Searching for Granada’s Jewish History

Granada’s Realejo district, the old Jewish quarter, is a vibrant neighbourhood full of winding streets, pretty balconies and interesting street art. Once home to the city’s Jewish population, it was here that we began our quest for an insight into the complex and multifarious history of Jews in Granada.

Courtyard in the Centro de la Memoria Sefardí
Courtyard in the Centro de la Memoria Sefardí

We stopped first at the Centro de la Memoria Sefardí (Sephardic Memorial Centre). A small, traditional building, the museum outlines the key dates and facts of Jewish history in the area. It also describes a number of key, influential Jewish figures from Granada and the region.

Information on the artefacts kept in the museum as well as important historical events are laid out in both Spanish and English, and the very welcoming member of staff also provided us with a brief introduction to the centre in English.

Centro de Memoria Sephardi
Centro de la Memoria Sefardí

Next we made our way to the Palacio de los Olvidados (Palace of the Forgotten) and were once again greeted by a very friendly staff member who, as it turned out, would also be our tour guide. For only five euros, you gain entrance to the museum as well as a fantastic guided tour. The museum was opened last year to ensure that Jewish history in the area is not forgotten; it achieves this aim and more, providing a wealth of information on the tumultuous events that shaped Jewish lives and history in Granada and the broader region.

Our tour started with an overview of the Jewish history from the first settlements; though no precise date is available, it is believed that Jewish people first came to Spain in the 5th or 6th century BC. Little is known of this period, but it is thought that Jewish people enjoyed a relatively peaceful existence under Roman rule.

Torah
Torah

However, with the onset of Christianity, Jews and Jewish rituals came to be viewed as a threat to the development of the religion. The canons of the Council of Elvira in 303 AD prohibited inter-marriage between Christians and Jews, and even prevented Jewish and Christian people from sitting together and sharing meals, so as to avoid the potential influence of Jewish culture and religion.

At the beginning of the 5th century AD, much of the Iberian Peninsula came under the rule of the Visigoths. Although Visigothic rulers originally payed less attention to Jews, when King Recarred I converted to Catholicism in 587, the royal family took a much more hard-line approach to Judaism in the country. The restraints and prohibitions placed upon the Jewish community during Visigoth rule accounts in part for their support for the Moorish conquest in 711.

The time of the Moorish invasion until around the 11th century AD is considered the Golden Age of the Jews in Granada. This was a time of mostly peaceful coexistence, and the Jewish community was highly regarded for its expertise in science, medicine, law and philosophy.

Names of Significant Jewish Figures
Names of Significant Jewish Figures

A key figure during this period was Samuel ibn Nagrela, policy advisor and military leader under King Habbus and, later, his son King Badis. Known not only for his political and military leadership, he was also an accomplished translator and poet. Unfortunately, things turned sour after his death and the appointment of his son Joseph as the king’s vizier.

Generally speaking, at this time Jews could still not attain high positions in public office. Tensions were rising among many Muslims at the time, and Joseph was disliked due to his apparent scepticism towards faith, both Jewish and Islamic.

Although 1066 is a date well-remembered by all English schoolchildren, the year was also an important one for the history of Granada and the Jews in Spain. On the 30th December 1066 the royal palace was stormed and a massacre ensued which killed around 4,000 Jews, including Joseph ibn Nagrela.

Granada was one of the last strongholds of Muslim power in the Iberian Peninsula: the Christian ‘Reconquista’ was finally completed in the late 15th century when Muslim rule ended and Ferdinand and Isabella took power. A decree drafted by the Spanish Inquisition and signed by the royal couple in 1492 expelled all Jews from the country. Muslims were also forced to convert or leave Spain from 1501, despite the explicit term (as part of Emir Muhammad XII’s surrender) that Muslims would be able to continue to practice their religion and customs in the city.

Inquisitor's Desk and Chair
Inquisitor’s Desk and Chair

Many Jews fled, some still with the hopes of returning if political and religious policy changed. Others stayed and converted to Christianity, though Jewish beliefs and rituals still continued – albeit in secret.

The Inquisition during its long history sought to stamp out such practices, and used favour and privilege to try and turn converted Jews against each other.

The Palacio de los Olvidados also displays a number of interesting artefacts, from Jewish kitchenware to religious symbols to marriage contracts. Our very informative tour guide went through not only the various Jewish rituals but also gave us an insight into the daily lives of Jewish women and children in Granada.

After the guided tour we were free to wander around the rooms again at our own leisure, taking photos and taking in all the information on the displays. You can also go to the top floor of the palace where you are afforded a gorgeous view of the surrounding houses, roof tops and even the Alhambra.

View from the Museum including the Alhambra
View from the Museum including the Alhambra

Although the history is a difficult and often sad one, learning about the events and people that shaped the lives of Jewish people in Granada and the region was eye-opening and fascinating.

I hope this blog provides some useful information into the complex history of the Jews in Granada. If you are planning to visit this unique and stunning city, I would absolutely recommend a trip to both the Centro de la Memoria Sefardí as well as the excellent Palacio de los Olvidados.

View from the Museum
View from the Museum

Thanks for reading.

Hasta luego!

Laura

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