On this sunny afternoon, the synagogue was packed. It was not a holiday, nor was it Shabbat. In fact, most of the people who filled the large sanctuary were not even Jewish.
They were visiting la Sinagoga Santa María la Blanca. Located in la juderia, the old Jewish quarter of Toledo, Spain, this synagogue opened in 1203 and was originally called Ibn Shushan Congregation. It became a church in 1411, hence its current name, meaning Saint Mary the White.
Down the road, people were also lined up outside la Sinagoga del Transito, the 14th century structure that now houses the Sephardi Museum.
Entrance fees are waived on Sundays, which may have explained the large number of visitors. The synagogues also close at 3 p.m. on Sundays, so I had to get to Toledo before noon. That meant boarding the high-speed train from Barcelona to Madrid at 7 a.m. I arrived there just before 10 a.m. And quickly transferred trains.
A half-hour later, I was in Toledo’s gorgeous Neo-Mudéjar (Moorish)-style train station, circa 1919.
Toledo was the last leg of my two-week trip to Spain. Most of that time was spent on the Mediterranean coast, which included four days in the bustling city of Barcelona.
I was constantly on the lookout for relics of the historic Jewish community that had a presence in Spain from about the second or third century CE, until 1492, when the Christian monarchy expelled the Jews. It was the height of the Spanish Inquisition (1478 to 1834).
Spanish Jewry had flourished under the Moors (711 until 1066), but it was more precarious during Christian rule, which began at the end of the 11th century.
Various Jewish communities experienced periods of prosperity sandwiched between massacres and forced conversions.
While Spain is home to several modern congregations today, there are almost no physical remnants of the historic Jewish communities in the coastal cities I visited. The only exception was Sinagoga Major de Barcelona, or the Ancient Synagogue, a minuscule medieval synagogue in Barcelona’s old city.
I was actually on a quest for a Jewish site that reflected the grandeur of the historic community, which is why I travelled to Toledo.
Its old quarter, a walled medieval city with several elaborate entrance gates, reminded me of the old city of Jerusalem. Within these walls, one must navigate a hilly labyrinth of narrow, winding cobblestone streets. I opted for a taxi to get to Santa María la Blanca.
Its interior looks more like a mosque than a synagogue, as the design typifies Mudéjar architecture.
The 24 octagonal columns form rows of horseshoe arches that divide the cavernous sanctuary into five aisles.
Below the roof, small lobbed arches frame window-like niches that sit above a stucco frieze adorned with a delicate geometric motif.
When the synagogue was converted to a church in the early 15th century, it was renamed Iglesia de Santa Maria la Blanca. The building was later used as a military quarters. It was declared a provincial monument 1851 and reverted back to a synagogue/museum in 1930.
The Sinagoga del Transito, was built from 1336 to 1357 by Samuel ha-Levi, treasurer of King Pedro I of Castille.
While this magnificent sanctuary has many elements of Mudéjar style – arched windows, molded polychromed stucco friezes and a coffered wood ceiling – the hall does not resemble a mosque.
Bands of biblical Hebrew inscriptions frame the ceiling, as well as the intricately carved floral stucco frieze.
Additional Hebrew writing accents the Aron Kodesh, a triple-arched niche built into the exquisite geometrically patterned eastern wall.
While the synagogue is basically a museum, the women’s section on the second floor, is the main space for the Judaica exhibits.
Display cases are filled with antique books, remnants of old gravestones, along with such ritual items as Torahs, candelabras, Shabbat candlesticks, seder plates, tallitot, and something I’ve never seen, even though I have three sons – a circumcision knife.
After 1492, the synagogue was also converted to a church, and later became a military quarters. The building was declared a national monument in 1877 and its transformation into a museum began in 1910.
Toledo has many other famous landmarks, among them, the gothic Toledo Cathedral; the Alcazar, a former palace and fortress; and the El Greco Museum.
I didn’t get a chance to visit these other places, but when I headed back to Madrid, I thought Julius Caesar’s famous line “veni, vidi, vici.” seemed very apropos for my Toledo visit.
“I came, I saw, I (figuratively) conquered.” In other words – mission accomplished.