Jewish Heritage Tours

History of the Iberian Peninsula Jewry

On our private Jewish Heritage tours of Spain, Portugal and SW France you will discover that the history of the Iberian Peninsula Jewry  is one of both glory and tragedy. Jewish heritage has contributed so much to the development of Spain and Portugal with many scholars and philosophers enriching both countries through the ages. The era of Muslim rule in Spain (8th-11th century) was considered the "Golden Age" for Spanish Jewry. Jewish intellectual and spiritual life thrived and many Jews served in Spanish courts. Jewish economic expansion was unparalleled. In Toledo, Jews were involved in translating Arabic texts to the romance languages, as well as translating Greek and Hebrew texts into Arabic. Jews also contributed to botany, geography, medicine, mathematics, poetry and philosophy. A number of well-known Jewish physicians practiced during this period, including Hasdai Ibn Shaprut (915-970), doctor to Caliph Abd-ar-Rahman III. Many famous Jewish figures lived during the Golden Age and contributed to making this a flourishing period for Jewish thought. These included Samuel Ha-Nagid, Moses ibn Ezra, Solomon ibn Gabirol Judah Halevi and Moses Maimonides.

But, in 1481 the Spanish Inquisition started, with its HQ at the Castillo San Jorge in Seville, targeting Jews among other groups; in 1483 all Jews were expelled from the city; and in 1492 from all of Spain. Half of the country's 300,000 Jews left, many for Portugal but some stayed in hiding. The Jewish history of Spain is deep and you can experience the enduring Jewish heritage in towns all over Spain from Toledo to Cordoba to Gerona and Besalu. Girona has a well preserved Jewish Quarter and the Museu d'Historia dels Jueus (Jewish History Museum). In Besalu the ruins of the Jewish quarter date back to the 9th century and the mikvah, the only one of its kind discovered in the Iberian Peninsula, dates back to the 12th century. Toledo is known as the city of three cultures, once thriving uniquely as a place where Jews, Muslims and Christians lived in harmony. Remains of the Jewish community are still well preserved in the synagogues of Santa María la Blanca and El Tránsito, which now houses the Sephardic Museum. One of the largest Jewish communities in Spain came to Seville, once St. King Ferdinand III conquered Seville in 1248 and was second only to that of Toledo. After the expulsion of the Jews in 1483, the Jewish Quarter that extended over what today is Barrio Santa Cruz and San Bartolomé went into decline, but can still be visited today. Jews formed a part of Cordoba's cultural mix from as early as the 2nd Century. The narrow medieval streets of the Barrio de la Judería retain their names to this day and although not Jewish in their current expression, a few signs hint of the Golden Age of Jewish life. Many exiled Spanish Jews settled in Portugal, allowing them to practice Judaism.

In 1497, however, Portugal also expelled its Jews. While Jews lived and remained active under Visigoth and Muslim rule from the 5th to the 8th century, it wasn’t until the 12th century that they were acknowledged as a distinct legal entity, under King Afonso Henriques. The king entrusted Yahia ben Yahi III, a Jew, as royal tax collector and supervisor, and appointed him the first chief rabbi of the Portuguese Jewish community. The 13th and 14th centuries were known as Portugal’s Golden Age of Discovery, in which Jews made a major contribution to Portugal’s success. Abraham Zacuto wrote tables that provided the principal base for Portuguese navigation, including those used by Vasco Da Gama on his trip to India. Guedelha-Master Guedelha served as a rabbi and doctor and astrologer for both King Duarte and King Alfonso V. Isaac Abravanel was one of the principal merchants and a member of one the most influential Jewish families in Portugal. Another figure, Jose Vizinho, served as doctor and astrologer to King Joao II. Joao II also sent the Jew, Abraham de Beja, on many voyages to the East. Jews became the intellectual and economic elite of the country. They were involved in all aspects of the explorations, from financing the sailing fleets to making scientific discoveries in the fields of mathematics, medicine and cartography. Many were employed as physicians and astronomers as well royal treasurers, tax collectors and advisors. Portugal offers an abundance of fascinating Jewish history. At the height of Jewish culture in Portugal there were more than 150 thriving Jewish communities throughout the nation. Explore the Jewish sites of Lisbon, Porto, Trancoso, Belmonte and Coimbra amongst others. Visit one of the oldest synagogues in Europe at Tomar, as well as Trancoso for the symbolic Jewish markings and Belmonte for the Synagogue, Jewish cemetery and museum. In Evora the Inquisition's Court processed more than 9500 people for Judaism and the Palace still displays the coat of arms of the Holly Office over its doors. Then in Lisbon visit the first synagogue to be built in Portugal since the late 15th century and hear the sad history of Rossio Square, the site of the Court of the Inquisition, where thousands of Jews were burnt at the stake in the massacres of 1506. Remarkable for a number of historic synagogues and buildings of interest Portugal will be as beautiful as it is fascinating.

During your SW France part of your Jewish Heritage tour  with us, you will see that the Jewish influence is less noticeable. Although it is thought that Jews settled in Bordeaux shortly after the destruction of the Second Temple, and that a considerable number settled there in the sixth and seventh centuries, because of the commercial advantages of the city. When the Jews were banished from Spain (1492) and Portugal (1497), the Jewish population of Bordeaux increased, as Jews fled to the cities of southern France. Bordeaux was home to a prominent medieval Jewish community and today has 3 historic Jewish cemeteries. Explore nineteenth-century Jewry and visit the memorial dedicated to the Bordeaux Jews who died in the Holocaust. The Synagogue, in spite of restricted space and a narrow access road, is one of the most monumental and largest in France. Jews had also settled in Narbonne from about the 5th century. In the 11th and 12th centuries Narbonne was the centre of an important Jewish exegetical school, aiding the growth and development of the Zarphatic and Shuadit languages. The Kabbalah was rediscovered and developed here and Narbonne was frequently mentioned in Talmudic works in connection with its scholars. Abraham ibn Daud of Toledo also gave them an importance comparable to the Babylonian exilarchs.

Whether you decide to tour one, two or all three countries on your Jewish Heritage tour with us, you are always in great hands with our hand selected, officially licensed Guides in Spain, Portugal and France, who have additional qualifications in Jewish History and a vast knowledge.

Here, below, you will find some of our sample itineraries for your taking in Jewish Heritage Sights in Europe:

In Jewish history there are no coincidences. Elie Wiesel

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Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends, but is played out over and over again in the quietest chambers. The mind can never break off from the journey. Pat Conroy