Over the years I have been to many sites of Jewish interest, old and new. I have seen my fair share of Jewish neighborhoods, museums, centers, synagogues, historical sites, events, ghettos and memorials. Places which in various ways I have found to be uplifting, depressing, confusing, inspiring or comforting. Sometimes even all of these things, all at the same time.
So nowadays when it comes to “Jewish travel” it takes a lot to truly astound me. Yet this is exactly what happened on my recent visit to Seville, the capital of Andalusia, in the south of Spain. And of all places in an underground car park, would you believe?
But first, a brief history lesson.
Jews initially settled in Seville in Roman times; more came in the 6th century, by which time the city was under Catholic-Visigoth rule. In the 8th century the Moors invaded, and for the next 500 years Seville was part of an Islamic Empire that spanned the Middle East, North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula. Then in 1247 Ferdinand’s army reunited the city with Christian Europe.
Through this whole period, Seville’s Jewish community was concentrated in an area known as the Juderia. Here there were Jewish shops, schools, synagogues, courts, slaughterhouses, cemeteries, and all the other requirements for organized communal life. In many respects the Juderia was a prototype ghetto: a distinct part of town, surrounded by its own wall, and adjacent to the palace. Thus ensuring royal protection for the city’s Jews, and at the same time providing a convenient buffer between the palace and the populace in times of civil unrest.
The community prospered and thrived, growing to about 6,000 people – roughly 10% of the city’s population as a whole. Seville produced great Rabbis and theologians and scholars; Jews held high office at the royal court; there were prominent Jewish businessmen, scientists and physicians. In short, back in the day (and by this I mean about 1,000 years ago) Seville was one of the great centers of the Jewish world, and Jews were active in all aspects of civic life.
But when Seville’s management swapped over from the Moors to Team Ferdinand, things deteriorated rapidly. Without the state protection enjoyed under Muslim rule, attacks on Seville’s Jewish residents became frequent. Jewish financiers in particular were singled out for prosecution (and often execution). Church officials became increasingly vocal in blaming “the Jews” for all the wrongs in the world. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?
Matters came to a head on 6 June 1391, when under the sponsorship of the archdeacon of Seville anti-Jewish rioting broke out. An angry mob ran amok in the Jewish quarter, and in one night killed 4,000 people, or about 2/3 of the city’s Jews. Most of those who survived quickly accepted Baptism. Just like that, 1400 years of Jewish life and history in Seville was wiped out.
Five years later the then king, Enrique (Henry) III, gave the Juderia to the Chief Justice and his butler, as a “thank-you” gift for having helped deal with the area’s “Jewish problem”. The Church took its share of the spoils too, and in the process synagogues were converted to churches, streets were renamed, and the area’s Jewish character thoroughly erased.
Despite all this, a tiny community of about 300 “open” Jews continued to live in Seville, in fear and, literally, under armed guard. There were also “secret” Jews, who had outwardly converted to Christianity, but in private kept their Jewish identity and practice.
Then the Inquisition arrived: a state-sponsored religious tribunal charged with making sure that recent converts to Catholicism were, in fact, keeping the faith. Seville became the Inquisition’s testing ground, where the hallmarks of its methods were refined: repression, brutality, fear, torture and the infamous auto da fe (burning alive at the stake). Seville’s secret Jews suffered heavily, with many being “outed” and put to death.
In parallel, the re-conquest of Spain and associated political shenanigans saw King Ferdinand II of Aragon marry Queen Isabella of Castile in 1469, thereby unifying Spain under a single rule for the first time in centuries. Needing a good scapegoat to divert attention from economic woes, and wanting to rally her newly unified country around a common cause, Isabella pointed to the Jews as “the enemy”. Sounds kind of familiar, doesn’t it?
This culminated in 1492 when Isabella famously issued a decree offering the Jews of Spain a menu of three choices: convert, fuck-off, or die.
Unsurprisingly, many chose Option Two. This included the remnants of Seville’s Jewish community who, already decimated from a century of persecution, packed up and joined the exodus. Some fled to Europe. But most crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and joined the Jewish communities of Morocco and North Africa, benefiting from the relative safety offered to Jews by the Islamic world in those days. Sounds kind of unfamiliar, doesn’t it?
And in this whole tortured history lies a little piece of me.
