholics and Christians whose beliefs they considered heretical to the test. The Inquisition’s goal was to weed out any secret practitioners of Islam and Judaism or to make sure that any newly-converted Catholics were not following any heretical doctrines. Those outward Catholics who were believed to be secretly practicing Judaism were known as Marranos. It is not known for sure just how long such people survived in disguise in Spain before they too picked up and left.

After over 1000 years, Spain’s Jewish inhabitants were banished for good, never to return back in sizable numbers again. While today there are pockets here and there, these Jews are ones who have recently moved to Spanish cities and towns for work or trade and have roots elsewhere.

Sources and Further Reading


Jews of Spain

Five centuries after expulsion at pain of death, Spain grants citizenship to Sephardic Jews


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