Called from/Referenciado desde: Las sinagogas de Sigüenza
  • The presence of the Jews
  • The former synagogue
  • The Confraternity of Saint John the Baptist
  • The 'secret jews' and the Confraternity
  • The later synagogue
  • The new quarter
  • The expulsion
  • The two temples today
  • The presence of the Jews

    The Jewish presence in the city is documented since 1124 until 1492, when the Spanish Jews or sephardim were forced to choose between conversion to Catholicism or expulsion of the country. During that lapse of time they became a prosperous community that considered themselves very fortunate to live in what is nowdays the province of Guadalajara. There they enjoyed a degree of freedom that had long vanished from the rest of Spain, under the protection of the City's Lord, which was its Bishop. In the city's plan it can be observed that Sigüenza the city developed between two poles isolated in principle; the castle, on the top of the hill upon which the city was founded, residence of the Bishop, and the Cathedral in a lower and less strong situation. The arrows mark the known entrances through the exterior of the walls and the different colors the succesive enlargements of the defensive walls.
    A city plan of SigŁenza, with the diferent recincts its walls comprised/Plano de SigŁenza, con los distintos recintos que comprendían sus muros


    The former synagogue

    After the Christian conquest of the city from the Muslims, the Jews lived in their own quarter, although without a strict separation from Christians and Muslims, the two other major religious groups of the city, being important enough to have the cathegory of aljama. The Jewish Quarter, known as 'Juderia' had a synagogue built in its center (it would be included in the figure inside the area marked as 1). In 1412, after a series of antisemitic disorders that spreaded all over the former kingdoms in which the Iberian Penninsula was divided, Juan II, King of Castile, ordered the reclusion of the Jews in quarters completely surrounded by walls and with only one gate 'for their protection'. The jewish population moved promptly to the assigned space, which was considered to be more suitable for commerce than the previous one, too narrow and separated from the main entrances to the city. In the process, they had to trade off their old temple for a new one, because legislation passed in 1415 limited to one the number of temples the Jews could possess in a city. No record has survived of the transaction, but strong evidence suggests it was sold to the Confraternity of Saint John the Baptist.

    The Confraternity of Saint John the Baptist

    This Confraternity was established in the early XIV century, as the cult of Saint John spread all over Europe. Its members stem from Sigüenza's middle class workers and civil servants, but with a clear predominace of small business owners and artisans and a small but very significant representation of the powerful city's clergy. The purpose of the foundation was -at least in its origin- one of charity, having to maintain a hospital, which were forced to abandon later on due to lack of funds. Afterwards, the focus shifted to religious devotions and limited social asssistance to its members.
    A virtual reconstruction of the interior of the chapel of Saint John/Reconstrucción virtual del interior de la ermita de San Juan
    A hypothetical computer reconstruction of the 'synagogue between the chapel' of Saint John the Baptist

    The temple, then converted into a catholic chapel, had an odd distribution, as can be seen in the above computer reconstruction, which provides a view of the interior pointing to the east. Some refurbishing of the old synagogue had been made, adapting the entrance for catholic cult -not without difficulties- and reserving the rest as a convention hall. The confraternity obtained an steady source of income from the rental of such a spacious room, known as the 'Palace of Lord Saint John' even as late as 1698. By that year, an apparent scandal broke out when a fugitive tried to obtain religious inmunity in the building and it was recognized by the religious authorities what everybody in the old jewish quarter knew ; that the building was mostly a profane space, which was rented freely to those who wanted to enjoy privacy in their meetings, where comedies were rehearsed before their exhibition in the citys theatre, and even dances took place. Soon after, the building was reformed to such an extent that it became unrecognizable, becoming a typical XVIII century chapel and all the previous social activity ceased. The incomes obtained from its rental ceased accordingly and the confraternity slowly declined.

    The 'secret jews' and the Confraternity

    It didn't turn out to be surprising to find that some of the brothers of the Confraternity had problems with the Inquisition, which by the time was obsessed with the persecution of secret jews, that is to say of those ones who had evaded the expulsion of 1492 by conversion to Christianism and meanwhile continued practicing their religion in secret. Some of these Jews tried to restore the officially banned religion as an underground cult but they failed. It came as a relative surprise to find that the most prominent of these 'conspirators' happened to be the head of the Confraternity having close family ties whith several of its members. Even though such findings may be simply casual and might reflect the fact that religious thought followed family and proffessional patters in the city ; taylors and shoemakers as the groups more prone to Judaism, and remained traditionally linked to the Confraternity. Jewish practices where held in private houses, but it remains an interesting question if the greatly untouched portion of the old synagogue could have provided a place of worship for this group.