You see, at around this time my paternal grandmother’s family found their way from Andalusia to Tangiers, and from there eventually to Fes. For hundreds of years after her family held on to their “Spanish heritage”, speaking Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) at home, and holding themselves apart from the “locals”. That is, the local Jews, like my paternal grandfather’s family, who had been in Morocco for centuries, who spoke Arabic, and who had long-since assimilated the looks and colors and ways of the Berbers and Moors.
In any case, that’s the introduction as to why I was especially interested in trying to connect with Seville’s Jewish past. This was not merely of interest in a general sense, but also something that felt personal to me. A “homecoming” of sorts, albeit 500 years after the fact.
I booked a specialist guide, Francesco, for a half-day walking tour focused on Jewish Seville. We met him in the mid-afternoon, after siesta, outside of Seville’s famous Cathedral. Somewhat paradoxically, it seemed to me, given that there is absolutely nothing Jewish about this Gothic marvel (and third-largest church in the world). But Francesco wanted to start here for a specific reason.
“Look closely,” he said, pointing to the Giralda, the Cathedral’s 105 meter high bell tower. “Notice how the top part of the tower is Gothic and Baroque, but the bottom part is Islamic? That is because the bottom was originally the minaret of a mosque that stood here – built by the same architect who built the Koutoubia in Marrakech. Then when the Christians reconquered Seville, they added a fancy top to the minaret, and voila! Now it’s a cathedral bell tower. But if you mentally block out the top, then what you see is yesterday’s mosque, and not today’s cathedral.”
He continued: “When looking at Seville through Jewish eyes, it is the same. Everything Jewish has been covered over. So if you want to “see” Jewish Seville, you have to use your imagination to peel away the layers of time. If you squint, you will see not what there is, but what there once was.”
A touch Zen, I thought to myself, but still a great introduction to start our tour. We set off and for the next few hours we wandered through the cobbled lanes and narrow alleyways of Seville’s Santa Cruz district, a.k.a. the Juderia, circa eight hundred years ago. I was as giddy as a school-kid on an exciting field-trip, not sure what wonders I might find.
As we walked, Francesco pointed out things of Jewish interest. Like an alleyway that centuries ago served as the main entrance to the walled ghetto. He invited us to imagine it back then, a huge gate closed across the alleyway from dusk to dawn, locking the Jews in for the night. Or like an otherwise entirely ordinary looking whitewashed building fronting a quiet street. Again, Francesco called on our imagination – apparently in this building, in 1481, sixteen Jewish families were imprisoned and later burned to death by the Inquisition.
On another street we came to a small wall – maybe two meters across – which according to Francesco is the only remaining section of what was once the wall that surrounded the ghetto. On Levies Street we ate in Levies Tapas Bar, and just around the corner we stopped to take a photo of a palatial looking building, once the house of Samuel Halevi, Seville’s royal treasurer in the 1320’s and one of the city’s most high-powered Jewish residents at the time. Today it is an office building.
We surreptitiously toured through the grounds of the Casa de la Juderia, a modern-day hotel made up of two dozen or so courtyard houses that have been connected to one another. These were once right in the center of Seville’s Jewish quarter, a core part of the real estate confiscated by Enrique III and given to his mates as tribute for orchestrating the massacre of Jews in 1391. Today, the hotel is still owned by a descendant of one of these fine fellows.
Along the way Francesco identified where each of Seville’s four synagogues had once stood. They have all been repurposed over time, so that nothing now remains besides the memories. The most striking example being Santa Cruz Square, a pleasant open space lined with paths and old trees and surrounded by stately manor houses. Originally though, a Roman Temple had stood there. This was converted into a mosque during Moorish times. When the Moslems left the mosque was handed over to the city’s Jews and used as a synagogue. Then after the 1391 pogrom it was turned into a church, and then in Napoleonic times converted into an embassy by the secular French. Finally, in 1881 two millennia of history was quite literally flattened, to make way for the current day square.
It was a hot day, and after viewing the Santa Maria Blanca Church (another ghost – in a previous life this church was one of Seville’s synagogues, adjacent to the Jewish quarter’s market square) Francesco suggested we break for a cold-drink, in the bar across the street.
We entered the bar, which was small and quite empty. It had the feel of a local watering hole – a few plates of tired tapas on display, a leg of cured ham hanging from the ceiling, a TV above the bar tuned into the soccer, and a harried looking fellow behind the counter pouring drinks.
