Jews in Moorish Spain

Jews in Moorish Spain: The Southern Route

Overview / Highlights


For all its political unrest, Muslim Iberia [Spain and Portugal] sustained its economic vitality well into the 12th century. The Jews shared in that affluence. Heavily concentrated in Granada, they earned their livelihoods as distributors of the region’s sugarcane and cotton; as exporters of marble, gold, silver, iron, and copper; as retail tradesmen, artisans, and physicians.

Beyond Granada, Jewish enclaves were still to be found in Cordoba, the focus of the Jews’ original settlement, and in Lucena and Seville. During periods of civil instability, additional thousands also migrated northward to the Christian kingdoms of Asturias, Leon, Castile, Navarre, Coimbra. Yet even in the north, Spanish Jews by and large preserved their Arabic language and nomenclature, and remained extensively integrated into the Arab cultural terrain.

Tour Program Summery Outline

  • Day 1: Barajas Airport - Madrid
  • Day 2 : Madrid
  • Day 3 : Madrid–Toledo-Almagro
  • Day 4 : Almagro-Jaén-Granada
  • Day 5 : Granada
  • Day 6 : Granada-Málaga
  • Day 7 : Málaga-Lucena-Córdoba
  • Day 8 : Cordoba-Medina Azahara-Sevilla
  • Day 9 : Seville
  • Day 10 : Seville-Mérida-Cáceres
  • Day 11 : Cáceres-Trujillo-Guadalupe
  • Day 12 : Guadalupe-Madrid
  • Day 13 : Madrid - Barajas Airport

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Southern Route

Day 1: Madrid

Madrid After we pick you up at the airport, we will have a panoramic tour of the city on the way to our hotel. Our tour begins after lunch. We will visit the Bet Yaacov (main) synagogue with its small museum and meet with a representative of the Jewish community. We will have a welcome dinner together in a kosher restaurant. Day 2: Madrid Our walk through the center of Madrid will take us to the Plaza de España, with its monument to Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote.  We will also visit the area in Moorish Madrid where the Jews lived under Moslem rule, near the Royal Palace and newAlmudena Cathedral. We will walk through the bustling Plaza Mayor, now a magnet for tourists, but the site of far more sinister activities a few centuries ago. In the afternoon you will have free time in Madrid to visit a museum, try some tapas, or just walk around the city. Day 3: Madrid - Toledo - Almagro Toledo Before entering Toledo we will stop to see the spectacular view of the old walled city, immortalized by El Greco, and the Tagus River flowing around it.  The two ancient Jewish quarters can be seen clearly, as well as the Cathedral and the Alcazar (12th-century fortress). We will hear a detailed description of the imposing panorama. Our private tour will include visits to the two synagogues remaining today-- Santa Maria la Blanca and El Tránsito, which houses the Sephardic Museum (the first museum in Spain to be specially adapted for blind visitors).  The sinagogue was built by Samuel Ha-Levi, a prominent member of the Toledo Jewish community in the 14th century, and treasurer and advisor to King Pedro I.  We will visit Ha-Levi’s house, where the painter El Greco lived two centuries later and which now houses his museum. We will wander through the alleyways of the Jewish quarter and hear about the street battles that took place between the “old” Christians and “new” Christians (conversos) and the role of the Church and local nobility at that time. After lunch we depart for Almagro. Almagro We will hear about the important role that this town played as a haven for Jewish refugees.  We will walk through the old town and visit the picturesque main square dating from the 16th century. We sleep in Almagro.

Day 4: Almagro - Jaen - Granada

Almagro In the morning we will visit the “Corral de Comedias”, renowned 17th-century theatre, which has been functioning without interruption for nearly 400 years. We head south to Jaén, in Andalusia. Jaen Our private tour will take us through the Jewish quarter, which is currently being restored; we will see archaeological excavations that are underway.  We will see the birthplace of Hasday Ben Shaprut, Vizier of Caliph Abderramán III;  the site of the Tribunal of the Inquisition;  and the Mansion of Condestable Iranzo, the 15th-century Governor of the city, who lost his life because he defended the Jews.  We will also see the Hammam al-Walad, the largest preserved Arab baths outside the Muslim world, which probably also served as a mikvah for the Jewish community.  We will visit the Cathedral, which contains reliefs and friezes portraying scenes from the Old and New Testaments, with medieval characterizations of Jews and symbols related to the Inquisition. We continue south and spend the night in Granada.

Day 5: Granada

Granada   We will have a private tour of the Alhambra and hear poetry written by Shmuel Ha Nagid, Grand Vizier to the King of Granada, and commander of his armies. We’ll also see the Cathedral where the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, are buried. We’ll walk through the Alcaiceria where the Jewish quarter was located, as well as the Corral del Carbón.  Built in the 14th century to serve as a warehouse, wholesale market and inn for itinerant merchants, it is the only such construction in Spain still preserved in its entirety.   It was owned by Jews when Granada was in Muslim hands.

Day 6: Granada - Malaga

In the morning we leave for Malaga. Malaga We will see the Alcazaba, an 11th-century Moorish fortification, where the Muslim rulers lived. In its halls the renowned Jewish poet Shlomo Ibn Gabirol wrote. We will visit the Picasso Museum, opened in 2005 and located in a restored 16th-century mansion.  Its permanent collection consists of works that Malaga’s most famous son gave to members of his family; most of them had never been seen in public before. We will also meet members of the present-day Jewish community, some of whom are descendants of those expelled in 1492, and see their synagogue.

