In Catalonia the Jewish quarter of a town or city is known as the Call (from the Hebrew word kahal, meaning community). In 1391 the Jewish population of Barcelona was eliminated either from a pogrom (massacre), fled if they could afford to, or were forcibly converted to Christianity. The Jewish quarter is right in the center of Barcelona and we had a fantastic guide for this part of the visit as there is so much we would not have seen otherwise. One needs an imagination to conjure a flourising community that disappeared over 600 years ago.
We are inside the area that would have been the Jewish quarter. The streets are the narrowest in the city, only wide enough for a cart and horse to fit. When a community is confined they make the most of the space they have. This is the entrance that would have had a gate (open during the day closed at night). This post requires an imagination (and a guide helps too).
Standing by the oldest building in Barcelona that was home to a very important scholar and rabbi named Rashba who was a student of Ramban (are you confused)?! Notice at the corner the bump for getting off and on your horse.
The oldest stone of this wall is from Roman times.
Stone above is from Middle Ages. Again if you have limited space you build up.
Across the alley from the oldest building you can see the crossroads of two main thoroughfares in the quarter. Look up and you’ll see a niche. In the Middle Ages people were illiterate so instead of a street sign there would be a marker or statue to tell the location.
A marker stone to identify one of the home, in this case Samuel from Sardinia. Since Barcelona was a commercial center Jewish merchants from throughout Europe passed through. They had a distinct advantage, a common language with other Jews so they sought them out whenever possible.
The groove marks the spot where there would have been a mezuzah (kind of amulet attached to the doorpost of every Jewish home). Of course during the time of the Inquisition this identification would have been quite dangerous.
There is a joke about Jewish people who have the synagogue they attend and the one they would never go to. Historians believe this is the location of one of many synagogues in the Jewish quarter at its height.
There is one synagogue discovered in the quarter, probably built as early as the 4th century CE. It was uncovered in 1987. The verification process was quite interesting since records were kept only about taxes and synagogues were not required to pay taxes. However, the tax collector’s route was recorded and indicated he passed it by. The building also is oriented east west instead of north south as the rest of the quarter is. Synagogues face Jerusalem, which is to the east.
Floor of the synagogue dating to Roman times also has dye vats used by a family that occupied the space after it was no longer a synagogue.
Another portion of the Roman floor sunken many feet below street level now.
A stained glass window delineating the women’s section of the synagogue. There is a solid wall behind the window as another building was erected there after the synagogue was abandoned. Perhaps one day it will be excavated.
Just outside the Call there is a square that now has two important municipal government buildings. If you look to the back of this building you will see one wall that is angled, that was the site of another synagogue and this remaining wall faces East towards Jerusalem. You can see how it is oriented differently from the rest.
Leaving the Jewish quarter we once again make our way along the Roman road.
You can see remnants of a Roman aqueduct and a Medieval tower.
Multiple building levels are quite apparent here, Roman stone on the bottom, Medieval stone in the middle, and 20th century additions (pink) on either side.
Compare this main cathedral of the city of Barcelona (begun 1298). It was not finished until the early 20th century. Notice how ornate it is compared to the one in Girona. Barcelona was much richer and could afford a grander cathedral.
Entry doors of Barcelona Cathedral, ca. 1889.
George and the Dragon- dragons are a common theme in Barcelona. You’ll see more of them when we look at Gaudi’s work. One might think George and the Dragon are the mascots of the city.
Around the corner (notice the Catalan independence flag) we get a big surprise. For those of you who are in the ancient art history classes the timing is perfect as we are talking about syncretism in class (adopting other people’s imagery, etc).
At the end of that alley we entered a room and found the Temple of Augustus from Roman times, or at least what’s left of it. It is very close to the cathedral. Remember the discussion about one group asserting power of the other by building on top of their sacred space?
Not only did they build over the temple but it ended up being buried inside some apartments. Early etchings from the 19th century show people in their apartments with free floating column portions in the living room.
The Jews were under the protection of Jaume I, as they were useful to him for commerce, medical attention, etc. and of course, he charged them the highest taxes which they were almost happy to pay to buy the king’s protection. This is the king’s palace and the courtyard here was the site of a famous disputation between Nachmanides (Ramban from Girona) and a Christian cleric over Christianity’s main beliefs. Ramban realized if he “won” the debate it could go very badly for the Jewish community so he argued well enough so that the Jews assumed they had won and the Christians assumed they had won. Regardless, as punishment Ramban was banished from Spain. He settled in Palestine, never to return.
Tower in the king’s palace so he could see the sea and who he might be able to tax for landing a ship on his shore.
See the door up high that doesn’t have any access to it? That is a door in the cathedral wall that had a bridge to the king’s palace so he could pass without having to come in contact with any of his subjects.
At the base of one of the walls there is a stone with engraved Hebrew letters (turned on its side). This is a Jewish gravestone.
Another portion of a Jewish gravestone. Remember, the Jewish community of Barcelona vanished at the end of the 14th century. Many of these buildings were built at least 100 years later. These were repurposed stones that happened to be already the right shape and it’s likely the builders did not even know what they were.
Here is one more higher up on the wall. The ironic thing about this one is it’s just down the street from the Inquisition torture chambers. The writing is three rows below the wire going horizontally from the lamp in the center.
The insignia for the Inquisition. Notice the pig at the bottom. Spaniards are quite obsessed with pork and this was and is an issue for observant Jews who do not eat pork. This became a life or death issue in those days.
The facade on this 18th century building is quite lovely but check out the street sign- Banys Noy Street (New Bath Street). This brought us to the end of our tour and we walked on this street full of tourist shops some of which sold Jewish souvenirs along with chic clothing, shoes, and edible treats because they know who comes to this neighborhood. We arrived at one store and our guide took us inside.
This is what we found at the back of the store- it’s the Mikveh (ritual bath). When the store wanted to expand they broke through an existing wall and found this. They needed to bring in the antiquities authorities who excavated the entire area and determined this was where the Jewish community in the 14th century had their Mikveh. If you remember, the Black Plague killed 60% of the population but very few of them were Jews. So the Jews were blamed for the plague. It was simple hygiene that saved the Jews from the plague but not from the Inquisition. Here is where they practiced their ritual hygiene. It’s now part of a knick knack store and the original Jewish community is gone. But our guide for this tour is Jewish and everyone on our tour (6 adults and my grandson) are Jewish, and Barcelona has a small but vibrant Jewish community again.