Chronological / Destinations / Europe

Building Bridges in Segovia, Spain

The limestone towers of Segovia rise from behind a medieval wall, a radiant skyline overlooking the dramatic vistas of the Castille y Leon Province of central Spain. Set on a rocky hill between two river valleys, the ancient city has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At the same time, it is one of the “Caminos de Sefarad,” a confederation of eight Spanish cities with significant Jewish heritages. The former distinction is best symbolized by a monumental granite aqueduct which, until the 1950s, carried water from an eastern mountain spring to the turreted castle on the city’s western edge where Isabella was crowned Queen of Spain. The latter is part of a process of self-discovery barely begun.

Segovia’s medieval Juderia, one of the biggest in Spain, remains intact. But its story had long languished in forgetfulness, its details hidden away in old houses, synagogues, and ancient cemetery. It is only in recent years that the city has begun constructing a bridge of collective memory that is in many ways as powerful as Segovia’s aqueduct, thought of as a bridge to the entire world.

Until the early 1990s, people seemed unaware there were ever any Jews living in this city. Today, nearly every block of the Juderia, still set off from the rest of the city by its seven original arches, shows evidence of reconstruction. Walls are literally being broken down as citizens attempt to rebuild the structures of a long-buried past.

At the same time, they are engaging in a collective recollection of a vital presence long gone. The one-time home of a Jewish family of modest means has been converted into a restaurant appropriately named the Bodega Isaac. Its owners have deliberately retained the original look as much as possible: the grotto-like rooms connected by stone arches, the low ceilings, the tiny windows, no more than one square foot, which look out onto the original tiled and shrub-filled courtyard.

A few doors down, a narrow three-story building has been transformed into a ceramic studio. “I am very affected by the knowledge that Jews once lived here,” says Jose Abella, an artisan who creates works of traditional pottery on the top floor. “I think now how sad it was that they had to leave; yet I feel inspired to be working a place that seems so full of memories.

“Until recently, the mentality of Segovians was dominated by negative stereotypes,” Abella adds. “But this has changed. There is an opening up. People have become proud to be working or living in buildings that we have suddenly learned were once Jewish homes. My father-in-law, who has always believed he descends from Jews, now speaks about it quite openly.”

Several blocks from the studio, a nun at the convent school of the Jesuit Mothers shows off the wall of a medieval synagogue that was uncovered during recent renovations. “You can imagine how surprised we were to find this,” she says, pointing out the circular arch set into the elaborately tiled wall of Mudejar design. “We have learned our convent had originally been a synagogue which was sold to the Cathedral Council a month before the expulsion. Then it became the residence of the Ibanez family. It was radically transformed during the eighteenth century. We had no idea the original wall was still there.”

The synagogue, buried beneath the changes of centuries, dates back to 1419. It was created to replace the nearby Sinagoga Mayor (Main Synagogue), which was usurped by the Church on the trumped-up charge that a “Desecration of the Host” had been attempted there. At that point, the Major Synagogue became the Corpus Christi Church, a title it retains to this day as part of a Franciscan convent. However, through the efforts of former Mayor Ramon Escobar Santiago, its former life as Segovia’s most glorious synagogue is now actively recalled. When Corpus Christi hosted a Judeo-Christian service attended by the Bishop of Segovia and the leader of Spain’s current Jewish community, “there was a real feeling of fellowship,” Mayor Escobar says. “Even the nuns took part.”

Although greatly damaged by a fire during the last century, Corpus Christi still conjures up the ethereal Mudejar splendors of the synagogue it once was, much like the famed Santa Maria del Blanco Church in Toledo. The long rectangular interior is still punctuated by a double row of horseshoe arches that rise from eight sided pillars, the arched windows still allow light to stream in high above the altar, the carved cedar ceiling still caps the luminescent walls.

Before the fire, beautiful plaster carvings adorned the pillars. Those few that were rescued can be seen at the newly opened provincial museum: Casa del Sol. This noble building at the edge of the Jewish quarter sits on a rocky spur that overlooks the steep drop to the Clamores Valley below. Once it was the home of a wealthy Jewish family and later served as the community’s kosher butcher shop.

The ultra-modern museum devoted to Segovia’s history dating back to prehistoric times is an apt institution for a city that is coming back to life after centuries of decline by reclaiming its complex and varied past. It is understood the Jews were a vital part of that past. According to the museum’s director, 55 Jewish families lived in Segovia at the end of the 14th century in relative peace. Among them were artisans, merchants, physicians, even a matador. While most led arduous lives, a number achieved great wealth and positions of power. Persecution was far less intense than in other places. The violence and forced conversions that afflicted Jewish communities throughout Spain in 1391 did not occur here. In fact, the Jews of Burgos relocated en masse in Segovia at that time, establishing the city’s fifth synagogue.

At the end, the Jews of Segovia who chose exile over conversion left the city through the still-standing San Andres Gate in the city wall. They passed through a narrow road and over an even narrower bridge crossing the Clamores Valley and River to the Pinarillo Hillside on the opposite side. For centuries, this had been their funereal route for the pine covered hillside served as the community’s burial ground. Now, undoubtedly, they paused to bid a poignant farewell to their ancestors, and –in all likelihood –turned for a final look at the city on the other side of the river, where so many generations of their families had lived and died.

Today, a modern road and pedestrian walkway spans the distance on the Pinarillo side of the Clamores Valley, providing an effective view of the entire southern wall of Segovia across the way. A black iron fence serves as a protective barrier from the road’s edge to the steep drop below. Traveling along the road, one cannot help but notice that, at some point, a succession of abstract candelabras have been forged into the fence. These are menorahs, icons which alert the visitor to the special nature of this place. Behind is the ancient Jewish cemetery; directly opposite, on the other side of the valley, is the San Andres Gate leading into the old Jewish quarter. Segovia, it would seem, is at last crossing the bridge to its own past by memorializing the Jews who lived within its walls and were buried outside its walls more than half a millennia ago.

Parador de Segovia: www.parador.es/en/parador-de-segovia

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