Like other towns of Castile, Ávila was also home to Jews, Muslims and Christians and each community left its mark in a way that makes them part of our cultural heritage. Although there is an abundance of written documentation recording the presence of a large and influential Jewish community throughout the Middle Ages in Ávila, there are few architectural-archaeological testimonies that can be attributed to them. This legacy has recently been enriched with the archaeological find of the Jewish cemetery.
The archives that have been conserved have revealed the location of their synagogues and cemetery (confirmed by archaeologists), where they lived, where they traded, what their occupations were and where they carried out their craft.
Routes around the town discover these places and take us back to a community of great importance in the town's history.
The interior of the Basilica of San Vicente has an inscription in Gothic lettering on the gravestone that marks the tomb of the Jew who, according to tradition, built the original church in the 14th century after he had been converted to Christianity. The cenotaph (13th century) in the transept of the church contains the remains of the martyred Saints Vincent, Sabina and Cristeta. The north side tells the story of the martyrs' escape from Talavera and their arrival in Ávila and the south side describes the martyrdom of the three brothers and sisters and the miracle of the snake that led the Jew to convert to Christianity and to build the original Basilica.
The atrium of San Pedro was where the Jews involved in the case of the Holy Child of La Guardia were tried. The event shook the whole of Spain at the time and is an example of the worsening of relations between Jews and Christians at the end of the 15th century.
The Jewish community and its synagogues
A large number of shops and workshops run by Jews were opened in what is today known as Calle Reyes Católicos, the former Calle Andrín that connected Plaza del Mercado Grande with Plaza del Mercado Chico (the town's busiest areas, together with Plaza de San Vicente). The street was also the location of one of the town's synagogues: the Synagogue of Belforad, where the Chapel of Nuestra Señora de las Nieves was built in the 16th century. What was once the house of the Rabbi, immediately south of the Chapel, is now the hostel known as La Sinagoga, a magnificent house which, once used as the aforementioned House of the Rabbi, is laden with Hebrew references and charm. Besides a fragment of a Star of David, the door that once joined the house with the church bears a cross engraved on one of the frames, a sign with which new Christians mark their homes to avoid problems in times of controversy.
At the end of Calle Reyes Católicos, Plaza del Mercado Chico, with its arches, was the very centre of the walled town and the edge of the traditional Jewish quarter.
As was usual among Jews, given their vocation to trade, they set up in the town centre to help their businesses. Their quarter par excellence, before the separation, was between the Juradero, San Vicente, El Mercado Grande and El Mercado Chico.
The modern-day Calle de Vallespín, formerly known as Rúa de Zapateros, sets off from the west side of El Mercado Chico and connects the plaza with the Gate of San Segundo (which leads to the River Adaja), clearly marking the limits of the Jewish quarter that was located to the south of the street in the area known as Santo Domingo. This area currently stands on the main streets of Calle de Santo Domingo and Calle Telares. Calle de los Zapateros (literally translated into English as the Street of the Cobblers) refers to one of the main trades carried on by the Jews who settled in Ávila, who also dominated other craft trades.
The separation of the Jews ordered by the Decree of 1412 was bypassed in Ávila because the Chapter, which rented houses and business premises to the Jews, had no interest in a measure that would lead to a fall in revenue. As a result, the Jews continued to live on the streets near the Cathedral, between El Mercado Chico and El Mercado Grande, on Rúa Zapateros, Plaza de San Juan, Arco de Montenegro and Postigo de Malaventura up to the west side of the walls.
As from the end of the 16th century, the Jews shared their quarter with other areas in the town until, in the last quarter of the 15th century, they were forced to live in a small area inside the walls near a small gate in the south side of the walls known as the Gate of la Malaventura. Before the ghetto was formalised in 1442, Don Álvaro de Luna had already obtained a decree from King Juan II whereby people who were "so loyal" to the Crown, namely the Jews, were excluded from the Papal Bull issued by Pope Eugene IV. In 1454, Enrique IV even improved the Jews' economic and social conditions, authorising unlimited trade between Jews and Christians.
In Calle del Pocillo, a zigzagging street with low buildings, there is a house with a surprising pointed brick arch on its front. Some academics have related it to the synagogue "that was built by Don Simuel", as referred to in documents dating from 1430 and 1460 and one of the traditional synagogues in the Jewish quarter of Santo Domingo.
