One of the things I was excited for on my recent trip to Seville, a stunningly beautiful city in Andalusia in the south of Spain, was exploring its Jewish heritage. The city had a Jewish population dating from at least the sixth century, and walking tours of the old Jewish quarter are widely available. In addition, Seville was the home of the headquarters of the Inquisition, and has a museum in the ruins of that building complex.
While Jewish practice isn’t a huge part of my current life, the religion and culture of my people are one of the dominant nodes of my identity. So when traveling, it is really exciting for me from a personal standpoint to delve into Jewish history. From the Jewish American Museum in Philadelphia to an entire day seemingly devoted to Jewish culture in Aix-en-Provence, it seems about once a year that I have the chance to do something pertaining to that aspect of my life and upbringing.
The history of Spanish Jewry is troubling, to say the least. Seville is certainly no exception. On June 6, 1391, more than 4,000 Jews were massacred in a single day, and those Jews remaining in the city were given the “choice” to leave or convert. One hundred years later, in 1492, Jews were expelled – or forcefully converted – from the whole of Spain.
The Jewish quarter sits right along the wall of the Alcazar in Seville
While the city has nearly no current Jewish population to speak of – Madrid has the largest contingent at only 3,500 or so – the sheer number of tours of Seville’s Jewish quarter – the Barrio Santa Cruz – and even specifically calling themselves Jewish quarter tours, gave me optimism that perhaps some of my people’s history here, and contributions made to society here, were preserved, or at least remembered.
For the most part, I was wrong.
The Barrio Santa Cruz is lovely, a maze of narrow alleys adjacent to the Alcazar. As our tour began, we entered Juderia Street. Our guide explained that this was one of the entrances to the Jewish quarter. As we wandered the alleys, she pointed out the sights; none were Jewish. Our small group was made entirely of people like me, Jews hoping for a glimpse of what had been a thriving community. Instead, we got things like, “If you look hard here, you can see a Jewish star,” pointing at an eight-sided star, which is definitely not the Jewish six-sided version, and “Jews built high walls with gardens visible so they could show off their wealth while still being isolated,” which borders on outright anti-Semitism.
One of the few Jewish signs remaining
On two occasions, the group saw signs with Hebrew on them, one a commemorative plaque declaring this part of Sephardi (Spanish/North African/Middle Eastern) Jewish heritage, and one a marker of the person who did some of the work on the Cathedral having lived there. In neither case did our guide notice, nor have anything to add.
Obviously modern, it was still nice to see this plaque.
At the end of the tour, we saw a square where we were told a synagogue once stood. Nothing remains.
There was apparently a synagogue here a long time ago. Now it’s a pretty square.
Had I taken this tour as a Barrio Santa Cruz walk rather than one specifically discussing the Jewish quarter, I would have found it to be lovely. After all, the neighborhood is beautiful, the walk peaceful, and some of the facts we learned from our guide were nice. But this was not – in any way – a Jewish tour.
So I was hoping for better when I walked across the river to the Castillo de San Jorge. The ruins of what must have been a mighty complex are free to the public. What makes these particular ruins interesting is that from 1481 to 1626, they held the headquarters for the famed and feared Spanish Inquisition. This institution was established to maintain Catholic orthodoxy in Spain and its colonies, and during its operations from 1478 to 1834 (seriously, so recent in the scheme of things) prosecuted more than 150,000 individuals on charges ranging from low-level heresy like teaching something the Church hadn’t approved to high-level, like practicing another religion. (Some forced converts secretly kept their old religions while publicly living as Catholics.) More than 3,000 were executed, public burnings at the stake being a favorite.
The Castillo from the front
The museum now located here talks about the ruins, highlighting what buildings some of them would have held. It discusses the history of the Castle both before and after the Inquisition period. It speaks at length – fascinatingly – about the process involved in the steps from accusation to trial to execution. (More commonly confessions were extracted via torture.) It also has a few stories of those accused (some convicted and others acquitted) and tried by the Inquisition. But the persecution of Jews? Largely overlooked.
These ruins were the Inquisition complex, and are well maintained.
I don’t mean to sound negative. Both of these experiences were pleasant, or at least as pleasant as the Inquisition can be outside of Monty Python. But they were not what I expected, nor what I had hoped for.
Seville is one of the most amazing places I have ever visited, as you’ll come to read here on The Royal Tour in the coming weeks. But before you plan on having a Jewish experience here, just realize there isn’t much to be had.
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