    Written inquisitorial testimony against Hernando de Soria/Testimonio inquisitorial escrito contra Hernando de Soria

    Testimony against Hernando de Soria (Diocesan Archive of Cuenca)

    (partial transcription)

     [Hernando of Soria] shop keeper, resident of Sigüenza, majordomo of the confraternity of the Lord St John in the Chapter of Sigüenza, having gone one day this witness to settle up accounts to the house of the abovesaid Hernando of Soria ...

    As it is often said 'no one knows you better than your enemy' and that is specially true for the Inquisitorial documents, our best possible recording of those -otherwise anonymous- lifes, often heroic. 

    The later synagogue

    Let us focus our attention now on the 'new' synagogue (remember we are talking about a temple built around 1412 and forcibly abandoned in 1492). 

    The new quarter

    The Main Gateway which gave way to the Jewish Quarter/El Portal Mayor, que daba acceso al barrio judío
    "El Portal Mayor", The Main Gateway to the Jewish quarter. An
    image of the Virgin Mary peacefully presides over passers by

    As we have already said, in 1412 the Jews had changed their residence to a new quarter, surrounded by the city walls but with four entrances instead of the one demanded by the legislation (labelled as 2ª in the map), namely the archs of 'Portal Mayor', 'Herreros', 'of Medina' (burned in the XVI century) and 'Arquillo'. Also, the place was much more favorable for commerce, so that the community grew prosperous. They also shared the quarter with the Moors, whose population had decreased so dramatically that could not have a quarter for themselves, being confined to one sole street. Their intellectual prestige was such that the main responsible of the definitive triumph of the Reinassance in Spain, the Cardinal Jiménez de Cisneros (1436-1517) was credited with having learned Hebrew in Sigüenza during his stay there.

    "The same fondness he had for this he also showed for literature and making foundations, although the holy Scriptures were all his span, as other Jerome, he started to learn the Hebrew and Caldean Language from a Jew of this city [of Sigüenza] so to understand it perfectly, and so good this startings were that he made a lot from them when working in the Complutense Bible" Jiménez de Cisneros, as described by Pedro Quintanilla (1653)
    Fragment from a Jewish manuscript from Sigüenza/Fragmento de manuscrito hebreo procedente de Sigüenza
    Fragment of the book of Joshua from a manuscript from Sigüenza (detail)

    The expulsion

    Portrait of the cardinal Mendoza, lord and bishop of Sigüenza/Retrato del cardenal Mendoza, obispo y señor de Sigüenza
    The bishop of Sigüenza at the time of the expulsion, Pedro
    González de Mendoza
    In the year 1492 the Jews were forced to leave the city. The temple was ultimately bought by the Chapter of the Cathedral, which decided to turn the builing into a private house and rent it. Shortly afterwards they decided to sell the property with a perpetual payment imposed on it. Time went by, and the original house was divided into three. As late as 1703 the Chapter of the Cathedral realized they had lost control of the situation and litigated with the actual owners of one of the houses to reclaim their overdue payments, arguing that the house was part of the synagogue. An agreement was reached at last, accepting the owner the requested quantities and obligations. Through the texts, we have some hints about the aspect of the old synagogue.
    Virtual reconstruction of the new sinagogue, based on the scarce data available/Reconstrucción virtual de la sinagoga nueva, basada en los escasos datos disponibles
    An hypothetical reconstruction of the exterior of the 'later synagogue'

    The two temples today

    As time passed on, the two buildings experienced a somewhat similar fate. In the case of the temple which had been converted into houses, these ones experienced progressive degradation, which peaked in the XIX century, when the texts inform us that all that remained where ruins. The damage inflicted to the city during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and the construction of new buildings in the lower part of the city contributed decisevely to the abandon of the old quarters and the degradation of much of its buildings. In the case of the Chapel of Saint John the Baptist, the progressive secularization of today's society resulted in the cesation of cult in the chapels and their consequent ruin. Today, only the walls remain, deprived from all ornamentation.


    Based on the book of Marcos Nieto "Las sinagogas de Sigüenza", Madrid 1998

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    Last updated: September 14, 1998
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