The flavour of the great Ávila mystics, Teresa of Jesus and John of the Cross (who also had Jewish predecessors who had converted to Christianity) remains intact when we reach Calle Telares and the Garden of Moshé de León, which pays tribute to the universal author of the Sefer ha-Zohar or Book of Splendour. The architecture corresponds to the structure of a mystic garden and evokes the profound spirituality of this wise Jew, who lived in the house of Yuçaf de Ávila and published his complex text in the town based on the previous great cabalistic tradition. He attributed it to the esoteric interpretation of second-century manuscripts by Simeón ben Yohai found inside a cave.
The garden contains a monolith with a few verses from the Zohar, linked to the spirituality of Ávila: "There are moments in which the souls in the garden rise and reach the gates of heaven...".
The garden is situated opposite the Gate of La Malaventura, which led directly to the Jewish Quarter. There are those who associate the name of the Gate of La Malaventura (literally translated as the Gate of Misfortune) with the misfortune of the Jews who came out through this gate, forced by the expulsion decreed by the Catholic Monarchs, and who chose exile rather than conversion to Christianity.
After walking down Calle Telares and before leaving the town through the Gate of El Adaja (the western edge of the Jewish Quarter), visitors should walk down Calle de Santo Domingo, which was once the main street in the Jewish Quarter and, like the rest of the area, maintains the charm of its low buildings, which create an irregular street plan; humble homes, many with a yard, which today enjoy peace and quiet but which, during the separation of the last third of the 15th century, after the Decrees of the Catholic Monarchs in 1480, were overrun and led to protests by the Jewish Quarter of Ávila as a result of the unhealthy conditions and bad smells. After the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, the area was abandoned and became one of the town's marginal areas.
Craftwork. The tanneries of San Segundo
The Gate of San Segundo or El Adaja led to the vegetable gardens, country properties and craft areas that had been set up on the banks of the Adaja. The suburbs outside the walls around the River Adaja were areas dedicated to craft trades and the Jews were the ones who worked specifically on tanning leather and making clothes. Evidence of this tanning industry can be seen in the Tanneries of San Segundo.
The enclosure has been uncovered on the right bank of the River Adaja, between the bridge over the Adaja and the shrine of San Segundo in an area that is currently part of the town's Nature Interpretation Centre.
They make up a unique and relevant example of the craft trade complex that worked on tanning leather between the 14th and 18th centuries. The archaeological site has uncovered the large earthenware jars and the bowls and floors of the rooms as evidence of the craft process. The tanneries date from the Middle Ages and worked on tanning leather. Until their expulsion, they were run by Jews.
The site can be seen from the bridge but cannot be visited at the present time as research work is still going on and the area is being prepared.
If you are visiting the town in the evening and, of course, feel inclined, it is worth your while to visit the shrine of Los Cuatro Postes in search of that intimate, magical moment when the town lights up with the walls in the foreground. Seen from here, the cabalistic structure of Ávila, the 'Jerusalem of Castile' as it was called by the poet Avner Pérez, or, if you prefer, the interior Castle of Teresa de Cepeda y Ahumada, is nothing short of glorious.
According to some authors, the modern-day Chapel of Mosén Rubí was 'originally built in 1462 as a great Synagogue'. It was turned into a church after it had been annexed to the hospital left in the last will and testament of María Herrera (daughter of Diego Martínez de Herrera, a converted Jew) on 2 October 1512. If that is correct, it could be one of the last synagogues built in Castile; the prohibition affecting the construction of synagogues appeared in a law enacted on 16 January 1465 in times of Enrique IV.
Another Synagogue, that of El Lomo was situated on what is today known as Calle de Esteban Domingo and could have been the Main Synagogue at some time. News about the Synagogue situate it at the end of the 15th century next to the first convent of La Encarnación, turned into a church and dedicated to All the Saints. A Royal Letters Patent issued in Madrid on 6 December 1495 by the Catholic Monarchs confirms that, in 1482, Doctor Pedro Sánchez Frías, Chief Magistrate of the town, took some of the synagogues that belonged to the Jews in Ávila after the community had been separated to the Quarter of Los Telares in fulfilment of the Decree of the Courts of Toledo of 1480.
Posada de la estrella
Opposite the steps of San Juan Bautista, visitors can see the doors of a former mansion, known as the Posada de La Estrella. It had Jewish owners and its courtyard conserves a capital with the Jewish roelas (discs).
The Jewish cemetery
Written documents place the Jewish cemetery on the land owned by the Monastery of La Encarnación since the houses of El Pilón de la Mimbre were acquired by Doña Beatriz Guiera (or Yera) in 1511 to take them to the original convent that had been previously located next to the Gate of San Vicente and the Synagogue of El Lomo. Doña Beatriz Guiera bought a Jewish Ossuary outside the town's walls and built the convent there. These written testimonies have recently been confirmed by archaeologists.