30 January 2020

The lost Sephardic legacy
of the mediaeval Jewish
community in Valencia

The large prominent Star of David above the door in the north transept of Valencia Cathedral … were Jewish craftsmen at work here? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

Two large, prominent Stars of David – one in the north transept of Valencia Cathedral, the other on the west wall of the Church of San Nicolas – and some street names in the city, set me asking questions this week about the Jews of Valencia, their history and their fate.

Valencia was once home to one of the largest and most important Jewish communities in the Iberian Peninsula. The date of the first Jewish settlement in Valencia is unknown, but there was already an important Jewish community there during the Muslim period.

A fragment of a Hebrew marriage contract from Valencia, dating from the second half of the 11th century, was discovered in the Cairo Genizah. The Andalusian poet and Jewish philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol, also known as Avicebron or Avencebrol, was born in Malaga ca 1021 and died in Valencia ca 1055-1058.

A Jewish emissary represented King Alfonso VI of Castile in Valencia from 1086. When El Cid captured Valencia briefly in 1095, the treaty stipulated that Jews were forbidden to acquire Muslim prisoners of war, Jews who molested Muslims would be prosecuted, and Jews would not exercise authority over Muslims and their property.

When James I of Aragon retook Valencia and entered the city on 9 October 1238, the Jews of Valencia went out to meet him with their rabbis and delegates and presented him with a Torah scroll as a token of homage. At the time, estimates say, there were 162 Jewish families in Valencia, forming 6.5% of the total population.

As a reward for the services the Jews of the Valencia gave him at the conquest of the city, James I granted some houses that once belonged to the Moors to Jewish court favourites. The new Jewish settlers included 104 Jews who received houses and estates in Valencia and the vicinity. They included were several of the king’s interpreters, including Baḥya and Solomon Alconstantini, and Solomon Bonafos, who was Treasurer of Catalonia.

The Jewish quarter of Valencia was centred on the area around the Church of Santa Catalina (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

In 1239, James I granted the Jews of Valencia the same privilege as had been granted to the Jews of Saragossa. These included the right to have lawsuits between them judged according to Jewish law; the king would adjudicate in matters of criminal law; in lawsuits between Christians and Jews, both Jewish and Christian witnesses were required; the form of the Jewish oath was established; and Jewish prisoners were released to be in their homes on the Sabbath.

King James also assigned the Jews a large quarter in 1239, on the east side of the Rahbat el-qadi and in its vicinity, on the site where the Church of Santa Catalina stands today. Five years later, James I granted the Jews the whole quarter in 1244. A special gate, known as the Jews’ Gate, led to the Jewish cemetery.

In 1261 James I confirmed the right of the Jews to acquire farming and urban land from all, including members of the nobility and the clergy – an unusual right in those days. One of these owners of land, cattle, and sheep was Don Judah de la Cavalleria, who was appointed bailiff of Valencia after 1263.

The Juderia extended from the wall Aben Xemi to 'Abd al-Malik, from there to the Puerto d’Exarea or Puerto de la Ley (‘Gate of the Law’), and from that gate to the ‘horno de Aben Nulid’ and to the wall of Ibrahim al-Valenci. The boundaries were ratified in 1273, and the community had a wide degree of autonomy.

When a Muslim revolt in southern Valencia was suppressed in 1277, Moses Alconstantini was appointed bailiff. The Jews appointed to administrative offices included Muça de Portella, Aaron ibn Yaḥya and Joseph Ravaya.

However, Jewish autonomy in Valencia was short-lived. Pedro III imposed a new levy on the Jews of Valencia in 1282 to cover the expenses of his wars. The sum was collected by coercive and oppressive methods. Rabbi and Solomon ben Abraham Adret (Rashba), then rabbi of the community, pointed out that the loans and contributions were destroying the foundations of the community.

Moses Alconstantini was deposed in 1283. The properties of the Ravaya family were confiscated after the death of Joseph, and Moses Ravaya was also dismissed. Anti-Jewish policies were introduced to Valencia: the laws on loans and interest and the regulations on oaths were reintroduced; Jews were forbidden to slaughter their animals in the city’s abattoirs; and Jews were ordered to wear a ‘cloak,’ as was the custom in Barcelona.

