When Samuel Ha-Levi illegally built a synagogue in the provincial Spanish town of Toledo, no one could have known that it would one day become a church, then a military barracks in the Napoleonic war, a national monument, and finally a museum… but that’s just the beginning!
Toledo, the capital city of Old Castilla, is a beautiful town just south of Madrid. It is home to medieval buildings, fresh Spanish air rippling off the quaint river that runs through town, and breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside. The history of Toledo dates back all the way to the Romans, and the place is endowed with a deep feeling of being loaded with antiquity and significance. As you meander through the winding streets, you can’t help but understand that there is no way to grasp the vastness of Toledo’s history, no matter how much time you have to spend in the area. A whole world lurks beneath the intricate architecture and map-wielding tourists, and you wonder to yourself how so much could have happened in so small an area? Perhaps this is why the women of Toledo gathered to protect its history and defend the precious town during the Spanish Civil War of 1936, refusing to let its magnificent history be destroyed. Perhaps this is why the Spanish poet Garcilaso de la Vega used Toledo to inspire so much of his work, promising Toledo in dramatic prose that “the strength of your beauty would be sung.”
And perhaps this is why the Synagogue El Transito, sitting right inside the historic town, is endowed with such a full and theatrical history.
We don’t know exactly how far back Jewish history in Toledo dates, but we can be sure that Jews have lived there since at least the 6th century, for in the year 589 CE the Council of Toledo created a decree prohibiting Jews from marrying Christians, holding public office or owning Christian servants. As you can imagine from the intonation of those decrees, the Jews suffered greatly under Christianity in Toledo, especially when the 8th Toledo Council created even more extreme antisemitic legislation in the year 652CE. They say that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and this was never truer than when the rift between the Christians and the Jews led the Jewish community to aid in the Muslim conquest of Toledo in the year 715 CE. The Jews made fast friends with the new conquerors and even spoke Arabic in this period, as evidenced by the fact that Jewish documents from this time were written in Arabic (Asher b. Jehiel, Responsa, No. 56; Solomon ben Adret, Responsa, iii. 427.)
In 1252, King Alfonso the 10th (9 Alfonsos weren’t enough apparently) captured the city of Toledo and declared it Christian once again, yet this time he made sure that the Jews were treated as equals.
By this point many Jews had migrated to Toledo, as Muslim persecution in other parts of Spain drove them to seek refuge. These Jews rose to prominence, holding important roles in politics and government. At one point the King of Toledo even graced the Jews with the biggest compliment of all by taking a Jewish mistress (Fermosa) and a Jewish royal physician (Hayyuj Alfata)!
In the mid-1200s, the Archbishop of Toledo grew concerned by the financial and political prominence of the Jewish community and decided to curb it by imposing a tax and housing tithe on every Jew over the age of 20 (Jacobs, “Sources,” No. 1265.) This seems not to have worked out so well, considering the fact that by 1290, nearly half of the town’s considerable wealth was still owned by Jews!
During this time period, the Nasi or leader of the Jewish community doubled up as the spiritual leader of the community, and in 1305 the Jews of Toledo chose the learned nobleman Asher Ben Jehiel Abulafia (d. 1328) to lead their congregation. It was under his political and religious guidance that our story begins.
On a fine Spanish day in 1320, a boy named Samuel Ben Meir Ha-Levi Abulafia was born into the influential Abulafia family. The Abulafias, including the aforementioned Asher, had been leading the Jewish community in both Toledo and in fact all of Castilla for over 100 years. However, Samuel’s parents died of the plague while he was still a boy, and because Samuel was too young to take over their legacy, he was instead apprenticed to the Knight Juan Alfonso. Owing to a nice bit of nepotism, his political dynasty serving the kings of Castilla for several generations, Samuel rose quickly through the ranks of the court until he found his own meaningful employment in the court of King Pedro the 1st of Castilla, also known as King Pedro the Cruel (which we won’t go into – let bygones be bygones, and all that). Samuel was first crowned the Mayor of the town, then the Treasurer, and finally the High Judge of Toledo. It was during his stint as Treasurer that he decided to build a synagogue. It was by no means the first synagogue in the area – Toledo was already home to the largest synagogue in Spain as well as 9 others, but this one was Samuel’s own house of worship.
In 1357 the synagogue was opened. It was connected to Samuel Ha-Levi Abulafia’s house and he presided over the services. Generously paying it back to the community who had so exalted him, Samuel also opened the synagogue as a hub for Jewish education, and a Yeshiva house of study.
One of the many things that made this synagogue interesting was the fact that in the 14th century, Spain had actually decreed a ban on all construction of Jewish educational institutes and synagogues. However, Samuel’s close relationship with King Pedro (cruel or otherwise), meant that he was able to find some legal loopholes, and more importantly, get away with them. The ban on synagogues did not extend to private homes, and bribes were sometimes accepted for the construction of Yeshivot, which King Pedro turned a blind eye towards. Maybe this was a nod to their close friendship, or maybe it was a royal token of apology for the persecution that the Jews had just faced in Toledo during the Black Death of the 1340s. Either way, the synagogue was allowed to stand, and for that we can be grateful.
Samuel Ha-Levi quite deliberately disobeyed the regulations requiring synagogues to be plainly decorated, smaller, and lower than churches, and once again King Pedro looked the other way. The rectangular prayer hall has a 12-meter-high ceiling and is decorated lavishly in a mix of styles. Hebrew inscriptions can be seen even till this day which extol both King Pedro and Samuel Ha-Levi. Arabic inscriptions and Psalm passages are also apparent on the walls, next to the Ha-Levi coat of arms and lots of magnificent windows.
