05 June 2019

In search of a lost
Sephardic legacy in
the streets of Málaga

The site of the Sephardic heritage centre in Málaga (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

Before leaving Málaga for Cordoba earlier today, I went in search of the Jewish legacy of Málaga and the old Jewish quarter or Juderia.

This part of the Iberian peninsula was an important colony in the Roman Empire. From here, and the Jewish community traded freely with other cities along the North African coast. But when the Visigoth hordes arrived, Jews were almost totally enslaved, and by 711 there were no Jews publicly practising in Málaga.

Life under Muslim rule attracted many Jews back and by the mid-11th century the Jewish population had reached 200.

However, the Jews of Málaga were expelled like all Jews in Spain during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492, at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. Some of the estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Jews living in Spain at the time converted to Catholicism and stayed, but the majority migrated to North Africa, the Balkans and what was then the Ottoman Empire, bringing their Spanish language and culture with them.

Spain was once home to one of the most populous and productive Jewish civilisations in the world, and all Sephardic Jews who can prove their origins are being invited back to live in Spain, offering dual citizenship. Sephardic organisations estimate that as many as 3.5 million Jews could potentially apply for a Spanish passport.

The statue of Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021-1058), Jewish poet and philosopher, near the Roman Amphitheatre (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Little is left of the old Juderia, the former Jewish quarter near the Picasso Museum, apart from its name. On Calle Alcazabilla, opposite the Roman Amphitheatre and under some trees, is a bronze statue of Ben Gabirol, also known as Solomon ibn Gabirol (1021-1058), the Jewish poet and philosopher.

He was born almost 1,000 years ago and was an important and influential thinker also known as Avicebron. He is known in the history of philosophy for the idea that all things, including soul and intellect, are composed of matter and form (‘Universal Hylomorphism’), and for his emphasis on the divine will.

Now, after five centuries, Sephardic life is returning to Málaga in the form of a new heritage and community centre. Jews started to return to Málaga in significant numbers in the early 1960s, coming mainly from North Africa, and the city now has a thriving Jewish community, with more than 1,200 people and Málaga has a synagogue and a kosher deli.

Plans for a centre in Málaga dedicated to the legacy of Spain’s Sephardic Jews have been stop-and-go in recent years. The new centre is on a plot of land between Calle Granada and Calle Alcazabilla, the Plaza de Judería marks the heart of the former Jewish quarter.

The vision is for a Sephardic Cultural Centre focussing on the legacy of the flowering of Jewish thought in Spain in the 15th century and on the thinkers of the Sephardic diaspora following their expulsion in 1492.

The €2 million project was first proposed almost 20 years ago but has been delayed because of a shortage of funds. A new architect, Leon Benacerraf, took over the project recently, changes were made to the plans, including an interior courtyard, and work was due to begin this year.

The new two-storey centre will house a synagogue and include an exhibition space, a study centre and a location for cultural activities. Different parts of the museum will focus on the great Sephardic intellectuals of Spain, the flowering of Jewish thought in Spain in the 15th century, the Sephardic literary tradition, the community’s architecture and the heritage of the Sephardic diaspora.

The centre will be supported by institutions including the University of Málaga, while the honorary president of the foundation managing the centre will be the former US ambassador to Spain, Alan Solomont.

The centre will highlight the ‘literary and intellectual wealth of a community that has given us great thinkers, but about which we know hardly anything,’ according to the future curator, publisher and journalist Basilio Baltasar.

There are hopes to finish the project by 2021, in time for the programmes to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of the birth in Málaga of the poet and philosopher Solomon ibn Gabirol.

The Plaza de Judería marks the heart of the former Jewish quarter in Málaga (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

An overnight stay in Málaga
on the way to visit Cordoba

The tower of Málaga Cathedral against the night sky last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

I am in Málaga this morning, having arrived on an evening flight from Dublin yesterday [4 June 2019]. I stayed overnight in the Ibis Málaga Centre Ciudad in the Centre of Málaga, close to the harbour and the port and within walking distance of the main sights, including the cathedral, the Picasso Museum, and the Roman amphitheatre, and Gibralfaro Castle and La Alcazaba, a magnificent Moorish fortress.

This short break was booked a long time ago, so I am sorry to miss the protests in Ireland today and tomorrow against Donald Trump's visit.

This is my third time in Spain within a nine-month period, and my sixth time to visit Spain.

In recent months, I have visited Seville and Tarifa (October 2018) and Santiago de Compostella (April 2019). In the past I have stayed in Madrid (2009), in La Carihuela near Torremolinos during Easter 2014, when I also visited Granada, the Alhambra, Málaga, Marbella, Fuengirola, Mijas and Gibraltar, and in Barcelona during Easter 2016.

For most of my adult life, I resisted the idea of going on a package holiday to Spain. For 40 years or more, I had travelled around the world for work and pleasure. But, apart from that city break in Madrid ten years ago I had never been to Spain for a holiday until 2014.

Until then, you could say, I did not know my Málaga from my Marbella, my Frigiliana from my Fuengirola, or the Costa Blanca from the Costa Brava and the Costa del Sol.

I took Spanish at school for five years, motivated perhaps by stories that it was an easier language to learn than French, German or Italian. I had inspiring teachers who introduced me to Spanish literature, from Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote to 20th century poets such as Federico García Lorca, and Spanish artists from Velázquez, Murillo and Goya to Miró, Picasso and Dalí.

Why, I even managed to pass Spanish at Intermediate and Leaving Certificate levels, although 50 years later I have managed to forget most of the Spanish I learned at school.

I think my reluctance to go on a package holiday to Spain was partly due to my own snobbery, disguised as political certitude. Spain was the land of Franco, Guernica and the garrotte; Spain was a land of brutality symbolised in the bullfight and the civil war chillingly depicted by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia; Spain was the land of the Spanish inquisition and the brutal expulsion of Jews and Muslims; and, before the package holiday industry boomed, Spain was popular with Irish people whose political sympathies on one hand were with the Blueshirts in the 1930s, or on the other hand with Frank Ryan who had defected to Nazi Germany.

Journalistic colleagues, including Paddy Woodworth, Colm Toibin and the late Jane Walker, chided and upbraided me for my inhibitions. But these prejudices persisted, reinforced by Monty Python sketches about Torremolinos, with half-built, high-rise hotels, Watney’s Red Barrel and pools with no water. Monty Python even reinforced my images with that sketch on the Spanish Inquisition.

Those prejudices have dissipated in recent years, hopefully, and I am back in Málaga after five years. After dinner last night, I strolled through the centre of Málaga, with its cathedral, squares and fountains. This is known as the capital of the Costa del Sol – but, without falling back on past prejudices, I should say that I am not here for a sun holiday at the start of summer.

I plan to travel on later today [5 June 2019] to Cordoba to visit the city’s famous Mosque, Cathedral and its Jewish Quarter.

I am back in Málaga later this week. Perhaps I shall find another opportunity on Friday to see a little more of the city before catching a return flight to Dublin.

A fountain in front of the cathedral in Málaga last night (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)