At the close of the 13th century, about 250 taxpaying families were living in Valencia. They spoke Arabic and their names have been recorded.

But by the end of the 13th century, Jewish merchants had also helped to make Valencia an important centre of maritime trade, buying raw materials, wool, wool products and grain, and exported them through Valencia across the Mediterranean. They traded with Majorca, North Africa, and most of the Mediterranean ports, they bought raw materials, wool, wool products, and grain, and exported them through Valencia to other Mediterranean ports.

In addition, by 1315 there were 43 Jewish brokers in Valencia. Other Jews in the city were engaged in crafts such as tanning and shoemaking and often bore the name of their craft; still others sold agricultural produce and maintained commercial ties with other Jewish merchants in Spain.

The community administration in Valencia was similar to other large communities in Aragon. The community was headed by a council of 30 members, among whom five were chosen as muqaddimūn or leaders by lot. The community was supervised by the bailiff-general, the representative of the king. A Jewish mustaçaf or administrator supervised the market and its trade.

Many problems arose in the Valencia community were referred to Rabbi Solomon Adret and Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet. Pedro IV ordered the bailiff to arbitrate in community disputes about tax collecting in 1348. The Jews of Valencia suffered during the Black Death in 1348, and the persecutions that broke out in the town in its wake.

The large prominent Star of David above the door in the north transept of Valencia Cathedral … were Jewish craftsmen at work here? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Gothic rose window in the north transept of Valencia Cathedral was once known as ‘the Salomo’ because of its elaborate structure and because its principal symbol is the Star of David. It was completed in 1354, but the master builder who was responsible for the window and door below it remains unknown. Some say this is because the artists worked only for God’s glory.

Other legends claim the Star of David was the work of anonymous Jewish craftsmen or that window was paid for partly by local Jewish merchants, although many medieval cathedrals and churches display the star, including the west wall of the Church of San Nicolas in Valencia, and churches or cathedrals in Burgos, Florence, Anagni Aquileia, Orvieto, Brandenburg Stendal and Hanover.

The imposition of new regulations in 1364, based on the regulations of the Jewish community in Barcelona, was a further attempt to reconsolidate the authority of the community. The prohibitions within the community included one against gambling, for money or real estate, with Christians.

Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet (Ribash) was appointed rabbi of Valencia, his native city, in 1385, and held office until the destruction of the community in 1391. He organised activities in Valencia to restore the importance of Torah study and piety.

With the growth of the Jewish population in the 13th and 14th centuries, the Jewish quarter was enlarged in 1390, when the Juderia or ghetto was first surrounded by a high wall and was provided with three gates that were closed at night.

A year later, however, the Jewish community of Valencia was attacked on 9 July 1391 and destroyed by rioters who arrived from Castile and soldiers stationed in the port who were due to sail for Sicily. In the attack, 250 Jews were murdered, while the remainder agreed to convert to Christianity or found refuge in the houses of the townspeople. Many of the synagogues were destroyed and others were converted into churches.

Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet Perfet was among those who fled. Those who converted included distinguished figures such as Don Samuel Abravalia, who took the name Alfonso Fernández de Villanova; the king’s physician, Omar Tahuel, who was one of the muqaddimūn, and his relative Isaac Tahuel. Some documents suggest Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet was among those who were forcibly converted before they fled.

On 16 July, the king ordered that Jews who had hidden in the houses of Christians should not be compelled to convert but should be taken to a place of safety. He also prohibited the conversion of synagogues into churches.

However, on 22 September, the king called for a list of the property owned by Jews who had been killed so this property could be transferred to him. In November, a pardon was granted to the Christian inhabitants of Valencia for the attack. None of the synagogues of Valencia survived the 1391 massacres.

After the destruction of the Jewish community of Valencia in 1391, Ḥasdai Crescas estimated its population to have been 1,000 ‘houseowners.’

in 1393, the king and the queen entrusted Ḥasdai Crescas and the delegates of the communities of Saragossa and Calatayud with the task of choosing 60 families who would settle in Barcelona and Valencia. A year later, John I ordered that the Jewish cemetery should be restored to the Jews of Valencia.