Day 7: Malaga - Lucena - Cordoba

Lucena We will visit the Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, one of whose rooms is devoted to the Jewish history of this town, which was known as the “Pearl of Sepharad”.  We will visit the former synagogue, now a church. The streets from that period can still be seen.  A Jewish cemetery was recently found while building the infrastructure for a road. We will also visit a traditional pottery workshop which has been functioning since 1727. From here we continue on to Cordoba. Cordoba We will walk through the Jewish quarter, and see the lovely typical patios, Yehudah Ha Levi Square, the monument to Maimonides,   the zoco (medieval market), and Puerta de Almodovar (the entrance to the Jewish quarter).  Inside one of the houses in the medieval quarter, we will visit the “Casa de Sefarad”, a museum devoted to all aspects of Jewish life in Cordoba, where we will have a private tour and workshop on Ladino canticles. Also in the Jewish quarter we will visit “La Casa Andalusí”, a restored house whose lush gardens and patios will give us a glimpse into life in Cordoba under Moorish rule. We sleep in Cordoba.

Day 8: Cordoba - Medina Azahara - Seville

Cordoba In the morning we will have a private guided tour of the Mosque, which was once the biggest in the world.  Built in the 9th-10th centuries, it is Cordoba’s best-known site.  We will also visit the 14th-century synagogue. Medina Azahara While still in the process of restoration, the ruins of this majestic Arab city, with its palace, mosque and gardens, will give us an idea of the lifestyle of the caliphs who lived and ruled from here. As we walk through the city, we will hear about the enormous freedom that the Jews enjoyed during this, their best period in Spain, when a Jew even rose to the position of Vizier (Prime Minister) to the Muslim Caliph. We go on to Seville, where we spend the night.

Day 9: Seville

Seville As we walk through the Santa Cruz neighborhood, which used to be the Jewish quarter, we will hear about Jewish life here after the city was conquered by the Christians in 1248 and until the expulsion in 1492. We will visit the Alcazar (fortress-castle, part of which dates from the 9th century), where Columbus presented the Catholic Monarchs with his plans to navigate westward to reach the Indies.  We will also see recently-discovered remains of a Jewish cemetery (in an underground parking lot). We will visit the recently-opened museum in the Castillo de San Jorge.  This former prison of the Inquisition now houses exhibits devoted to memory and tolerance. We will walk through Triana, one of Seville’s most typical neighborhoods, home of bullfighters, and flamenco singers and dancers.  According to tradition, Rodrigo de Triana was the first of Columbus’ sailors to sight the New World. In the evening we will treat you to an UN-touristy flamenco show.

Day 10: Seville - Merida - Caceres

Seville In the morning, before leaving Seville, we will visit the Plaza de España.  Located in the Maria Luisa Park, the plaza was built in 1929 for the Ibero-American Exposition.  Its semi-elliptical form symbolizes an embrace of Spain and its former colonies. Its walls are made of brick decorated with wrought iron, marble and ceramic tiles, showing maps and historical scenes related to each of the 48 provinces in Spain and the shields of each provincial capital.  The Plaza appeared in the films Lawrence of Arabia and Episode II of George Lucas’ Star Wars series. Merida Our guide will tell us the little-known story of one of the first Jewish communities on the Iberian Peninsula, and we will see where, according to popular tradition, one of the synagogues was located, next to the remains of the Roman Temple of Diana. We will also visit the National Museum of Roman Art, the biggest one of its kind in Spain.  A stone plaque on display there testifies to the existence of two synagogues in Merida in the 4th century. We will also see the Roman amphitheatre, which is the best-preserved one in Europe and the venue of an important annual classical theatre festival. We leave for Caceres. Caceres On our arrival, we will go for an evening walk in the historic center, the walled city of the 15th century. This is a city of nobles given their titles by the kings of Castile for their services during the long war against the Moors, the Reconquista. Their fortress-like palaces look magical at night.


Day 11: Caceres - Trujillo - Guadalupe

Caceres In the morning we will have a private tour of Caceres.  We will visit the walled city again, and go into the Jewish quarter, whose small whitewashed houses contrast markedly with the aristocratic buildings of Caceres’ nobility that we saw last night.  We will see the mansion that belonged to the Carvajal family and hear about their surprising ties with converso families in Extremadura. We will also hear about converso conquistadors in Nuevo Leon (present-day New Mexico). We will see the former synagogue (today the Chapel of San Antonio) and also see an aljibe (underground water storage cistern) dating from the Muslim period. We leave for Trujillo. Trujillo We stop for lunch in Trujillo, a small town which once had a thriving Jewish community. We will see the hollow in a doorframe that once held a mezuzah.  The remains of one of the original synagogues are now hidden under privately-owned shops. We continue on to Guadalupe. After an introductory walk around the town, we will spend the night in Guadalupe.

Day 12: Guadalupe - Madrid

Guadalupe We will visit the Monastery, home of the Virgin of Guadalupe, patroness of Extremadura, and hear about the remarkable events that took place in this remote mountain village. We depart for Madrid. We will arrive in Madrid early enough for you to have time to do last-minute shopping, walk around the city, or visit a museum. We will have a farewell dinner together in the evening.


Day 13: Departure from Madrid - Barajas Airport