During services, a second-floor gallery was set aside for the women, which was pretty forward thinking for the time! Contrary to the highly decorated interior, the façade of the synagogue was constructed of brick and stone, and was relatively unadorned, in order to draw less attention to the illegal structure, despite the fact that its towering roof raised the whole synagogue somewhat above all the nearby structures.
This house of prayer was a vibrant and animated place of worship for many years, but then tragedy struck. As the 14th and 15th centuries wore on, antisemitism had been back on the rise yet again. Samuel Ha-Levi obviously set out to protect Jewish rights and freedoms, but due to this, King Pedro was unable to keep defending him. Eventually the rift between the two men grew into an all-out war – Samuel was arrested on charges of corruption and eventually tortured to death. His house remained, as did the synagogue, and despite repeated and growing attacks on the Jewish community in Toledo as the 1300s came to an end, the synagogue was saved. This was not an act of good faith, but rather one of self-interest, for the synagogue was soon to be converted into a church.
In 1492, amidst a further uptake of antisemitism, the Jews were finally given an ultimatum: the Catholic monarchs of Spain, Ferdinand and Isabella, issued the Alhambra Decree, which gave Spanish Jews the choice to either convert to Catholicism, leave the country, or face expulsion. The decree was supposedly motivated by the belief that Jews had not fully assimilated into Spanish society and that their presence was a threat to the country’s religious and cultural identity, but no justification can be made for the horrors which befell the Jewish community during these terrible years of persecution. The Spanish expulsion marked the apparent end to centuries of Jewish presence in Spain, and led to the forced migration of thousands of Jews to other parts of Europe, North Africa, and the Ottoman Empire.
As no practicing Jews remained in Toledo, the synagogue was turned into a church. As if they had not inflicted enough harm already, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella donated the building to the Order of Calatrava who turned the structure into a church housing a Benedictine priory. The name “El Transito,” which honors the Virgin Mary’s Assumption, was given to the building during its stretch as a church, but ironically the synagogue has still kept this name until today, which is why it is known as the “Synagogue El Transito.” Juan Correa de Vivar painted a mural of Mary’s Virgin Transit over the original Jewish engravings on the walls, but thankfully the canvases he used were eventually removed and preserved without ruining the Jewish prayers so lovingly inscribed below.
The Synagogue El Transito was to remain a church until the early 1800s, when, during the Spanish War of Independence against Napoleon in 1808, Toledo was forced to play a leading role. Toledo is very strategically located in the center of the peninsula of Spain and close to Madrid, so it became one of the central hostile points in the country. Despite heavy resistance, over 10,000 French troops along with their 400 horses took up residence in Toledo, under guidance from General Dupont. The Spanish fought back, and the ever-changing defensive lines of both armies often fell smack-bang in the middle of Toledo, causing much damage and unrest to the town. During that time, the Spanish revolutionaries and fighters needed barracks, and the vast space of the Church of El Transito provided just the right shelter.
We can be grateful for this strategic placing of the Spanish army barracks, as the synagogue would almost certainly have been destroyed if it wasn’t being used to house their troops. Many notable buildings and heritage sites were lost during these fierce battles, and during the Civil War, more of Toledo was destroyed than ever before. Despite the piles of horse manure and stray bullets, the synagogue persevered, and by the end of the war, the synagogue-turned-church-turned-military barracks had become a symbol of Spain’s success, and the independence that they had fought for.
Having lost its status as a church, the Synagogue El Transito was turned briefly into a national monument. The decline of Christianity in the late 1800s combined with the building’s military prowess meant that it was easily turned into a heritage site, and it was only after gaining this national monument status that its history was slowly excavated, one layer at a time.
During the 19th century, Spanish Jewish communities began to rebuild themselves, slowly at first, as Jews tentatively returned to their homes and found a more welcoming society than the one their ancestors had fled from. Despite that, no Jews returned to settle in Toledo. But as historians and world heritage staff explored the grounds of the building, they recognized just how important it had once been for the Jewish community, and pledged to return it to their possession.
A restoration effort began. The first part of the restoration was to the Torah ark, often considered to be the holiest site in a synagogue. The original ark still stood, but needed a good deal of repair and cleaning. At least 14 lattices needed to be fixed and the Hebrew inscriptions had to be painstakingly restored, letter by letter.
Arturo Mélida y Alinari became the head architect of this immense restoration project and he worked tirelessly, firstly on the roof and outside walls, and then as he grew to notice all the many safety hazards present in the structure, he turned his attention to reinforcing the ancient building. In 1911, the building was given to the Museum Fund of Spain, who pledged to gift it back to the Jewish community as a Museum of Sephardi Culture and History. They doubled down on the restoration efforts, and started on the interior walls and the women’s gallery. A debate soon raged over whether to also restore the church features, and eventually it was decided that it would only be fair to pay homage to the building’s years as a church, so the choir stage and a few other Christian features were also restored to their former glory. Finally, some new features were added to the building, including a large Jewish library and a new Center for Hebrew Studies.
Of the five grandest medieval synagogues in Toledo, only two have survived: the Synagogue El Transito, now the Sephardic Museum, and Santa María la Blanca which also, as the name suggests, spent some time as a church. Toledo is sometimes known as the “Sephardic Jerusalem” due to its beautiful Jewish heritage buildings and synagogues, and its historic Jewish quarter which can still be visited today.
The Synagogue El Transito no longer hosts prayer services, and the only Jews in the town today are visitors, snapping pictures and tracing the vast Jewish history of the area, seeking to view some of Spain’s most precious medieval Jewish architecture. From a synagogue to a church, to a military barracks, then a national monument, and finally a museum and synagogue once again, the Synagogue El Transito tells the riveting and tragic story of Spanish Jewry all the way from the Middle Ages, until today.