A small community may have come together again and Jews were living in Valencia by the close of the 14th century. But the community did not recover and nothing of the Jewish quarter survived the urban development that began in 1412, although Vicente Ferrer is known to have tried to convert Jews in Valencia in 1413.

Yet even after the destruction of the Jewish community of Valencia, the city remained a centre of Jewish trade, and Alfonso V issued letters of protection to Jewish merchants from the Barbary coast who came to trade in Valencia.

Twelve larger-than-life statues by Jacopo Bertesi in the Church of Santos Juanes represent the 12 tribes of Israel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Files survive naming conversos who were sentenced by the Inquisition of Valencia in the 1460s. The conversos had an overwhelming desire to leave Spain, and many made their way to Valencia to flee. When apprehended, they were only condemned to expulsion or fined.

The Papal Inquisition found in 1464 that many Conversos had sailed from Valencia to the East Mediterranean in order to return to Judaism.

When the Spanish Inquisition was established in 1482, Cristóbal Gualves was appointed inquisitor. The Conversos of Valencia complained to the Pope about his cruelty and his acceptance of invalid testimonies. Pope Sixtus IV removed Gualves from his position in Valencia, although King Ferdinand strongly protested against his intervention.

King Ferdinand cancelled the permission given to the Jews for prolonged stays in Valencia in 1483, and abolished the privilege exempting Jews in Valencia from wearing a distinctive badge.

Investigators of heresy were appointed in Valencia in 1484 to act on instructions from Torquemada. But they had hesitations about their duties, and up to 1492 they issued ‘orders of grace’ three times, a rare occurrence in those days. This may also have been because many Conversos had been hidden in the houses of noblemen and Muslims throughout the kingdom of Valencia.

Up to June 1488, 983 Jewish men and women in Valencia had joined the Church, while another 100 people were burned at the stake. At their trials, they were accused of acts against the Christian religion, such as having struck crucifixes.

The trial records reveal the adherence of many Conversos to the practice of Judaism. Many were found with prayer books in the Valencian dialect, and many knew their Jewish prayers.

With the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, Valencia became one of the principal ports of embarkation for the East Mediterranean, although we do not know how many Jews left through Valencia. Isaac ben Judah Abrabanel and his family left from Valencia in June 1492 with special permission from King Ferdinand.

The Jewish market, the zoco, was just outside the Jewish quarter, in Gallinas Street, at the beginning of Mar Street. The Jewish cemetery was outside the Jewish quarter but within the walls of the city. At the expulsion, it was given by Ferdinand to the Dominicans. Today this is the site of El Corte Inglés department store.

Carrer del Convent de Jerusalen, the Street of the Convent of Jerusalem … the Spanish Inquisition was established in 1482 and began working in Valencia in 1484 on the instructions by Torquemada (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

The Inquisition’s regional tribunal in Valencia continued to function until the Inquisition was abolished in the 19th century.

Now, more than five centuries after the expulsions, Valencia has a vital and pluralistic Jewish presence that sponsors education, holidays, events and worship, and there are several synagogues in Valencia, including the ‎Chabad Lubavitch Valencia.

Valencia also has one of Europe’s most modern Jewish communities: the Kehillat Aviv Valencia, a 125-member Masorti-affiliated congregation was founded by an assortment of Jewish newcomers.

The Jewish quarter of Valencia was one of the largest in the Iberian Peninsula, but nothing of it has survived, although documents have shown us where it was located. But virtually all of the city’s Sephardic legacy has been lost and cannot be seen today.

The large Star of David window above the west door in of the Church of San Nicolas … were Jewish craftsmen at work here too? (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

In search of diversity
and tales of expulsion in
the streets of Valencia

Calle de la Bolseria or Carrer de la Bosseria? Street signs in Valencia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

In the heart of Valencia, many of the first churches in the city were built in the 13th century on the site of former mosques, including the Cathedral, Santos Juanes and San Nicolás de Bari.

The Moorish town was conquered by King James of Aragon and his Christian armies in 1238, and 12 mosques were soon converted into or replaced by ‘royal parishes’ or ‘foundational parishes’ in Valencia.

Of course, some of these mosques had stood on the sites of earlier Visigothic, Arian churches, which in turn stood on the sites of former Roman temples.

