07 June 2019

Córdoba’s 700-year-old
synagogue is one of only
three to survive in Spain

The women’s balcony above the entrance to the synagogue in Córdoba (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

The Jewish Quarter in the heart of Córdoba is recognised by Unesco as a World Heritage Site and its narrow mediaeval streets, with their distinctly Moorish flair, recall the prosperity of the city’s Jewish community during the Caliphate of Córdoba.

Local lore says Solomon visited Córdoba after building the Temple in Jerusalem, and built a replica of the Temple on the site of the present Mezquita de Córdoba, which has been a mosque and a cathedral at different times across the centuries.

It is known that Jews have been a part of Córdoba’s life and culture from at least the second century AD until they were expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella and the Spanish Inquisition in 1492.

Under Islamic rule, both Jews and Christians enjoyed a degree of religious freedom within their self-governing communities, while paying special household taxes imposed on non-Muslims.

The Jewish people in Spain reached the apex of their prosperity and intellectual life in the 11th and 12th centuries. While much of Europe was living in the Dark Ages, a prosperous Córdoba was at the centre of an independent Caliphate, and Hasday ben Shaprut, the governor of the Jewish community, was an influential minister in the court of the Caliph, Abd al-Rahman III.

But with the fall of the caliphate in 1031 and the rise of the Almohad Berber dynasty, Jewish life in Cordoba went into decline. Many Jews fled to Christian areas in north Spain or went abroad as peaceful coexistence came to end in the city. Those who went into exile included Maimonides (1135-1204), who finally settled in Egypt.

When Fernando III captured Córdoba, the Jewish community prospered again, but only briefly. The last remaining Jewish neighbourhood in Cordoba was separated by walls on all sides, and stood within a triangle formed by the city walls from the Almodovar Gate to the Arab baths, Manríquez and Deanes streets and Almanzor street. The one Jewish cemetery was outside the Almodovar gate.

The synagogue in Córdoba is one of only three significant synagogues remaining in Spain (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

During my walking tour of Judería, the mediaeval Jewish quarter of Córdoba, yesterday [6 June 2019], I visited the only surviving synagogue in the city, built by Simon Majeb in 1315. This is one of only three significant synagogues remaining in Spain and it is largely unaltered.

Antisemitic Papal bulls promulgated in the 1340s and local jealousy of perceived Jewish wealth and influence provided the excuses for attacks on the Jewish area in Córdoba in 1391, and the walls separating the Jewish area from the rest of the city were torn down.

The ‘Catholic Monarchs,’ Ferdinand and Isabel presented Spain’s Jews with the alternatives of forced conversion or exile in 1492. Many of Spain’s Sephardic Jews chose exile and fled, taking with them the keys to their homes and Ladino, their unique dialogue of medieval Spanish. This presence in Córdoba is recalled today street names and buildings such as the Synagogue in Calle de los Judios.

The walls of the synagogue are decorated in Mudéjar style, with Biblical quotations (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

This synagogue is a Mudéjar building dating from 1315. The buildings around it were probably used as public baths and a Talmudic school.

The interior includes a gallery for women and plaster work with inscriptions from Hebrew psalms and others with plant motifs on the upper part.

The small size of this synagogue indicates it may have been the private synagogue of a wealthy man rather than one of the main synagogues in the city. It may also have been the synagogue of a trade guild.

After the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, this synagogue was seized by the authorities, its Mudejar reliefs were covered and it was converted into the Hospital Santo Quiteria, treating people with rabies.

In 1588, the building was acquired by the city’s shoemakers’ guild in 1588, and they used it as a community centre and small chapel, dedicated to Saint Crispin or Saint Crispian, the patron of shoemakers.

It was used as a primary school for a brief period in the 19th century until its original use and decorations were rediscovered.

A gate in the east wall leads into a small courtyard and the synagogue has an unusual shape because of the layout of the surrounding streets.

The entrance to the synagogue is at the courtyard with three openings: a door and two windows on either side. Beyond the façade, the entrance hall has a wooden stairwell that leads up to the women’s balcony.

Inside, the main prayer hall is small compared with other buildings or houses of the period, and measures 6.5 by 7 meters, with a high roof at 11.5 meters.

The women’s section, which must have had latticework to act as a screen at one time, has three broad arches that look down into the main part of the synagogue. These arches are decorated with elaborately interwoven stucco and latticework that is typical of Sephardic synagogues. These three arches are interwoven with elaborate patterns and Hebrew text. The central arch is raised to accommodate the doorway.

The ‘aron kodesh’ or holy ark at the east wall where the Torah scrolls were once kept (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The aron kodesh or holy ark, where the Torah scrolls were once kept at the east wall, was decorated with elaborate stucco in the Mudejar tradition. The bimah or elevated platform from which the Torah scrolls were read has not survived.

The ceiling of the synagogue is made of thin wooden panels above thick beams that hold the ceiling in order to hide the gabled tile roof. The wood panels and beams were richly decorated and enhanced the ornamentation of the building. The ceiling is angled upwards to give a greater feeling of height, a style common in the architecture of Spanish synagogues.

Three of the upper walls have windows for illumination, with five windows in each of these walls. The windows were 0.6 meters wide and 1.5 meters high. The lintels of the windows have classic arch shapes and may have been decorated with latticework.

The synagogue was influenced by the Mudejar tradition of stucco panels, with stylised geometric patterns and floral patterns. Hebrew verses from the Bible wrap around the windows. These are mainly from the Psalms, but also cite other books in the Bible and liturgical poetry.

An inscription on the east wall says the synagogue was refurbished in the Hebrew year 5075, 1315 CE (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

An inscription on the south side of the east wall provides information on the synagogue’s reconstruction in the early 14th century and its main benefactor: ‘This minor sanctuary has been refurbished by Yitzhak Mahab son of the wealthy Ephraim in the Hebrew year 5075 (1315 CE). May God remove curses from our nation and rebuild Jerusalem soon.’

