Santa María la Blanca, Ancient Synagogue of the Jewish quarter of Toledo

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Text and photo: Eduardo González

 

It is said that the Castilian King Alfonso VIII got on so well with the Jews that he caused, much to his regret, an anti-Semitic riot in 1178 in which his beautiful Hebrew lover, the Jew of Toledo, baptized by the literature of the Golden Age as Raquel, lost her life.

 

The old Visigothic capital, and with it its modest Jewish quarters, had been conquered by Alfonso VI barely one century before, in 1085. Immediately after, the Jewish community started to grow and prosper until becoming the most important of Castile thanks to Alfonso VI, who granted the Jews the same privileges as Christians as a reward for the support they offered him during the conquest. Despite everything, a few years later, the first anti-Semitic murders and pogroms were registered and, barely three decades later, equal rights were abolished.

 

The Jewish quarter started a period of splendour again halfway through the 12th century with the mass arrival of Jews that were fleeing the advance of Almohads through the peninsula. Among those arriving were scientists, poets, grammarians and philosophers that not only increased Toledo’s prestige, but also helped Alfonso VII (actually their chancellor, Raymond of Toledo) to put in motion the prestigious School of Translators of Toledo, whose peak would come with another Alfonso, the Wise.

 

It was in this context when, between the end of the 12th century and the beginning of the 13th century, Alfonso VIII sponsored the construction of the ancient synagogue of the Jewish quarter of Toledo. It is a temple whose strange irregular plant is divided into five naves separated by horseshoe arches. Because of these paradoxes of the history, some of its main architectural merits are of Almohad influence, such as its 32 octagonal pillars, the capitals decorated with pineapples and volutes, or the geometrical motifs that adorn the top part of the arches.

 

At the beginning of the 15th century, the anti-Semitic preaching of Valencia’s Dominican fray Vicente Ferrer in Castile forced many Jews to convert to Christianity and many synagogues were abandoned or transformed into churches. This was the case of our synagogue, which in 1411 was raided and transformed into the parish church of Santa María la Blanca, the name it took from an image presiding over its altar that had been copied from the Virgen Blanca that appeared in the choir of the cathedral.

 

From then on, this beautiful place has been Refuge of Penance for repentant women (at the end of the 16th century), infantry quarter and warehouse of the Royal Treasury (both uses in the 18th century), until, in the middle of the 19th century, it was given to the Committee of Monuments, which started its restoration. It was declared National Monument in 1930. In October, Santa María la Blanca hosted a Catholic vigil of prayer to commemorate the Jewish celebration of the Yom Kippur.

 

 

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