The Boatella neighbourhood, once a working class area outside the town walls, housed some of the Morisco population, former Muslims and their descendants who were forced to convert to Christianity under threat of death after the open practice of Islam was outlawed.

The Moriscos were descendants of Spain’s Muslim population that had converted to Christianity by coercion or by royal decree in the early 16th century. The Moors who remained Muslims were known as Mudéjar.

The bell tower of Santa Catalina Church is the rebuilt minaret of a mosque that stood on this site (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Santa Catalina Church in the heart of the old city is yet another example of a church that was turned into a mosque in the 13th century. Most of the interior was rebuilt after a fire in 1548, but the imposing bell tower, with an hexagonal base and five levels, was once the minaret, rebuilt in Baroque style in 1688-1705 to designs by Juan Bautista Viñes.

Moriscos were often a source of cheap labour for the local nobility in Valencia, and old Christian communities suspected the Moriscos of not being sincere in their Christianity. Despite this, many Moriscos were devout in their Christian faith, and many even became Christian martyrs, killed by Muslims for refusing to renounce their Christianity.

When Philip II issued a decree on 9 May 1609 expelling the Moors from Spain, some 300,000 Moriscos or Spaniards of Muslim descent or religion, were expelled from Spain. Between 1609 and 1614, the Crown systematically expelled Moriscos through a number of decrees.

In Valencia, Muslims made up the bulk of the peasantry and there was high ethnic tension with the Christian, Catalan-speaking middle class. At least 120,000 people were deported from Valencia to North Africa from the ports of Dénia, Alicante, Grao de Valencia, Moncófar and Vinaroz.

As a last insult, they were forced to pay their own fares. At times, small revolts broke out on the ships, and some exiles were slain by crew members. When they arrived in North Africa, Moriscos were at times attacked as invaders by local people.

In regions such as Alicante, the expulsions involved 90% of the population. Landowners found it difficult to find Christians to settle in vast, depopulated areas, to work on the land and in the fields, and to repopulate virtually abandoned villages. The expulsions brought about economic collapse and depopulation of much of the territory and was aggravated by the bubonic plague that hit Valencia only a few years later.

The majority of people expelled permanently finally settled in the Maghreb or on the Barbary coast. Between 30,000 to 75,000 people eventually returned to Spain, and those who avoided expulsion or who managed to return merged into the dominant culture.

By the end of the 18th century, indigenous Islam and Morisco identity were considered to have been extinguished in Spain. The Muslim minority in Valencia today comes from very different sources.

The Muslim presence in Valencia today has no connection with the Morisco and Mudéjar people of the past (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

But another form of diversity is visible on the streets of Valencia today.

Every street in Valencia, it seems, has two names. I was staying in the Senator Parque Hotel on the edge of Russafa, an area where the streets are lined with restaurants, cafés and bars, and it is the ideal area to go for dinner in the evening.

But Russafa is also known as Ruzafa. And as I went in search of the former Morisco districts of Valencia, I found two street names on almost every corner: was I on Calle de la Bolseria or on Carrer de la Bosseria?

Valencia has two official languages: the majority of people speak Spanish, known as both Español and Castellano, which is also a compulsory language in schools; but many people prefer to speak Valenciano, a romance language that is virtually the same as Catalan, and constitutionally recognised as the regional language.

Studies show the several dialects of Valencian belong to the Western group of Catalan dialects, and there is a political debate in Valencia about whether Valenciano is a dialect or a separate language that is different from Catalan.

Valencian is regulated by the Acadèmia Valenciana de la Llengua, by means of the Castelló rules, which adapt the Catalan orthography to the Valencian idiosyncrasies. Because Valencian was not officially recognised for a long time, the number of speakers has dropped steadily, and the influence of Spanish has led to the adoption of a large number of loanwords.

There is a constant to and fro in naming streets, as councils change from party to party, and each insists on naming streets in Castellano or Valenciano, and sometimes the two names remain on a street corner or on facing sides of the same street.

In my search for stories of historical pluralism and diversity in the churches and on the streets of Valencia, the large Stars of David in the windows of both the Cathedral and the Church of San Nicolás de Bari also led me to ask what happened to the Jewish community of Valencia. But that’s another story for later.

Carrer de la Bosseria or Calle de la Bolseria? Street signs in Valencia (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)