Although this inscription indicates the synagogue was refurbished in 1315, it does not say when it was first built.

The aron kodesh had a decorative band that praises the Temple in Jerusalem and links it with the synagogue: ‘I bow down toward your holy temple and give thanks to your name for your steadfast love and your faithfulness; for you have exalted your name and your word above everything’ (Psalm 138: 2).

On the north wall, under the five arches, are two lines of inscriptions that continue on the west well. The top line on the north wall reads: ‘O come let us worship and bow down; Let us kneel before the Lord our maker. We will go into his tabernacles. We will worship at his footstool. Exalt ye the Lord our God, and worship at his footstool, for he is holy’ (Psalm 95: 6; 132: 7; 99: 5).

In the women’s section there is a verse in praise of women: ‘Your neck is like the tower of David, built in courses’ (Song of Songs 4: 4).

There were several verses of longing for Jerusalem: ‘Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers’ (Psalm 122: 6-7).

There were also many verses of pleading: ‘Be merciful to me, O God, be merciful to me; for my soul trusts in you; in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge until these great troubles pass by’ (Psalm 57: 2).

The synagogue was declared a National Monument in 1885, and it has since been restored several times. The Spanish authorities marked the 800th anniversary of the birth of Maimonides in 1935 by changing the name of a nearby square to Tiberias Square, honouring the city in Galilee where Maimonides is buried.

At this celebration, the first public Jewish prayer service in almost four and half centuries was held at the synagogue.

Another restoration began in 1977, and the synagogue reopened in 1985 as part of the celebrations marking the 850th anniversary of the birth of Maimonides. Although it no longer functions as a Jewish house of worship, it is open to the public.

A cross on the west wall survives from the use of the building as a chapel by the shoemakers’ guild (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The librarian who saved
a Sephardic ‘Haggadah’
and a family in Sarajevo

An exhibition in the Sephardic Museum in Córdoba tells the story of how the ‘Sarajevo Haggadah’ was saved (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

An exhibition in the Sephardic Museum in Córdoba tells the extraordinary story of the journey of a unique Sephardic book and the people who saved it.

The Haggadah recalls the Biblical story in the Book Exodus of how the enslaved people in Egypt were led into freedom with Moses. The Sarajevo Haggadah was made in Sefarad or Jewish Spain, possibly in Barcelona, around 1350.

When the Sephardic Jews were expelled from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella, some of them went first to Portugal, and brought with them this Haggadah. From Portugal, the book arrived in Venice in 1609, and its presence is noted at a later stage in Vienna.

The National Museum in Sarajevo, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, bought this book in 1896 from a Sephardic Jew, Joseph Cohen. It soon became the museum’s finest treasure.

The Sarajevo Haggadah is illuminated in silver and gold, and its extraordinary beauty is enhanced by the use of lapis lazuli, azurite and maluquite.

The ‘Haggadah’ recalls the Passover story in the Book Exodus (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Before the Nazi occupation of Sarajevo, a young librarian and curator at the National Museum in Sarajevo, Dervis Korkut (1888-1969), was writing several essays criticising the worrying rise of antisemitism. He was a Muslim and he said antisemitism was alien to the Bosnian traditions of tolerance.

When the Nazis occupied Sarajevo on 16 April 1941, they began a systematic persecution of the city’s Jews, who were mainly of Sephardic descent, as well as Gypsies, Serbs and other ethic and minority groups of people.

They also set out to requisition the Sarajevo Haggadah as an important symbol of Jewish culture and demanded the Haggadah at the Sarajevo museum. However, the librarian Dervis Korkut had concealed the rare volume, hid it in his jacket and left the museum through a back door.

Korkut explained away the missing Sephardic Haggadah, saying a German office had already taken it. Throughout the rest of World War II, the book was kept in hiding in a small town in Bosnia until the end of the Nazi occupation.

Meanwhile, as Dervis Korkut was working at the museum in Sarajevo, he was introduced to Mira Papo, a young Sephardic girl in a desperate search for a hiding place. Her father Salomon Papo, a janitor in the Ministry of the Economy, had been arrested and had been sent with the rest of the family to an extermination camp.

Dervis Korkut took her into his home and told her to use the Muslim name of Amir. When he introduced her to neighbours and the local gossips, he told them she was babysitting his son Munib.

Through his bravado, Dervis Korkut had saved a valuable work of Sephardic Jewish culture, and a young Jewish woman.

When World War II was over, Mira Papo moved to Israel. Dervis Korkut died in 1969, and after his death Mira wrote a letter explaining how she had survived thanks to his bravery. Because of this letter, Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Memorial Centre in Jerusalem, declared Dervis one of the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’ – a gentile who had saved a Jewish life during the years of the Holocaust.

Dervis Korkut’s daughter, Lamija, who was living with her husband in Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, in 1994, when Serbian militias started to bomb and occupy the region, and began a programme of ‘ethnic cleansing’ that targeted Muslim people in the former Yugoslavia. Lamija and her husband now found they were refugees, and family contacts put them in touch with the Jewish community in Skopje in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia – today’s North Macedonia.

On her arrival, Lamija presented a letter in Hebrew she did not understand to a member of the Jewish community in Skopje. When he read it he was deeply moved.

Some days later, Lamija and her husband received a letter telling them they had been accepted as refugees in Israel. When they arrived at Tel Aviv Airport, Mira Papo’s son, Davor Bakovic, was waiting to welcome them.

The Talmud says, ‘Whoever destroys a single life is considered by Scripture to have destroyed the whole world, and whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world.’

‘Whoever saves a single life is considered by Scripture to have saved the whole world’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)