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Barcelona home to one of Europe’s oldest shuls

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The Sinagoga Major de Barcelona
The Sinagoga Major de Barcelona

Is it the oldest synagogue in Spain? The oldest Sephardi synagogue anywhere? It seems that there are more claims about this minuscule edifice than actual square footage. Suffice it to say, it is one of the oldest synagogues in Europe and was once the main synagogue of Barcelona.

The Sinagoga Major de Barcelona is tucked deep into the Barrio Gothico or Gothic Quarter of Barcelona and it wasn’t easy to find. Remains of the ancient synagogue still survive in the Call Jueu, or old Jewish Quarter, very near the Plaça de Sant Jaume, right in the middle of this Barcelona neighbourhood.

The Sinagoga Major de Barcelona
The Sinagoga Major de Barcelona

In contrast with the well-marked and heavily-trodden path to La Seu, the huge Cathedral of Barcelona, and other Gothic churches, including Santa Maria del Pi in whose shadows it literally sits, the ancient synagogue of Barcelona in the old Jewish Quarter is a small gem that almost requires a treasure hunt to locate. Even armed with a warning that it isn’t well-marked and wearing good walking shoes as I tracked back and forth multiple times on endless narrow cobblestone streets, I was confounded by my search.

I heard Hebrew being spoken multiple times during eight days in Barcelona. In fact, it was easier to find Israelis visiting Barcelona than to find the old Jewish Quarter of the city. Come with a map and double check directions.

When we finally wended our way in, we were joined by accidental tourists, not Jewish, nor having ever heard of the synagogue, let alone seeking it; they rather fell upon it by accident and found the site fascinating enough to explore.

The old synagogue is a museum now, with a short presentation put on by volunteers and supported by a modest entrance fee of 2.50 euros. The Sinagoga Major attracted as many as 20,000 visitors in a recent year. Those that visit enjoy personalized attention and patient answers to all questions from a member of the Jewish community.

The Antiga Sinagoga in the medieval Jewish Quarter of Barcelona lay in the shadow of the cathedral both literally and figuratively. Under the careful scrutiny of the Catholic Church, no other religion’s temple height or size was permitted to exceed that of the smallest church in town. Based on archival reconstruction of the route followed by a 13th-century tax collector that ended at the Sinagoga Major, research pointed to the current site as the location of the Ancient Synagogue.

The Sinagoga Major de Barcelona
The Sinagoga Major de Barcelona

Over the centuries, additional storeys were added to the building, which was used for many purposes including as a jail and as a warehouse. Its original use was forgotten. The Call Association of Barcelona, comprised of historians of many different religions, has taken on its recovery and restoration. They are united in their belief in the importance of preserving the Jewish history of the area. Excavation began in 1996.

The original exterior of the building was constructed in compliance with religious requirements in that it faces eastward toward Jerusalem and has two windows. In fact, the eastward orientation of the building toward Jerusalem broke with the northwest/southeast alignment of the streets in its neighbourhood. Discovering this wall was pivotal in recognizing the Jewish history of the building.

The building re-opened to the public as a synagogue and museum in 2002.  The presentation is given in what was once the main section of the synagogue. There is no access to the original women’s section, which is now behind a wall and part of another property. There aren’t regular services held at the Sinagoga Major, but it can be used for festive occasions. In 2003, a Canadian couple was the first to be married there in more than 600 years. A 500-year-old Torah scroll was donated to the synagogue in 2006. The original structure dates back to Roman times. There are many interesting details to note including the number 18 carved into a stone.

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There was a strong Jewish presence in Barcelona during medieval times and until 1391. By the time the Jews were officially expelled from Spain in 1492, they had been gone from Barcelona for 100 years, either forced to convert or fled. The synagogue is located at No. 5 Marlet St. Explore. Find it on your own or arrange a private guide for a walking tour of the Jewish quarter including the Ancient Synagogue through your concierge at any major hotel.