We stood at the bar, and Francesco pointed to the back wall. “Actually, I didn’t just bring you in here for a drink. You see that gap in the wall underneath the bottles and printer? It leads down to the bar’s stockroom. Which also happens to be the remains of the mikvah (ritual Jewish bath) that once served the synagogue across the street.”
He explained further: “When the people who own this bar needed more storage space they started excavating, and found the ruins of the mikvah – they are at least seven hundred years old. No-one said anything, because no-one really cares about Jewish ruins here. They just turned it into a storeroom. So this bar’s beer and wine is stored in the only documented mikvah site in Seville.”
I slowly sipped my lemonade at the bar, while trying to imagine the mikvah that once operated right below where we were standing. It was mildly frustrating that everything Jewish in Seville seemed to be relying on imagination, and the ability to mentally reconstruct something from eight hundred years ago in my mind.
But it was also exciting – to know that I could have walked by this bar a thousand times and never had a clue that in its basement there is a Jewish historical ruin. Now I felt like I was an explorer, in a secret place that no-one else knows about.
Towards the end of the tour, as the temperature began to cool and the sun began to drop, we walked along Cano y Ceuto Street, which Francesco indicated followed the path of what was once upon a time the outer wall of the Jewish ghetto. He mentioned that for hundreds of years, Seville’s Jews had buried their dead on the other side of the wall, just outside of the city.
We came to the entrance to an underground car park off of Cano y Cuento Street, and somewhat unexpectedly Francesco signaled we should go in. So we descended down three flights of stairs until we found ourselves inside a dark, dank space. It was packed with vehicles and smelled of must and petrol fumes.
“When they began the excavations for this car park about fifteen years ago, they found Jewish graves here,” Francesco said, “…hundreds and hundreds of Jewish graves. Of course everyone always knew the Jewish cemetery was here, because the ghetto wall used to run right above us, but no-one ever cared.”
I looked around. I saw cars and motorbikes and the occasional truck, but no graves.
Francesco answered my question before I could ask it. “What they did with all the graves is a mystery. They were just cleared away – the car park was more important than Jewish history. Nobody knows where the graves are. All that remains is this…” he said, holding up his iPhone to show a black and white picture of the excavation site, and row after row of graves.
“…and this”, Francesco continued, pointing to a gray Audi, in Parking Bay Number 9.
I must have looked confused because Francesco indicated I should go round the back of the car. I did, and there, a few feet behind the tailpipe of the car, protected by a floor-to-ceiling plate-glass window and illuminated by the muted neon lighting of the car park, was a single grave. It was made of weathered stones, lying alone in the dust from which it had been dug up. On top of it was a tiny Spanish-style tile, with a blue and white Star of David.
Francesco explained: “Even though the city decided to erase an entire Jewish cemetery to make way for a car park, someone thought it would make things right to leave this one grave in place. This is therefore the only remaining Jewish grave in Seville.”
I thought about that solitary, very lonely Jewish grave for days and weeks after.
I thought how weird it had felt to be in an underground car park, viewing the only tiny fragment that remains of Seville’s ancient Jewish cemetery. As all the while cars entered and exited, their tires screeching in the darkness, their drivers entirely oblivious to the fact that they were quite literally driving through a graveyard.
I thought how relieved I was to have seen it. To know that in the end I had found something tangible of Seville’s Jewish past. Something real, that was more than an echo I had to reconstruct in my mind.
I thought how incredibly sad it was. How it is heart-wrenching to know that the last unadulterated remnant of Seville’s thousand years of Jewish history is a single tombstone, tucked away below ground in a car park, unmarked and unheralded.
I thought how amazing it is that even eight hundred years of wars and Inquisitions and expulsions have not been able to erase everything Jewish from Seville. How it doesn’t matter really that things have been covered up and re-purposed over time, because the story and the history is still there, and always will be. You just need to know where and how to look.
But mostly I thought about how weird and wonderful the world of travel can sometimes be. Of all the incredible things there are to do and see in Seville, I had felt the need to seek out whatever faint vestiges of the city’s Jewish past remain. That this journey had brought me to a solitary Jewish grave: ancient, all but forgotten, and all alone in the most unexpected of settings. A dusty pile of old rocks in an underground car park, and yet I felt emotional and connected.
What can I say? Sometimes, being Jewish is hard to explain.